WITH THE recent downturn in U.S.-Russian relations, observers in both Washington and Moscow have remarked upon the cyclical nature of this key bilateral relationship. As Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading Russian commentator, noted in late 2012, “If we look at the relationship since 1991, it’s the same cycle all the time, between kind words and inspiration and deep crisis. Yeltsin, Clinton, Bush, Putin, Obama, it’s the same pattern.” Indeed, the phases of high hopes and expectations in the years 1991–1994, 2000–2003 and 2009–2011—followed by deep disappointment in the intervening and subsequent years—do seem to represent a cyclical pattern.
But viewing U.S.-Russian relations in terms of cycles or patterns is misleading. It implies that the relationship is governed by immutable forces beyond the control of policy makers—like the laws of physics or the business cycle. But the problems in U.S.-Russian relations are man-made, and therefore their resolution lies in the hands of the respective political establishments in Washington and Moscow. That is not to say it would be easy to fix them, or that such a fix is likely anytime soon. In fact, the opposite seems true. However, since agency, not structure, is the key determinant, policy makers bear the responsibility for improving this state of affairs and have it within their power to do so.
To understand better the reasons for the ebbs and flows in bilateral relations, it’s important to recognize the peculiar way in which both sides assess them. Officials and nongovernmental observers in both countries measure the relationship between the two countries by looking at the “deliverables” it produces. In other words, when the two sides are forging new agreements or resolving global challenges, their relationship is seen to be improving. When they are not concluding new bilateral deals and differ on significant global issues, the relationship is perceived as deteriorating.
The “reset” period (2009–2011), so dubbed following Vice President Joe Biden’s invocation of this metaphor at the Munich Security Conference in February 2009, is a case in point. Those years saw major deliverables produced at an impressive pace. The key agreements signed in that period include: the landmark New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START); the so-called 123 agreement on civil nuclear cooperation; agreements on Afghanistan transit, including the rail-based Northern Distribution Network and an overflight arrangement that as of January 2013 allowed for more than 2,500 flights across Russian air space carrying more than 460,000 U.S. military personnel; an amendment to the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, providing for the safe disposal of enough weapons-grade plutonium for seventeen thousand nuclear warheads; close cooperation in the effort to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, including unprecedentedly comprehensive UN Security Council sanctions and work toward a diplomatic solution; Russia’s cancellation of its contract with Iran for the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, which, if delivered, would have been highly destabilizing; Russian WTO membership, eighteen years after it initiated its bid, in large part due to significant progress on bilateral trade issues; and an agreement on visas that makes it easier for Americans and Russians to visit and do business in each other’s countries. Cooperation increased across a wide range of issues addressed by the nearly twenty working groups of the Bilateral Presidential Commission, which was created in mid-2009, including on counterterrorism (such as joint exercises simulating a hijacked plane over the Bering Strait), global health, energy efficiency and counternarcotics measures. Outside those institutionalized channels, deliverables also came in the form of Russian helicopters for both the Afghan National Army and for peacekeeping in Sudan; the positive outcome of the NATO-Russia Council’s summit at Lisbon in 2010; and the first joint Antarctic inspections.
Many of these deliverables were critically important for both U.S. and Russian national security. Indeed, that was probably the most productive period of cooperation between the two countries in the history of their post-Soviet relationship. But the use of deliverables as a gauge of bilateral ties betrays the underlying fragility of the relationship itself. When the two capitals are not focused on deliverables, more fundamental problems in the relationship rise to the surface.
The most corrosive of these is the reality that elements within both countries’ national-security establishments continue to view each other as adversaries, almost twenty-five years after the Cold War ended. These attitudes are most overtly manifest in the persistence of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) as the paradigm that defines the nuclear relationship. The notion that only guaranteed retaliation prevents one side from threatening the other’s interests seems like an absurd anachronism in a world where the bipolar standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union is a distant memory. But the worst-case-scenario assumptions it creates remain a persistent part of today’s security dialogue. Take the current dispute over missile defense. If we strip away all the coded rhetoric, Russia essentially is asking for guarantees that it can effectively annihilate the United States even after Washington attempts to take out Russia’s entire nuclear arsenal. U.S. officials issue repeated reassurances to Moscow that it could still destroy the United States even if Washington tried to neutralize Russia’s hundreds of deployed strategic nuclear weapons through a “bolt from the blue” disarming first strike. The mere existence of this kind of dialogue speaks volumes about mutual suspicion of intentions.Image: Pullquote: Immediately following his inauguration in May 2012, Putin did not take deliberate steps to worsen the relationship. But he demonstrated no interest in investing in it.Essay Types: Essay