Beyond the Russian Reset

June 25, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Regions: RussiaUnited States

Beyond the Russian Reset

Mini Teaser: A period of apparent warming between Moscow and Washington has fallen apart as underlying troubles remain unaddressed.

by Author(s): Samuel Charap

The issue of sequencing may represent the most important policy lesson from the failure to convert reset deliverables into a transformed relationship. The Obama administration, believing cooperation would create the right conditions to address long-standing disagreements, assumed those disagreements could be contained until the time was right. Now it is clear that this assumption was false. Breaking the man-made ups and downs in U.S.-Russian relations will require engaging simultaneously with the underlying problems along with work on the deliverables. Otherwise, once the pace of deliverables slows, the fundamental problems will wreak havoc on the relationship. Think of U.S.-Russian relations as rather like a car driving up a steep incline with busted brakes. As soon as it runs out of gasoline (the deliverables), the car will go crashing down that incline. It isn’t enough merely to fill the car with gas. The basic problem of the brakes must be addressed.

But addressing the underlying problems in the U.S.-Russian relationship will be much more difficult than installing new brakes on a car. There are no obvious off-the-shelf solutions to the three major problems discussed above: adversarial impulses in the security establishments of both countries; disputes about Russia’s domestic politics; and conflict in post-Soviet Eurasia. And, given many other pressing priorities, such a reconciliation process is unlikely to be undertaken by senior policy makers anytime soon. But both Moscow and Washington could take immediate steps to mitigate these problems or set in motion processes that might actually resolve them in the future.

While completely eliminating adversarial sentiment in the security establishments is not a short-term project, Russian and U.S. political leaders can initiate steps toward that long-term goal. For example, both sides, and particularly the Russians, could signal publicly and privately that the excesses of “special services,” such as the harassment of Ambassador McFaul in Moscow, are unacceptable. In addition, senior decision makers, particularly defense-policy makers, could begin to sit down together and think seriously about a new framework for the nuclear relationship that will provide for their respective countries’ security needs without sticking to the outdated MAD logic. Indeed, the talks’ explicit goal should be to develop a road map aimed at overcoming the MAD logic. The steps need not come as a negotiated treaty, but rather as unilateral, coordinated moves toward a shared goal.

Disputes over Russian domestic politics could be mitigated or even eliminated, of course, were Russia’s political system to become more open and free. But even under the current conditions, policy makers on both sides could manage this problem much better than they have in recent years. U.S. policy makers could move beyond the pervasive Washington myth that engagement with the Russian government implies an endorsement of the Kremlin’s limits on domestic freedom and empowers a regime irreconcilably hostile to such freedom. While far from fully democratic, Russia is not a one-party dictatorship, and political contestation is a fact of life. The choice is not between capitulation and all-out confrontation. The policy imperative is to foster Russian domestic trends leading toward a more open political system while subtly counteracting those that might take it in the other direction. Russian policy makers, meanwhile, gain little from petulant bouts of “whataboutism”—responding to U.S. statements on human rights in Russia with laundry lists of purported American shortcomings.

Washington and Moscow can also do more to address conflictual approaches regarding post-Soviet Eurasia. Rather than seeking national advantage, the two countries should strive for mutually acceptable results. And such efforts should be geared toward the creation of “win-win-win” outcomes for the United States, Russia and the countries of post-Soviet Eurasia. To reach that goal, Moscow and Washington can change the way they do business in the region in several ways. First, they could provide significantly enhanced transparency concerning their policies and activities in the region. Second, Moscow and Washington should begin regular working-level consultations on regional issues. Third, both governments should dial down their public rhetoric about the region by several notches and instead seek ways to signal positive-sum intentions. Most important, officials should reject the notion of “irreconcilable differences” between Moscow and Washington in post-Soviet Eurasia and make this position clear to officials of the states of the region.

DESPITE THE recent downturn, bilateral ties are still a far cry from their near-hostile state in 2008, following the August conflict in Georgia. According to accounts that first appeared in Ronald Asmus’s 2010 book A Little War That Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West, the U.S. National Security Council’s “principals committee”—which includes the president, vice president and other senior national-security officials—considered the use of military force to prevent Russia from continuing its assault on Georgia. Officials discussed (but ultimately rejected) the option of bombing the tunnel used by Russia to move troops into South Ossetia, as well as other “surgical strikes.” The fact that officials at the highest levels of decision making in the U.S. government even discussed military action against the world’s only other nuclear superpower is profoundly disturbing.

Such a development seems divorced from the realities of today’s U.S.-Russian relationship, which featured seventeen joint bilateral military exercises last year. And there is little likelihood of a return to the tensions of 2008 in Obama’s second term. Key international priorities of the Obama team require Russian cooperation. These include the sensitive negotiations between the so-called P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) with Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, as well as stabilization in Afghanistan as the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force approaches its 2014 departure. Also, at their June 2012 meeting during the Los Cabos, Mexico, G-20 summit, both Obama and Putin committed their governments to focusing on boosting investment and trade, an issue that represents a clear win-win.

For the Obama administration, advancing the president’s Prague agenda remains a priority, so we should expect a U.S. proposal on one or more of the three categories of nuclear weapons identified by the president in his letter to the Senate following New START ratification: deployed strategic weapons, nondeployed strategic weapons and nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Press reports in recent weeks suggest the president is close to approving a key nuclear-policy-review document that would unlock the possibility for future reductions. The Russians have long made clear that a resolution to the missile-defense dispute is a sine qua non for further reductions. But even if the sides can find a solution to the missile-defense dilemma, the next bilateral arms-control deal could be significantly harder to negotiate than New START, which was by no means easy. (The two nations’ leaders reportedly had to resolve several issues themselves in direct talks.) The expiration of START I on December 5, 2009, and with it the end of mutual verification and the crucial confidence it builds, provided a powerful incentive for both sides to reach a deal. With New START’s verification regime now being implemented, the Russians have been lukewarm at best about another bilateral deal in the short term. Such a deal is not unimaginable. After all, going from the New START limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads to around 1,100, which is one of the reported options being considered in Washington, would not require a major change in doctrines. But the climate of anti-Americanism and the imminent serial production of two new strategic missiles (the military-industrial complex remains a powerful lobby in Russia) create strong disincentives for Russian officials to engage. Still, the Prague agenda is not only about reductions, and on the nonproliferation front, signs seem positive that a successor to the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat-reduction program will be agreed upon before its expiration this year.

But one should be wary of any list of shared interests in an analysis of U.S.-Russian relations. Even when both governments openly declare commonality of goals on an issue, results can be elusive. The most vivid case in point is the U.S.-Russian Strategic Framework Declaration, also known as the Sochi Declaration, signed by Presidents Putin and Bush in April 2008. That document described a long agenda of issues on which the two countries’ interests converge. It also declared in striking language that both countries had definitively recognized that bilateral disagreements were far outweighed by common interests. The first paragraph declared:

We reject the zero-sum thinking of the Cold War when “what was good for Russia was bad for America” and vice versa. Rather, we are dedicated to working together and with other nations to address the global challenges of the 21st century, moving the U.S.-Russia relationship from one of strategic competition to strategic partnership. We intend to cooperate as partners to promote security, and to jointly counter the threats to peace we face, including international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We are determined to build a lasting peace, both on a bilateral basis and in international fora, recognizing our shared responsibility to the people of our countries and the global community of nations to remain steadfast and united in pursuit of international security, and a peaceful, free world. Where we have differences, we will work to resolve them in a spirit of mutual respect.

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