Are the U.S. and Russia on a Collision Course?

November 14, 2007 Topic: Grand StrategyGreat Powers Region: RussiaEurasia Tags: Diplomacy

Are the U.S. and Russia on a Collision Course?

Last Thursday, Nixon Center President Dimitri K. Simes discussed his article in the recent issue of The National Interest. He offered both an explanation for the strained interaction, and some answers about where it is headed.

Only a few years ago, Russia and the United States seemed to be headed towards a mutually-beneficial partnership in the common fight against international terrorism. But Russia's recent behavior has left many wondering about its intentions, particularly when it comes to the United States. Fundamental disagreements on key issues and strong anti-American sentiment among the Russian population leave little doubt the relationship is strained. The threat of a renewed Cold War-or, worse, yet, military confrontation-has put the two former rivals back at the forefront of debate. At a luncheon discussion, Dimitri K. Simes, president of The Nixon Center and publisher of The National Interest, offered both an explanation for the strained interaction, as well as some answers about where it may be headed. Steven Clemons, Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at The New America Foundation, moderated the discussion.

In his article "Losing Russia", Simes argues that both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations seriously mismanaged Russia in the post-Communist world, damaging American national interests in the process. While the end of the Cold War was commonly viewed in the West as an American victory, Simes points out that many Russians perceived themselves as victors as well, having put an end to the ineffective Soviet system. They see themselves as opting-rather than being forced through defeat-to abandon the Communist empire. But the Russian perspective was largely ignored by the U.S. government. Rather than taking advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union to coax Russia into a strategic partnership on largely American terms, Washington instead took advantage of Moscow. Too weak to put up much resistance to NATO enlargement and EU expansion, Russians saw their country lose power and respect and became embittered. The country's recent resurgence, due largely to oil wealth, has given Russia the opportunity to regain its lost dignity and prove that it no longer has to accept being told what to do. Vladimir Putin has made clear that he opposes the imposition of American will on the rest of the world, particularly when it comes at the expense of his country's interests. He has pursued this goal by refusing to acquiesce to American decisions on crucial issues-and has clearly enjoyed himself in the process.

Simes emphasized in his remarks that these serious errors in U.S. foreign policymaking are not unique to its dealings with Russia. If this mistreatment of Russia were a one off, America's behavior could be without major consequences, as Russia is no longer a global superpower. Yet the Russia case is just one example in a larger trend. Simes expressed his belief that current U.S. foreign policy is fundamentally flawed in assuming American guidance is universally welcome.

Washington's perceived arrogance has led to a strong anti-American mindset in Russia, inhibiting cooperation in a number of key areas, including U.S. plans for missile defense systems in Eastern Europe and the handling of Kosovo, Georgia, and Iran.

In terms of missile defense, while Simes argued that the proposed system to be placed in Poland and the Czech Republic is indeed aimed at protecting the United States and Europe against a possible attack from Iran, he notes that Russia does have reasons for concern. The Polish government has openly admitted that it does not consider itself threatened by Iran, hinting instead that it views the system as defense against Russia. Such rhetoric contributes to Moscow's paranoia over the potential deployment of defense missiles in the near abroad. Russia suspects that the West may be returning to a containment strategy and as a result, strongly opposes Washington's plans.

The prospect of an independent Kosovo is another contentious issue. Simes feels that were Serbia to agree to Kosovo's independence, Russia would not object or attempt to interfere. What Moscow fears is the dismemberment of a sovereign state by the West. Although Russia could not prevent such a move, Simes stressed that Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence would set a precedent for the de facto independent territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Attempts by Tbilisi to recover these enclaves militarily would have grave consequences for U.S.-Russia relations. Were things to take a violent turn, it would be extremely difficult for the U.S. and Russia to continue cooperation, even on vital interests like terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation.

Conversation then turned to Tehran. Simes stressed that although Iran is seeking to secure Russian support, any alliance between the two would be one of convenience. While Putin is indeed looking for allies, interest in a close partnership with Iran remains low. The Russian president reportedly found his recent meetings with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during which Khamenei warmed Putin of how the "American Satan" threatens Russia, Iran and the rest of the world, "strange".

Simes suggested that if the United States makes clear it is prepared to wait for sanctions against Iran to work and assures the international community there will be no attacks at least during the current administration, Russia may be prepared to be more supportive of U.S. policy. But if the U.S. creates an impression that is might attack Iran mere months after sanctions are enforced, Russia will have little incentive to support them. Russia's overall assessment of its relationship with the United States will also play a large role in its decision-making process, Simes said.

Simes noted that any U.S. military action against Iran would be seen by Russia as a clear sign that the United States has no problem attacking a sovereign country, leaving Moscow to wonder who could be next. Though Russia likely could not do anything in the event of an attack, such action would certainly bring major changes in the way Russia approaches its foreign policy and could nudge the country into a closer alliance with China and whomever else may be prepared to embrace Russia as a bulwark against the United States.

But while a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia remains a real possibility, Simes asserted that such an outcome is still avoidable. He praised the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, William Burns, for his ability to communicate effectively with Russian officials, stating that for the first time in years, meaningful dialogue is taking place in Moscow. In addition to the work of the Ambassador, Simes said that the recent visit to Moscow by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates had a positive effect on the countries' relations. Simes singled out Gates in particular as the first in the Bush Administration to be realistic about Russia's perspectives. Gates's statement that there is a clear connection between Iran's actions and the need for a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic sent a message to Russians that this system is indeed not directed against them. Even President Putin praised the new ideas put forth by Gates and Rice. The recent display of Washington's willingness to compromise and to take Russia's concerns into consideration suggests that doing serious business is still possible.

Simes emphasized that though Russia is neither a friend nor a partner of the United States, it is also not an enemy. In order to avoid confrontation, Washington must continue to try to engage Moscow in dialogue, acknowledging Russian interests in the process. Simes pointed to the Russia-Israel relationship as a model: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has gained respect in Russia not by trying to convince Moscow of his righteousness, but by explaining where Israeli interest lie and asking for Russia's support. Russia cannot be relied upon to share American interests, said Simes, nor does it want to hear what its own interests are from outsiders. Yet if the two nations are able to agree on common action-even if they have different motives-chances for a meaningful relationship still exist.

Critical to determining the direction of future U.S.-Russia relations is the definition of American priorities. If these lie in transforming the world, including the former Soviet Union, to reflect American interests-moving NATO as close to Russian borders as possible and aggressively lobbying for pipelines that bypass Russia, for example-then the two countries are unlikely to settle on a harmonious relationship, Simes noted. If the United States is firm with Russia on vital interests in Central Europe but agrees to treat the post-Soviet space as a "special area", if it refuses to tolerate Russian aggression but does not immediately side with every anti-Russian faction and if it involves Russia in key energy decisions while vigorously defending reciprocity, then the relationship can be salvaged. On the other hand, he said, assuming that the United States can ignore Russian interests will come at a cost.

So while relations are currently tense, Simes argued that the damage done is not yet irreparable, as there is no major conflict between fundamental U.S. and Russian relations. If Washington is able to establish realistic priorities in relations with Moscow and places its own national interests ahead of attempts to transform Russian domestic politics, a chance still exists to get from Moscow what America really needs most.