Russia and America: Toward a New Détente

June 9, 2015 Topic: Diplomacy Tags: RussiaDetenteAmerica

Russia and America: Toward a New Détente

It is totally unrealistic to think that the West can gain desired Russian restraint and cooperation without dealing with Moscow as a great power that possesses real and legitimate interests. 

At the start of their administrations, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made more of an effort to include Russia in European diplomacy and economic development. Through the Partnership for Peace program and later the NATO -Russia Council (presently suspended), both presidents attempted to reduce Russia’s suspicions of the new Atlantic order. Sensing Russia’s wounded pride over its exclusion from the G-7 economic club, Clinton and Tony Blair arranged to include Russia as a full member in 1998, where it remained until its suspension last year.

In other important respects, however, Clinton and Bush were less sensitive to Russian interests. Over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, NATO conferred membership upon much of Eastern Europe. In many cases, this was a sound strategy for the West, Russian resentment notwithstanding. The alliance, however, pushed its advantage provocatively far. It extended its protective wing up to Russia’s borders in the Baltic states. Stating a view shared by many policy analysts, George F. Kennan predicted in February 1997 that the policy of NATO enlargement to Russia’s border could be expected “to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

Kennan’s sound counsel was flouted and his prophecy fulfilled. George W. Bush, who had initially sought good relations with Putin, gave them up in favor of a prodemocracy, human-rights-first agenda. The Bush team administered the ultimate slap in the face, proposing to NATOize Ukraine and Georgia, where the “color revolutions” had installed governments friendly to the West. Here, Western Europe jumped in and said “no.” Though the democratic uprisings in Tbilisi and Kiev were indigenous, Moscow inevitably suspected a secret American hand. Moscow also noted an irony. Even as it asserted its presence on Russia’s borders, NATO was slowly but unmistakably allowing the military strength of the alliance to erode.

The new Obama team hinted at greater sensitivity to Russian feelings when it proclaimed the policy of “resetting” ties with Russia. At that time, Robert Legvold, a highly respected Russia expert, tried to push for a wide-ranging agenda that would engage Russia on a number of broad concerns. He was right about what was needed, but it didn’t take long for the Obama White House to revert to a more Bush-like approach. For a while, Obama’s relations with President Dmitri Medvedev seemed to be on the right track, and together the United States and Russia concluded deals on nuclear weapons and much-needed cooperation on Afghanistan. Obama also moved to bring Russia into the World Trade Organization, but soon undermined its own effort by endorsing the Magnitsky Act, which established a targeted-sanctions mechanism in response to Russian human-rights abuses. This measure was intended to undercut positive ties with Moscow, and it did. The openly anti-Russian activities of several Obama appointees further enraged the Kremlin.

For its part, Moscow has tried to make the post-Soviet states toe the line through a number of bilateral and multilateral mechanisms. Russia became the “impartial” mediator for lingering territorial disputes, played warring states like Armenia and Azerbaijan off against one another, and wielded its energy power, especially against Ukraine. Russia also made futile attempts to corral the post-Soviet states by proposing Moscow-led international institutions, including the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Community, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and, most recently, the Eurasian Economic Union. By and large, Russia lacked the attractiveness and the clout to make these efforts successful.

When some neighbors rejected Russia in favor of the West, Moscow chose force. In Georgia, Russia solidified control over the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A democratic uprising in Ukraine triggered Russian support for revolts in Ukraine’s eastern provinces and the annexation of Crimea.

At some point over the last quarter century, Washington might have realized that the Kremlin was not going to sit around and wait for the West to determine Russia’s fate. Russia’s leaders countered with what came naturally to them—military power—to ensure they would shape their own future.


THE STRATEGIC choices made by other modern major powers following profound losses had zero appeal to post–Cold War Russia. The British lost their empire after World War II, but figured out how to punch above their weight through a “special relationship” with the United States. France, after being humbled by the Nazis and losing its empire, settled for obvious second-tier status. Defeated Japan opted to forgo military power and yet still count by becoming a major economic power. To restore its great-power status, Russia went for military might.

True, some Russian leaders also wanted to take a hard look at an economically focused strategy. Vladimir Putin was once such a man. When he took office in 1999, he was considered something of a liberal reformer, and many in and outside Russia hoped he would succeed in growing and diversifying the economy. Culture, politics, and the practices of the old and new elite alike, however, made the task impossible. In the meantime, oil and gas revenues revived the moribund Russian economy, making it the eighth largest in the world, but still leaving it far behind the top nations. Furthermore, this spurt retarded impetus for reform and diversification. Kleptocracy set in as the state’s guiding economic principle, while a good portion of the leftover energy proceeds went to defense.

Beginning in the 1990s, Russian leaders came to the consensus that military might was the key to accomplishing what mattered to them most: maintaining internal control, preventing the disintegration of Russia and one day reasserting Russia’s global status. Slowly, haltingly and inefficiently, Moscow regenerated its military might, but not its greatness.

The outline for developing the desired military clout was fairly consistent and included four crucial elements: maintaining nuclear parity with the United States, streamlining Russia’s fighting forces, maintaining and modernizing military hardware, and demonstrating superiority on its borders.

Maintaining nuclear parity with the United States was the first and last priority of the plan. It was also relatively easy because Moscow had the nuclear missiles and technology in hand. To compensate for weakened conventional capabilities, in 1993, Moscow revoked the Soviet Union’s long-standing promise of no first use. During this time, however, Russian leaders continued to work with the West on mitigating the risk of nuclear accidents, on securing so-called loose nukes, and especially on consolidating the nuclear weapons that were spread around former Soviet republics into Russia’s hands. Significantly, Moscow and Washington continued to coordinate closely to prevent nuclear proliferation.

Differences on nuclear matters between the two big nuclear powers have mounted in recent years. Putin does not share Obama’s oft-expressed passion for a “nuclear-free world,” and he did not hide his thinking in a 2012 statement: “We will not under any circumstances turn our back on the potential for strategic deterrence, and we will reinforce it. It was precisely this which allowed us to maintain state sovereignty during the most difficult period of the 1990s.”

With this last line of defense in place, Russia undertook the more challenging task of recapturing its conventional military power. After the Soviet collapse, Russian forces were still potent, yet the kind of power they wielded was ill suited to the challenges they faced. It was difficult to mobilize Russian men for what appeared to be remote ethnic battles between foreign peoples, but the day-to-day manning levels of most units were insufficient for deployment. Russia needed to reform its fighting forces.

The Russians knew they needed smaller, fully manned, equipped and trained units maintained in a state of constant readiness. They wanted to build a usable army within the army. While Russia’s fears of a scheming NATO and a dangerous China remained, Moscow’s military planners saw no need to re-create a force of ten million men. The reforms were good enough to reestablish control of Chechnya in 2000.

The next major challenge for Russia’s forces came in the 2008 campaign against Georgia. Though they won in five days, they felt that further reforms were still needed, and the Kremlin launched another series of even more sweeping changes, known as the “New Look.”

The New Look’s chief elements included a reduction of Russia’s authorized strength to one million men, severe cuts in the officer corps, drastic consolidation of military units, centralization of the six existing military districts into four regional Joint Strategic Commands, and replacement of the regimental structure of the army with smaller, more versatile brigades. The program’s chief aim was to develop an armed service that could function at or near full strength all the time by relying on professional “contract” soldiers rather than largely useless conscripts.

Conscription has been retained in Russia, though the term of service has been reduced to one year. Conscripts are deployed to most units, but these troops are considered practically worthless in combat. They are poorly trained and motivated, and useful mostly for logistics within Russia. Nevertheless, conscription is still seen as the best means of training future reservists should sudden mobilization be required.