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. 

It strains credulity to think that Moscow would invade and reconquer these countries. There is no doubt that such actions would result in Russia’s total isolation from the West, where Moscow understands full well its future lies. And NATO needs to reiterate such consequences in blunt language.

The genuine risks revolve around Moscow’s capacity to pull off more “Ukraines.” Once again, it could exploit the sizable Russian-speaking populations in its neighboring countries, and provide covert arms and covert soldiers to pressure the majority populations to make unreasonable concessions. Along with propaganda and other political techniques, these tactics are described collectively as “hybrid warfare.” NATO has no effective military response to this scenario—and no broader strategy to do the job.


NOT LONG ago, the Obama team spoke of “resetting” U.S.-Russian relations, and indeed some significant agreements were reached with former president Medvedev. With the return of Putin, however, Russian policy took a more aggressive turn, in the face of which Obama withdrew from the reset in favor of policies that irritated the Kremlin without checking it. In any event, relations needed much more than resetting; they needed reconceptualizing.

At its root, the Cold War was a story of two goliaths, each attempting to impose its vision of the world and its values on the other. Détente diplomacy in this era essentially strove to keep conflicts within bounds, particularly avoiding nuclear confrontation. The context for twenty-first-century Détente Plus is quite different. There is nothing resembling the old worldwide political and ideological clash. A good case can be made now that these two powers have more shared interests than conflicting ones. Based on this reality, Détente Plus has to make that cooperation possible. It has to create a concept and a procedure for fixing problems together that can’t be managed separately.

For this new diplomatic partnership to be effective, both parties must enter into it with a realistic mind-set. That is the first step. The United States has to accept the fact that Russia is a great power and treat it that way. Washington has to be sensitive to Moscow’s perspectives and interests, particularly on its borders. The Kremlin has to realize that to receive great-power treatment, it’s got to behave far more responsibly and accept responsibility for joint solutions. Putin can’t go on trying to dominate and intimidate his neighbors, just as the U.S. president can’t be seen as seeking to pull these neighbors out of the Russian orbit.

Second, both sides have to recognize their very real complementary interests. That’s perfectly obvious now when it comes to regional issues, fighting terrorism and nuclear proliferation. There’s no denying that there are serious conflicts on Russia’s western border or that Russia has clear military superiority there. Russia can cause real turmoil for Europe, which is why both parties have got to understand that the solution lies in diplomatic sensitivity and compromise, rather than fighting. It does not take a rocket scientist to see that the present mutual hostility imperils the interests of both sides.

How would Détente Plus work in practice?

First, both sides have to commit to diplomacy at the highest levels. Particularly in the initial years, there would have to be annual presidential summits and semiannual meetings of foreign and defense ministers. Only top-level political leaders can make the decisions required of Détente Plus.

Second, these joint ventures must be given high visibility. Optics are critical both to reestablish Russia’s status as a great power, and for the United States to gain more restrained and cooperative Russian behavior in return. Kremlin leaders are surely realistic enough to see this trade-off and curb themselves. Until this mountaintop diplomacy begins to produce, Western nations are fully justified in sustaining sanctions and continuing to build a more credible military presence eastward.

Third, Détente Plus has to progress on two fronts: maintaining the basic integrity and independence of countries on Russia’s borders while being attentive to Russian interests there; and fashioning joint action on broader issues such as Middle East instability and terrorism.

Securing Russia’s restraint on its western borders requires both political and economic dexterity. The cases of Georgia and Ukraine are a master class in what not to do. As the Maidan protests unfolded in Kiev, the White House should have been in regular top-level conversations with Moscow. Of course, no American president can turn his or her back on democratic movements anywhere. At the same time, it makes no sense to ignore the interests of nearby and historically vested great powers. But that’s precisely what Washington did in Georgia and Ukraine. Their leaders reached out to the United States, which was fine. Yet they ignored history and geography and assumed U.S. security support that did not and could not materialize.

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili challenged Moscow repeatedly, in large part because private cautions from the George W. Bush administration were contradicted by public encouragements. Saakashvili brought out his meager armed forces, and Russia throttled them, taking over two disputed provinces on their mutual border. Georgia was humbled, and so was the United States. The only way to have avoided this was for Bush to have told the Georgians from the beginning not to count on U.S. intervention.

When a new pro-Western government came to power in Ukraine last year, one of its first acts was to limit the use of Russian as an official language. This and other anti-Russian noises were more than enough pretext for Putin to initiate the present crisis. If anything, the Obama team seemed to be egging Ukrainian nationalists and would-be democrats on, when it should have been encouraging restraint. The White House should have been warning Kiev to take away Moscow’s excuses for intervention, like the ill treatment of Russian minorities.

Washington should have gone out of its way to urge caution and restraint in both Georgia and Ukraine. The United States had to clarify up front what it would and would not do. Most importantly, America should have encouraged these nationalists not to gratuitously poke at Russian sensibilities. And we must not forget Bush’s effort to bring these two nations into NATO; Moscow certainly hadn’t. Russia needs and deserves the requisite assurances about its historical sensibilities now and in the future if it, too, demonstrates real restraint.

To be sensitive to Russian interests and urge caution among its neighboring states is not to condemn them to living under Moscow’s domination. Indeed, the truth is that recognizing Moscow’s interests in the short run is the only way for the neighbor states to acquire more freedom and independence from Russia over time.

Meanwhile, the West should think of states like Ukraine and Georgia as buffer or bridge states and resist the urge to absorb them politically or economically. Georgian leaders are already cooling it, and their Ukrainian counterparts have to take a deep breath as well. That means granting more autonomy to eastern Ukraine, which harbors many ethnic Russians.

Dicier still is the security of the Baltic states. The challenge is unique because of NATO’s Article 5 commitment to their defense. While the Balts deserve protection, all parties recognize the uncomfortable realities. Russia can prevail militarily, and NATO will never contemplate forward deploying forces sufficient to stop the Russians. Here, too, the burden has to fall on Détente Plus diplomacy. The Balts hold tightly to their independence, but are trying not to aggravate Moscow. It doesn’t take much to do so, which is all the more reason to develop the Russian-American diplomatic partnership inherent to Détente Plus. Neither side should want to test Article 5.

The economic dimension of Détente Plus is central to driving the whole relationship. It’s got to account for Russian, Western and border states’ interests. Alas, the European Union has demonstrated the wrong way to proceed in the last two years. It essentially proposed to incorporate the Ukrainian economy into Europe’s and leave Russia behind. It pursued a Europe-win/Russia-lose approach rather than the win-win policy argued for here. Obviously Moscow couldn’t accept this and turned the competition to its strength—stirring up Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine and sending in Russian arms and men.

The right way for the West to develop the economic dimension of Détente Plus would be to include Russia in the earliest planning stages as well as in the implementation process. So far Obama has done almost the opposite. He has excluded Moscow from both European and Asian free-trade negotiations, only compounding Russia’s doubts about its ability to compete in a rules-based trade regime. Given Russia’s increasing economic woes, Western leverage will depend heavily on providing Russia with economic opportunities, which must be palpably beneficial to Moscow. In any event, a Russian role would not have to be concocted out of thin air: Russia is still a principal supplier of oil and gas to Europe, Ukraine included.

Over time, this all-inclusive approach to developing the region economically will redound mostly to the coffers of the West. European economies are far more attractive and promising than Russia’s. Kremlin leaders know this full well, which is why it is essential that Moscow be part of the planning process and garner big and visible rewards. The economic move west has to be slow enough for Moscow to feel comfortable with the process and the timing. It goes without saying that Europe has to be involved fully in Détente Plus, but mainly as a key player on the economic front. U.S.-Russian ties have to be central.