Russia and the U.S.: Reconfiguration, Not Resetting

5 september 2009

Sergei Karaganov, Doctor of History, is Dean of the School of World Economics and International Relations at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics. He is also Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

Timofey Bordachev - Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, and Director of the Eurasian Program at the Valdai Club Foundation. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Dmitry Suslov is Director of the Valdai Club program “Globalization and Regionalization: General State of the World Economy and Global Governance.” He is also Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University—Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia.

Resume: It would make sense for Moscow to offer its own package of ideas to Washington regarding the improvement of relations, and this package should be bigger than the one proposed by President Obama. The two countries must take a course towards a “big deal” based on the analysis of vital interests of the sides and their priority ranking. The parties should pledge respect for each other’s interests in the areas where these interests are truly vital, while making concessions on secondary issues.

The outburst of the global economic crisis that occurred in the fall of 2008 drew a symbolic bottom line under the previous twenty years of boisterous international changes. In essence, no one called the U.S. dominance into question over these twenty years, yet the context started changing long before the financial landslide of September 2008.

The financial and economic crisis is but a single manifestation of a general erosion of the regulatory functions. It testifies to the faults that the system of global governance has begun to make. The rise of new players who feel reluctant to embed themselves into an American-centric layout, the fast degradation of the nuclear nonproliferation regime, and the big powers’ inability to control unfavorable cross-border and regional processes are but the most vivid showings of the deepening dysfunction of the international system.

The unipolarity that emerged after the Cold War failed to pave the way for an international system that would be based on America’s “soft hegemony” and a ubiquitous proliferation of the American-style democracy and liberal market economy. The only superpower’s attempts to rely exclusively on its own strength flopped.

The nature of the post-hegemony phase in international relations will depend on the character and quality of interaction among the key centers of power. The formation of a balanced economic order is impossible without an improvement in U.S.-Chinese relations. China is also important as a factor of stability in the field of global politics and security, but this stability is impossible without efficient relations between Moscow and Washington.

WHERE DOES THE CRISIS IN RUSSIAN-U.S. RELATIONS STEM FROM?

Russian-U.S. relations deteriorated persistently over a period of several years and reached the lowest point over the past 25 years in the summer and fall of 2008, threatening to degrade into a systemic standoff.

The Cold War and the Americans’ subsequent attempts to impose their domination in the world were echoed in a high level of mistrust between Russia and the United States, which is especially strong with Russia. The Russian political elite harbors the conviction that the U.S. intentionally used Russia’s weakness in the 1990s and even tried to keep the country in such a state. It views the “proliferation of democracy” as a cover-up for creating conditions that would compel other countries to move in line with U.S. geopolitical interests. The past twenty years has caused the Russian political class to believe that Washington takes any attempts by Russia towards acquiescence and goodwill for granted and that they only stimulate Washington’s appetite after being “swallowed up.”

Bilateral relations deteriorated really rapidly at the beginning of the 21st century in the wake of the U.S. unwillingness to reckon with Russia’s vital interests.

This concerns, above all, the evolution of the post-Soviet space as the chief target of Russia’s foreign policy efforts. Cultural, historical, economic, and strategic considerations prompt Moscow to entice the majority of former Soviet republics to join the system of security oriented at Russia (the Collective Security Treaty Organization) and a Russia-led integration project (the Eurasian Economic Community). For instance, the maintenance and consolidation of Russia’s presence in the energy sectors of other former Soviet republics is a guarantee of a smooth and efficacious functioning of what made up the united energy complex of the Soviet Union fairly recently.

Contrary to this, the U.S. is conducting a course that aims to tear the former Soviet republics away from Moscow through their involvement in military and political alliances or with the aid of bilateral partnerships in this field. Washington also actively resists the strengthening of Russia’s positions in the energy sectors of CIS countries, which threatens energy security in Eurasia.

The second field of primary concern is the transformation of the European security model, which has failed to take new contours after the end of the Cold War. Moscow expects the West to recognize Russia and the security system it is building in the framework of the CSTO as an equitable and integral geopolitical entity that would form a common Euro-Atlantic security space in cooperation with NATO.

Meanwhile, the U.S. seeks to be the main guarantor of NATO-based European security. This ideology is manifested in practical terms in the expansion of the North-Atlantic bloc to embrace an overwhelming majority of European countries, while the rest are offered the status of “junior partners.” Besides an overt confrontational approach inherent in this ideology, doubts arise regarding NATO’s ability to perform the functions the U.S. seeks to vest in it.

Last but not least, Russia and the U.S. disagree over the roles they should play in the international arena on the whole. While Russia views itself as one of the poles of a multipolar world, pursuing an independent course stemming from its own understanding of its national interests and its own development model, the U.S. global strategy boils down to tapping ways to restore a de-facto unipolarity or, in plain English, U.S. leadership.

Mutual disagreements show up in many areas.

First, the sides have differing views of the existing nuclear parity. Russia trusts that this parity is the foundation of its military security, a major instrument of influence in the international arena, and a major argument in favor of an equitable dialogue with the U.S.

Hence the controversies over U.S. plans to deploy elements of its national missile defense system in Europe. If the U.S. becomes invulnerable to nuclear missiles, the Russian arsenal will lose its deterring function. On the whole, the U.S. views nuclear weapons as a hindrance to achieving manifold superiority in force over any other state or group of states, and nukes are the only factor that does not let the Americans fully implement their huge preponderance in conventional forces.

Second, the sides differ in their interpretation of the outcome of the Cold War. Moscow does not view itself as a loser in any way and that is why it claims the right to take part in the formation of the post-Cold War world order on a par with the West. In contrast, the U.S. is confident it won the Cold War while Russia lost it.

Generally speaking, the interpretation of results of the ideological standoff in terms of winner/loser has had an extremely deplorable impact on both the U.S. and Russia. Triumphant sentiments in America and the allied countries, which showed up, among other things, in the willingness to use force at random, have caused a defensive and sometimes an excessively nervous reaction in Russia and have worked towards an accumulation of mutual mistrust and suspicions, hard enough to overcome now.

A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITIES

Washington’s proposal to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations is a positive factor. The new U.S. Administration understands that ignoring Russia, let alone launching a new standoff with it, would not only be unhelpful in resolving crucial tasks of the U.S. foreign policy but, on the contrary, would make their resolution even more problematic. One can only hail the U.S. readiness to discuss the two countries’ interests with Russia and to consider a possibility of ‘exchanges’.

Still, practical steps under the proposed version of ‘resetting’ may sow seeds of mistrust and fail to bring about an improvement in the final run (this concerns a sizable reduction of nuclear arsenals, in the first place). The ‘resetting’ has a narrow and very selective character and it does not embrace Russia’s vital and top-priority interests. In particular, vagueness persists about medium- and long-term prospects for NATO’s expansion, especially into the former Soviet territory, and other crucial issues in bilateral relations, among them the two countries’ role in global governance, the nature of European security and Russia’s place in it, and the geopolitics of the post-Soviet space.

If changes do not facilitate the implementation of Russia and America’s vital interests, the window of opportunities will shut very soon. There is a negative interdependence between Russia and the U.S. on all issues, especially regional ones. Both parties have differing yet comparable potentials of doing reciprocal foreign-policy damage. Therefore, Moscow and Washington must overcome the negative experience in their mutual relations as early as possible and draw up a new, positive agenda for themselves. Its underlying principle could sound as follows: the policies of either side cannot pose a threat to the vital or significant interests of the other side, and their cooperation must help to fulfill these interests. The establishment of fruitful mutual dependence should be bolstered by the development of economic cooperation.

RUSSIA’S INTERESTS AND AMERICA’S INTERESTS

An analysis of the two countries’ crucial interests shows that the biggest of them are found in the field of relations with third countries rather than in bilateral relations.

For the U.S., these are the problems of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and the Middle East. For Moscow, a major interest lies in finding a mutually acceptable compromise on the post-Soviet countries and, in the first place Ukraine, and in defining Russia’s place and role in the European security system.

In addition, important and even crucial interests of both countries embrace international problems, such as the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, energy security, climate change, and the reform of the global financial system.

The broad spectrum of parallel, identical or close interests looks as follows:

  • Prevention of the destabilization of international security and its degradation into a “war of everyone against everyone,” above all prevention of wars between great powers;
  • Restriction and prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, in particular the prevention of Iran’s acquisition of these weapons;
  • Maintenance of stability in the conditions of nuclear multipolarity;
  • Stabilization in Afghanistan;
  • Stabilization in Pakistan; prevention of an armed conflict between India and Pakistan;
  • Resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis;
  • Resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict;
  • Combating international terrorism, particularly prevention of nuclear terrorism;
  • Prevention of a political and legislative vacuum in the field of nuclear arms control after the expiry of the START-1 treaty in December 2009;
  • Stabilization in Iraq, especially after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from there; preclusion of a situation where it might turn into an oasis of international terrorism;
  • Stabilization in the Broader Middle East; forestalling its degradation and radicalization;
  • Maintenance of security in outer space;
  • Counteraction to climate change;
  • Combating drug trafficking, piracy and organized crime.

Remarkably, these interests have different degrees of importance in the hierarchy of the two countries’ foreign policy priorities. Coincidences mostly fall on issues of secondary importance. Also, the Russian and American interests coincide in the above-said fields in a general outline only, while the approaches to their practical implementation reveal noticeable differences. In part, this concerns Iran, the Middle East peace settlement, and fighting with international terrorism.

A comparative analysis of vital interests shows that although they may partially overlap, for the most part they mostly lie in different domains or have a basically different importance for each side.

For instance, the list of U.S. vital interests includes, among other things, a dignified withdrawal from Iraq; preventing a defeat in Afghanistan and imposing stability there; and preventing the collapse of Pakistan and the loss of control over its nuclear weapons. And topping the list is preventing Iran from gaining access to nuclear weapons, as this would be fraught with a collapse of U.S. military and political positions in the entire Middle East. Russia has no interest in the destabilization of Afghanistan, the loss of control over Pakistan’s nuclear potential, or in Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. Yet its interests in all these spheres are on a somewhat lower level than those of the U.S.

The realm of Russia’s vital interests encompasses the maintenance of a de facto predominant influence over the territory of the former Soviet Union, and the prevention of the spread of other alliances, above all NATO, to these regions, as their expansion there may unleash a chain of conflicts or even a major war. This sphere makes up the bulk of the negative agenda of Russian-U.S. relations. Meanwhile, these issues (especially the enlargement of the North-Atlantic Alliance) are not viewed as vital (or simply as important) by the U.S. Administration from the angle of the country’s national security.

Counteraction to the re-emergence of Russian dominance in the post-Soviet space is a traditional chapter of U.S. policies in Eurasia, but ways to implement this interest may vary widely and they do not necessarily provide for the CIS countries’ joining military alliances oriented at the U.S. or their direct distancing from Moscow.

As regards bilateral relations, Russia has had importance for the U.S. so far mostly to due to its status of the world’s only state capable of wiping the U.S. out of the map physically. Yet the combat employment of the Russian nuclear arsenal, especially now that it is decreasing, is scarcely possible, and that is why America has never considered the establishment of a productive relationship with Russia as a goal in its own right.

The situation has begun to change, though. Building fruitful relations with Moscow still has a smaller value for Washington than the relationship with Washington has for Moscow, yet it falls into the category of America’s crucial foreign policy interests owing to sweeping changes in the global context.

It will be impossible to keep in check or to put brake on the proliferation of nuclear weapons if the two countries do not maintain fruitful cooperation in this area. All the more so, the elaboration of a new multilateral nuclear deterrence regime, which is so necessary in the emerging nuclear multipolarity, is inconceivable without it. Foreign policy flops of the George W. Bush Administration objectively raise Russia’s significance in matters pertaining to stabilization in Afghanistan and resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem, which the Barack Obama Administration has identified as chief priorities of its foreign policy. Moscow can also be helpful in untangling the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Middle East conflict. Finally, Russia’s significance is growing as China is turning into a global power, thus challenging the U.S. superiority in the international system.

For Russia, normal relations with the U.S. are critical in the context of comprehensive modernization of the Russian economy and society, which is the top priority for development. Bad relations weaken Moscow’s positions in global politics and economy considerably. For instance, close contacts and cooperation are vital for a final elimination of the aftermath of the Cold War in Europe or for laying down a system of European security that would meet Russia’s interests.

The persistence of confrontational relationship between Russia and the U.S. would continue enticing post-Soviet countries to lead a policy of balancing between Russia and the West and playing on contradictions between them. This in turn would motivate the Americans towards giving more support to overtly anti-Russian forces in those countries.

Bad relations with the U.S. enfeeble Russia’s positions with regard to the European Union and China.

Russia has as much interest as America has in preventing the final degradation of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and in working out a multilateral regime for containing new nuclear countries. It also regards the prospects for Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons as a threat to its own security. Materialization of these interests (even though they are priorities of a lower order for Russia than for the U.S.) is impossible without fruitful interaction with the U.S.

Since the U.S. has global leadership in the field of high technologies and innovations, it may become a source of the most advanced technologies and quality long-term direct investment in the Russian economy. The expansion of Russia’s access to many vital international markets (steel, nuclear fuel, defense products) and a growth of its influence in institutions of global financial and economic governance depend on the fruitfulness of cooperation with the U.S.

Sweeping changes that occur in the global context do not allow either Russia or the U.S. to settle many (if not all) of the key problems they are faced with without assistance from the other side. This creates a unique situation. Along with the persistent asymmetry of relations and power potentials of the sides, a “cross symmetry” is emerging in individual areas of Russian-American interaction, meaning that the sides may bring equally important benefits to each other.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE ABOUT OBAMA’S PROPOSAL?

Slashing strategic offensive arsenals down to the lowest and even – in the long-term – zero level of nuclear stockpiles has been suggested as the backbone element of the ‘resetting’.

The problem of nuclear arsenals is really important, since the START-1 treaty expires in December 2009. However, nuclear reductions are double-edged and they may produce more problems than solutions.

Russian and U.S. interests coincide in that both countries are aware of the need to rely on the “nuclear pillar” in today’s rapidly changing and increasingly unstable world and to ensure international security. Counteraction to an uncontrollable proliferation of nuclear weapons, which raises the risk of their use, meets the needs of both countries.

The two sides essentially diverge in their vision of nuclear weapons with regard to national security. Moscow believes that it is inconceivable to ensure the country’s security without reliance on a powerful nuclear factor.

On the contrary, for the U.S. slashing or even eliminating nuclear weapons with the secured technological and quantitative superiority in conventional armaments in the foreseeable future is desirable and even beneficial.

Profound reductions of nuclear arsenals and, especially, full renunciation of nuclear armaments, proposed by Obama, would consolidate America’s unilateral military superiority, would eliminate a strategic situation of mutual assured destruction in Russian-U.S. relations, and would furnish the U.S. with a position close to invulnerability – especially as the U.S. has not given up plans to build a global missile defense system. Nuclear cuts would drastically reduce Russia’s nuclear deterrent potential, the main factor of this country’s security and influence on the international political system.

Therefore, Russia would benefit from agreeing to a small reduction of nuclear armaments to levels slightly lower than the ones specified by the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, signed in Moscow in 2002. The best possible option would be to limit the nuclear arsenals to 1,500-2,000 warheads. On the one hand, this would stand in line with Obama’s proposal to go beyond the level of 2002. On the other hand, it would not envision a considerable and profound reduction of nuclear armaments and would preserve the possibility of mutual assured destruction, thus keeping up Russia’s deterrent potential. Also, it would make sense to carry over into the new agreement the procedures of control, monitoring and verification envisioned in START-1.

The second part of the “resetting” scenario suggests an exchange of pledges – Washington would scrap its plans to deploy U.S. missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic in exchange for Moscow’s cooperation in convincing or forcing Iran to give up its nuclear program. This proposal does not look acceptable in its current form, either. In essence, it offers Russia to act against its important economic and political partner, whose positions in the region are getting stronger, and to support a power whose positions in the region are weakening. In return, the U.S. promises a pause in the implementation of the missile defense project, whose destiny already has many vague aspects. What Obama’s proposal does not contain is a legally binding obligation to renounce the plans to build a global missile defense shield.

In other words, Russia has been asked to make a concession on an important point of interest, namely the maintenance of fruitful relations with Iran. In return, the U.S. might – or might not – give up the plans that Obama proposed discarding long before moving into the Oval Cabinet. Considering the U.S. record of unfulfilled promises, Russia must demand legally binding guarantees in exchange for any concessions. In the first place, it needs a feasible and legally formalized obligation on the part of the U.S. to annul the deployment of the third position area near Russian borders and without Russia’s consent.

A “BIG DEAL”

It would make sense for Moscow to offer its own package of ideas to Washington regarding the improvement of relations, and this package should be bigger than the one proposed by President Obama. The two countries must take a course towards a genuine reconfiguration of relations and not just reset them, with a view to making a “big deal” based on the analysis of vital interests of the sides and their priority ranking. The parties should pledge respect for each other’s interests in the areas where these interests are truly vital, while making concessions on secondary issues.

The “big deal” would require a number of steps on Russia’s part, which could help the U.S. to implement its crucial interests, while not violating Russia’s vital and important interests:

  • All-round support of U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan (except for direct military involvement in them);
  • Coordination of policies towards Iran, including a consolidated package of political and economic stimuli and, possibly, sanctions (except for a senseless and even dangerous idea of a military invasion); and assistance in attracting China to join this policy;
  • Support of U.S. efforts in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis;
  • Support of U.S. efforts in Pakistan and Iraq;
  • Convergence of positions on the Middle East peace settlement;
  •  Renunciation of the use of force in restoring Russia’s historical zone of influence (beyond Abkhazia and South Ossetia);
  •  True reactivation of cooperation in fighting with international terrorism; prevention of acts of nuclear terrorism;
  •  Assistance to U.S. efforts to involve China in the world economic and political order; assistance to making Beijing a constructive member of the new club of world leaders.

On the part of the U.S., the “big deal” would require a correction to its policy in the post-Soviet space and in the field of European security in line with America’s own key interests, while allowing Moscow to implement its vital interests at the same time.

This correction may include a renunciation of efforts to encourage Russia’s neighbors and partners – Ukraine, Georgia and others – to distance themselves from Moscow (for example, by involving them in military/political relations), and a renunciation of an overt anti-Russian policy. A correction of this kind would not encroach on America’s important interests, as it would not imply a renunciation of dialogue with these countries or of support of their sovereignty and independence in general.

America’s important or vital interests would be violated only if Russia made attempts to deprive the CIS countries of sovereignty de facto or de jure and to restore a zone of its undivided domination on former Soviet territory.

Consequently, it would stand to reason for Russia and the U.S. to come to terms on the rules of the game, including the rules of and limitations on competition in the post-Soviet space – in other words, to draw ‘red lines’, crossing which would be a threat to vital or important interests of one of the sides. Restraint in exercising policies on the former Soviet territory must be the main rule.

Russia has every right to expect from the U.S.:

  •  Renunciation of assistance to anti-Russian elites and regimes in CIS countries and of efforts to encourage anti-Russian policies;
  •  Renunciation of efforts to impede integration processes in the CIS that focus on Russia as a natural historical center;
  •  Resolution of ‘frozen’ conflicts (Transdniestria and Nagorno-Karabakh) on terms acceptable to Russia;
  •  Identification of a mutually acceptable formula for the development of energy projects and energy cooperation in the CIS.

Moscow needs support for its idea of a new pan-European treaty on collective security, which implies new universal rules of the game in the Euro-Atlantic space. The Russian Federation should be entitled to a decision-making right in resolving European security issues that Moscow regards as threatening its security. This would not violate vital American interests. These interests are now concern not so much the proliferation of the American security regime to all European countries as retaining U.S. military and political presence in Europe, bolstering NATO as the main security institution in Western and Central Europe, and eliminating threats to security in the Euro-Atlantic region. These threats mostly come from the outside (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and the Middle East), and removing them without Russia’s participation seems to be highly improbable.

A historic compromise of this kind was not possible in the 1990s or in first decade of the 21st century. But today the probability of this compromise is growing, given the scale of changes in international relations and the emergence of a symmetry of mutual damage and mutual benefit in a range of areas of Russian-American interaction, despite the general asymmetry of their relations. The more dangerous and ungovernable the world becomes, including for the U.S. itself, the more interested it will be in such a “big deal” with Russia. The continuing strengthening of China will be a major factor in encouraging the U.S. to make such an exchange or to reach a compromise with Russia on the two countries’ vital interests.

The “big deal” could be a step towards the establishment – in the long term – of a strategic Russia-U.S. alliance for addressing international security issues, in which both sides will continue playing a decisive role. In the first place, this concerns nuclear security, nuclear nonproliferation and multilateral nuclear deterrence, as well as strategic stability and the settlement of regional crises and conflicts, above all in Afghanistan.

Reaching a compromise and, especially, moving towards a Russia-U.S. alliance would give a powerful stimulus for a qualitative expansion of Russian-American cooperation in other spheres where the two sides objectively have identical or parallel interests but where their positive interaction is now hampered by a largely negative atmosphere of their bilateral relations. These spheres include cooperation in the energy sector and the termination of open confrontation in it; interaction in reducing the international terrorist threat; and cooperation on the problems of climate change, food security, and many other global problems.

Other important centers of power in the world – above all, China and the European Union (if the latter overcomes internal restraints and becomes a serious player in world politics) – might also join Russian-American cooperation in many of these areas.

There are some spheres where progress and positive experience of cooperation are achievable in the near future and where the sides will not have to sacrifice any considerable interests:

  •  Interaction on Afghanistan;
  •  Interaction on North Korea (Russia can easily support U.S. actions here and make efforts towards convincing China to take a favorable and constructive position on this issue);
  •  Resolution of the Transdniestria conflict on the basis of recognition of Moldova’s territorial integrity and legal status as a neutral country staying outside political and military blocs (a compromise on this issue will not require any concessions on the sides’ vital interests, either).

Last updated 5 september 2009, 15:19

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