After the reset: Russia-US relations need new agenda

6 september 2013

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.

Resume: The cooling in Russia-U.S. relations over recent years has led to the end of the reset. This has culminated in Barack Obama's refusal to go to Moscow after the G20 Summit to be held in St. Petersburg.

Among the reasons for the cool-down in relations between Russia and the U.S. is the lack of "personal chemistry" between Putin and Obama, along with frustration in the White House caused by the anti-American campaign that, until recently, was taking place in Russia.

In addition, the Russian leadership has carried out a series of harsh actions to limit any remaining dependence many Russian nongovernmental organizations have on foreign funding. Repression against political activists in Russia, which was initially isolated, is now becoming widespread. The awkward Magnitsky Act and the even less commendable Russian response to it have also played an important role.

In the geopolitical sphere, almost no cooperation is currently taking place on Afghan transit, allegedly because the prices of goods from the Russian side are too high. On Syria, the positions are obviously opposite. With this as the background, the escape to Russia of Edward Snowden — who Russia clearly did not need — was simply the straw that broke the camel's back. Yet all of these are minor causes of the deterioration in Russia-U.S. relations.

The two countries have common interests on issues that are far more important than the residual, bilateral, nuclear stand-off: to promote peaceful development of China and the situation surrounding the country; to prevent a spill-over of growing Arab chaos; to limit the effects of the spread of nuclear weapons, which has already begun; to promote efforts by the international community to prevent any worsening in the situations with climate, water, food and cybercrime.

However, within the framework of this reset, these problems have either been pushed to the sidelines or completely abandoned. Topics from the previous agenda were brought back to the top.

A reduction in nuclear arms was proposed by the U.S. as the main tool for the reset. Russian diplomats agreed with enthusiasm to the business-as-usual proposal, to occupy themselves with the same old things. Fellow negotiators — friends since the Cold War — met again and re-launched their old machinery.

They signed an agreement that was pointless in terms of real disarmament, though politically positive to a limited extent. Relations returned to normal for some time. Then the situation came to a halt.

The Americans proposed further reductions (especially on tactical nuclear weapons), but the Russians did not need it. It is well-known that nuclear weapons are one of the last remaining arguments propping up the status of one of the major great powers. In addition, this partially compensates for many Russian weaknesses in the sphere of military security.

Habitual debates have begun on which side has more of what. To block U.S. efforts to reduce the Russian quantitative superiority in tactical weapons (which did not threaten anyone), Moscow declared that it would not do so while the threat remains of deployment of a European missile-defense system.

Rational Obama, who ventured huge cutbacks on defense for the sake of recovery of the U.S. economy and society, has finally de facto also abandoned plans to deploy the European missile-defense system. In Moscow, they preferred not to notice this.

Firstly, they were not going to open the way for a further reduction in nuclear weapons. Secondly, some Russian missile manufacturers, as well as bureaucratic groups associated with them, have begun to hope that oil money will be spent on deployment of a new generation of heavy missiles. Thirdly, some Russians seem to believe in the arguments championed by propaganda about the threat of the anti-missile defense system.

In any case, restarting the nuclear arms reduction process has predictably re-militarized the relations between the two countries and pushed the other issues out of the potential agenda. The failure of this restart — the central element in the reset — has sunken the latter as well. In fact, structurally, the reset was doomed from the very start.

The fact that the mutual economic interest of the two sides is low has also played a role; Russian energy resources have become a less weighty argument. Comparatively, President Obama could hardly afford to refuse to meet with the leader of China. Finally, as the date of withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan approaches, Washington’s interest in Moscow has decreased in this issue as well.

At the beginning of this decade, colleagues at the Valdai Club wrote a report on the need for a new agenda for Russian-U.S. relations. We predicted that, if such an agenda was not adopted, relations based on the agenda that had not been important for long would fail. The prediction has come true. The world has lost, and both countries have lost.

Where should the countries move on from here? Of course, they can begin to harm each other. Although the Americans have more opportunities to do this, Russia has some, as well.

However, it is better to use the current pause to work out an agenda for bilateral relations aimed at the future. Its main objective should be the limitation of growing chaos, as well as leadership in solving global problems.

Both Russia and, even more so, the United States cannot do without each other. On the other hand, both the U.S. and Russia have much less potential to influence the world on their own. It would be better for the whole world if these countries would act cooperatively as much as possible on the international stage.

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