After the Reset
Publisher's Column
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Sergei A. Karaganov

Professor Emeritus
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Academic Supervisor;
Council on Foreign and Defense Policy
Honorary Chairman of the Presidium


SPIN RSCI: 6020-9539
ORCID: 0000-0003-1473-6249
ResearcherID: K-6426-2015
Scopus AuthorID: 26025142400


Email: [email protected]
Address: Office 103, 17, Bldg.1 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 119017, Russia

A New Agenda for Russian-U.S. relations

Russian-U.S. relations have been on a six-month-long honeymoon since last spring’s “wedding.” The “reset” has worked. But more difficult times are ahead. The Republicans have gone on the offensive against Barack Obama, determined to derail the ratification of the START treaty. What makes things still worse is the structural weakness of the current model of relations. By and large that model is tooled up for tactical solutions of problems inherited from the past (or in some cases phony problems), and certainly not challenges that humanity and the two countries will be confronting in the future. For the relationship to be truly sustainable and strategic, it is to match precisely this new agenda.

Should one try to measure the current state of Russian-U.S. relations with the yardsticks that were widely used in the past, it would be difficult to refrain from expressing what Soviet-era speechwriters used to call “a feeling of profound satisfaction.” Their climate has never been better, perhaps, since the end of World War II, or a very brief period in the early 1990s when young Russia, overwhelmed by post-revolutionary enthusiasm, was eager to hurry into the Western embrace. But this time Moscow does not have to yield anything in exchange for the same sort of improvement.

There are some real achievements, too. A new treaty limiting strategic offensive arms has been signed. It is sending a positive political message to the world, but it does not go farther than just token cuts and restoration of the arms control mechanism as a confidence-building measure. The idea of “the global zero,” an idol that continues to be worshiped by tradition, has been buried, I believe. The dream of American liberals of a “nuclear-free paradise,” fuelled by an utterly cynical expectation by others that only in this sort of denuclearized world (or, at least, a not very nuclearized one) the U.S. can politically use its non-nuclear superiority, has rammed into shoal.

It has become obvious that no one is eager to lay down arms. And, most importantly, it has turned out that in a new world of rising powers and with its accumulated budget deficit the United States will be unable to retain its absolute non-nuclear superiority for too long. Also buried is the very risky idea (which had quite a few supporters) of entering into artificial and extremely unfavorable talks over a reduction of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, which are not a great hindrance to anyone and, on the contrary, work as a psychologically stabilizing factor.

Russia has joined the coalition of countries that have been trying to exert the last attempts to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear or “threshold” status (the ability to produce nuclear arms). It looks like the international community has already lost this proliferation round. But Russia’s participation in sanctions is politically correct (from the standpoint of showing support to Obama) and beneficial (in terms of containing the next wave of proliferation).

Russia has fully supported the operation in Afghanistan, which is of key importance to the U.S. A very correct and beneficial decision it was.

In response, the U.S. de facto recognized Russia’s special interests in the former Soviet Union (although it has denied this in public), and ceased to hinder the strengthening of Russia’s positions in that region. Previously, it was a matter of principle for the U.S. to do precisely the opposite.

Discussions have been stepped up of how to enhance economic cooperation. The U.S. once again promised to help Russia join the WTO.

Finally, various Russian-U.S. official dialogues got underway within the framework of the Presidential Commission, designed to enhance and institutionalize cooperation. One of the reasons for the failures of past attempts at a rapprochement was their personalized level, quite often too high one, and the absence of an institutional groundwork to advance incentives received from the top.

One could list many other achievements of the “reset” of Russian-U.S. relations, which has certainly materialized, although in many respects not the way it had been originally anticipated. Shortcomings and pitfalls are many, too. The worst of them is the Americans’ reluctance or intellectual inability to put an end to the unfinished Cold War in Europe by signing a new treaty on European security, or in some other way Russia has been rightly calling for.

Three main problems remain first, the vulnerability of the current round of Russian-U.S. rapprochement; its success largely depends on the political fate of the Obama Administration which is faced with a fierce onslaught by the Republicans, determined to regain power. For the sake of attaining this aim any argument is good enough, including allegations of Obama’s softness towards Russia. Although from the standpoint of rationally understood U.S. interests, Obama’s policies look more than sound. The Republicans do not offer any realistic alternatives. All of their stakes are on negativism. Therefore, the risk is high that the new START treaty will get bogged down in the Senate – for the sole reason it is “Obama’s treaty” and he must be denied the slightest chance for success.

Second (and more important in the long run) — almost the entire current and proposed agenda of Russian-U.S. relations is addressed to the problems of the past – quite often important ones, no denying that, at least because they look important to foreign policymakers. And their mentality takes a long while to reform. But this agenda is unable to reform it, it rather perpetuates old-time stereotypes. These may be even politically positive. But they will stay inadequate to the challenges of the world of today and tomorrow. The clearest example of this is the role of strategic offensive arms control in Russian-U.S. relations. Their role and the discussions around them have remained almost the same since the Cold War era, when the two countries really threatened each other. For a certain period of time the first agreements to limit these weapons helped to ease animosity and enhance mutual security. Now both countries no longer really consider each other as foes. And their strategic arms, while retaining a residual function of deterrence, in fact, do not threaten each other.

But the newly-signed START treaty is regarded as a central element of bilateral relations again. I am for it. But the treaty has very little bearing on the real challenges and threats. It looks very nice, but very inappropriate. It reminds me of a middle-aged couple dancing a polonaise in a youth nightclub.

Sadly, the policy of preventing Iran’s nuclearization looks no longer relevant, too. It should have been pursued a long while ago to prevent Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons. Now, while waging the still necessary but grossly belated rearguard battles, one should give thought to how to go on living in a world where there are not five nuclear powers but nine, and what is to be done to prevent nuclear weapons from spreading further.

Third (and this may be the most important factor), the greatest weakness of the current model of Russian-American relations is their almost complete disregard for the future. Perhaps the sole dialogue that is addressed to the future at least somehow and aimed at warding off possible common threats is that over U.S. proposals for a joint (Russian-U.S., or Russia-NATO) missile defense system. I am skeptical about these plans and about their feasibility. But, at least, they are extended into the future, they are aimed at countering the beyond-the-horizon challenges, and if implemented, they will help create a relationship of a real alliance.

Also, I have some questions to ask about the very idea of a special bilateral relationship in a world where neither the U.S. nor naturally Russia enjoys the status of indisputable leaders, and where they will have to press for practical initiatives in a multilateral format.
Here I turn to the subject of a new world where Russia and the U.S. will have to act, jointly or on their own.

A most important feature of that world will be the absolute and relative weakening of the United States and Russia. That weakening, accompanied by the almost inevitable growing chaos in international relations, will require far greater policy coordination by the leading powers. And this is a major incentive bound to push Russia and the U.S. (and not only them) towards a closer relationship. The establishment of interaction by China, the U.S. and Russia, and Russia, the EU, and the U.S. is to become a powerful factor for global stability. The G20, G8 and other forums of international governance cannot be effective to the slightest degree, if there emerge no groups of countries capable of political and intellectual leadership. Russia’s presence in them would be desirable, of course.  And not in the way everybody observed at the Copenhagen forum on climate change, where the EU and Russia were actually barred from decision-making.

Another challenge that will have to be answered is the rise of Asia and of the nation-state, occurring at the same place and at the same time. I am far from telling “yellow threat” scare stories. That rise, primarily the rise of China, has become the growth engine of prosperity for the whole of humanity. Too bad Russia has not attached itself to that locomotive yet.

But the rise of Asia and state nationalism will inevitably put new challenges to the international system on the agenda. Only some of them can be anticipated, for example, the emergence of a relative security vacuum (maybe even virtual) around an increasingly powerful China. In East Asia and South Asia, a new problem is added to the old ones.

And it cannot be resolved through any of the old methods, such as the establishment of a system of difference. What is needed is fast creation of a security system for the entire region, in which the U.S. and Russia can and should play an important role.

Another place in Asia where security vacuum has emerged and been worsening is the vast region around the Persian Gulf. That this nuclearizing region still lacks a security system is the biggest failure in international politics of the past few decades. This vacuum will get still worse in several years’ time, when the U.S. and NATO will have to inevitably leave Afghanistan. It will have to be filled. And without initiatives by Russia, the U.S. and – probably – China and India, this cannot be done. And of course it cannot be done without security guarantees provided by external powers. At this point only the United States and Russia are capable of doing that.

A new industrial revolution and the rise of Asia have drastically and permanently pushed up the demand for natural resources, energy and food. A new competition has begun for them, and, naturally, for territory. Conditions must be created to ensure it should not grow into another round of geopolitical rivalry like during the past few centuries. Certain signs of this are already there. Suffice it to recall the hitherto virtual struggle for 25 percent of the still unexplored energy resources of the world that may lie, perhaps, within the Russian Arctic zone. In the traditional West some have begun talking about a ridiculous “Arctic NATO.” Russia has been allegedly holding what looks like military exercises to practice protection of Arctic spaces. There has been a chorus of media accusations of China laying claim to these areas. Obviously, there should be different policies and different thinking.

It is to be hoped that last summer’s wild fires in Russia have convinced the last skeptics that the risk of further climate change is real. For the time being humanity keeps performing the same old ritual song and dance around the issue. Here, too, there is an obvious need for joint Russian-U.S. initiatives (to be put forward jointly with the EU and other players).

Almost all of the new challenges converge in Russia’s Far East and Siberia. Without an international investment and political project for turning the region into a source of natural resources and food for new markets, Russia will not escape converting it into China’s political and raw materials backyard. This will be fraught with risks for everyone, including China itself. Preventing such a trend will be possible only through joint efforts under the auspices of Russia and a number of Asian countries. And the United States, of course.

The format of a newspaper article is too tight even to enumerate all opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation between Russia and the U.S. featuring on a new agenda. If, of course, these relations are to be transferred to a new political and intellectual basis in earnest, withdrawn from the shadow of the Cold War, and steered towards the creation of a genuine alliance.

It is not yet obvious that the current elites of the two countries are ready to rise to the occasion and prove worthy of the new challenges, and to overcome the habit of “backtracking forward.” But if no new challenges are put in front of them, this habit may go incurable. And these elites will continue to recede and breed clones, the way they have been doing for the past twenty years.

However, there still hope for change. America has succeeded to surpass itself to bring to power Barack Obama, with his largely innovative and rational way of thinking. True, he may fail and be defeated. But he certainly inspires hope that the younger ones can be smarter and better than the older generations.

Of course, the call for a futuristic agenda for Russian-U.S. relations does not mean that I would like to see the “old-old” agenda (like the unfinished Cold War in Europe), or the “new-old” one (such as nuclear proliferation, international terrorism or drug trafficking) forgotten altogether. They cannot be ignored. The challenges of today and of yesterday are still there. And they may cause aggravations, even though in a semi-farcical way, as was the case during the war in South Ossetia. There is a risk of a renewed arms race, though not on the Russian-U.S. track, I hope.

But without a glance into the future these old agendas will keep throwing us back. While with a new one we shall be able to at least try to build truly innovative relations between Russia and the United States and not just “reset” the old ones back to normal. To the benefit of both countries and the rest of the world.

Rossiiskaya Gazeta