Russia and the U.S.: Reconfiguration, Not Resetting
No. 3 2009 July/September
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


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

Timofei V. Bordachev

Doctor of Political Science
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies
Academic Supervisor;
Valdai Discussion Club, Moscow, Russia
Program Director


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E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: +7(495) 772-9590 *22186
Address: Office 427, 17 Malaya Ordynka Str. Bldg.1, Moscow 119017, Russia

Dmitry V. Suslov

Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

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

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

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.


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

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.


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.


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
  • 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

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

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.


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

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.


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

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
  • Support of U.S. efforts in resolving the North Korean nuclear
  • Support of U.S. efforts in Pakistan and Iraq;
  • Convergence of positions on the Middle East peace
  •  Renunciation of the use of force in restoring Russia’s
    historical zone of influence (beyond Abkhazia and South
  •  True reactivation of cooperation in fighting with
    international terrorism; prevention of acts of nuclear
  •  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

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

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
  •  Renunciation of efforts to impede integration processes
    in the CIS that focus on Russia as a natural historical
  •  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

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

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

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).