How to rescue Russian-American relations

The release of tension after 50 years of the Cold War failed to develop into full-scale partnership. Difference of opinion between the United States and Russia have started growing again, and the arms control regime is on the brink of falling apart. Could another Cold War begin?

This year marks the bicentenary of diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States.

The release of tension after 50 years of the Cold War failed to develop into full-scale partnership. Difference of opinion between the United States and Russia have started growing again, and the arms control regime is on the brink of falling apart. This raises a serious question: could another Cold War begin? Are Russia and the USA doomed to never-ending confrontation?

Having ceased to be a communist superpower, Russia no longer has the kind of geopolitical interest that demand involvement in any and all conflicts. The priorities in Russia’s national interests are restricted to the former Soviet Union and regions adjacent to our borders. Moscow has ceased to be Washington’s global rival – its opponent whenever any international crisis arises. Moreover, Russia and the USA now have a substantial interest in regulating a number of regional conflicts.

In the military area, there are no rational reasons for a nuclear war between Russia and the USA. But there is a dangerous legacy: huge nuclear arsenals, once created for a war against each other.

Both countries have an objective interest in reducing the nuclear threat. Russia and the USA also have a common interest in averting a multilateral nuclear arms race. Finally, Russia and the USA are now faced with a common threat: international terrorism.

All this offers ground for believing that the erstwhile antagonists have a chance of becoming strategic partners, returning to a cooperation model that was effective on more than one occasion before bipolar rivalry arose. Since 1991, strategic partnership has been proclaimed three times by American presidents – George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush – and their Russian counterparts, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. Each time, however, these hopes were unfulfilled.

What has obstructed strategic partnership?

Firstly, none of these declarations were followed up by practical measures to establish permanent bodies. To be more precise, action was confined to half-measures that couldn’t be effective. Fifteen years on, we still lack permanent institutions for strategic partnership. All our “partnership” rests on the presidents and their declarations.

Secondly, no foundation for strategic partnership has been created in international law. True, Russia and the USA have signed two new nuclear arms reduction treaties: START II in 1993, which never came into force, and the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) in 2002. As in the Cold War era, however, these agreements concerned “negative rules”: what should not be done. We have not established any “positive rules” like a mutual security treaty or a counter-terrorism agreement.

Even the “negative rules” for military-strategic rivalry are being eroded. The unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty cast doubt on the effectiveness of all arms control measures. Breaking the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty could make the entire arms control regime collapse.

Thirdly, strategic partnership between Moscow and Washington lacks an economic foundation. Russia accounts for less than one percent of America’s foreign trade and export capital.

Fourthly, strategic partnership between Russia and the USA lacks a domestic political foundation. This is largely due to the weakness of economic links, since private companies usually lobby for political cooperation. In contrast, there are some well-organized groups connected to the military-industrial complex, whose lobbying efforts are aimed against arms cuts or the development of military and political cooperation.

Finally, the new partnership model for Russia and the United States took shape in a situation where the resources and interests of the two countries were becoming increasingly asymmetric. Washington saw the end of the Cold War as an unequivocal victory for itself. Consequently, the American leadership’s strategy has been aimed at consolidating a unipolar system of international relations and entrenching the United States in the role of the world’s sole superpower.

At the start of this decade, the USA and Russia proclaimed strategic partnership once again, declaring international terrorism to be their common enemy. But yet again, the declarations remained unimplemented in practice.

Now that Russia has started pursuing a more active policy in the international arena, geopolitical rivalry has emerged again – this time in the former Soviet Union. Moscow has responded very sharply to the color revolutions in a number of CIS countries, and taken an even harsher stance on missile defense and further NATO expansion.

Russian-American partnership is essentially limited at present, and tension between Washington and Moscow is rising on the majority of international issues.

In theory, confrontation could intensify after the presidential elections in both countries in 2008. Moreover, both countries have some influential forces which seek to provoke confrontation.

Rivalry has started to prevail over cooperation in the political, economic, and military aspects of Russian-American relations. Ideological differences have also emerged. In the United States and other Western countries, it is being said that Russia fails to meet democracy and human rights standards. In Russia, it is being said that the ideological values of the West and Russia are incompatible. Economic affairs don’t provide any grounds for optimism either, although they are capable of playing a stabilizing role when political differences are exacerbated (as in Sino-American relations).

Russian-American relations have a built-in destabilizing factor left over from the Cold War era: the “mutial nuclear intimidation” model, with its bilateral rivalry in the most important area of relations – military-strategic relations. Fresh impetus to this confrontation could be provided by the consent of Poland and the Czech Republic to host American interceptor missiles and a radar station.

In these circumstances, measures such as withdrawing from the INF Treaty and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty are possible. For example, Russia might resume production of intermediate-range missiles capable of striking targets in Europe and the Middle East. The United States could deploy ballistic missile and cruise missiles close to Russia’s borders, capable of striking Russian targets within minutes. We cannot create a similar threat to the United States.

Even in the Cold War era, both sides negotiated to restrict the arms race. Those negotiations have now stopped. START I will expire in 2009 and SORT will expire in 2012. In the meantime, the “no rules” arms race has resumed and become mulitlateral.

It should be noted, however, that a second Cold War couldn’t be a repeat of the first. The USSR was a superpower, leading the socialist camp and allied with numerous “progressive” regimes and movements. Russia is in a different weight cagetory now.

From this standpoint, talking of a return to the Cold War isn’t entirely accurate. We might develop a confrontational model of interaction, like relations between the USA and Iran in recent decades, but it wouldn’t be a central axis for the system of international relations, as in the Soviet-American confrontation era; it would only be one of many instability zones amidst multipolar chaos.

Russian-American relations could also develop in a different way: if failure in Iraq leads the United States to abandon unilateral action and seek an international balance of power. Washington would then have an interest in gaining Moscow’s support for political solutions to the problems of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Moreover, the need to restrain China’s aspirations to superpower status, and to avert a new wave of Islamic radicalism, could prompt the USA toward closer cooperation with Russia.

Russia has an interest in creating a collective security system in a multipolar world, involving all centers of power – and that implies including the United States as well. Our national security interests require us to work on preventing a multilateral arms race, whether nuclear or conventional – and that can’t be done unless we cooperate with the United States.

It’s important to find a compromise solution enabling us to avoid a confrontation over the deployment of American missile defense elements which pose a threat to Russia. The measures we take in response to this, aimed at ensuring our military security, will be far more effective if we don’t rush to withdraw from the INF Treaty or the CFE Treaty. Rather, we should concentrate on producing Topol-M ICBMs and cruise missiles for strategic bombers. This would be far less expensive than developing new intermediate-range missiles.

When I spoke with analysts and officials in Washington in late February, I realized that despite the unprecedented prevalence of anti-Russian rhetoric, there is still a chance of developing Russian-American relations according to the second scenario described above. Opinion polls indicate that only 2% of Americans regard Russia as an enemy. The Bush Administration is in no hurry to force a confrontation with Russia – it sees some opportunities for cooperating with Russia on certain issues.

We shouldn’t underestimate the fact that Washington has agreed to pursue a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear problem, in a six-country format, allowing China to take the lead and not demanding regime change in North Korea. The USA is also continuing multilateral negotiations regarding the Iranian nuclear problem, and has agreed to hold an international conference on the situation in Iraq, with Iran and Syria attending.

Russia is participating in the abovementioned multilateral negotiations, but Russian diplomacy rarely sets the tone. It’s time for Moscow to play a more active role. This would be possible if we start reinforcing our diplomatic skills by using financial and economic leverage. Opportunities have now arisen to activate Russia’s policy in a number of areas, including the task of seeking agreements and compromises with the USA on the issues where our interests coincide.

The most effective area for cooperation may be the six-country talks on Iran and North Korea. If this format can achieve success in resolving the Iran problem, as it has with North Korea, Washington would lose its pretext for deploying missile defense elements in Eastern Europe.

It would be an important move to establish a multilateral mechanism for Afghanistan as well, including Russia, the USA, NATO, China, India, and other countries. Finally, we need some large-scale initiatives to salvage and update the nuclear arms control regime.

Let’s not forget that Russia and the United States have never been enemies in a multipolar system of international relations – so there is still an opportunity for partnership in a world with new poles and centers.