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Positive-Sum Politics

The Path to Partnership in U.S.-Russian Relations

By Daniel Hemel

Within weeks of the 2008 election, both Time magazine (on its cover) and The New Yorker (in an inside-page cartoon) featured the face of Barack Obama superimposed on the body of Franklin Roosevelt. The Economist declared that Obama-era America had succumbed to “Roosevelt-mania.” Like FDR, Obama succeeds an unpopular Republican president who left the nation in a deep recession. But whether or not Obama implements a “new New Deal,” he has the opportunity to emulate FDR in another respect. Roosevelt did more than any other US president to improve relations between Washington and Moscow. He was the first president to grant formal recognition to the Soviet Union, and by the time of World War II, he affectionately called his Kremlin counterpart “Uncle Joe.” It seems unlikely that Obama will refer to the Russian prime minister as “Uncle Vlad” anytime soon, but Vladimir Putin did tell reporters a month after Obama’s election that the new president’s inauguration would bring “positive” changes to US-Russian relations.

This essay argues that Obama should not and likely will not follow FDR’s footsteps (or, to be historically accurate, his wheelchair tracks) on questions of Russian-American relations. At the Tehran and Yalta conferences, FDR tried to strike a “grand bargain” with Stalin on a wide range of geopolitical issues. But the time is not ripe for a “second Yalta.” The Kremlin may be offering an early “olive branch” to Obama by halting the deployment of missiles to the Polish border, but at any moment Russia might retract this branch: although Putin reportedly enjoys an approval rating of 83%, there is a risk that he will use belligerent foreign policies to divert popular attention from the domestic economic difficulties wrought by weak oil prices. This puts Obama in a double-bind: on the one hand, Obama does not want to move too quickly toward rapprochement with Russia before he can ascertain whether Putin’s underlying intentions are peaceful; on the other hand, Obama does not want to move too slowly in responding to recent Russian overtures lest he waste a rare opportunity to restore friendly relations with Moscow.

President Obama can minimize both risks – the risk of conceding too little to Moscow and the risk of conceding too much – by re-ordering the agenda of US-Russian relations. Obama should prioritize issues on which joint action will generate mutual benefits regardless of Putin’s ultimate intentions. This means that Obama will have to add new issues to the agenda (e.g. public health and Arctic cooperation) while also reviving agenda-items that have received short shrift in the Bush administration (e.g. trade liberalization and Pacific petroleum pipeline construction). I do not discount the salience of other issues that have dominated the agenda of US-Russian relations in recent years – specifically, NATO expansion and the settlement of the Russia-Georgia border. Rather, I will argue that the US and Russia cannot achieve progress on these latter, more contentious issues until the two countries restore the trust that has evaporated since the end of the Yeltsin (1991-1999) and Clinton (1993-2001) years. In a best-case scenario, cooperation on health, transportation, economic expansion, and energy will generate goodwill and facilitate future progress on the least tractable geopolitical quarrels. However, even if cooperation does not give rise to a climate of trust, the immediate benefits from joint action (in terms of disease control, economic expansion, and national security) will far outweigh the costs.

A Not-So-New Era

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Candidate Obama strove to distinguish his foreign-policy views from those of his predecessor. Obama drew stark contrasts between his and President Bush’s stances on troop withdrawal from Iraq, direct diplomacy with Iran, and the U.S. embargo against Cuba. However, Obama’s remarks regarding US-Russia relations often echoed Bush administration positions. To be sure, there are real differences between Obama and his predecessor on Russia-related matters: for instance, Obama has yet to say whether he will deploy missile defense assets to Poland and the Czech Republic (a move that Bush favored and that Russia has fought). But although Obama’s Nov. 4 election set off celebrations in Russia, the new president does not see eye-to-eye with Russian leaders on several contentious issues. Like Bush, Obama supports NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, which Russia stridently opposes. Like Bush, Obama supported the $1 billion reconstruction assistance package for Georgia after the Caucasus country was invaded by Russia in August. (In fact, Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, was one of the first to propose the $1 billion in aid. ) Like several Bush administration officials, Obama has called for a review of Moscow’s application for membership in the World Trade Organization following the Georgia invasion. Given these convergences of opinion between Obama and Bush and these divergences of opinion between Obama and the Kremlin leadership, it seems unlikely that Obama’s inauguration will, by itself, defuse the tension that has built up between Washington and Moscow over the last several years – Russia’s recent overtures to Obama aside. Moreover, Obama’s choice for secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has put a Putin antagonist in charge of US foreign policy. Clinton already has riled Russian leaders with her campaign-trail remark that Putin “doesn’t have a soul.” (Putin responded to the remark by saying that “at a minimum, a head of state should have a head.”) Although Putin seems more enthusiastic about working with Obama than working with Secretary Clinton, this enthusiasm may fade when the Russian prime minister realizes that the new US president is as adamant about NATO expansion and Georgian territorial integrity as Bush was.

Granted, if Obama chooses not to place a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, then this decision may produce a temporary improvement in the US-Russian relationship. But the improvement may only be temporary because Obama has said that he will move to deploy the defense system “when the technology is proved to be workable.” Moreover, the US-Russia rift is much wider than this one dispute. As Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs, recently remarked, “…there is no trust between the two countries now, there is only suspicion.” At present, the Kremlin views US-Russian relations as a zero-sum game: thus, any US effort to improve its defensive capacity is considered automatically to be affront to Russia. For example, most scientists agree that a US missile defense shield based in Poland and the Czech Republic would not threaten Russia’s own nuclear deterrent because missiles fired from Russia would travel over the North Pole, not Eastern Europe. Even if Obama halts the Eastern European missile shield project, the underlying problem – Russia’s reflexive opposition to US policy – will not be resolved.

But although the prospects for a “grand bargain” between the US and Russia remain remote, the Obama administration does have the opportunity to achieve progress on a variety of fronts. While these achievements would be “quick wins” rather than long-term solutions to US-Russia tensions, their combined effect would be to change the nature of the relationship from a zero-sum to a positive-sum game.

Putting Public Health First

First, the Obama administration should expand cooperation with Russia on public health issues – specifically, on anti-tuberculosis efforts. Drug-resistant strains of TB have spread across Russia in recent years. An estimated 14% of all TB-positive patients in Russia are infected with extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB). Therapies for XDR-TB are “questionably effective,” leaving open the possibility that XRD-TB in Russia could morph into an untreatable infection of pandemic proportions.

One episode that highlighted the transnational character of XDR-TB risk occurred in January 2006, when Robert Daniels, a Russian-US dual citizen who had been diagnosed with XDR-TB, left Moscow before completing his treatment regimen. He traveled to Phoenix via New York, bringing his infection with him. Once in Phoenix, he visited various fast-food restaurants without wearing a mask. Although Daniels does not appear to have infected any Arizona residents, his case illustrates the United States’ vulnerability to XDR-TB. Daniels was a walking, talking, biological weapon of mass destruction (albeit not a malevolent one). Yet U.S. State Department funding for anti-TB efforts in Russia averaged only $3.5 million per year from 2000 to 2005, and funding has fallen off since then. Today, the State Department sponsors small-scale programs to combat drug-resistant TB in Russia, but these programs are active in only five of Russia’s 83 regions. Expanding these programs to cover the whole country would not only help Russia address its public health crisis, but it would also reduce the risk that a future Robert Daniels will infect Americans with untreatable XDR-TB.

An Arctic Thaw

Second, the Obama administration should seize upon opportunities for Arctic cooperation with Russia. Whereas the Antarctic Treaty (signed by 46 countries) governs international relations surrounding the South Pole, no comparable multinational accord governs the Arctic Ocean. In his final days in office, President Bush issued a directive stating that “an ‘Arctic Treaty’ of broad scope – along the lines of the Antarctic Treaty – is not appropriate or necessary.” In the absence of an Arctic agreement, Russia has laid claim to a swath of seabed under the North Pole approximately equal to the size of Western Europe. President Bush’s final directive challenged that claim. Arbitral tribunals organized under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea will adjudicate conflicting claims, but UNCLOS arbitral processes can take more than a decade, and the US Senate’s refusal to ratify the convention casts doubt as to whether arbitral outcomes will be respected by all sides. Prompt cooperation on Arctic issues could yield massive benefits for Russia and the US – as well as for the six other Arctic nations. The US Geological Survey estimates that area above the Arctic Circle holds 22% of the world’s undiscovered petroleum resources. Moreover, a maritime shortcut connecting the Canadian port of Churchill (which is owned by a US entrepreneur) and the Russian city of Murmansk could cut freight transit times from the heart of Eurasia to the heart of North America in half. However, as Scott Borgerson at the Council on Foreign Relations notes, “no one wins if the region remains a lawless frontier.” Russian and US companies will hesitate to make huge physical capital investments in Arctic oil extraction until political uncertainties are resolved. The development of northern maritime routes will require Arctic nations to set aside ongoing disputes regarding control over sea-lanes. A treaty could yield economic benefits for all Arctic nations (while also incorporating ecological protections). On this issue, US-Russian relations can be a positive-sum game.

Trading for Trust

Third, the Obama administration should revive agenda items that languished during the Bush years but that could yield mutual gains for the US and Russia. One such issue is trade liberalization. In 2002, the US recognized Russia as a “market economy”; that designation diminished duties on Russian exports of steel and fertilizer to the US. Since then, Russian exports to the US have increased by more than $18 billion a year. But even so, US-Russia trade is stymied by the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a 1974 law that denies “normal” trade status to countries that restrict emigration. Russia has complied with Jackson-Vanik’s freedom of emigration requirements since 1994. Nonetheless, Congress has refused to graduate Russia from the amendment’s provisions. Consequently, normal trade relations between the US and Russia now exist on a “conditional” rather than permanent basis, and Russia must obtain annual certification from Congress that it remains in compliance with the free-emigration requirement. Russian leaders have viewed this mandate as an affront and have retaliated with a series of restrictions on the importation of US agricultural goods. Jackson-Vanik was intended to force the USSR to respect the rights of Soviet Jews; now that Russia has allowed more than one million Jews to leave freely, the law no longer serves its intended purpose. Bush administration officials have expressed their desire to see Jackson-Vanik repealed, but this desire never translated into a presidential policy initiative. As former National Security Council official Daniel Benjamin writes, “with no domestic opposition to removing the annoyance of annual of annual certification, all that was needed…was four phone calls [from the president] to congressional leaders to make it happen.” Jackson-Vanik reform may require more political capital in the aftermath of the Georgia invasion, but with Obama’s party in control of Congress, the legislative obstacles are not insurmountable. By pressing Congress to lift Jackson-Vanik, the Obama administration would remove an irritant that disrupts US-Russian economic relations.

Reenergizing the Relationship

Finally, the Obama administration should revive the “energy dialogue” launched by Bush and Putin in 2002. The dialogue produced small achievements in 2003. The countries signed a joint protocol on oil spill prevention and response. Furthermore, a U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a government agency, lent the Russian firm Lukoil $130 million to construct an export terminal on the Gulf of Finland. However, more ambitious projects have stalled, such as a $12 billion Siberia-to-Murmansk pipeline that would facilitate the transport of petroleum from Russia to U.S. markets. Currently, most Russian energy export routes run south (through the increasingly-congested Bosphorus) or west (through underground pipelines and the Danish Straits) but do not reach North American shores. In 2008, Russia accounted for only 4% of all US petroleum imports. While the European Union is (rightly) worried about its dependence on Russian natural gas, the US would enhance its energy security by increasing its reliance on Russia and thus counterbalancing its reliance on the Middle East, the source of 26% of US petroleum imports, and Venezuela, the source of 11%. A Siberia-to-Murmansk pipeline would enable Russia to expand its energy customer base while allowing the U.S. to diversify its supply lines. The US could pave the way for such a pipeline by offering Overseas Private Investment Corp. loans to Russian companies – private or state-run – that lead construction efforts. For the past few years, US-Russian energy relations have been characterized by confrontation: the US has backed the Nabucco pipeline (which would connect Azerbaijan to central Europe, bypassing Russia) while the Kremlin has tried to thwart it. However, as the Siberia-to-Murmansk proposal illustrates, the energy issue is ripe for positive-sum politics.


As joint actions on public health, Arctic Ocean issues, trade liberalization, and energy generate concrete gains for both sides, Putin and his handpicked president, Dmitry Medvedev, may be less likely to undertake endeavors (such as the Georgia invasion) that jeopardize US-Russian relations. At the very least, the cooperative efforts outlined in this essay will yield direct benefits for the US that justify their relatively modest costs, regardless of whether they alter the Kremlin’s strategic calculus. And potentially, increased interaction between U.S. and Russian officials may engender a climate of trust that facilitates progress on nuclear security, NATO expansion, and the delineation of the Georgian border. It seems unlikely that US and Russian leaders will view each other as uncle and nephew anytime soon, but Obama does have the opportunity to transform the relationship from a rivalry to a partnership.

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