By Morgan Cohen
Hours after Barack Obama was elected president, his Russian counterpart, president Dmitry Medvedev, delivered a speech to the Federal Assembly. He warned that if Washington refused to abandon its plans to station a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, then he would deploy a battery of short-range missiles along the Polish border in the Russian territory of Kaliningrad. The timing of this announcement was widely seen as a shot across the bow of the new administration, a sign that Moscow would no longer allow its voice in global politics to go unheard. Referring to the United States, Medvedev said that, “We have told our partners more than once that we want positive cooperation, we want to act together to combat common threats. But they, unfortunately, don’t want to listen to us.” As President Obama works to refashion America’s role in the world, one of his many challenges is deciding how to respond to a Russia that is increasingly assertive and intent on reclaiming its “great power” status.
Medvedev’s speech capped off a period of rapid deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations that was sparked by last summer’s war in Georgia. The war seemed to upend one of the fundamental assumptions that had guided American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, namely, the belief that post-Soviet Russia could be integrated into the cooperative institutions of the West. Whether Obama can successfully resume this push towards integration remains to be seen. Rebuilding America’s relationship with Russia is no easy feat. To paraphrase Max Weber, it will be like the slow boring of hard boards, requiring both a proper perspective and the passion to translate it into a new political reality. What is certain is that Obama must try. On a range of issues, from controlling loose nuclear material to combating international terrorism, the smoothest path to achieving U.S. interests runs through Moscow, not around it.
Getting Russia right means finding the right balance between incentives and disincentives. The Obama administration should encourage actions that make Russia a stakeholder in existing international regimes and organizations; it should also discourage actions that violate international norms. The overriding goal is to ensure that Russia is sufficiently invested in the need for continued cooperation with the United States. As the number of areas of cooperation increases, the likelihood that Moscow will act like it did in Georgia will correspondingly decrease. Indeed, it was precisely because bilateral ties were so poor that Russia did not have to think twice before launching its disproportionate incursion into South Ossetia. Washington must enhance these ties so that, should a similar crisis emerge in the coming years, Russia’s desire to preserve its relationship with the United States will function as a constraint on what it regards as an acceptable course of action. However, to understand the ways in which the foundations of cooperation may be strengthened, it is essential to recall the reasons why they have fallen into their current state of disrepair.
The events of September 11th dramatically reshaped U.S.-Russia relations. Then Russian President, Vladimir Putin, had a longstanding opposition to al-Qaeda that stemmed from the group’s connections to Chechen separatists in the 1990s. Moreover, since Taliban-led Afghanistan was the only state that had established diplomatic contacts with Chechnya, Putin believed it was in Russia’s interests to support the United States in its “war on terror.” To this end, he granted flyover rights across Russian territory, endorsed the establishment of U.S. military bases in Central Asia, and most importantly, offered access to a readily available Russian-armed and Russian-trained guerilla army – the Northern Alliance. Within a year of the attacks, American president George W. Bush had returned the favor. He changed U.S. policy on Chechnya to reflect a greater “understanding” of Putin’s political needs, supported Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, and allowed Russia to chair the G-8 for the first time. This mutual accommodation reached its high-water mark at the Moscow summit in May 2002. Bush and Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty and announced a new strategic partnership between their two countries. In the words of one commentator, this was a clear sign that “the foundation for a genuine long-term partnership between the United States and Russia is far stronger today than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
The Moscow summit was instructive for two reasons. It suggested that acknowledging Russia’s concerns and aspirations could yield large dividends in the form of increased cooperation. At the same time, it revealed how cooperation was possible even when the U.S. and Russia did not see eye to eye on a number of important issues. In the time leading up to the summit, several developments threatened to strain Washington’s relationship with its newly declared partner. The Bush administration’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty came as a bold rejection of one of the last surviving testaments to the halcyon days of Soviet superpower. Adding insult to injury, the United States had been pushing hard for the largest expansion of NATO in the history of the alliance; Estonian, Latvia and Lithuania were slated to begin their membership talks at the end of 2002. Lastly, in what was seen as an attempt to deepen America’s footprint in the Russian backyard, the U.S. began training Georgia’s armed forces.
The important point to remember is that while Russia hardly welcomed these developments, it did not perceive them as a threat to its relationship with the United States. Both sides saw their major goals and major problems in broadly compatible terms. In other words, they chose not to see their disagreements as expressions of a more fundamental conflict.
Today, the “strategic partnership” seems like nothing more than a footnote in the annals of current history. As the Obama administration searches for some common ground on which to jumpstart a new round of cooperation, it would do well to observe why things took a turn for the worst. Although a number of contentious issues have arisen over the past seven years – the Iraq war, the Rose revolution in Georgia, the Orange revolution in the Ukraine, and the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, to name a few – it was not the issues themselves, but rather, the way in which they were understood by Russia that explains the breakdown in U.S.-Russia relations. Putin had expected to enjoy the kind of partnership among equals that was on display at the Moscow summit. Instead, he found that Russia’s relationship with Washington continued to be characterized by a deep and irrevocable sense of inequality. And so, Putin decided that if the world was simply going to be shaped by the imperatives of maintaining American hegemony, then Russia could better serve its interests by going it alone.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s view of Washington has always been partially obscured by what George Kennan once called the “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” During the Bush administration, this insecurity grew into full-blown hostility. To be sure, Bill Clinton pursued several policies that stoked Russia’s resentment of the United States. But even though he may have missed some opportunities to strengthen America’s bilateral ties with Moscow, he realized the importance of demonstrating that, at the very least, Washington would factor Russia’s security concerns into its decisions. Whereas Clinton tempered the spirit of post-cold war triumphalism with a strong dose of conciliation, for George W. Bush, the very notion conciliation was as quaint and outdated as the Geneva conventions.
Even before the Moscow summit, the Bush administration seemed to be sending the message that Russia’s concerns were completely irrelevant. Over time, as this feeling of marginalization grew stronger, Putin began to fear that the United States was seeking to deny Russia what was rightfully hers - the right to maintain a “sphere of influence” in its former satellite states, and most importantly, the right to be heard when major global issues were being decided. Bush may have peered into Putin’s soul, but the Russian leader saw no need to return the gaze; when it came to America, distrust was fast becoming the only currency that mattered.
This was the geopolitical context in which Russia reevaluated its relationship with the United States. The strategic compatibility that had formed the core of this relationship was replaced by an icy suspicion. International institutions, once seen as tools for enhancing bilateral cooperation, became fronts for advancing the naked interests of the United States. Likewise, the color revolutions that America had sponsored in Georgia and the Ukraine were longer tolerated as an inconvenient byproduct of the Bush administration’s commitment to democracy. Instead, they came to represent containment by another name, a transparent attempt by Washington to reduce Russia’s regional influence. The hastily conceived plan to offer these countries a Membership Action Plan for NATO appears to be the straw that broke the bear’s back, the final piece of evidence that confirmed for Moscow that it had no say in the evolution of global security.
The Obama administration must move quickly to restore the confidence on which any meaningful relationship with Russia will depend. Quite literally, there is no time to waste. Two nuclear arms control agreements – the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START) and the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) – will expire by the end of his term. To make matters worse, SORT depends entirely on START for its verification and enforcement mechanisms, and START, which is set to expire in December of 2009, will be the first to go. Unless there is a new treaty ready to enter into force by the end of the year, the entire strategic arms control regime will break down. This would significantly compromise America’s ability to monitor Russia’s strategic forces. It would also introduce a tremendous amount of uncertainty into a relationship already plagued by an anemic amount of trust, further inhibiting our capacity to work with Russia in other areas vital to U.S. interests.
With this in mind, Obama must be ready to offer a concrete plan for resuscitating bilateral ties when he meets with president Medvedev at the G-20 summit in April. During the cold war, the United States used the arms reduction process as a stepping-stone to a more comprehensive engagement with the Soviet Union. By responding to Moscow’s desire to reduce its nuclear stockpile, Washington was able to create a diplomatic space in which it could pursue a number of other issues. Resuming the arms reduction process would be a relatively easy way to place U.S.-Russia relations on firmer footing. Russia would relish the opportunity to show the world that it is still a nuclear power on par with the United States. And for its part, Washington could once again use an ongoing nuclear arms dialogue with Russia to promote a more wide-ranging agenda.
The Obama administration should call for a new arms treaty that would reduce the number of nuclear warheads currently held by the U.S. and Russia. SORT allows both countries to deploy up to 2,200 warheads, however, these levels are of little importance to the security dilemmas of the contemporary world. It is in America’s interest to reduce the number of nuclear weapons capable of reaching its shores, as well as to reduce the number of nuclear weapons that Russia must keep out of the hands of terrorist organizations. Given the massive superiority of America’s conventional forces, the U.S. has every reason to deemphasize the role that nuclear weapons play in maintaining its national security. And given the cost of sustaining the current levels of deployment, Washington has every reason to expect that Moscow will not be opposed to reducing its nuclear arsenal.
The new treaty would build upon, and ultimately replace, the START and SORT agreements. In turn, these agreements will supply the framework through which greater cuts may proceed. Unlike his predecessor, Obama should not shy away from legally binding commitments. The Bush administration’s disdain for such constraints went a long way towards convincing the Kremlin that its nuclear policies, as the former chief of the Russian general staff once put it, reflected “a drive for strategic domination.” If the United States can convince Russia that it does not pose a threat to its national interests, then both sides will not have to agonize over the details that will limit their respective nuclear forces.
Obama’s decision to review the Bush administration’s plans for a missile defense system is a promising sign of things to come. The conciliatory gesture was not lost on Russia. In a move that hinted at Moscow’s readiness for a rapprochement, Putin, now prime minister, indicated that Russia did not want to start another arms race with the United States. The Obama administration should capitalize on this slight but significant thaw in U.S.-Russia relations. The missile defense issue bears directly on the viability of a new nuclear arms treaty. Russia will be unlikely to agree to further reductions unless it believes that the United States does not seek to complete the missile shield.
For this reason, Obama should declare a moratorium on construction of the missile defense sites. He should tell Moscow that if his government receives credible information that Iran has abandoned its nuclear program, the moratorium could be extended indefinitely. This would not only signal that Obama understands Russia’s concerns about the missile shield, it would also give Moscow an incentive to pressure the Iranians into halting their nuclear activities. There would be little risk in such a move. If the Iranians continued their efforts to develop nuclear weapons, he could simply lift the moratorium.
Above all else, Obama must emphasize that his administration represents a break with the past. For the foreseeable future, U.S.-Russia relations will be tenuous at best, and this will impose a heavy burden on American foreign policy. There is no way to completely correct the mistakes of the past eight years, but to do so at all, the United States must offer Russia a different strategy for achieving its interests. In the short term, this means resuming the arms reduction process and defusing the controversy over of the missile shield. These measures would certainly not resolve all the contentious issues between Washington’s and Moscow. But they would inject a degree of predictability and confidence into their relationship. And for now, that is perhaps all we can hope for.
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