The now-on-now-off relations between Russia and the United States in recent years have resulted the termination of their “reset” policy with President Obama’s decision to cancel the planned face-to-face summit with President Putin, which was to be held during a G20 meeting in Russia. Analysts have offered many explanations for this decision. Most of them are correct. Let me list some of them below, and then give my own reasons for it, which I think are more important.
Among the reasons, some experts cite the lack of “personal chemistry” between Putin and Obama. Others cite Washington’s irritation with the anti-American campaign, held until recently in Russia to fill the ideological vacuum, camouflage the absence of a national strategy, and intimidate the dissent. Another reason may be the harsh actions by the Russian leadership to limit the dependence of many Russian NGOs on foreign funding, which they received since the 1990s. One more factor is the escalating repression against political activists in Russia, which made relations with Moscow a major political weak point of the U.S. administration in its own country. Last, but not the least, comes the foolish and extralegal Magnitsky Act and still less commendable Russia’s reaction to it.
In the geopolitical sphere, there is almost no cooperation on Afghan transit, allegedly because of exorbitant transit tariffs demanded by Russia. The parties’ positions on Syria are diametrically opposite. The Obama administration calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign, albeit not very resolutely and for no clear reason. Russians, who know the region better, do not want radical Sunnis to come to power in the country which is close to Russian borders. Also, they would not mind teaching a lesson to their Western counterparts for what they view as their deception in Libya, when European NATO members, supported by the U.S., intervened in the civil war in that country and helped overthrow the ruling regime there, thus exceeding the UN mandate they had received with Russia’s consent.
Against this background, the flight to Russia by Edward Snowden – an idealist dissident to some people and a traitor to others, and obviously a headache for Moscow – was just “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
It’s a shame that the failure of U.S.-Russian relations has taken place during the administration of Barack Obama, perhaps, the most realistic and constructive leader of the United States over the past few decades. The next ones may be worse.
But let me stop listing secondary causes and reasons for the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations.
Let me cite what I think are the main reasons.
Russia and the United States no longer need each other as much as their positively minded, although still with the Cold War thinking, elites would like them to. Theoretically, the two countries are really capable of destroying each other many times over. But they have had no such plans since the 1960s, at least since the Cuban missile crisis. However, admitting that there is no threat of direct attack would have been politically incorrect and even dangerous then. Everyone kept saying the opposite. Now that there are no significant differences between the two countries, it would be simply silly to claim the two parties are threats to each other – if, of course, one rules out an infinitesimal probability of an accidental launch. Moreover, I dare say that the U.S.-Russian strategic stalemate can serve as the basis of international stability. The possibility of a conflict between Russia and the United States escalating to a nuclear Armageddon deters both countries and many other players from starting conflicts several levels lower. It is this stalemate that guarantees that the present situation of an unprecedentedly fast redistribution of power will not erupt into a major, let alone world, war. In other words, nuclear weapons strengthen peace rather than present the main threat to it, as many kept saying for decades.
Russia and the U.S. have common interests on issues pertaining to the future that is much more important to humankind than residual nuclear confrontation and latent deterrence between them. These issues include promoting peaceful development of China and the situation around it; preventing a spillover of the growing Arab chaos into other regions; limiting consequences of the proliferation of nuclear weapons which has already begun; and assisting the international community in preventing an exacerbation of the situation with climate change, shortage of water and food, and cyber-crime. However, these and other similar issues on the new agenda were sidelined.
Instead, issues of the past or even a more ancient agenda were put into the foreground. The United States proposed nuclear weapon cuts – yet again with a prospect of moving towards nuclear zero – as the main instrument of the reset.
Russian diplomats, who also grew up in the Cold War years, eagerly grasped at the proposal to do what they were used to do and what they liked to do – especially as the nuclear arms limitation process helped prop up the country’s reputation as a great power. The long-standing “friends” in negotiations since the Cold War times met and started the old dynamo.
Negotiations began, and the parties signed a treaty, which was meaningless in terms of real disarmament but relatively positive politically. The atmosphere in bilateral relations improved for some time.
But then things stalled. The Americans proposed further cuts, especially in tactical nuclear weapons. The Russians did not need that at all, as nuclear weapons are one of the last arguments propping up the status of one of the main great powers. In addition, these weapons partially compensate for many of Russia’s weaknesses in military security.
The parties began their usual debates as to which of them had more particular weapons. In order to block U.S. efforts to reduce Russia’s numerical superiority in tactical weapons, which did not threaten anyone, Moscow declared that it would not do that until there was a threat of deployment of NATO missile defense system in Europe. Straining its imagination, Moscow began to argue that a European ABM theoretically could intercept Russian ICBMs.
Eventually, rational Obama, who also deeply cuts defense expenditures to recover the U.S. economy and society, de facto gave up the previous administration’s plans to deploy a European ABM. After all, an overwhelming majority of U.S. missile defense systems are deployed in the Pacific. The Kremlin chose not to notice that. First, because it was not going to open the way to further reductions in nuclear weapons. Second, because some top officers in the Russian missile forces and bureaucratic groups linked to them now hoped that they could embezzle part of Russia’s petrodollars that would be allocated for the deployment of a new generation of heavy intercontinental missiles. Third, it seems that some Russians began to believe their own propaganda arguments about the danger of a European ABM.
But in any case, restarting the process of nuclear arms limitation predictably remilitarized relations between the two countries and sidelined other issues on a potential agenda, which could have oriented the parties to the future, rather than the past. The failure of the restart – the central element of the “reset” – wrecked the latter, too. In fact, structurally it was doomed from the very start.
Old suspicions, new natural differences and the lack of “personal chemistry” did the rest. But the problem is not them; the problem is that the nuclear sphere cannot serve as a reliable basis of relations. Another factor that played a role was that the parties’ economic interest in each other was low and it could not increase qualitatively, especially amid a slowdown of Russia’s economic growth and increasing stagnation and even degradation of the Russian economy and society. Russian energy resources lost much of their significance, too. President Obama could hardly have afforded to cancel a meeting with the leader of still fast-developing and future-oriented China, although Washington has much more differences with Beijing and suspicions and fears about it than with Moscow. And the differences between the U.S. and Chinese political systems are much deeper.
Finally, as the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan is drawing nearer, Washington’s interest in Moscow as regards cooperation on Afghan transit has decreased as well.
At the beginning of this decade, my colleagues in the Valdai Club and I wrote a report which called for a new agenda for U.S.-Russian relations. The report warned that if such an agenda was not adopted, relations built on a long-unimportant agenda would collapse. The prediction came true. But I feel no satisfaction. The whole world has lost, and both countries have lost. Russia has lost even more. It is more advantageous for a relatively weaker party to have good relations with a stronger partner; at least, from the point of view of positions in interaction with other partners – the Chinese and Europeans.
What are the options now? Of course, the parties can start throwing monkey wrenches into each other’s plans. The Americans have more capacities in this respect, but Russia has them, too.
But it would be better to use the pause to work out a new, future-oriented agenda for bilateral relations. Its main vector should be efforts to stop the growing chaos, and common leadership in addressing global problems. Russia and, especially, the United States can do without each other. However, neither the United States nor Russia has enough capacities to influence the world. There are just a few countries in this world that are capable of independent action on the world stage. The U.S., China, and Russia. Someone else? I doubt it. It would be better for the whole world if these countries make common cause and involve others in their efforts.