Reversing the Slide in Relations with Russia

in Program

By Barry Blechman – Discussions I held recently with German officials and politicians suggested that the continuing deterioration in US-Russian relations seems more serious in Berlin than in the Washington, where our preoccupation with Afghanistan, Iraq, and the economy has relegated Russia news to the back pages of the newspaper.  Indeed, several of the people with whom I met indicated they thought there was a need for a new “grand bargain” with the Russians, one which integrated them into European security arrangements rather than deepened their alienation.

Indeed, events in recent months are reminiscent of the Cold War – Russian bombers flying over US aircraft carriers, intensifying disputes over territories in the Balkans and the Caucasus, a break-down in arms control negotiations and treaties, even a fight over missile deployments.   Much can be attributed to Western hubris during the first ten years of Russian independence, when NATO pushed eastward as rapidly as possible, paying no heed to Russian sensitivities.  These days, a resurgent Russia, developing rapidly as a result of oil revenues, seems determined to gain some respect and, perhaps, to restore a semblance of its previous dominance in regions near its borders.  Outgoing President Putin certainly benefited by playing to the Russians’ sense of having been treated badly, restoring national pride and perhaps ambition.

With a new Russian president taking office this month, and a new US president taking office in ten months, there will be an opportunity to rebuild a positive relationship.  Both nations would benefit.  We face common dangers from nuclear proliferation and Islamic terrorists; and cooperative political relations could mean economic cooperation with significant gain for both great powers.  The Russian oil industry could certainly benefit from US technical know-how and investment, just as US aerospace companies could learn a great deal from Russian technologies.

A few simple steps could quickly end the slide in relations and set the stage for a deeper rebuilding of a close relationship.  

On the Russian side, one would hope that the new President would eschew a return to Cold War fun and games with military forces.  And the harsh language used often by President Putin might play well to domestic constituencies, but it needlessly antagonizes Americans and makes it more difficult to contemplate concessions. On the Western side, one easy step and one more difficult measure are required.  

The Bush Administration plan to build a missile defense radar and interceptor field in Eastern Europe should be dropped immediately.  Ostensibly planned to defend against Iranian missiles, it raises Russian suspicions that it’s a first-step toward defenses against Russian missiles.  This is nonsense, of course, given the size of Russian missile forces, but it’s a credible debating point for any Russian leader determined to cause trouble. 

Moreover, there are better ways to defend against Iranian missiles, involving space-based surveillance systems and interceptors on warships.  The whole Bush plan is technologically obsolete.

The more difficult measure is for NATO to make clear to the Russians that there are limits to its expansionist drive.  Of greatest concern to Russia is the possibility that NATO might seek to incorporate Ukraine.  With at last one-third of its population Russian-speaking and a long history of association with Russia, Ukraine would seem an unlikely candidate for NATO membership, but some of the newer members of the Alliance, including Poland and the Baltic states, would like to see an additional ally (and more territory) between themselves and Russia.  The issue will come up in early April at the NATO meeting in Bucharest.  The Alliance needs to resist taking even the first step toward Ukraine’s eventual membership, lest it ratchet up Russia-Western relations to a new level.

There are too many new problems in the world to be re-fighting the Cold War.  If the next US administration has any strategic foresight, it will work with the NATO allies to define a new security arrangement for Europe, one which includes Russia as a full partner, rather than pushing it back into enmity with the West.

Barry M. Blechman is the co-founder of the Stimson Center.

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