Resetting US-Russia Relations

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By Barry Blechman – Secretary of State Clinton returned from Moscow in mid-October with an agreement to create a US/Russia “Bilateral  Presidential Commission” charged with, “identifying areas of cooperation and pursuing joint projects and actions that strengthen strategic stability, international security, economic well-being, and the development of ties between the Russian and American people.”   Comprised of an amazing 16 working groups intended to operate on a strict schedule, and coordinated by the Secretary and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, the Commission has the potential to put meat on the bones of Presidents Obama’s and Medvedev’s declared intention to improve US/Russia relations significantly.   There are certainly many things the two nations could do for their mutual benefit, ranging from cooperating to reduce terrorist threats in Central Asia to developing investment opportunities that could lead to accelerated economic growth in Russia and greater resource security for the West.  

Building better relations in this manner, from the ground up, so to speak, could provide a solid basis for a new relationship, but will take time.   In the interim, certain pressing security issues could derail the process if they are not dealt with promptly by the two nations’ top leaders.   

High on the agenda are the negotiations for a new nuclear weapons agreement to replace the START treaty that expires in December.  There are growing signs that the talks are moving slowly, largely because the Russian side is playing hardball, refusing to take positions off the table that clearly are non-starters.  The Russians continue to press for some kind of commitment to limit defenses, for example, even though START covers only offensive nuclear weapons and the US Defense Department has already cancelled the European missile defense plan that caused so much angst in Moscow.  Russia knows that discussions of limits on defenses must be postponed  to the follow-on negotiations, just as the US understands that questions of short-range nuclear forces must be delayed.  Equally vexing is Russian stonewalling on verification; they apparently wish to throw away the entire START verification annex.  This would be a terrible mistake as, in some ways, the mutual confidence induced by each side gaining insight into the other’s strategic forces through on-site inspections is one of the major gains from START.  Without it, paranoia could regain strength in each country and prospects for a new round in their nuclear competition rekindled.

The Russians may be calculating that President Obama, who has stressed an ambitious nuclear agenda, needs the treaty more than they do, so if they hang tough the US will cave on key issues.  If so, they are making a serious miscalculation.  The Russians are moving inevitably to the force levels that will be mandated by the new agreement.  The US, on the other hand, has lots of options to increase its operational forces relatively cheaply.  The sooner the new Treaty is completed, the fewer the political complications and the greater its positive effects on the two nations’ broader non-proliferation agenda.  Russian President Medvedev needs to instruct his delegation to get the job done.

Maintaining a unified stance on Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility of punitive sanctions is a second important issue.  The Russian side apparently moved much closer to the US position following revelation of Iran’s secret uranium enrichment facility in Qom, and Tehran seemed to respond  positively to the closer diplomatic unity arrayed against it.  But Iran, again, is reverting to the delaying tactics that characterized its strategy for the past several years, a strategy that can only be defeated if Russia, the US, and the other nations involved maintain a tightly coordinated and tough-minded position.

A larger question concerns the overall security arrangements in Europe.  While it will take many years to reach an understanding between Russia and NATO that can remove underlying tension between the two sides about the limits of NATO’s boundaries, on the one hand, and Russian influence in countries formerly controlled by the USSR, on the other, much could be done in the meantime to avoid needless, provocative statements or actions.  Assistant Secretary of Defense Vershbow, for example, recently suggested that components of a new European missile defense system might be deployed in Ukraine – a prospect guaranteed to anger Russian leaders.  Recent Russian military exercises just south of the Baltic nations were similarly unsettling.  Provocative statements and actions like these serve only to strengthen political factions that seek confrontation, rather than peaceful and mutually beneficial cooperation in Eastern Europe.  Given NATO’s emphasis on Afghanistan and on humanitarian missions, there is much room for cooperation with Russia.  The Alliance should go out of its way to pursue a meaningful dialogue with Russian representatives to the organization and to find avenues for concrete measures of cooperation.

November 9th marks the twentieth anniversary of the end of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the peace agreement has yet to be concluded.  Russian nationalism understandably was wounded by developments in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but rekindling old tensions only harms prospects for economic and social advancement in Russia.  President Obama has made clear – by word and by deed – that the US wants a new beginning in its relations with Russia.  It would be a tragic mistake for Moscow to let the opportunity pass.  

Barry Blechman is co-founder of the Stimson Center and a Stimson Distinguished Fellow currently working on developing solutions for the nuclear threat.


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