International Order & Conflict

The Future of the US-Russia Relationship

Security for a New Century was pleased to host a discussion on one of the key foreign policy questions facing the new administration – the future of the US – Russia relationship. Participating in the event were Edward Verona, President of the US-Russia Business Council; Laura Holgate, Vice President for the Russia/New Independent States (NIS) Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and Matthew Rojansky, the Executive Director of Partnership for a Secure America (PSA).

The discussion took place against the backdrop of significant diplomatic activity in the US-Russia arena since the advent of the new administration. Vice President Biden has sought to set the tone for a new era of co-operation between the two nations by calling for relations to be ‘reset’ in Munich last month. Shortly afterwards, Undersecretary of State William Burns adopted a distinctly co-operative tone on his visit to Moscow. Most recently, Secretary of State Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had, by most accounts, a generally positive meeting in Brussels to discuss areas of common interest. The stage appears to be set, then, for a more constructive relationship than has been the case over the past few years.

Such an outcome is crucial to US interests because of the myriad of common challenges that face the two countries. For example, areas where progress is unlikely to be achieved without high level co-operation between the US and Russia include, but are by no means limited to: European security and the NATO – Russia relationship; Afghanistan and the wider Central Asia region; Missile defense; arms control, particularly nuclear non-proliferation and Iran. Clearly, some of these issues will prove more problematic than others, but movement on issues such as a new START treaty and co-operation on Afghanistan may make progress on Iran and missile defense more likely.

The focus of this particular discussion was two fold: US – Russian economic ties and nuclear non proliferation.

Although often overshadowed by geo-political and security concerns, commercial activity between the Russia and the US has been growing steadily. Between 2003 and 2008, bilateral trade rose from $11bn to $36bn; US investment in Russia now amounts to some $18bn and there is also $8bn worth of Russian investment in the US economy – most notably in the steel industry. As has been well documented, the global financial crisis has hit Russia hard, with the stock market and monetary reserves plummeting on the back of a large drop in the price of oil – the engine of Russian economic growth over the last decade. However, the behavior of US companies suggests an underlying confidence in the Russian market – major corporations such as Pepsi, Coke, Boeing and Ford continue to have high visibility there.

There is also a significant, if indirect, energy link between the two nations. The US remains the largest importer of energy in the world, and Russia remains the largest exporter. Although very little energy is exported directly from the latter to the former, in an era of increased energy insecurity there is considerable scope for co-operation in this field – for instance in the area of hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic Ocean, where Russian ambitions will only be realized with the help of US technological assistance. Cooperation instead of conflict over these vast resources would be a boost for global stability.

There are a variety of methods that could be used to build and improve upon these existing economic ties. A new bilateral economic commission could be created to explore further areas of commercial co-operation, and a US – Russia energy dialogue may be beneficial given the importance of energy to both sides. On a political level, lifting the Jackson – Vanik amendment, a largely redundant but symbolically potent remnant of US-Soviet economic relations, could help usher in an era of increased co-operation.

A more traditional area of US – Russian relations is arms control and nuclear non proliferation in particular. Not only do the US and Russia have the vast majority of nuclear weapons, they are also arguably most likely to be attacked by rogue elements who gain access to WMD. Thus, there is a clear common interest in controlling and where possible reducing nuclear weapons and other arms. While there has been a great deal of rhetoric over non proliferation in the past, significant progress has been harder to come by. For this to change, a key area to be addresses is enriched uranium. If both countries could reduce the use of enriched uranium for civilian purposes, and also develop a co-operative detection system for highly enriched uranium, it would be a major step forward in ensuring nuclear materials do not fall into the hands of terrorist organizations or other non state actors.

Cooperation is also possible, and indeed necessary, in dealing with proliferation at the nation state level. For instance, Russia has a central role to play in nuclear negotiations with both Iran and North Korea, two countries whose behavior has a direct impact on US national security. It is thus vital that a workable compromise on the highly vexed issue of European missile defense is found in order that it does not scupper a coordinated effort to deal with state based nuclear proliferation.

In terms of the START Treaty, which expires in December 2009, the time may be right to move from the ‘cherry picking’ approach of the previous administration and consider a new treaty altogether – an approach which offers the opportunity to set a new, significantly lower maximum of nuclear warheads for each nation. Of equal importance to reducing the number of warheads is the development of effective verification methods, which have not existed since the 1990’s but may be a realistic aim as part of a new relationship.

In closing, it is important to bear in mind that this is not the first ‘new era’ of US-Russian relations. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if every new US administration enjoys constructive early discussions with its Moscow counterpart, only for relations to steadily deteriorate over the duration if its term in office. If the latest ‘new’ relationship is to avoid such an outcome, both sides will have to match the conciliatory rhetoric of early exchanges with genuine progress on substantive issues.

“Security for a New Century” is a bipartisan study group for Congress. We meet regularly with U.S. and international policy professionals to discuss the post-Cold War and post-9/11 security environment. All discussions are off-the-record. It is not an advocacy venue.

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