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Regular version of the site

Walking the Same Road Twice

Dmitry Suslov, expert of the HSE Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, comments on U.S. –Russian relations .

 

 

Comments by Dmitry Suslov were published by Russia Profile and RIA Novosti.

 

Walking the Same Road Twice

The Future of U.S. Russian Relations Are At the Same Time Encouraging, Alarming, And Wearyingly Familiar

The much awaited summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev set a new up-beat tempo in relations, and both sides are now looking to the future. But while a clear line has been drawn under the deterioration of relations, which reached their lowest post-Cold war level in August and autumn last year, it is too early to predict an improvement. And the current logic and chemistry of the "reset"could soon result in halting the healing of relations and lead to a new round of mutual irritation, resentment and deterioration, writes Dmirty Suslov.

If we analyze the Moscow summit as an initial and rather small step, a sort of a minimum-program for improvement of US-Russian relation, then we can definitely agree that it was successful. The meeting went smoothly, in a positive atmosphere (which is very important considering the recent history of the relationship), and without any surprises. There were neither breakthroughs nor drawbacks. Everything, on which the summit produced concrete results, was almost predetermined in advance, especially the deal on nuclear arms reduction:both sides spoke about the necessity of preventing the collapse of the non-proliferation regime, and the new START Treaty basically gave each side exactly the numbers of nukes they wanted, without committing them to any major cuts of either warheads or carriers.

A decision on Afghanistan - Russia providing the US with a free of charge military air and land transit rights through its territory was also an absolutely natural and even obvious decision, and inevitable as soon as there was the slightest improvement in relations. The Obama administration has proclaimed Afghanistan its highest immediate foreign policy priority, and Russia is a key player in the region that can contribute much to the success of the Afghan operation, both as a transit route and as an active contributor - especially with Pakistan becoming less stable and reliable. For its part, Russia is also very much interested in Afghan stabilization, which would prevent spreading instability to the Central Asian republics - Russian allies within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and countries which Russia refers to its area of "privileged interests."

Another important achievement of the summit was the formal re-launching of U.S.-Russian military dialogue - a rather symbolic act considering that less than a year ago the Russian and American militaries were engaged in an indirect conflict.

Indeed, the most positive result of the summit is that the hostility of Autumn 2008, when Russia and the America opposed each other in the Russia-Georgian war, when Russia saw Washington behind the Georgian soldiers shooting Ossetian civilians and Russian peacekeepers, and when America tried to "punish"Russia diplomatically, was now overcome. This is indeed important, for bad relations with the United States considerably undermine Russia's position with other players, such as the EU and China, and its influence in the post-Soviet space. At the same time, bad relations with Russia undermine American efforts on many issues of utmost importance to the United States, such as Afghanistan and Iran.

Thus, the summit indicated realization in both Moscow and Washington of how significant Russia and the United States are for each other - a fact that many representatives of elites in both countries have been failing to admit for a long time. In fact, it is this new realization of mutual interest, especially on the U.S. side, that made the very talk of a "reset"of U.S.-Russian relations possible.

One-Sided Compromise

But a deeper look at the Moscow summit shows that all its concrete achievements were entirely a result of flexibility and even concessions on the Russian side. First, despite Russia's profound interest in preventing Taliban's regaining control over Afghanistan, it is still much more an American agenda than a Russian one. Much more importantly, the Americans managed to gain concrete figures on nuclear arms reduction without a concrete agreement on missile defense. Previously Russia has persistently pointed to an inherent link between "offensive"and "defensive"strategic installations and said it would sign a new post-START treaty only if a new agreement were found on the issue of the U.S. missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic - an agreement that would fill the vacuum created after the Bush Administration unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2001.

The summit declaration states that the sides would continue to discuss this issue, including the relationship between offensive and defensive strategic nuclear systems, and including in the context of developing a new post-START treaty. But at the same time, Barack Obama himself made it very clear at the summit press conference that he doesn't agree with a relationship between offensive and defensive strategic installations - basically contradicting the substance of the document he had just signed. He and his aides stipulated before, during and after the summit that the future of the ABM system will be determined only by the United States only, and it will have nothing to do with the U.S.-Russian relations or the new treaty on nuclear weapons reduction. On the contrary, Obama again emphasized a connection between missile defense sites in Eastern Europe and the future of Iranian nuclear program - the relation that Russia doesn't agree with.

The fact that Russia agreed to concrete nuclear weapons cuts under these conditions is a huge concession.

The problem is that on the American side there were no such moves. By the end of the summit the U.S. position had not changed an inch on any point of the agenda, be it the ABM system, NATO expansion, the future of the CIS, or Iran.

The summit produced no results at all on the issues that are of highest priority for Russia and which are the real sources of friction. These are the future of the CIS, including the future of the Russia-oriented integration and security processes in this area, and the future of European security - in particular Russia's place in decision-making on Euro-Atlantic security issues. In Moscow, the U.S. policies on these particular issues are perceived as nothing but a threat to Russia's vital interests and to Russian national security. And it is these contradictions that have been blocking serious Russian-American cooperation on the other issues, which are much less important for Moscow.

Every Journey Begins With a Single Step

If this were just a start of a bigger process, such a minimalistic approach to improvement of the Russia-U.S. relations - one where the most central and serious issues are in fact avoided - would be more or less OK. Especially in the context of a deep resentment existing among some influential parts of the U.S. political elite towards the very idea of improving relations with Russia. Indeed, possible compromises on the CIS and European security issues, at least those involving certain concessions on the U.S. side, could trigger severe criticism of the Obama administration policies at home. In the long run, that might do more harm than good.

However, it is highly unlikely that this summit is really perceived in Washington as a first step before serious discussion and overcoming of contradictions on those issues that are of highest priority for Russia. Statements by the key foreign policy officials of the Obama administration and in-depth discussions with representatives of the American expert community show that currently and for the foreseeable future American is neither willing nor ready for any compromise on the matters of CIS and European security. For instance, just on the eve of the Moscow summit Michael McFaul, a well-known Russia expert and now the director of the Russian and Eurasian department of the U.S. National Security Council, clearly states that the "United States is not going to alter any of its interests in the CIS for the sake of improving relations with Russia."Even those American foreign policy experts outside the administration, who genuinely want an improvement in US-Russian relations, think absolutely the same way - no concessions on the U.S. side at all, no shifting of the American position.

Thus, the substance and logic of the "reset"agenda is that Russia should simply join it in fulfilling the U.S. foreign policy agenda as far as it can, because such cooperation would be in Russia's interest as well. As for those issues where the sides oppose each other, in the short-term it is proposed to continue "agreeing to disagree,"while in the longer-term perspective Russia is advised to change its attitude and transform its interests in the CIS and European security.

A Case of DéjàVu

The major weakness of this logic is that Russia and the America have already tried it several times in the Clinton-Yeltsin and Bush-Putin eras. And each time it led to a failure. The reason is that the contradictions over the CIS and European security are so central and important for Russia that they simply block any cooperation with the United States on other matters, even if the interests there converge. It might well happen this time. Especially in the context of deep mistrust in Russia toward the United States, and profound skepticism of the overwhelming majority of the Russian political elite toward the prospects for improvement of U.S.- Russian relations. Too many times since the end of the Cold War Russia has been asked by America to sacrifice some of its interests for the sake of Russian-American "partnership,"and too many times it got nothing back, while the U.S. interests and policies remained unchanged. Nowadays such a scenario for Russia seems to be unacceptable.
In order to overcome this vicious circle, the sides need to tackle the central contradictions among them, rather than focusing just on the matters that one of the sides considers peripheral. They need to pay attention to the issues that are of highest priority for Russia, and try to overcome these contradictions on the basis of compromise and mutual concessions. Details of these concessions can be the subject of sincere discussions on both expert and diplomatic levels. The key thing is not to reject their very possibility from the very beginning. Otherwise, the future of the current Russian-American "reset"might turn out even shorter, than of the previous attempts to improve their relations.

Dmitry Suslov is a Deputy Director for Research at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

Russia Profile.org

 

"Reset"has uncertain future

The Principle "Teach Without Learning Yourself"May Lead US-Russian Relations To New Crises, As Both Sides Are Not Prepared to Move an Inch on Most Issues  

By Dmitry SUSLOV

The results of the Medvedev-Obama summit, which took place last week in Moscow, are at the same time encouraging and alarming. The meeting indicated a halt in the deterioration of relations, which had been going from bad to worse in the last five years. The meeting - at least rhetorically - became an important manifestation of the "reset"of relations. However, it is too early to predict a steady improvement. Moreover, the current logic of the reset, if it remains unchanged, could lead to a new round of mutual resentment and distrust. The same post-Cold War pattern may repeat itself. During the tenure of the administrations of Yeltsin and Clinton and later of Bush junior and Putin, relatively short periods of "honeymoons"were followed by longer periods of disappointment, during which all attempts to construct a sustainable cooperation model failed.

If we view the Moscow summit as the first small step towards improvement, then we can definitely agree that minimal requirements for normalization were fulfilled. The meeting went smoothly, in a positive atmosphere (which is very important in the context of the recent past of the US-Russia relations), and without any surprises. There were no breakthroughs, but there were no failures either. Every success was not unexpected. This is especially true about the progress on the strategic arms reduction (START) treaty:both sides realized the need to prevent a collapse of the arms control regime, and each side seemed to get according to the new START agreement the desired number of nuclear weapons, without seriously committing itself to any major cuts in either warheads or carriers.

A decision on Afghanistan - with Russia providing the US with a free of charge right for military air and land transit via its territory - was also an absolutely natural and even obvious outcome. In fact, this development had to take place as soon as there was a slightest hint at an improvement in the atmosphere of Russia-US relations. Obama's administration proclaimed Afghanistan its highest immediate foreign policy priority, and Russia is a key player in the region, which could contribute much to the success of the Afghan operation, both as a transit country and as an active contributor. As Pakistan is becoming less stable and reliable, Russia's role may increase. For its part, Russia is also very much interested in Afghanistan's stabilization, which would prevent spreading instability to the Central Asian republics - Russia's allies in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Also, an important achievement of the summit was a formal re-launching of Russia-US military dialogue - a rather symbolic act keeping in mind that less than a year ago the Russian and American military were engaged in an indirect conflict, with Russian and American navies opposing each other in the Black Sea.

So, the main positive result of the summit was the end of hostilities which peaked in autumn 2008, when Washington in fact fraternized with the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. The symbolic ending of American efforts to "punish"Russia diplomatically for the events of August 2008 was indeed important for Russia, since bad relations with the US considerably undermine Russia's position in relation to the other centers of world power, such as the EU and China. At the same time, bad relations with Russia undermine the effectiveness of the American policy on many issues of utmost importance to the United States, such as the stabilization of Afghanistan and Iran's nuclear program. Thus, the summit signaled a new recognition of mutual significance of Russia and the US for each other - the fact that actually made the "reset"possible.

However, a deeper look at the Moscow summit shows that all of its achievements were entirely a result of flexibility and even concessions from the Russian side. First, despite Russia's profound interest in preventing Taliban's regaining control over Afghanistan, still, it is much more an American agenda than a Russian one. Afghanistan stands much higher on the US foreign policy priority list than on Russia's one. However, there were no similar steps on the American side offering assistance on the issues of utmost importance for Russia. Second, and it is much more important, the US managed to gauge from Russia concrete figures of cuts in the nuclear arms arsenals without any agreement on the American plans to build a missile defense shield. Previously Russia persistently pointed to an inherent interdependence between the "offensive"and "defensive"arms and claimed that it would sign a new post-START treaty only if the sides reached an agreement on the issue of the US government's ABM project. Such an agreement would fill the vacuum left by the American withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2001.

There was no such agreement achieved at the summit. The summit declaration states that the sides will continue to discuss the issue, including a relationship between offensive and defensive strategic nuclear systems in the context of the new post-START treaty elaboration. At the same time, Barack Obama himself made it very clear at the press conference of the summit that he doesn't see a direct link between offensive and defensive strategic installations, basically, contradicting the substance of the document he had just signed. He and his aides stipulated before, during and after the summit that the future of the ABM system, including the sites in Eastern Europe, will be determined by the US only, and it will have nothing to do with the US-Russia relations or the new treaty on nuclear weapons reduction. Rather, Obama and his aides emphasized a connection between missile defense sites in Eastern Europe and the future of Iranian nuclear program - a link which Russia rejects.
Thus, on the ABM issue the sides continue to agree to disagree, and the summit provided no answer to this equation, just an agreement to continue talks. The fact that under these circumstances Russia did agree to cut its nuclear arsenals to definite levels, thus laying the foundations for a new system of arms control, is indeed an important concession on its side.

The problem is that this concession was not reciprocated on the American side. By the end of the summit, the US position did not move an inch on any point of the US-Russian relations'agenda, be it the ABM system, NATO expansion, future of the post-Soviet space, Iran, etc.

Finally, the summit produced no results at all on the issues that are of the highest priority for Russia and which are the real sources for the repeated deterioration of relations, namely, the evolution of a Russo-centric integration of post-Soviet countries, security arrangements in that same post-Soviet space and Russia's place in decision-making on the security matters in Europe and its surrounding. The US policies on all of these issues have been perceived in Moscow as nothing short a threat to Russia's vital interests and sometimes even to Russia's national security. Contradictions in these spheres have been blocking serious Russian-American cooperation on other issues, less important for Moscow, but infinitely more important for the United States. Unfortunately, these disagreements have not even started to be addressed during the summit, and at this point the US seems to be avoiding any serious discussion on these issues.

Indeed, patience is needed. The Russian side understands that speedy progress is very difficult to expect in the context of a hostile attitude from the part of the US political elite towards the very idea of improving relations with Russia. Under these conditions, possible compromises on the post-Soviet and European security issues, especially the ones involving concessions on the US side, could actually provoke more destructive criticism of the new Washington administration with more harm than benefit for bilateral relations.

However, it is highly unlikely that this summit is really taken in Washington for what it should be - namely the first step necessary for creating a positive atmosphere in US-Russia relations, to be followed by serious discussion and the overcoming of contradictions on those issues that are of highest priority for Russia. Statements by the key foreign policy officials of the Obama administration, as well as in-depth discussions with representatives of the American expert community, produce an impression that the US is neither willing nor ready for any compromise with Russia on matters of CIS and European security. For instance, just on the eve of the Moscow summit a well-known Russia expert and now the director of the Russian and Eurasian department of the US National Security Council Michael McFaul clearly stated that the "US is not going to alter any of its interests in the CIS in the sake of improving relations with Russia". Interestingly, even those American foreign policy experts outside the administration, who faithfully want an improvement of the US-Russia relations, think absolutely the same way - that this improvement should be achieved at no price for the US side at all, namely no concessions and even no neutral shifts in the American position.

The logic of the "reset"that the US is offering is the following. The sides should continue agreeing to disagree on the issues where they have opposing interests and policies and focus on the matters where their interests converge. The latter being Afghanistan, North Korea, nuclear non-proliferation, preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, elaborating a new START treaty, etc. It is obvious, however, that to a great extent these issues are exactly the vital immediate foreign policy priorities of the US, while for Russia their importance, though not of low importance, may not be nearly as high, as for America. Russia's immediate highest priorities are much more regional in their scope.

Thus, in fact, the substance and logic of the "reset"agenda as provided by the Obama's administration is that Russia should simply join the US in fulfilling most of its foreign policy agenda, because such cooperation would be in Russia's interest as well. As for the issues, where the sides oppose each other, in the short-term prospect it is proposed to continue agreeing to disagree, while in the longer-term perspective Russia is advised to change its attitude to the US policy and adapt its interests in the post-Soviet space and Europe to the American agenda there. The same old mantra of the Clinton age is repeated, namely that Russia should be interested in stable, democratic and prosperous neighbors, and their prosperity, stability and peacefulness can only be the result of their pro-Western orientation. The US foreign policy pundits who invented the term "reset"didn't even bother to alter this mantra, although Russian-Baltic, Russian-Ukrainian and, most dramatically, Russian-Georgian relations of the recent years speak against this view.

Experience shows that this American foreign policy principle of "teach without learning yourself"may lead to another failure in our relations, as it did many times under Clinton and Bush-junior. The reason is that Moscow's interests in the post-Soviet and European space, which the US tends to ignore, are so important for Russia, that any sort of cooperation with the US on other matters gets blocked even in those spheres where our interests indeed coincide. The same old story might repeat itself this time. Too many times since the end of the Cold War has Russia been asked by the US to sacrifice some of its interests for the sake of Russian-American "partnership"and too many times it got nothing in return. Repeating such a scenario one more time for Russia is unacceptable.
In order to get out of this vicious circle, the sides need to tackle contradictions among them in a serious and truly bilateral way, rather than trying to focus exclusively on those matters which suit just one side. Contradictions need to be overcome on the basis of compromise and mutual concessions, not on dictate and stubborn repetition of old reassuring formulas. Details of these concessions can be a subject for a sincere Russia-US discussion on both expert and diplomatic levels. The key thing is not to reject their very possibility from the very beginning. Otherwise, the life of the current Russian-American "reset"policy may be even shorter than that of the previous attempts to improve relations.

Ria Novosti  

 

 

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