The commencement of the Obama administration coincided with a number of events — the Georgia war and its aftermath, the evolving impact of the global economic crisis, and the emergence of new leadership in Moscow — that when taken together have opened opportunities for a change of course in U.S.-Russia relations. This opportunity should not be wasted or taken for granted. It should prompt the United States to engage in a urgent and serious effort to re-energize and redirect our relations onto a better path.
As the United States moves forward, the Obama administration should include the following six elements in its Russia policy:
Thank you, Jack (Binns). I’m pleased to be here. This is my first visit to Tucson, and it’s an honor to meet with this distinguished audience. I want to talk this evening about Russia and our policy toward that country. With our relations back in the news, and President Obama about the meet President Medvedev the subject is topical. I would begin with the observation that Russia presents our policy community with as difficult, varied, and complex a set of issues as any major country with which the United States has relations. Quite simply Russia is never easy. We are now in our third century of engagement with rulers in Moscow, and last year marked the 200th anniversary of U.S.–Russian diplomatic relations. Over this sweep of time U.S.–Russian economic/commercial ties have ranged from cutthroat competition to beneficial partnership, political-security relations have run a gamut from military alliance to Cold War, and our intellectual engagement has combined intense ideological struggle with cross fertilization that has enriched culture, science, arts, and education of both societies. Through all this time, as well, one constant has remained. No matter the global circumstances, our two societies have rarely been indifferent to one another and have appeared destined to be as engaged as our fates seem intertwined. But change is also a hallmark of our relations, and the challenge for each era is whether we manage that engagement well or poorly. Ours is no exception.
Indeed, at no time has this reality been more evident than over the past two to three decades. The pace of change in this period has at times all but overwhelmed our institutions and capacity to respond. The kaleidoscopic end of the Cold War, bipolar international system, and Soviet communist state brought a political, security, and economic revolution to Europe and Eurasia. It also radically transformed the context within which America would define its global interests.
For a decade, Russia, with its unpredictable and uncertain prospects, nevertheless remained at the center of U.S. policy, not as adversary but as a weakened and uncertain nuclear super power in search of its new international role. But 9/11 changed the American paradigm. For most of this decade, the Bush administration’s focus on the global war against terrorism and emergence of new global power alignments led the United States to give lessened priority to Russia. As a consequence, Russia’s role in U.S. policy diminished, and America’s policy often lacked coherence or strategy.
The results were unfortunate and consequential. As America looked elsewhere, Russia’s economic, political, and international recovery was accompanied by increased international capacity and determination to defend its interests more forcefully. This process culminated in the brief but bloody war in the Caucasus that abruptly returned Russia to a central place in U.S. policy calculations.
But this return only underscored the price of neglect. U.S.–Russia relations had reached their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. We heard revived talk of possible U.S. –Russia military confrontation most thought impossible to see again: meanwhile, the consequence of the war, disputes over U.S. ballistic missile defense, and growing European fears about dependence on Russian energy supplies fueled rising tensions across the continent: in other areas, the absence of any coherent approach to nuclear arms control brought warnings about a new arms race: continuing disagreement over Iran’s nuclear program weakened overall efforts at controlling proliferation, and failure to resolve a variety of issues like Russia’s WTO membership largely nullified efforts such as those at the mid-2008 Sochi summit, to put the relationship back on track. The result was a largely dysfunctional relationship characterized by tit-for-tat diplomacy, charge and counter charge. Russia’s estrangement seemed to grow day by day. And the future seemed to promise more competition and confrontation than cooperation or constructive action.
Fortunately, as the Obama administration takes office a number of events have combined to open opportunities for a change of course. In addition to the shock administered by the Georgia war and its aftermath, the evolving impact of the global economic crisis and the emergence of new leadership in Moscow have dramatically changed the context for U.S. –Russia relations.
This opportunity is, however, not to be wasted or taken for granted. It should engage us urgently in a serious effort to re-energize and redirect our relations onto a better path. It is a welcome development, therefore, that the new administration appears to recognize both the urgency and opportunity of the moment. Vice President Biden described the challenge in saying the Obama administration would seek to “reset” the relationship with Russia. Since that time, we have seen both sides, including at the recent meeting between Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov, express determination to revive relations, re-open dialogue, and aim for a more productive, positive relationship.
For this effort to succeed, both nations must step back and revisit many assumptions. Americans and Russians will have to think anew about how to reestablish a foundation of greater trust, confidence, and realism where those qualities have been badly eroded. For this a reset will not be sufficient. The United States will have to think strategically about what is at stake with Russia and impart real discipline to the formulation and implementation of Russia policy both habits of behavior sorely weakened in recent years.
In this regard, a first challenge will be to get rid of outdated ways of thinking and talking about Russia even as we are realistic and hard-headed in assessing Russia’s policies and actions. We will also be asked to understand and identify our interests in this relationship and to define our priorities and the place Russia should or can occupy in them. And we will need to develop a framework adequate to pursuit of our policy objectives and the challenges of a new era.
So let me begin with Russia. For nearly two decades Russia has undergone rapid, deeply rooted, and fundamental change. It has often been difficult for us to keep up with the pace and adjust to the fluid reality. Today’s Russia is not the reforming Soviet Union of Gorbachev; nor is it the disoriented, internationally weakened, heavily indebted nation we associated with the 1990s. Russia today is furthermore entering another new era as the Putin recovery gives way to a Medvedev–Putin dual leadership, pledging new reform amidst a changing domestic environment.
It is also the case that Russia today remains a radically changed country from earlier periods. Despite recent shocks from the economic/financial crisis, Russia is a recovered economy deeply embedded in the international economic system. Coming off nearly a decade of strong economic growth, the country, in contrast to the 1990s, no longer carries significant international sovereign debt; it has become the world’s sixth largest economy, and still possesses the third largest reserves in the international financial system. Politically the country is not a democracy, but it has emerged from a traumatic period of instability, weakened central government, and uncertain direction that defined the 1990s. It has consolidated and centralized political power and control, and reinforced the authority of the central government. But with that centralization we have seen pragmatism replace ideological motivation and the emergence of an institutionalized system of succession, albeit a fragile one. And the emergence of a new middle class, an economy based on private property, and unprecedented openness of the society to the outside world have placed historically new obstacles in the path of restoring traditional authoritarian rule. Looking abroad, a new self confidence has moved Russia’s leaders away from a search for acceptance by and integration with the west that so preoccupied its leaders a decade ago. In its place Russia seems more at ease with its independence on the international stage even as it has refined its focus and determination to preserve and enhance Russian influence throughout the post-Soviet space.
At the same time, Russia remains a deeply troubled and uncertain society faced with daunting challenges. It remains very much a country in search of itself and a comfortable place in a shifting global environment. Profound questions remain before Russia’s leaders and these are made the more difficult by the extraordinary stress the international financial crisis has placed on its weak system. Among the most pressing:
• What will Russia do to diversify its economy and reduce dependence on the extraction of oil, gas, and other commodities?
• What will Russia do about improving its physical infrastructure, the essential base of a modern competitive economy?
• What will be done to address the profound issues of Russia’s human infrastructure: providing minimally acceptable healthcare, education needed for a new century, and services to deal humanely and effectively with a daunting list of social issues?
• What will Russian leaders do to modernize and rationalize the nation’s political, judicial, economic, and civic institutions and to improve governance?
• And finally, what kinds of relations will Russia develop with its neighbors and the international community?
These questions have been a constant companion for Russian leaders and society since the collapse of the Soviet Union. President Medvedev, however, has now made them central to his agenda and he has expressed a hopeful vision about the course he intends to pursue. He has made confronting corruption, strengthening rule of law and judicial institutions, modernizing and upgrading Russia’s state institutions and military, and overhauling everything from healthcare to education his priority tasks at home. And he has linked Russia’s capacity to manage these issues and his nation’s modernization to greater integration with the global economy and international system.
So it is this Russia, recovered, but still very much in search of itself; more prosperous, but in economic terms still a weak competitor; and internationally demanding despite limited resources to effect global events that the Obama administration is now beginning to engage.
But if a realistic understanding of today’s Russia is vital to sound policy, it will be no less important for us to be clear about American interests, priorities, and goals, and where Russia fits within them. Some examples may illustrate the point.
As we look at American policy today, bringing the international financial crisis under control, followed by stabilizing the Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq complex, and reaching a workable Arab–Israeli arrangement are arguably our most immediate international priorities. Yet in these U.S priority areas, Russia’s capacity to influence events is clearly secondary even if important; it is an important player for Afghanistan but not really directly engaged; it has less influence in the Arab–Israeli equation. Russia’s role is more varied if we look at longer term U.S. objectives. The U.S. determination to restore our international image and capacity to lead will depend largely on our own efforts, but Russia can either complicate or facilitate at times by being a benevolent bystander or aspirant spoiler. By contrast Russia’s role will be vital in future efforts to contain catastrophic terrorism as it will in efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Here progress will clearly depend on a U.S.–Russia joint lead. American efforts to restore and revitalize the Euro–Atlantic partnership will depend on the efforts by the two sides, but it is clear that Russia will be a preoccupation and crucial influence as that effort proceeds. And the list can go on. The basic point is that for the United States, Russia will be a key international partner even though the role it plays and its capacity to affect events will vary significantly from region to region and agenda item to agenda item. The critical point will be to ensure that our policy takes realistic account of both elements in working with Russia to develop pragmatic and productive approaches. We will need neither to over- nor underestimate the Russian capacity to affect events.
Another caution is to avoid what I will call the trap of overlapping interests. Here, oversimplification often leads to facile assumptions that shared objectives mean a coincidence of policies and views. Here the devil is in the details. A couple of examples will illustrate the problem. The United States and Russia share a strategic goal of long term stability, viable economic development, and security for Central Asia and the Caucasus. Yet we find ourselves at odds over military bases in Central Asia, pipeline routes, and the development of Georgia. Similarly both countries support an updated and strengthened nonproliferation regime that will block the growth of nuclear-weapon states. Yet we often see things differently regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The key requirement here is to avoid unrealistic expectations or false agreement. Past failures to do so have resulted in disappointment and loss of confidence to the detriment of the relationship and capacity for cooperation.
A third and final area that often gives rise to discord emerges from differences in the priorities the United States and Russia assign to particular interests. Our priorities today are focused on the international economy, on the southern front of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, and on preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and or catastrophic terrorism. Russia is likely to have a rather different list that might go something like this: balancing against the influence of other major powers in the post-Soviet space (in particular the intrusion of the United States and NATO into this area), advancing Russian influence comprehensively in this region; ensuring a major Russian voice as an equal in shaping the future international order; and maintaining the stability and security of the post-Soviet region.
Taken as a whole, what the foregoing suggests is that U.S.–Russia relations will continue to be characterized by the need to manage and address asymmetries, and by the need to avoid unwarranted assumptions about agreement that is not fully defined. A productive policy will find the balance among these elements, and experience from the last two decades can inform our diplomacy. We have ample examples of where we succeeded and failed to manage effectively disagreement about the nature of Russia’s relations with its post Soviet-neighbors. An example of the opposite outcome was the success of diplomacy in removing nuclear weapons from the territory of three of Russia’s neighbors, preventing the emergence in Eurasia of three new nuclear powers. Russia has also sought to constrain areas of strategic nuclear innovation in such areas as weaponization of space and missile defense. The United States, on the other hand, has pursued maintaining a substantial edge in conventional and nuclear capability and accepted minimal constraint on that effort. Nevertheless, Russia and the United States have reached agreement on reduction in strategic weapons, have worked cooperatively to strengthen international cooperation against the threat of nuclear terrorism, and appear poised again to negotiate further reductions in their strategic arsenals. What these examples demonstrate is that it will be important for our policy makers and public to keep in mind these complexities as we think about developing a more pragmatic approach to Russia and Russia policy. We will need to avoid the slogan and opt for nuance,
And yet even if the Obama administration takes account of these factors, Russia will remain a challenging, difficult international partner. Its leaders and people still nurse bruised feelings over the loss of international status. Russia’s political elite remains deeply suspicious about U.S. intentions and frequently believe the worst of our motives. The cognitive dissonance between the aspirations and claims to authority and involvement that Russian leaders often assert and their actual capacity to influence events can be counted upon to try U.S. the patience of U.S. diplomats. And finally, Russia’s continuing struggle to work out its identity will bring with it a frequent lack of long term vision or ability to make strategic decisions.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration’s readiness to shape a more effective and productive Russia policy and Russia’s seeming receptivity to reciprocate offer us a real chance to turn a new page. I want to conclude, therefore, with some thoughts about what some of the phrases on that page might look like. While far from exhaustive, it seems to me that at least following elements should be included:
First, we must undertake with Russian leaders a broad discussion aimed at developing a better understanding about the forces and developments that are shaping the environment for U.S.–Russia relations. We need to understand where we and Russia share views about critical developments and where we differ. The parlous state of the global economy certainly offers an opening to launch that discussion on a note of shared concern.
Second, insofar as possible, we must/should develop mutually understood rules of the road about our engagement and international behavior. At a minimum we need to clarify our views about the role and limits of international legal and multilateral institutions in resolving conflicts. This would need to be an ongoing and sustained dialogue.
Third, we should revive negotiations to preserve and update strategic and other arms control agreements. The future of ballistic missile defense, the issue of weapons in space, and taking our strategic arsenal off hair trigger alert are some of the issues that should be included. This negotiation should also complement efforts to address issues surrounding the expansion of nuclear energy and prevention of proliferation, where today the Iran and Korean issues are the most pressing. There is every reason to believe that this will be an early priority for the U.S. administration and the Russian government has signaled its keen interest to begin this discussion.
Fourth, we must undertake efforts to revitalize engagement on regional conflicts. This should include especially active efforts to deal with frozen conflicts to prevent any repeat of a Caucasus type war, and expansion of cooperation on issues affecting the Euro–Atlantic region. This would also include arrangements to create normal relations between Russia and European institutions, including NATO and the European Union. The apparent readiness of the new American administration to move carefully on NATO enlargement and missile defense provides an opening for Russia to come forth with its own constructive initiatives on European security.
Fifth, we should continue and enhance cooperation on global issues where our two countries have special responsibilities or can contribute by cooperation. Illustrative initiatives in the last fifteen years have included cooperation in space, joint efforts to combat organized crime, money laundering, and narcotics trafficking, and exploration of joint activities to address global warming. I believe the latter area holds promise for broadened cooperation in such areas as energy efficiency, emissions reduction technology, and the like.
And sixth, we should expand programs that will build broader and deeper links between Russian and American societies. Private sector involvement in each others’ markets, the building of institutional partnerships between our educational, scientific, and cultural communities, and sustained support for programs will build a more stable and objective base for our relations. Parenthetically, it is well past time that we get Russia into the World Trade Organization and renew support where we can for expansion of U.S.–Russian commercial links.
The initial steps of the Obama administration give hope that we are ready for a new chapter in Russia policy, and with a regional response from the Russian side, a more productive period of cooperation. The initial steps and positive approach taken by senior diplomats and Secretary Clinton in exploring openings to Russia will be followed soon by the first meeting between President Obama and President Medvedev. The agenda they have before them is as complex and demanding as any the leaders from Washington and Moscow have faced. If each side can bring to this meeting a spirit of pragmatism reinforced by a commitment to define and resolve issues, I believe we can anticipate a more positive U.S. relationship with Russia to the benefit of all. Let us hope we will have the patience and perseverance to set us on this path.
Thank you very much.
The Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Program has, since the end of the Cold War, led the field of Eurasian security, including strategic nuclear weapons and nonproliferation, development, economic and social issues, governance, and the rule of law.
Enter your email address to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!
You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.