Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is in Washington this week for consultations on a wide range of issues, from lingering global financial jitters to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Press conferences and public statements surrounding the meetings will no doubt highlight the recent accomplishments of U.S.-Russia cooperation following the 2009 reset, and with good reason—the relationship between Moscow and Washington has never been better than it is today. Perhaps most importantly, the two governments will endorse landmark agreements on easing the conditions for granting visas to each other’s citizens and for facilitating adoptions.
Both sides have much to show for the past two years of renewed dialogue, cooperation, and partnership. Yet the bilateral relationship is not yet on solid footing, and it is likely to be tested by fundamental differences over missile defense, continuing instability in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, and the impending reduction of U.S. commitments in Afghanistan. Moreover, as we approach elections in both countries, there is a real risk that the momentum of bilateral cooperation that has been so painstakingly rebuilt since 2009 may slow and ultimately grind to a halt, which would threaten to resurrect tension, distrust, and destructive competition, at great cost to both sides. To avoid this unwanted outcome will require more than high-level visits and handshakes—now is the time to invest ourselves fully in establishing an enduring institutional foundation for cooperation, which will enable progress on a broad and ambitious agenda of joint priorities engaging actors both within and outside government.
The 2009 reset was an urgently needed “clearing of the air” between Washington and Moscow after nearly a decade of deteriorating ties, yet by itself the notion of reset had very little policy content. It was only following the embrace of reset by both sides, through difficult negotiations and the creation of new mechanisms for cooperation, that U.S.-Russia relations began to yield real accomplishments.
The central mechanism for this cooperation, the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission (BPC), was formed in July 2009 with over a dozen substantive working groups devoted to topics ranging from counter-narcotics to energy efficiency cooperation. It was endowed with a flexible management structure and a broad agenda, but given relatively limited funding or authority. Thanks to the early and strong interest of Presidents Obama and Medvedev, the BPC and parallel tracks have advanced cooperation across multiple priority areas.
The record so far is impressive: The New START agreement limiting strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles has been signed, ratified, and is being implemented at this moment. U.S. and Russian firms have already signed agreements to enhance civilian nuclear cooperation under the terms of the 123 Agreement, brought into force last year. U.S.-Russian security cooperation, on Afghanistan, counter-terrorism, and counter-narcotics, has reached unprecedented heights. The fact that more than half of supplies for NATO’s counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan now transit Russian territory speaks volumes, while Moscow’s willingness to put “boots on the ground” in joint anti-drug operations in Afghanistan—despite the indelible trauma of 1979-89—itself attests to the importance it places on this type of cooperation.
While impressive, recent accomplishments can be understood at least in part from the perspective of making up for lost time—doing things of obvious importance that simply did not get done in the preceding decade. As cooperation advances, and the most urgent problems—expiration of the previous START treaty, supporting the war effort in Afghanistan, or managing the recent global financial crisis—are addressed, the next steps forward may appear to come at higher cost, and with less obvious immediate benefit to both sides.
At present, Russia and NATO remain at loggerheads over missile defense. The issue cannot be isolated from broader security relations, since Russia perceives NATO’s aspiration to defend against missile attacks as a fundamental threat to its nuclear deterrent, and thus to the strategically stable balance of nuclear forces that has held since the first arms control negotiations in the 1960s and 1970s. With each new unsuccessful round of bilateral or multilateral talks on missile defense—the most recent disappointment was in Sochi in early July—the likelihood of identifying and implementing a mutually acceptable compromise slips farther from our grasp. Even if the breaking point—when NATO missile defense is actually capable of defeating a large-scale missile attack—is still within the realm of some theoretical future, the looming prospect of such a fundamental strategic shift against Russia’s perceived interests will give limitless fodder to those in Moscow opposed to U.S.-Russia cooperation.
Events in North Africa and the Middle East are moving quickly, and while Moscow and Washington have done well thus far to maintain a productive dialogue on these developments, they have also been lucky not to face the most potentially damaging scenarios. In light of the ambiguity surrounding NATO’s ongoing intervention in Libya and Russian attempts to mediate a cease-fire, what will happen if more widespread violence breaks out in Yemen or Bahrain, if Egypt’s transition falters and deteriorates, or if opponents of the Assad regime in Syria manage to mount a successful insurgency and seize control of the country’s volatile border regions with Israel and Lebanon? Stability in the Middle East is a vital national security interest for the United States, and Washington will be under intense pressure to act in any of these scenarios—but to do so against clear Russian opposition, or without a mandate from the UN Security Council, would herald a swift and dramatic end to U.S.-Russian security cooperation.
Afghanistan, though it has become a success story for U.S.-Russia cooperation, is by the same token the source of the greatest potential disruption. If President Obama follows through on recently announced plans to reduce the U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by one-third next year, with a nearly complete withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014, Afghans loyal to the U.S.-backed Karzai government are not the only ones who will have cause for concern. Whatever combat successes U.S. troops can achieve before they depart, and even if they leave behind better trained and equipped Afghan soldiers and police, we can be certain that the Taliban will not be eradicated from Afghanistan, and that the scourges of terrorism, drugs, and weapons trafficking will continue. Without the large U.S. troop presence supplementing Afghan, Tajik, Uzbek, or Kyrgyz security forces, not only Afghan trafficking but the insurgency itself might easily spread northward into Central Asia, with dire consequences for Russia’s “soft underbelly.” Moscow recognizes this danger, and has long worried that a short-lived U.S. intervention in Afghanistan would leave Russians holding the bag—President Obama’s timeline suggests that this eventuality may not be far off.
To sustain the recent record of successful U.S.-Russian cooperation despite looming challenges like these, it will be necessary to define a fundamentally deeper and broader agenda, based on enduring, institutionalized cooperation between the two governments with robust participation from business and civil society. What we need is not just more cooperation, but true “normalization” of U.S.-Russia relations on a foundation of mutual understanding and trust.
The BPC is the key platform for the two governments to work together and it should be given much-needed resources and authorities on both sides so that it can endure whatever political transitions may occur in 2012. On the U.S. side, transparent mechanisms are needed to more fully connect BPC working groups with businesses and non-profit organizations already interested in engagement with Russia, as well as those that have not yet made the leap. Above all, more ordinary Americans and Russians should be given the opportunity to meet one another and build real relationships of trust and partnership. Allowing three-year multiple entry visas is progress, but that should not end negotiations. There is no compelling reason why Washington and Moscow cannot agree to a long-term goal of visa-free travel and take the next necessary steps in the coming year.
The economic relationship should be a top priority as well. Russia’s World Trade Organization accession appears to finally be within reach, which can facilitate a dramatic expansion of bilateral trade in information technology, sophisticated machinery, services, and other spheres consistent with President Medvedev’s “modernization” drive. To fully share these benefits will require that Congress at last turns its attention to the political problem of repealing the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.
Finally, there can be no truly normalized U.S.-Russia relationship without a thorough process for reconciling longstanding grievances and insecurities dating from the Cold War period and afterward. The best cure for continuing tension over “spheres of influence” in the Euro-Atlantic space is to redefine that space as fully inclusive, and not divided into blocs with some states in and others out. This will require creativity and flexibility by national governments as well as hard choices within blocs like NATO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), but it is by far the best security guarantee for the region as a whole. Post-Cold War reconciliation must also include resolving protracted conflicts around Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Transnistria—all potential flashpoints where renewed violence could eviscerate the agenda for U.S.-Russia cooperation. There has never been a better time than now for the United States, Europe, and Russia to apply coordinated pressure to leaders and their publics in each conflict zone to accept a negotiated settlement.
Lavrov’s visit to Washington comes at a historic high point for U.S.-Russia ties, and his work with U.S. counterparts will secure even greater success. Yet the relationship is still vulnerable, with real risk factors on the horizon. Rather than allowing these threats to dominate, the United States and Russia should take steps now to build a foundation for cooperation that is so broad and deep it cannot easily be upset. When faced with seemingly impossible challenges throughout history, both Americans and Russians have defied skepticism and proven equal to the task. Now, let us show what we are capable of doing when two great nations work together.