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Russia and the U.S.: Reconfiguration, Not only Resetting

Russian-U.S. relations are currently developing in an international environment that stands in dramatic contrast to the Cold War era and the period of transition that followed it.

Russian-U.S. relations are currently developing in an international environment that stands in dramatic contrast to the Cold War era and the period of transition that followed it. This new situation is marked by the following factors:

– An overall decline of governability in international relations that are undergoing renationalization as certain countries seek to regain central international roles for themselves;
– An ongoing rapid shift of the center of global politics and economy from the Euro-Atlantic zone to the Pacific. This region is also where the vector of U.S. major interests is moving;
– The onset of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It looks like the process has become irreversible and the challenge is how to restrict and regulate it. The most problematic regions in terms of international security now are the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and the Middle East.
– U.S. failures during the Bush administration, China’s achievements, Europe’s weakened weight in foreign policy field and the global economic crisis be ushering in a new – post-hegemonic non-Western – era in international relations.
These and a number of other circumstances have dramatically weakened U.S. global positions that can only partially be restored. The U.S. remains the world’s most powerful nation, but its ability to press forward unilaterally with its interests has been sharply reduced and the degree of its dependence on others has grown.
Russia, which restored its statehood after its collapse in the late 1990s and beefed up its political power and influence thanks to good luck on world markets and in world politics, has obviously reached the upper limit of this growth. The global economic setup and lack of reforms in the Russian economy and society call into question its ability to maintain even the modest 2.5-percent share of global GDP that Russia accounted for in 2008.
A comparative analysis of Russia’s vital interests vis-à-vis the U.S., which the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (SVOP) with the help of RIA Novosti news agency conducted in the format of the Valdai Club forum, leads to the conclusion that these interests involve not so much their bilateral relations, but mainly their relations with third countries. The U.S. faces problems with Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, while Russia’s problems lurk in Georgia, Ukraine and some other former Soviet republics. Also, these interests embroil international problems that affect both countries likewise: proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, energy security, climate change, etc.
Remarkably, Russia, even being much weaker, is capable of blocking U.S. moves towards achieving critical foreign policy goals in most cases, while the U.S. can impede Russia’s efforts in a far greater number of cases.
Thus, both sides have differing yet comparable potentials of doing reciprocal foreign-policy damage.
At the same time, the comparative analysis shows that the two countries have opposite interests in only some respects. Their interests mostly lie in different domains or have a basically different importance for each side. For instance, the list of U.S. vital interests includes, among other things, a dignified withdrawal from Iraq (leaving an insignificant contingent there); preventing a defeat in Afghanistan and imposing stability there; and preventing the collapse of Pakistan or/and the loss of control over its nuclear weapons. And topping the list is preventing Iran from gaining access to nuclear weapons, as this would be fraught with a collapse of U.S. military and political positions in the entire Middle East – an area that is critical for the U.S.
Russia has no interest in the destabilization of Afghanistan, the loss of control over Pakistan’s nuclear potential, or in Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. Yet its interests in all these spheres are on a somewhat lower level than those of the U.S.
The realm of Russia’s vital interests encompasses the maintenance of a de facto predominant influence over the territory of the former Soviet Union from Belarus to the Caucasus, and the prevention of the spread of other alliances to these regions, as their expansion there may unleash a chain of conflicts or even a major war.
The U.S. has a far smaller or completely adverse interest in this sphere.
At the same time, the two countries have many parallel, although not fully identical, interests. These include, above all, establishing a stable world order and forestalling the unchecked proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And, since this process is on the run, the main challenge is to curb it, build a system for the multilateral deference or even containment of new nuclear powers and ensure guarantees of security to other countries so as to rule out the chain reaction. A similar level of interest exists in fighting international terrorism, especially its catastrophe-prone forms.
Neither side has a chance to resolve any serious problem it is faced with if it does not have assistance from the other side.


The Cold War, the subsequent U.S. attempts to establish its dominance in the world and the one-sided approaches of the Bush Administration have produced a legacy of mutual mistrust, which is especially strong with Russia.
The Russian political elite harbors the conviction that the U.S. intentionally used Russia’s weakness in the 1990s and even tried to keep the country in such a state. The calls for democracy has, as it is widely believed, only been a cover-up for creating conditions that would compel other countries to move in line with U.S. geopolitical interests. In addition, a widespread conviction has taken root in Russia that any attempts towards acquiescence, constructive moves and goodwill do not bring any dividends – they only stimulate the appetite after being “swallowed up.” The vast majority of Russian decision-makers do not see any advantages in initiating moves towards a fruitful relationship with the U.S. Only a small number of them see tentative long-term advantages for the country’s modernization and the strengthening of its geopolitical positions.
The U.S. in turn is dissatisfied with the fact that Russia has refused to follow the American path. There are hopes – illusionary ones I presume – that Russia’s new weakness might revive the U.S.-Russian relationship of the 1990s. Nor do the Americans trust Russia’s political system very much.
The well of mistrust and suspicions is not easy to eradicate; it will require inordinate political will and the setting up of efficient channels of interaction.
Most important, however, is the need to tap an efficacious mechanism of integrating the interests of the two countries.


There are political quarters in both countries that oppose rapprochement or believe that Russia and the U.S. can do well enough without each other. However, their ranks are thinning as their stance does not tally with reality. That is why not only U.S. President Barack Obama, but highly-influential groups as well, have begun to speak in favor of “resetting” Russian-U.S. relations. As the vehicle for this resetting, they want to slash strategic offensive arsenals down to the lowest and even – in the long-term – zero level of nuclear stockpiles.
Given the current mutual mistrust, attempts to use this “good old (arms control) weapon” are understandable, but one should remember that this weapon is double-edged and may produce more problems than solutions.
The comparative analysis of the two sides’ interests in the nuclear sphere provides graphic proof that they coincide only in part, while standing in dramatic contrast to each other in many respects.
The interests coincide in that both countries are aware of the need to rely on the “nuclear pillar” in today’s rapidly changing and increasingly unstable world.
Russia and the U.S. have identical interests in preventing the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons (the chances of which are infinitesimally small) and denying terrorists access to nuclear weapons (a possibility that is growing due to the increasing risk of a government collapse in Pakistan, North Korea’s activity and nuclear proliferation in the Middle East). However, Russia ranks all this among second-tier priorities.
The two sides essentially diverge in their vision of nuclear weapons with regard to national security. Moscow believes that it is inconceivable to ensure the country’s security without reliance on a powerful nuclear factor.
On the contrary, for the U.S. slashing or even eliminating nuclear weapons with the secured technological and quantitative superiority in conventional armaments in the foreseeable future is desirable and even beneficial.
Thus, there is an apparently serious conflict of interests.
In addition, resetting the mechanisms of weapons reduction in the nuclear sphere is fraught with a revival of the military standoff mentality, which has become a thing of the past, but may surface again if too much emphasis is put on the reduction of nuclear weaponry – especially if one considers the vast difference of interests in that sphere.
In this context, Russia’s readiness to reinvigorate relations largely by way of proposed bargaining in strategic armaments cannot but cause concern, especially in the absence of reciprocal proposals. It looks like Moscow simply does not know what it should do and is letting the initiative slip from its grasp.
Such inadequate moves resemble the behavior of a drunk who is looking for his keys not where he lost them, but under a streetlight because there is more light there. Moreover, he has been told which light to look under.

There is no doubt that the negotiation process on strategic weapons cuts should be kept on track. Yet this should be done with extreme caution. It cannot provide a genuine resetting of relations. More than that, it may produce a resetting that will revive on the screen of the U.S.-Russia computer many of the worst things from their past military standoff.
It is worth the effort to take a course towards a genuine reconfiguration of relations and not just reset them. Steps towards this end should be taken already now while preparations for the Medvedev-Obama summit are underway. For this, Russia and the U.S. should address their fundamental interests and try to reach a historic compromise – a “big deal” – which does not need an official formalization at the start. The sides should pledge respect for each other’s interests in the areas where these interests are truly vital.
On Russia’s part, an exchange of pledges might require the all-round support of U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan (except for direct military involvement in them); coordination of policies towards Iran when and if it turns nuclear (except for supporting senselessly tough sanctions or a military invasion); support of U.S. efforts in Pakistan and Iraq; convergence of positions on the Middle East peace settlement; and renunciation of the use of force in restoring Russia’s historical zone of influence (beyond Abkhazia and South Ossetia).
On the part of the U.S., the exchange of pledges should include practical support to the signing of a pan-European collective security treaty that would mark a de facto end to the Cold War in Europe that is now continuing in a milder form; an end to further NATO expansion; and the renunciation of assistance to anti-Russian forces and regimes in the territory of the former Soviet Union. The treaty should become the visible and formal embodiment of historic compromise. (No one, at least in Russia, believes in non-binding agreements any more – S.K.).
An agreement on these issues would visibly fix a historic compromise that could include a marked expansion of cooperation in the energy sector and termination of open contention in that sphere, as well as joint efforts in addressing the problems of global nuclear security, climate change, food production and many other pressing global problems.
Since interaction of this kind is open to other parties, China could play a growing role in it. (This may be done in the format of the China-U.S.-Russia trilateral leadership concept that has been proposed by some influential Chinese theoreticians with regard to international organizations, the streamlining of international cooperation and addressing global problems.) Wherever possible, United Europe should get a role too in the format of the Russia-U.S.-Europe triangle.
Understandably, Russian-U.S. interaction cannot play the key role in solving the bulk of the problems of global development, and the sides will try to solve some problems independently or even in competition with each other.
Still, the prevalence of competition over cooperation cannot ensure even the basic interests of either country.
Both Russia and the U.S. must seek opportunities for resetting their relations precisely with regard to these interests. In the future this might lead to a closer – albeit limited – strategic cooperation and, if one dares to dream, even an alliance.

// This article was originally published in Russian in Rossiyskaya Gazeta on June 2, 2009.