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Walking the Same Road Twice

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.

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 Déjà Vu

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