Sustainable Partnership Between Russia and the US Is Possible

The “reset” in Russian-American relations has expanded the common ground between the two powers, yet their partnership remains uneasy. The present state of affairs resembles a Cold War era détente, but with notable exceptions to the customary historical motifs.

The most recent achievements have been primarily security-related: arms control treaties (START), the 123 Agreement, and the Plutonium Disposition Agreement. Efforts to slow down the Iranian nuclear program and agreements to ease military transit into and out of Afghanistan are also examples of a new kind of cooperation.

However, policymakers in Russia and the U.S. should avoid adding extra padding to the “positive agenda” of their current relations. This strategy will not be well received in the upper echelons of their bureaucracies, which are likely to be more concerned with immediate policy issues and broader conceptions of bilateral relations. Looking ahead does not mean concocting short-term commonalities but rather considering each partner’s strategic goals in the international arena. The U.S. wants to see a strong, secure, and stable Europe, able to sustain a robust security alliance within NATO, while Russia wants to be reckoned with as a power that shares common European economic and security spaces against an international backdrop of economic interdependence, terrorist threats, and an eastward shift in global power. Bilateral cooperation in Europe and Eurasia (the so-called “post-Soviet space”) will help realize these goals. Without Russia’s support, the U.S. cannot expect long-term security, stability, or prosperity in this region. Without U.S. support, Russia, in turn, will not be able to meet its goals in Europe and Eurasia.

Yet there is a clear asymmetry in Russian and American perceptions of and priorities for various critical areas of European and Eurasian policy. In order to avoid an impasse, both sides must recognize this and find a way to work together in those areas and regions in which they share common interests. For the United States, Europe is a major ally that finds itself in a predominantly “fixed” state of security, yet is losing economic dynamism and strategic importance in the world. Post-Soviet Eurasian countries are at different stages of economic and political development, sometimes unstable, but with no potential to challenge major American interests, with the partial exception of energy. Of late, there has been a noticeable American disengagement from European and Eurasian issues, whereas, for Russia, relations with Europe and Eurasia are ever more important due to their intimate connection with everything from existential questions of national identity to developmental models, key economic interests, personal ties, and potential security challenges. Moscow views infringement upon these areas as the main irritant to Russian-U.S. relations; notable examples are NATO expansion, missile defense plans, and engagements in the post-Soviet space, all of which exclude Russia and thus threaten its position as an economic partner, participant in joint security structures, and member of a greater Europe with which it shares a common cultural and historical identity.

The following steps may be taken to reduce both current and latent tensions between Russia and the United States, and ultimately serve both powers’ long-term strategic goals:

  1. Opening a space for dialogue on Euro-Atlantic security issues that may eventually lead to a pan-European pact. President Medvedev’s European Security Treaty initiative may be viewed as an invitation to an open-ended debate. Russian dissatisfaction with post-Cold War security architecture must at least be addressed and acknowledged in the international political arena. The vision of a functional security community “from Vancouver to Vladivostok” must one day be materialized.
  2. Reforming the NATO-Russia Council in line with the original intention of a “29” rather than “28+1” format. A crucial first step towards improving the relevance of the NATO-Russia Council in this regard would be to develop more transparency in the field of military planning and to launch a dialogue on such issues.
  3. Revitalizing and institutionalizing the OSCE in the spirit of the Corfu process by giving distinct identities to each of the three “baskets.”
  4. Negotiating a new CFE treaty to build confidence and revive the transparency elements of the old agreement. Ending large-scale military exercises near each other’s borders would be the first step in this direction.
  5. Working on the creation of a common European missile defense system. This should go well beyond simple information sharing: joint threat assessment, transparency in system capabilities, and strategic planning against nuclear terrorism would be the first steps.
  6. Establishing a permanent working group on security issues in Eurasia. Commitment to sustained dialogue in this area is crucial. Strategic planning for worst-case scenarios in Eurasia (for example, a radical Islamist takeover of a Central Asian country) and discussing possibilities for joint efforts to support development programs in the region would be helpful exercises.
  7. The U.S. should voice support for Russia in the event that Russia gives any sign of considering joining the EU in the future. Public endorsement of any steps that bring Russia closer to the EU will be helpful.

Meanwhile, for the United States, a sustainable partnership with Russia will mean no small effort to reconceptualize the transatlantic relationship to include a space for common economic and security issues, not to mention transnational identity, that stretches as far east as Vladivostok. he views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the position of the MacArthur Foundation.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.