U.S.-Russia "Reset": An Agony?

Stopping the U.S. missile defense program is a top priority for Moscow. The disagreements over it add to the friction between the two countries. Close Russian ties with Iran and China forced analysts in Washington to caution that information sharing on missile defense may reach wrong hands in Beijing and Teheran rather easily.

Russia and the United States expressed a desire for a “reset” in their relations articulated by Vice President Joe Biden -- after President Obama’s inauguration, and after the nadir caused by the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. However, beyond the Northern Distribution Network to supply the NATO and US troops in Afghanistan, the “reset” policy has had very few tangible results for the United States.

The most recent example is the U.S. failure to secure a Russian vote at the UN Security Council on Syria for a resolution calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was fuming and, while in Bulgaria, pronounced the happenings at the UNSC a “travesty.” Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the UN, stated that the U.S. was “disgusted” by Russia’s decision of vetoing a resolution that would open doors for an international action against the Assad regime.

Russia, for its part, did not mince words. Minister Lavrov’s refusals to take Hillary Clinton’s phone call in Australia and comments on her manners are widely reported. These statements indicate U.S. recognition that the “reset” policy is in a dire need of reassessment.

Russia is hoping against hope to salvage its Syria client/ally and weapons customer, and expand its influence, including the naval bases in Tartus and Ladakiye. It does not appear that managing regional upheavals is a priority for Russia.

Stopping the U.S. missile defense program is, on the other hand, a top priority for Moscow. The disagreements over it add to the friction between the two countries. For years, stopping or limiting the U.S. ability to protect its population and allies has been a holy grail of the Russia’s arms control policy.

Russia has tried to cloak its attempts to limit U.S. missile defenses in the rhetoric of “cooperation”, balance of power, and even “fairness”. It continues to claim that U.S. missile defense program, especially its European aspect, would negatively affect strategic balance between the two countries, or somehow is aimed against a massive Russian ICBM arsenal. Consequently, Russia demands legal guarantees that components of U.S. missile defense be not targeted at Russia.

These guarantees are simply impossible for the United States to provide unless Washington desires to limit its missile defense capabilities against ballistic missiles from North Korea and Iran. By extension, any U.S. improvement to its missile defenses will have some implications for Russia’s strategic and tactical ballistic missiles.

The United States refuses to provide such guarantees because it fears that Russia would argue that any improvements to the current U.S. missile defenses would endanger “strategic balance” and therefore would be prohibited. This would indeed collide with current U.S. missile defense plans for the protection of Europe and its homeland.

Ultimately, in an emerging multipolar proliferated environment, it is in the interest of both countries to move toward postures that are more defensive. Initially, Russia and the United States should pursue an arrangement of coordinated missile defense deployments. This would help the transition towards more defensive strategic postures and provide a basis for confidence building and transparency measures. Unfortunately, Russia has so far refused to offer the level of transparency regarding its missile defense program that has been provided to it by the United States. Moreover, close Russian ties with Iran and China forced analysts in Washington to caution that information sharing on missile defense may reach wrong hands in Beijing and Teheran rather easily.

Russia partially succeeded in limiting U.S. missile defenses in the New Strategic Arms Control Treaty (New START) that contains provisions that impose restrictions on U.S. missile defenses. Russia also has used the Treaty preamble to threaten to withdraw from the treaty. Despite these threats, it is unlikely that Russia would actually pull out of the treaty.

Many experts believe that the New START favors Russian interests. It allows Moscow to build up its strategic forces, both quantitatively and qualitatively, provides an international venue to object U.S. missile defense program, and does not limit its short-range nuclear systems in any way. Moscow has been taking advantage of these loopholes.

If Russia chooses to withdraw from this favorable treaty nevertheless, it is unlikely that this action would escalate to the level of the Cuban missile crisis – unless someone decided to play a game of chicken (brinksmanship), say, over Iran.

Back in the 1960s, both countries were amidst a bitter global confrontation and bilateral strategic build up. The change in the geostrategic environment, divergent threat perception, and move toward multipolarity with more nuclear regional powers acquiring nuclear weapons or expanding their nuclear arsenal, however, can eventually lead to an increased misperception during confrontation over Iran.

Finally, it is regrettable that Russia uses threats in its discourse with the US. It has threatened to abstain from participating in the Russia-NATO Council summit in May of this year in Chicago. More pomp than real action is expected at this summit, which is aimed at highlighting President Obama’s role during the elections. Yet, it remains to be seen if Russia will actually skip the event. So far, it seems that it is trying to extract further concessions from the United States before coming to the party after all.

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