On March 9, following Russia’s presidential election, President Obama telephoned President-elect Vladimir Putin to re-establish contact with someone he once publicly described as a man of the past but who will run Russia for the remainder of Mr. Obama’s presidency. Mr. Putin genuinely believes Washington orchestrates Russia’s domestic opposition in order to remove him from power and thereby weaken Russia. That’s certainly not an ideal basis for bilateral cooperation.
However, Mr. Putin deeply values his legacy. His re-election slogan was “dostroika” – completion or fulfillment. He thinks he has laid the foundations for a strong and prosperous Russia and needs only time and authority to bring it to fruition. Others (myself included) doubt both his vision and his methods, but Mr. Putin is not a petty dictator. He knows relations with the United States will be key to his legacy, for good or ill.
Washington is overdue to retire the “reset” as a concept for ties with Moscow. The Russians never liked the notion because it implied restoring the pre-George W. Bush relationship, a period they recall as one of weakness and humiliation. In addition, the achievements of the reset in strategic arms control and Afghanistan hold diminishing prospects for future progress.
The New START may be the last for a long time because nuclear weaponry plays a vastly more important role in Russian strategy than in ours. If all nuclear weapons were to vanish from the earth overnight, American security would be enhanced because of our global dominance of nonnuclear military capabilities and technology. By contrast, Russia would face a profound crisis of security and, worse, prestige.
A large nuclear arsenal with global reach is one of the few attributes of great power status that Russia possesses. Russia also maintains a huge stockpile of “nonstrategic” nuclear weapons (a category we largely have abandoned) because of its different strategic context (mainly China) and the persistent weakness of its conventional forces and demographics. Russia cannot compete in cutting-edge military technologies, so it must maintain the one type where it enjoys dominance over all other Eurasian states.
Thus, Russia opposes anything that might diminish its nuclear advantage, such as deployments of missile-defense systems by the United States and NATO. We can assert until we are blue in the face that these have nothing to do with Russia, but Moscow sees them as the thin edge of a wedge to weaken its narrowly based national strategy. This issue stands as an impediment to further security agreements with Moscow.
Afghanistan has been an underreported area of real cooperation. The Northern Distribution Network, of which Russia is the keystone, has been vital to breaking Pakistan’s chokehold on logistics for American and allied forces. The flexibility we gained was critical in allowing the United States to penetrate Pakistani territory and kill Osama bin Laden. However, as the U.S. “exit strategy” develops, the importance to the United States of Russian cooperation will diminish, leaving an unstable Afghanistan looming to Russia’s south.
Russia lacks effective influence in either Iran or North Korea, while its Syria policy shows that Moscow can be very stubborn, even at great cost to its broader interests, in defending one of its remaining foreign clients. Russia is not a major international player in finance, commerce or innovation. Even in energy, Russia depends as much on its customers as they do on it.
Russia can obstruct international initiatives if it feels challenged or disadvantaged, however. This is why China, Europe, India and Turkey maintain better relations with Russia than we do; as Eurasian neighbors, they want to keep the neighborhood civil. They also have more commerce at stake.
An abiding failure of American policy has been to attempt too much with Moscow, to search for partnership without a shared agenda and not to comprehend that Russia will not accept junior-partner status. We need to work on building something resembling normal relations with a Russia that is no longer a global or ideological competitor. More trade and investment would help, as will Russian membership in the World Trade Organization. Serious progress in Russian rule of law would do even more.
With Mr. Putin back in the Kremlin, we should maintain perspective and recognize that Russia today is a great regional power like Indonesia, India and Brazil, but no longer a global rival. Washington does not need a special agenda with Moscow, but rather balanced and realistic normal relation.
By E. Wayne Merry, a former State Department and Pentagon official and senior fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council.