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U.S.-Russia Relations: Critical and Unstable

CREDIT: https://www.flickr.com/photos/azrainman/4369918140/ Mark Rain This picture has been edited. CREDIT: Mark Rain (CC).

In October 2014, the Council posted an article titled "Needs Work: A Troubled U.S.-Russia Relationship," in which we noted somberly that "if there is one point of agreement between pundits in Moscow and Washington these days, it is that U.S.-Russia relations are at a post-Cold War nadir."

Eight months on, what was a troubled relationship is now on life support, and the deterioration has taken place in the most existentially perilous area of arms control, specifically nuclear weapons. "NATO reviews nuclear deterrent after Russian rhetoric hardens" was the headline in an article in the Financial Times of June 25. While denying that there are plans to place new nuclear weapons in Europe—a plan that would not find favor among many European members—NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is reportedly concerned that Russia is now "using nuclear rhetoric and more nuclear exercises as part of their defense posturing." U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter has joined the harsh condemnation, describing Russian President Vladimir Putin as "out of tune with the times and the way responsible leaders have conducted themselves [on the nuclear threat]." The reasons for concern include Russia's proposal to add some 40 intercontinetal ballistic missiles to its arsenal, increase flights of nuclear-capable bombers over NATO's eastern flank countries, and deploy missile launchers in Russia's westernmost enclave of Kaliningrad, with the potential to reach Baltic and Eastern European capitals.

Sobering stuff, indeed, but, as always, this is not the whole story. It takes two to ratchet up the pace of the lethal race, and from Moscow's point of view these are defensive measures necessitated by a strategic series of moves to virtually encircle Russia's western flank. These may be cataloged under a list of Strangelovian NATO maneuvers:

  • BALTOPS, an annual military exercise in the Baltic Sea, this year involving 5,600 troops, 50 warships, 60 aircraft and landing craft; and Exercise Saber Strike, with 7,000 troops conducting drills in Lithuania, Latvia, as well as Poland
  • In Eastern Europe, Exercise Noble Jump simulates a deployment of 1,500 troops from 11 countries
  • In the Black Sea, U.S., Canadian, and German ships comprising the Black Sea Rotational Force conduct war games with the navies of Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey (An ironic footnote here is that in early May, Bulgarian Defense Minister Nicolai Nenchev observed that Bulgaria, while in NATO, was almost 100 percent dependent on Russia for its military equipment.)

These constitute a significant stepping-up of NATO force activity in the extended region over recent years. All in all, as the Financial Times reported on June 10:

So far this year, more than 20,000 NATO troops have taken part in exercises in the region and 30,000 more have been put on standby, in what Jens Stoltenberg, NATO's secretary general, has described as "the biggest adaptation of force structures since the end of the Cold War."

The upshot of all this bilateral saber rattling is chronicled by the Carnegie Moscow Center's Alexei Arbatov in a June 2015 report, "An Unnoticed Crisis: The End of History for Nuclear Arms Control?" Arbatov lists a litany of wounds, perhaps mortal, to the various multilateral and bilateral U.S.-Russia treaties designed to curb the nuclear threat:

The crisis of arms control is both multifaceted and comprehensive. The United States has abandoned the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty [ABM] and no longer accepts any restrictions on its missile defense deployments. It has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT] almost two decades after negotiations concluded. For the foreseeable future, there is little prospect of the United States accepting new obligations. At the same time, the United States has accused Russia of violating the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] INF Treaty. As a result, Republicans in the U.S. Congress have argued for retaliating by renouncing the treaty and even by withdrawing from New START. Russian officials, for their part, have openly questioned the value of the INF Treaty and also raised the possibility of withdrawing from it. At the same time, nongovernmental political and strategic analysts in Russia have discussed the possibility of abandoning New START and the CTBT. The most radical voices among them have gone so far as to propose that Russia withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] in order to sell and service nuclear weapons abroad.

To summarize: two pillars of nuclear arms control have been shelved—and here it should be noted that U.S. policy on CTBT and ABM long predate the current iciness of relations with Russia—and all others are under severe stress. Arbatov concludes thus: "The history of nuclear arms control has endured periods of stagnation and setbacks before, and some of these were quite lengthy . . . But the current period of disintegration is unprecedented, with literally every channel of negotiation deadlocked and the entire system of existing arms control agreements under threat." [my italics]

There's the rub: channels of dialogue, let alone negotiation, on critical issues have dried up; the horn-locking over weaponry is a metaphor for the current state of U.S.-Russia relations. There is less in the way of constructive engagement than during the latter days of the Cold War, let alone what the sage Russian scholar, Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has gloomily described as the "inter-Cold War period" of 1991-2014. Instead, we have an environment in which President Barack Obama has listed Russia along with the Ebola virus and the Islamic State as the major global threats; in which the U.S. National Security Strategy spoke of the need to "deter" Russia; in which President Putin is a figure of lampoon and ridicule in the Western press; in which Russia is totally denied any legitimate security interests whatsoever; and in which according to Russia's most prestigious polling institution, the Levada Center, more than 80 percent of Russians believe that the West, led by the United States, is a threat to Russia (and, correspondingly, Putin's approval rating approaches 90 percent, even in times of sanctions-driven economic hardship). We may indeed, as Trenin says, be in a back-to-a-Cold War future.

Amid the prevailing doom and gloom of engagement deprivation, there has been a welcome recent development, with the formation of the American Committee for East-West Accord. This diverse group includes such leading figures as former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, NYU emeritus professor of Russian studies Stephen F. Cohen, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock, and former CEO of the Procter & Gamble Co. John Pepper. In seeking to revive constructive dialogue between Moscow and Washington, the Committee lists five initial proposals:

  • The Obama administration should formally join the "Normandy Four"—France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia; a group that meets periodically to discuss regional relations (It is named the Normandy Four after meeting for the first time last June in Normandy, France.)
  • The United States, NATO, and Russia should reactivate the NATO-Russia Council
  • Washington and Moscow should restore the provisions of the 1991 Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program
  • Moscow and Washington should take all necessary steps to preserve the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty
  • Washington and Moscow should protect educational and related exchange programs.

These eminently sensible recommendations speak to the most important particular (arms control) and general (dialogue, engagement) lacunae in the relationship.

And finally, it is clearly not a case of dialogue for dialogue's sake. Put another way, blanket condemnation or neglect of Russia is simply not in American national interest, for several obvious reasons: first, the issue of the 5,000+ nuclear arsenals on each side, as already discussed above; second, the fact that Russia's vast territory borders on just about every dangerous neighborhood on the planet, from North Korea to the Middle East; third, given that both the United States and Russia have been targets of Islamic extremism in the 21st century, U.S.-Russia cooperation on international terrorism is mutually essential; fourth, in chronic hotspots such as Ukraine and Syria, both the United States and Russia have an interest in seeking resolution and stability; and fifth, it is indisputable that there are forces in Russia more inimical to harmonious bilateral relations, and more disposed to pursue a militarily aggressive Russia, than Vladimir Putin.

Given the stakes, it's surely time to move from zero-sum to the restart of constructive engagement.

Read More: Security, Warfare, Armed Conflict, Global Governance, International Relations, Nuclear Proliferation, U.S. Foreign Policy, Europe, Russia & the Former Soviet Republics, North America, Russia, Ukraine, United States

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