Needs Work: A Troubled U.S.-Russia Relationship

October 14, 2014

CREDIT: Shutterstock

If there is one point of agreement between pundits in Moscow and in Washington these days, it is that U.S.-Russia relations are at a post-Cold War nadir.

An item in the Washington Times October 2 edition, an insert to the paper courtesy of Russia House in Washington, deals with the dismal state of the bilateral dialogue. It begins with a reference to President Obama's September 24 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in which he singled out Russia, along with Islamic extremist organizations, as paramount threats to global peace and security.

The article then reproduces a picture, taken one day later, of U.S. astronaut Barry Wilmore with two Russian cosmonauts as they prepare blast off to the International Space Station.

The import and intent of this juxtaposition is obvious: the febrile hyperbole of criticism directed at Russia as a result of the crisis in Ukraine is misdirected and harmful to both Russia and the United States. We would agree, and here are five reasons why.

  • The Ukraine crisis was not of Russia's making. As John Mearsheimer wrote in the recent Foreign Affairs article, "Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West's Fault," "The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia's orbit and integrate it into the West." Viktor Yanukovich was a venal, corrupt, incompetent—and democratically elected—leader. A plan was in place for early elections at the end of 2014 that would almost certainly have resulted in his removal, but this plan was quite literally ripped from the hands of moderate opposition leaders (the boxer turned politician, Vitali Klitschko) and the Maidan demonstrations evolved into a putsch. We may look askance at Russia's subsequent responses to events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, but let us also bear in mind that the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 gives the United States self-allotted authority to intervene in any situation in the Americas where we perceive a threat to national security. Is Russia to ignore instability in a neighboring country, especially where there is violence directed against those of Russian origin? This threat perception was, of course, exacerbated by the U.S. and Western support for the various "Color Revolutions" in the former Soviet space, including the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine in 2004, which brought new levels of corruption and instability.

  • Better policy comes from better knowledge, and, if we cannot condone Russia's actions, at least let us try to understand the context—thus mindful of the distinction between a politician and a statesman, that it is the latter who understands the point of view of his opponent. The very birthplace of "Rus," the Russian cultural/spiritual identity, was Kiev, centuries before Moscow was a gleam in the eye. It is quite literally the case that there is no historical relationship for the United States with another country that comes even close to that of Russia and Ukraine.

  • Blanket condemnation of all things Russian is simply not in American national interest. Consider this: a look at Russia's vast geographic contours will readily show that she borders virtually every major area of concern for the United States—from North Korea in the Far East, through Central Asia, with its porous borders for drug and terrorism trafficking, down into Afghanistan, and on to the greater Middle East. Cooperation with Russia on a host of global challenges—such as nuclear nonproliferation and robust antiterrorist measures—is a priori essential. To cite just one example of how this works: about 40 percent of all supplies for U.S. troops in Afghanistan move through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) across Russia.

  • The cooperation has brought mutual benefit, at times in the most fraught circumstances. Under New START, one of the foreign and security policy triumphs of the first Obama administration, Russia and the United States mutually agreed to deep cuts in their strategic nuclear weapons arsenals, a development all the more significant when one considers that the United States and Russia together still possess some 95 percent of the world's nuclear stockpile. Or consider the civil war in Syria, where President Obama made the rhetorical misstep of drawing a "red line" over the issue of chemical weapons employment by the Assad regime. What came from Moscow was nothing short of a lifeline, the results of which were not only face-saving for the administration but also resulted in destruction of the weapons of mass destruction themselves.

  • Sanctions, the non-lethal weapon of choice we currently employ against Russia, work to the detriment of both Russia and ourselves. In targeting some of President Putin's closest supporters, of course they bite in Russia, but they also impact U.S. companies doing business in Russia and, to a much greater extent, European businesses, whose dealings with Russia are much more telling—witness therefore the less than full-throated approval from Europe for the U.S. sanctions prescription. And to what end? Sanctions have only helped fuel resentment against the West and increase popular support for Putin to levels north of 80 percent. Putin in turn has looked eastward, in the form of a multibillion dollar natural gas supply agreement with China.

All of this is not to argue that Russian actions in Ukraine and elsewhere are without blemish, but rather to call into question the strategic purpose of our present policy toward a country emerging from two decades of what it perceives as post-Cold War humiliation, keenly aware of its interests in its regional neighborhood and anxious to reestablish itself as an economic force. All of this is captured, of course, in the figure of Vladimir Putin, who thus opens himself to Western animus. But, as a friend put it to me, if we had lost the Cold War and endured the consequences that Russia has, we too might look to a strongly assertive nationalist leader such as Mr. Putin. And, as that great realist Henry Kissinger has observed of the current scene, "Demonizing Putin is not a policy."

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