US-Russia ties on a new trajectory
By M K Bhadrakumar
Face-to-face meetings between the leaderships of the United States and Russia
have a history of inspiring optimism that eventually turns out to be illusory
and short-lived. The summit meeting at the Black Sea resort of Sochi a year ago
was a perfect instance. The Sochi summit produced a grandiloquent declaration
spelling out the contours of strategic cooperation between the two big powers.
But no sooner had the summit ended, acrimony broke out and US-Russia ties
plunged into free fall. The ties grew increasingly strained. The conflict in
the South Caucasus last August led to a dangerous drift in relations between
Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It added to the list
of contentious issues already complicating the US-Russia relationship -
deployment of components of the US missile defense system in
Central Europe, NATO's eastward expansion, rivalries over Caspian energy
resources, simmering discords in the Black Sea region, and so on. Enveloping
all these issues, an atmosphere of distrust descended on US-Russia ties.
A fundamental question also kept cropping up: how central is Russia to the US's
global interests? Therefore, it is easy to understand why the high rhetoric of
the meeting between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry
Medvedev on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in London on April 1 is
being cautiously viewed by most commentators. Is the thaw for real? Will the
US-Russia "reset" pick up speed? These are the questions of the day.
One thing is clear: US-Russia relations have deteriorated to their lowest point
since the Cold War ended and they could only improve. Certainly, going by the
uneasiness apparent in the assessments of the London meeting by the Cold
Warriors, a new tone may well be appearing in the US-Russia relationship.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that the relationship has
acquired a "new quality".
Lavrov, an outstanding diplomat who is not given to hyperbole, said a "new
atmosphere of relations" has been created at the London talks. "There is mutual
interest, and, most importantly, readiness to listen to each other, something
we had lacked for many years. This means a new quality of relations." That is
good enough reason to anticipate that the London meeting may after all lead
somewhere, instead of meandering into a blind alley in the coming weeks.
Clearly, the meeting has been more than Lavrov's modest summing up. The two
sides evidently did a lot of preparatory work to ensure that the meeting became
In the run-up to the Obama-Medvedev meet, apart from Lavrov's consultations
with his US counterpart Hillary Clinton in Geneva on March 6, several
high-level delegations traveled to Moscow for exchanges aimed at resuscitating
the US-Russia relationship ahead of the meeting between the two presidents.
These included visits to Moscow by the US Under Secretary of State William
Burns, former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and James
Baker, former secretary of defense William Perry, former national security
advisor Brent Scowcroft, former senators Sam Nunn, Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel.
Meanwhile, the Hart-Hagel Commission's report on "The Right Direction for US
Policy Toward Russia", which was released on March 16, also became the talking
point in the US-Russia discourses. The commission made three principal
findings: One, in recent years, US-Russian relations have deteriorated to their
worst since the end of the Cold War. Two, an American commitment to improving
US-Russian relations is neither a reward to be offered for good international
behavior by Moscow nor an endorsement of the Russian government's domestic
conduct. Three, it is an acknowledgement of the importance of Russian
cooperation in achieving essential American goals: from preventing Iran
acquiring nuclear weapons, dismantling al-Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan, to
guaranteeing security and prosperity in Europe.
The commission's principal recommendations included: first, seeking to make
Russia an American partner in dealing with Iran; second, working jointly to
strengthen the international non-proliferation regime; third, taking a new look
at the missile defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic and making
a genuine effort to develop a cooperative approach to the shared threat from
Iranian missiles; fourth, accepting that neither Ukraine nor Georgia is ready
for NATO membership and working closely with US allies to develop options other
than NATO membership to demonstrate a commitment to their sovereignty; and,
fifth, launching a serious dialogue on arms control, including extending the
Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) as well as further reduction of
strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.
The purpose of the commission, as Hart put it, has been to "build a limited
base in our country that will give support to the new [Obama] administration in
its efforts to improve this [US-Russia] relationship". Before proceeding to
Moscow, Hart and Hagel met with US National Security Advisor General Jim Jones
and other senior US officials of the Obama administration. Surely, while
receiving them in the Kremlin on March 10, Medvedev underlined that he felt
encouraged by the signals coming out of Washington. "Unfortunately, our
relations have degraded significantly over the past several years. We are
saddened by this fact," Medvedev said. "We believe we have every opportunity to
open a new page in Russia-US relations. The signals that we're receiving today
from the US - I mean, the signals I'm receiving from President Obama - seem
entirely positive to me."
Indeed, the statements (and actions) by Washington and Moscow during the recent
weeks indicate that the two governments were moving in the directions urged by
the Hart-Hagel Commission. The Commission argued,
vital national interests in the complex, interconnected, and interdependent
world of 21st century requires deep and meaningful cooperation with other
governments ... And few nations could make more of a difference to our success
than Russia, with its vast arsenal of nuclear weapons, its strategic location
spanning Europe and Asia, its considerable energy resources, and its status as
a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Rapid and effective
action to strengthen US-Russian relations is critically important top advancing
US national interests.
Even as the US faces a profound economic crisis, the foreign-policy challenges
facing our country are increasingly complicated and difficult - and our
interests in dealing with particular situations can be competing or even
contradictory. It is for this reason that we must make hard choices in shaping
our foreign policy, focusing most on what is truly vital in a strict sense -
first and foremost nuclear non-proliferation, arms control, terrorism, and
global economic recovery.
With extraordinary candor, the
commission proposed, "We must also significantly improve our understanding of
Russian interests as Russians define them." The commission, in retrospect,
virtually outlined the agenda of the London meeting. Therefore, while concrete
results in London may appear slim, what counts is that a sustained and coherent
effort to create a critical mass in the US-Russian relationship has begun,
which may well solidify within the next two to three months.
Clearly, the decision at the Obama-Medvedev meeting to pursue a new nuclear
arms reduction deal in itself implies a dramatic reversal of the obdurate
stance by the George W Bush administration on this issue. As Obama put it, the
decision marked the "beginning of new progress in US-Russia relations" after
years of drift. The scheduled visit by Obama to Moscow in the next three months
- ahead of the Group of Eight summit in Italy on July 8-10 - will give impetus
to the negotiators to "start talks immediately" on an agreement replacing the
START which expires in December.
The two sides have not settled on a new cap, but it is obvious that the
proposed arms deal will go beyond the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions
Treaty, which committed both sides to keeping their nuclear arsenals below
2,200 warheads by 2012.
Cold Warriors may interpret that the arms control talks constitute a major
concession by Obama as it "elevates" Russia's status in the international
community to that of a peer country to the US. But then, Obama realizes that
without deep Russian cooperation, his entire non-proliferation agenda would
fail to take off. To quote Obama, "Both the US and Russia and other nuclear
powers will be in a much stronger position to strengthen what has become a
somewhat fragile, threadbare non-proliferation treaty, if we're leading by
example, and if we can take serious steps to reduce the nuclear arsenal."
True, the two presidents acknowledged that there were lingering differences
over the vexed issue of the US deployments of missile defense systems in
Europe. But, conceivably, they also realize that this is no more a pressing
issue and future US-Russia cooperation may become possible. At any rate, Moscow
knows that Obama doesn't have Bush's passion to advance the issue on US terms
and also, public opinion in the Czech Republic is increasingly against the US
Equally, the tensions over NATO's expansion have eased as it transpires that
the induction of Ukraine or Georgia into the alliance is simply out of the
question for another 15-20 years at the least. Again, differences linger over
issues such as last year's conflict in the Caucasus and the ensuing shifts in
the region or Kosovo's independence, but these aren't exactly "hotspots" in
US-Russia relations at the moment.
On balance, what gave substantial verve to the Obama-Medvedev meeting in London
related to the US-Russia cooperation in Afghanistan. The joint statement of the
two presidents mentions that they agreed to work together on Afghanistan since
"al-Qaeda and other terrorist and insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan and
Pakistan pose a common threat to many countries, including the US and Russia".
The statement added that Moscow and Washington would "work toward and support a coordinated
international response with the UN playing a key role". (Emphasis
Significantly, the Russians played an ace card when on the eve of the London
meeting they decided to offer to the Americans full, unhindered transit
facilities via Russian territory by air and rail for the transportation of the
US's (and NATO's) entire military cargo for Afghanistan. In essence, the
Russian side has proposed that the US, if it chooses, may no longer have to
depend on any other transit route, such as troubled Pakistan.
What emerges is that Moscow has sized up that the Obama administration's major
foreign policy concern will be the stabilization of Afghanistan. And, there is
nothing better that can stabilize the US-Russia relationship than if Russia
were to offer full cooperation to the US in the Hindu Kush. (Incidentally, this
approach is in line with the prognosis of the Hart-Hagel Commission.)
This is smart thinking on Moscow's part. It is based on the careful analysis
that there is no real conflict of interests between Russia and the US in
Afghanistan so long as the overall US-Russia relationship is based on
sensitivity to each other's core interests and vital concerns.
This is evident if we check out the basic postulates of Obama's new Afghan
strategy. The hyped new strategy - "stronger, smarter and comprehensive" - is
essentially based on nine different postulates.
One, there is a fundamental connection between the future of Afghanistan and
Pakistan. Two, al-Qaeda poses an existential threat to Pakistan. Three,
Pakistan's ability to meet the al-Qaeda threat is tied to its own strength and
security. Four, Pakistan needs US help, but must be made accountable while
receiving such help. Five, the Taliban's gains in Afghanistan must be reversed
and a more capable and accountable Afghan government needs to be promoted. Six,
the "surge" should have both military and civilian components and they need to
be integrated. Seven, the prerequisite of enduring peace is that there should
be reconciliation among former enemies. Eight, al-Qaeda can be isolated and
targeted on the pattern of the Sunni Awakening process successfully undertaken
in Iraq. Nine, international participation is necessary, especially NATO's.
Moscow has no problems with any of the above parameters. So, the Kremlin
shrewdly assesses that no harm comes to Russia's security interests if Russia
helps the US efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. The odds are heavily stacked
against Obama's Afghan strategy, but then, that isn't Russia's problem. To help
a friend in need would make Russia a friend indeed of the Obama administration.
The logic is simple, direct and, possibly, even workable, since the US faces a
potentially serious political and military quagmire in Afghanistan and is in
dire need of whatever help from any quarter.
On the other hand, if Russia succeeds in leveraging any resultant US goodwill
for creating a positive climate of cooperation in the overall US-Russia
relationship, it will have a profound impact on the international system.
Regional powers will be keenly watching and may have already begun
contemplating how to calibrate their own moves in Afghanistan. The stakes are
especially high for Iran and Pakistan.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.