by Gordon M. Hahn
Just as resets can crash computers, the U.S.-Russian ‘reset’ has crashed relation between Washington and Moscow.
In the end, the U.S./Russia reset was overloaded by the challenges posed by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’,Vladmir Putin’s return to the Kremlin, and his institution of a soft, selective crackdown on some Russian opposition elements.
Moscow has given up on integration with the West. The reset was the last gasp in the mid- to long-term of post-Cold War aspirations for such integration. For the foreseeable future – the rule of Putin and perhaps his successor – Russia will seek to establish its place as one of several global powers in a multipolar world playing an important role in both the East and the West.
This does not mean Russia will be antagonistic towards the West and the United States or that the dream of a democratic Russia is dead. It does mean, however, that Russia will be guided by its national interests and those will at times run counter to the interests of Washington.
There will be some opportunities for Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin to establish U.S.-Russian cooperation, but they will be confined largely to general threats to global stability. Moreover, there are several issues over which relations could devolve into confrontation. Therefore, the task for at least the next four years will be to reduce and manage tensions so the relationship does not meltdown entirely.
The Need to Back Away
The first task is to lower the temperature in relations by continuing dialogue and stepping back from some of the politically charged words that, in part, were driven by the confluence of presidential campaigns in both countries.
On the U.S. side, the Obama Administration could reasonably submit to Congress an amendment to the Magnitsky law that would extend its jurisdiction to cover human rights violators “in all countries” per the Senate version of the bill voted down earlier. There is no reason to single out Russia on human rights.
Congress can rest assured, for example, that members would prefer a Russian prison to a Chinese, Saudi, Egyptian or Uzbek prison. U.S. concerns about Russian authoritarianism should be vocalized less, and not more often than they are addressed to these more harsh human rights violators just mentioned. In return, Moscow might begin to negotiate joint mechanisms to monitor and control U.S. adoption of Russian children and once these are in place amend or repeal Russia’s ‘anti-Magnitskii’ Dima Yakovlev Law that bans such adoptions. If the temperature is lowered, more movement on the main agenda issues might be possible.
In addition, the two sides should agree to ‘reset’ the U.S.-Russian Presidential Bilateral Commission by rescinding the U.S. withdrawal from the Civil Society Working Group and Russia’s withdrawal from the Counter-Narcotics Working Group. These petty tit-for-tat withdrawals will have only negative consequences for both sides. The U.S. will lose limited leverage, albeit, on issues of Russian democracy and civil society-building with Russian officials, and both sides’ interests will suffer from abandoning cooperation that led to two joint counter-narcotics raids in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
The larger issue in U.S./Russia relations is nuclear arms and missile defense talks. Here matters stand at a post-Cold War low point, and progress will be difficult and is unlikely. New START nuclear arms reduction treaty stipulates that by 2018 the two nuclear superpowers cut their arsenals to 1,550 deployed warheads. In December 2011 then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev threatened that Russia would abandon the New START treaty––if the U.S. begins to deploy the planned anti-missile defense system (AMD) in Europe. Other roadblocks to a new strategic arms agreement include Russian demands for a legally binding document that would pledge the U.S. not to deploy the AMD system against Russia and for a conventional arms agreement covering weapons and troops in Europe be concluded before nuclear arms talks. For its part, the U.S. wants to include theater-scale and tactical nuclear missiles in any talks on strategic intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Given this multi-layered impasse, the U.S. administration should pursue perhaps the only way out - following up on the Lisbon agreement in which Russia pledged to pursue possible cooperation on an AMD system. This would delay deployment in Europe and allow nuclear arms talks to proceed more smoothly.
At the same time, compromise in nuclear weapons talks could be achieved by including both ‘shelved’ or disabled U.S. missiles and sub-strategic and tactical missiles, of which Russia has a preponderance, in addition to the strategic inter-continental missiles for which New START achieved a relative balance of power.
In lieu of progress, a crisis leading to a new U.S.-Russian arms race could ensue. U.S. AMD deployment and failure to achieve arms reduction could prompt Russia to carry through on its threat to deploy short-range nuclear missiles targeting the AMD system’s components based in NATO countries.
Moscow and Washington will then have the moral high ground to lead the non-proliferation effort begun at the May 2010 Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) review conference where the U.S. and Russia signed onto an action plan with the other nuclear powers -- the United Kingdom, France and China -- for dialogue on verification, transparency, and nuclear weapons policy issues.
This process could lead to multilateral nuclear arms control, once the U.S. and Russia cut their 90 percent share of the the world’s nuclear weapons. It also might include a pledge by all the nuclear powers to do everything possible, including military pre-emption as a last resort, to ensure that the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions remain free of nuclear weapons and unsecured chemical weapons (for example, in Syria). Israel (and North Africa) might also be brought into the nuclear non-proliferation process in exchange for a defense guarantees either from NATO or all the great powers, including the U.S., Russia, and Europe.
Trade and Investment
One way to build the relationship over the long-term is to strengthen trade and investment. According to U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, U.S.-Russian bilateral trade likely broke the $10 billion mark in 2012 for the first time. This is something to build on both in terms of economic relations but also influence on Russia’s development through increased contacts with the U.S. businesses. Within the limits created by Russia’s weak rule of law, the Obama Administration should do everything within its power to expand trade with, and investment in Russia.
The Broader Middle East
In the Middle East, the Sunni Arab revolutions pose a greater and more direct threat to Russia than the U.S. This, and the fate of at least one loyal Russian arms buyer, explains Moscow’s reservations, indeed deep concern regarding the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Syria.
Russia’s ‘Caucasus Emirate’ mujahedin, who have carried out some 2,400 attacks since its founding in October 2007 alone, including 47 suicide bombings, could benefit greatly from these revolutions.
The U.S. and the West, by contrast, have demonstrated considerable naivete`, supporting rebels about whom little was known. What little was known revealed not inconsiderable Islamist and Jihadist elements among them, which will have grave implications for the main U.S. ally in the region – Israel. Washington should wake up to these dangers, something that would facilitate Western-Russian cooperation in preventing the Syrian civil war from engulfing the region––and in dealing with the threat of Damascus’s chemical weapons falling into the rebels’ hands.
State Soveriegnty Versus Humanitarian Interventionism in Syria
Putin is intent on limiting U.S. and Western interference in Russian politics. In foreign policy terms, this means constraining Western humanitarian interventionism and, as represented by U.S. involvement in some of the color revolutions, American revolutionism. Russians’ experience with revolutions in the 20th century has left them with a strong distaste for political instability and revolutionary political transformations.
Therefore, Moscow will also attempt to use a concert of multiple powers to limit humanitarian interventions designed first and foremost to achieve regime change.
Today, this issue is most at the fore in the Syrian civil war. The West has been harshly critical of Moscow’s insistence that Syrians alone––and not outsiders resolve the issue of regime change.
Moscow’s ‘continued supply of weapons to the Assad regime,’ as Western critics like to emphasize, is limited to air defense systems and spare parts for air radar systems under contracts signed before the crisis. The Syrian rebels have no air power, so these supplies are irrelevant to the conflict.
Moscow’s call for all sides – Russia, China and even Iran, on the one hand, and the rebels, the West and Sunni Arab powers, on the other – to pressure the sides to negotiate a cessation of hostilities and mechanisms towards a new, stable regime, has borne some fruit: the June 2012 Geneva Communique.
The Action Group for Syria signatories – the UN Security Council’s five permenant members plus Turkey, the EU, and the Arab League – agreed to push the sides towards talks and establishing an interim regime that would include representatives of both the regime and opposition.
If the Communique remains an empty letter, civilians will continue to suffer in what could become an inter-communal if not region-wide conflagration.
There is even the danger that Moscow might seek to intervene to rescue a fleeing Assad and his Shiite Alawite minority regime from a bloodbath at the hands of radical Islamists and jihadists and secular opposition forces enraged by the ravages of war and the Syrian army. The Alawites’ western stronghold on the Mediterranean Sea hosts the small Russian Navy’s re-fueling station at Tartus and its some 50 Russian military personnel. Moreover, there are thousands of Russian nationals living in Syria. Russian forces could be drawn into combat in an effort to evacuate its nationals and protect fleeing regime elements and Alawite civilians.
Washington and Moscow would do well to undertake substantive steps towards realizing the potential of the Action Group.
For its part, Moscow might threaten reducing or terminating its supply of spare parts, air defense systems, and Syrian currency to pressure Assad to sit down at the table.
To be sure, Moscow’s leverage is limited on its own. However, Moscow could use its leverage with Teheran (once it becomes clear even there that Assad is finished) to pressure it into convincing Assad that is time to go.
Washington could pressure Qatar and Saudi Arabia to threaten reducing weapons supplies to the rebels. Inducements might include efforts by Moscow to secure a refuge country for Assad (perhaps Iran) and guarantees that the Alawite minority will not be persecuted under a future government. Western and Arab inducements might include promises of economic assistance for reconstruction to a regime that allows Assad to leave with his life and protects the rights of all ethnic and confessional groups.
Adjusting the Asia Pivot
The Obama Administration engaged a reinvigorated focus on foreign and security policy in the Asia-Pacific region. Russia did the same, marked by its hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Summit in Vladivostok and environs last September. Given this and some common interests that the three major powers in Asia – the U.S., China, and Russia have – non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, trade, and economic stability and growth – the U.S. would do well to inititiate a trilateral or perhaps multilateral forum that includes them. Such an initiative would pick up on China’s new and historically unprecedented interest in playing a role in defining a global security architecture and Russia’s desire to constitute a major pole in such a multipolar architecture.
In addition, such an initative might mitigate the growing impetus for Sino-Russian security cooperation in Asia sans the U.S. This trend was evident in the pronouncements surrounding Russian Security Council Secretary and former FSB Chairman Nikolai Patrushev’s visit to Beijing in early January and was sparked in part by Washington’s ‘Asia pivot,’ in particular plans for anti-missile defense in Asia. A trilateral process to probe some cooperation could begin with the creation of a trilateral security summit, permanent forum, and working group(s) to cut off potential crises. To entice Putin and avoid a dispute over the locus between the two leading powers, the founding summit could be held in Vladivostok.
Eurasia is one sphere where U.S.-Russian relations could be on the upswing, if handled carefully. As the U.S. remains occupied with the Muslim world and its Asia pivot, it is less likely to get involved in regime change adventures or further NATO expansion in Russia’s backyard. Meanwhile, the new regime in Georgia is seeking a rapprochement with Moscow, relieving one of the sore points in U.S.-Russian relations.
However, Azerbaijan is becoming a potential point of instability in the Transcaucasus. The North Caucasus mujahedin of the Caucasus Emirate have Baku in its crosshairs, as evidence by its massive Mumbai-style terrorism plot uncovered in April 2012.
Moreover, Iran used its Shiite connection to infiltrate and carry out a terrorist attack against Israeli targets last year as well. At the same time, the Nagorno- Karabagh remains unresolved and crossborder incidents between Azerbaijan and Armenian troops have been growing in number during recent months. Although there are limited prospects for cooperation on the first two issues, Washington and Moscow should use their respective leverage in Baku and Yerevan to push for more serious negotiations on Nagorno-Karabagh if only to help contain tensions and avoid an outbreak of fighting in an already instable part of the world.
Another locus where American, Russian, and perhaps Chinese cooperation could be achieved and fruitful is helping to secure Central Asia after the 2014 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, given the possible if not likely return of the Taliban to power. Joint efforts should continue in: developing and supporting the Afghan army and anti-narcotics police, cutting off narcotics transport routes from AfPak through Central Asia, and strengthening Central Asia’s counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics capacity.
Kazakhstan’s call for the U.S. to develop a relationship with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by Russia and China and including most Central Asian states, is good advice. Right now SCO is the only regional security structure capable of shoring up the fight against jihadism once the U.S. and NATO withdrawal is complete. NATO-SCO cooperation would enhance the regional security architecture for coordinating counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics efforts in Central and South Asia while retaining an American voice in the region.
Finally, U.S.-Russian counter-terrorism cooperation should continue in general by maintaining intelligence sharing, joint training maneuvers, and even joint operations if necessary. A key building block of such cooperation has been exemplary cooperation in fighting the Taliban and Al Qa`ida (AQ) in Afghanistan. In addition to joint counter-narcotics ops, Russia expanded the Northern Distribution Route, including a new NATO transit point in Ulyanovsk, to help supply NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, with the impending Afghan withdrawal, this pillar of U.S.-Russian counter-terrorism activity and of the ‘reset in general will be removed. Both sides should find ways to continue this joint activity, which the U.S. can limit given the less than sterling human rights records of Russian military, police, and intelligence organs. However, one possible long-term side benefit of such Western-Russian cooperation can be some democratization of those organs.
To conclude, the task is to prevent a further downturn in U.S.-Russian relations by focusing on those issues where common interests provide some low hanging fruit to pick. This can allow both sides to avoid or at least limit conflicts over the high hanging fruit such as Syria, missile defense, and Russian/Eurasian democratization.
Gordon M. Hahn is Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; Senior Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC; Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program; and Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group. Dr Hahn is author of two well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002) and Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine. He has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and founded and writes the CSIS Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report (IIPER) at https://csis.org/node/33013/publication.