The Principle “Teach Without Learning Yourself” May Lead US-Russian Relations To New Crises, As Both Sides Are Not Prepared to Move an Inch on Most Issues
By Dmitry SUSLOV
The results of the Medvedev-Obama summit, which took place last week in Moscow, are at the same time encouraging and alarming. The meeting indicated a halt in the deterioration of relations, which had been going from bad to worse in the last five years. The meeting – at least rhetorically - became an important manifestation of the “reset” of relations. However, it is too early to predict a steady improvement. Moreover, the current logic of the reset, if it remains unchanged, could lead to a new round of mutual resentment and distrust. The same post-Cold War pattern may repeat itself. During the tenure of the administrations of Yeltsin and Clinton and later of Bush junior and Putin, relatively short periods of “honeymoons” were followed by longer periods of disappointment, during which all attempts to construct a sustainable cooperation model failed.
If we view the Moscow summit as the first small step towards improvement, then we can definitely agree that minimal requirements for normalization were fulfilled. The meeting went smoothly, in a positive atmosphere (which is very important in the context of the recent past of the US-Russia relations), and without any surprises. There were no breakthroughs, but there were no failures either. Every success was not unexpected. This is especially true about the progress on the strategic arms reduction (START) treaty: both sides realized the need to prevent a collapse of the arms control regime, and each side seemed to get according to the new START agreement the desired number of nuclear weapons, without seriously committing itself to any major cuts in either warheads or carriers.
A decision on Afghanistan – with Russia providing the US with a free of charge right for military air and land transit via its territory - was also an absolutely natural and even obvious outcome. In fact, this development had to take place as soon as there was a slightest hint at an improvement in the atmosphere of Russia-US relations. Obama’s administration proclaimed Afghanistan its highest immediate foreign policy priority, and Russia is a key player in the region, which could contribute much to the success of the Afghan operation, both as a transit country and as an active contributor. As Pakistan is becoming less stable and reliable, Russia’s role may increase. For its part, Russia is also very much interested in Afghanistan’s stabilization, which would prevent spreading instability to the Central Asian republics – Russia’s allies in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Also, an important achievement of the summit was a formal re-launching of Russia-US military dialogue – a rather symbolic act keeping in mind that less than a year ago the Russian and American military were engaged in an indirect conflict, with Russian and American navies opposing each other in the Black Sea.
So, the main positive result of the summit was the end of hostilities which peaked in autumn 2008, when Washington in fact fraternized with the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. The symbolic ending of American efforts to “punish” Russia diplomatically for the events of August 2008 was indeed important for Russia, since bad relations with the US considerably undermine Russia’s position in relation to the other centers of world power, such as the EU and China. At the same time, bad relations with Russia undermine the effectiveness of the American policy on many issues of utmost importance to the United States, such as the stabilization of Afghanistan and Iran’s nuclear program. Thus, the summit signaled a new recognition of mutual significance of Russia and the US for each other – the fact that actually made the “reset” possible.
However, a deeper look at the Moscow summit shows that all of its achievements were entirely a result of flexibility and even concessions from the Russian side. First, despite Russia’s profound interest in preventing Taliban’s regaining control over Afghanistan, still, it is much more an American agenda than a Russian one. Afghanistan stands much higher on the US foreign policy priority list than on Russia’s one. However, there were no similar steps on the American side offering assistance on the issues of utmost importance for Russia. Second, and it is much more important, the US managed to gauge from Russia concrete figures of cuts in the nuclear arms arsenals without any agreement on the American plans to build a missile defense shield. Previously Russia persistently pointed to an inherent interdependence between the “offensive” and “defensive” arms and claimed that it would sign a new post-START treaty only if the sides reached an agreement on the issue of the US government’s ABM project. Such an agreement would fill the vacuum left by the American withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2001.
There was no such agreement achieved at the summit. The summit declaration states that the sides will continue to discuss the issue, including a relationship between offensive and defensive strategic nuclear systems in the context of the new post-START treaty elaboration. At the same time, Barack Obama himself made it very clear at the press conference of the summit that he doesn’t see a direct link between offensive and defensive strategic installations, basically, contradicting the substance of the document he had just signed. He and his aides stipulated before, during and after the summit that the future of the ABM system, including the sites in Eastern Europe, will be determined by the US only, and it will have nothing to do with the US-Russia relations or the new treaty on nuclear weapons reduction. Rather, Obama and his aides emphasized a connection between missile defense sites in Eastern Europe and the future of Iranian nuclear program – a link which Russia rejects.
Thus, on the ABM issue the sides continue to agree to disagree, and the summit provided no answer to this equation, just an agreement to continue talks. The fact that under these circumstances Russia did agree to cut its nuclear arsenals to definite levels, thus laying the foundations for a new system of arms control, is indeed an important concession on its side.
The problem is that this concession was not reciprocated on the American side. By the end of the summit, the US position did not move an inch on any point of the US-Russian relations’ agenda, be it the ABM system, NATO expansion, future of the post-Soviet space, Iran, etc.
Finally, the summit produced no results at all on the issues that are of the highest priority for Russia and which are the real sources for the repeated deterioration of relations, namely, the evolution of a Russo-centric integration of post-Soviet countries, security arrangements in that same post-Soviet space and Russia’s place in decision-making on the security matters in Europe and its surrounding. The US policies on all of these issues have been perceived in Moscow as nothing short a threat to Russia’s vital interests and sometimes even to Russia’s national security. Contradictions in these spheres have been blocking serious Russian-American cooperation on other issues, less important for Moscow, but infinitely more important for the United States. Unfortunately, these disagreements have not even started to be addressed during the summit, and at this point the US seems to be avoiding any serious discussion on these issues.
Indeed, patience is needed. The Russian side understands that speedy progress is very difficult to expect in the context of a hostile attitude from the part of the US political elite towards the very idea of improving relations with Russia. Under these conditions, possible compromises on the post-Soviet and European security issues, especially the ones involving concessions on the US side, could actually provoke more destructive criticism of the new Washington administration with more harm than benefit for bilateral relations.
However, it is highly unlikely that this summit is really taken in Washington for what it should be – namely the first step necessary for creating a positive atmosphere in US-Russia relations, to be followed by serious discussion and the overcoming of contradictions on those issues that are of highest priority for Russia. Statements by the key foreign policy officials of the Obama administration, as well as in-depth discussions with representatives of the American expert community, produce an impression that the US is neither willing nor ready for any compromise with Russia on matters of CIS and European security. For instance, just on the eve of the Moscow summit a well-known Russia expert and now the director of the Russian and Eurasian department of the US National Security Council Michael McFaul clearly stated that the “US is not going to alter any of its interests in the CIS in the sake of improving relations with Russia”. Interestingly, even those American foreign policy experts outside the administration, who faithfully want an improvement of the US-Russia relations, think absolutely the same way – that this improvement should be achieved at no price for the US side at all, namely no concessions and even no neutral shifts in the American position.
The logic of the “reset” that the US is offering is the following. The sides should continue agreeing to disagree on the issues where they have opposing interests and policies and focus on the matters where their interests converge. The latter being Afghanistan, North Korea, nuclear non-proliferation, preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, elaborating a new START treaty, etc. It is obvious, however, that to a great extent these issues are exactly the vital immediate foreign policy priorities of the US, while for Russia their importance, though not of low importance, may not be nearly as high, as for America. Russia’s immediate highest priorities are much more regional in their scope.
Thus, in fact, the substance and logic of the “reset” agenda as provided by the Obama’s administration is that Russia should simply join the US in fulfilling most of its foreign policy agenda, because such cooperation would be in Russia’s interest as well. As for the issues, where the sides oppose each other, in the short-term prospect it is proposed to continue agreeing to disagree, while in the longer-term perspective Russia is advised to change its attitude to the US policy and adapt its interests in the post-Soviet space and Europe to the American agenda there. The same old mantra of the Clinton age is repeated, namely that Russia should be interested in stable, democratic and prosperous neighbors, and their prosperity, stability and peacefulness can only be the result of their pro-Western orientation. The US foreign policy pundits who invented the term “reset” didn’t even bother to alter this mantra, although Russian-Baltic, Russian-Ukrainian and, most dramatically, Russian-Georgian relations of the recent years speak against this view.
Experience shows that this American foreign policy principle of “teach without learning yourself” may lead to another failure in our relations, as it did many times under Clinton and Bush-junior. The reason is that Moscow’s interests in the post-Soviet and European space, which the US tends to ignore, are so important for Russia, that any sort of cooperation with the US on other matters gets blocked even in those spheres where our interests indeed coincide. The same old story might repeat itself this time. Too many times since the end of the Cold War has Russia been asked by the US to sacrifice some of its interests for the sake of Russian-American “partnership” and too many times it got nothing in return. Repeating such a scenario one more time for Russia is unacceptable.
In order to get out of this vicious circle, the sides need to tackle contradictions among them in a serious and truly bilateral way, rather than trying to focus exclusively on those matters which suit just one side. Contradictions need to be overcome on the basis of compromise and mutual concessions, not on dictate and stubborn repetition of old reassuring formulas. Details of these concessions can be a subject for a sincere Russia-US discussion on both expert and diplomatic levels. The key thing is not to reject their very possibility from the very beginning. Otherwise, the life of the current Russian-American “reset” policy may be even shorter than that of the previous attempts to improve relations.
Dmitry V. Suslov is a Deputy Director for Research at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.