The Putin Reset

Dr. Richard Weitz (Credit: The Hudson Institute)

By Dr. Richard Weitz

12/05/2011 – The Task Force on Russia and U.S. National Interests recently released their report on “Russia and U.S. National Interests: Why Should Americans Care?”

The report’s purpose is to affirm and document the importance of Russia, for good and bad reasons, for realizing U.S. national interests. Chaired by Graham Allison of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Robert D. Blackwill of the Center for the National Interest, it lists several core U.S. national interests, assesses how Russia can affect them, and offers recommendations on how to improve U.S.-Russian cooperation regarding the issue.

The task force members include many people who have held senior positions relating to Russia in previous U.S. administrations. They represent the mainstream views regarding the former Soviet Union that have dominated U.S. policy making during the past two decades. They and their views will likely remain influential no matter who is elected the U.S. (or Russian) president next year.

Russia and its Arctic interests may well be a global gamechanger which most analysts simply miss.  (Credit Image: Bigstock)

Russia and its Arctic interests may well be a global gamechanger which most analysts simply miss. (Credit Image: Bigstock)

The report’s basic premises are that “a better-managed bilateral relationship is critical for the advancement of America’s vital national interests” and that, while “Russia is not our enemy, neither has it become a friend.” These propositions are unobjectionable, as is their argument that “Russia is a pivotal country in promoting” such vital U.S. national interests as:

  • Nuclear weapons
  • Non-proliferation
  • Counter-terrorism
  • Geopolitics, including managing China’s emergence as a global power
  • Afghanistan
  • Energy
  • International finance, in the G8 and the G20
  • Strategic geography.

As Allison noted during the report’s DC rollout, Russia is the sole country that can destroy the United States in under an hour. But it is also the one state besides the United States that has done more than any other country than the United States during the last 20 years to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other states or the loss of dangerous nuclear weapons to terrorists As is well-known, Russia is also the world’s largest producer of hydrocarbons such as oil and gas, which underpin the global economy.

The report’s authors rightly worry that sustaining the improvements in Russian-U.S. relations that have occurred during the past two years will be difficult since “what remains to be done is likely to be much more difficult than what has been accomplished so far.” In fact, even a failure to move forward in these areas could lead to a deterioration in Russian-U.S. ties since both sides had been making concessions in the expectations that they would be rewarded by the other in the future. Russian officials constantly complain that previous American administrations failed to fulfill their earlier commitments to Russia.

The report offers some good ideas about where the two sides can cooperate further. It correctly notes the necessity of strengthening Russian-American economic ties, which remains a weak area in their bilateral relationship. In principle, Russians may understand that U.S. officials, unlike their Russian counterparts, cannot determine where wealthy Americans invest their capital. But Russians note that, while the size of the EU and U.S. economies are similar, European investment in Russia is about ten times greater. From Moscow’s perspective, it is easy to see the problem for the disparity as lying in Washington rather than Moscow.

Still, some of their recommendations seem hard to implement. Working with Russia to manage China’s rising military power will be difficult since Moscow will do everything possible to avoid antagonizing Beijing. Russia has pursued a bandwagoning strategy regarding China, seeking to embrace Beijing so closely that it will not threaten core Russian interests in Central Asia and elsewhere. Russian officials are content to let the United States bear the onus of containing China’s rising military potential.

Although one does read anti-Chinese sentiments expressed in some Russian military journals, the Russian government tries to suppress any public debate on the issue. It would probably take some overtly anti-Russian move by the Chinese leadership to induce Moscow to provide greater backing to Washington’s low-key China balancing.

Furthermore, Russia may be the world’s largest producer of oil and second largest producer of natural gas, and may have added more oil and gas to world energy exports than any other country, but the United States does not import large quantities of either product from Russia . U.S. officials are also seeking to encourage Europeans and others to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas exports.

Collaboration regarding nuclear energy would seem to offer better prospects since the two countries have a clear common interest in making civilian nuclear power more safe against accidents after the Japanese disaster and more secure against illicit military uses. Both governments want to continue to expand the use of nuclear energy at home and internationally while averting further nuclear proliferation. Further nuclear mishaps will derail any progress they hope to see in this area. They also have a mechanism for bilateral civil nuclear cooperation already in place—their recently implemented “123 agreement.”

The report’s call for more bilateral cooperation against terrorism will also be difficult to pursue.

The two countries are already collaborating in the easy-to-agree areas of countering WMD terrorism, which has threatened both countries, as well as in Afghanistan and regarding security at the upcoming Sochi Olympics and other sites of important international events. Extending this cooperation to other areas has proven difficult since Russians and Americans tend to have different definitions of terrorism and, as the report’s authors note, they tend to believe that the other country’s policies actually contribute to some terrorism (i.e., Americans think Russia’s human rights violations spur terrorism in the Caucasus, while Russians believe that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has spawned more terrorists than it has eliminated).

The Russian-U.S. relationship will invariably entail major sources of tension. Russians will never welcome NATO’s domination of Europe’s security architecture, U.S. missile defense efforts, and U.S. criticism of Russia’s human rights policies. Iran looks to be a persistent source of disharmony because Russians genuinely perceive Tehran as less threatening than do most Americans, and have more to lose from a cessation of economic ties with Iran (or an Iranian-Western reconciliation). Although many Americans consider Russia’s Iran policies a fundamental test of the reset, Russian officials would not like to see any major change in relations between Washington and Tehran since Russians believe that any major departure from the status quo, from successful engagement to regime change to war, could harm Russian interests.

Georgia is another issue that could derail the Russia-U.S. reset. Putin and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili loathe one another. Even if another Georgian replaced Saakashvili as Georgia’s dominant political leader, Putin is unlikely to reverse Moscow’s de facto annexation of the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russian troops fully occupied in 2008. Although Moscow’s has formally recognized them as independent states, the Russian military is building large long-term bases in both regions. The best that might ensue when Saakashvili retires as president is that Russia might allow more visa-free travel and more trade between the separatist regions and the rest of Georgia. In any case, many Americans naturally sympathize with Georgians as an embattled underdog seeking to promote democracy and a vibrant free market economy at home while pursuing an independent but pro-Washington foreign policy abroad, which has included sending combat troops to Iraq and now Afghanistan. Russian-Georgian tensions caused the partial failure of last December’s OSCE summit in Astana and look to be an enduring source of Russian-U.S. tension.

Domestic politics can also easily disrupt the relationship since there is an incentive for the political opponents of those in power to block progress in the relationship or to attack the government for making too many concessions to the other side. Putin’s almost inevitable return to the Russian presidency next year will amplify this problem.

The U.S. Congress may not be anti-Russian, but it is anti-Putin. This sentiment could make it harder to ratify treaties, confirm U.S. officials, and otherwise pursue a sustained positive relationship with the Russian government. For example, the Obama administration will find it harder to secure congressional repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment or ratification of the next major arms deal. Despite its modest nature, New START secured much less Senate support than previous strategic arms control treaties. Had Putin been president last year, two-thirds of the Senators might not have supported it. It will also prove difficult to secure congressional repeal of the outdated but still embarrassing Jackson-Vanik Amendment since Congress uses it as a mechanism to hold regular hearings in which the Russian government’s human rights and other policies are denounced by a slew of witnesses arguing against the amendment’s repeal.

Nonetheless, Putin’s return to the presidency will not be all doom and gloom. The reset achievements above were partly due to changes in Russian policies that Putin must have accepted since he remained the most powerful person in Russia even after he retired from that office in 2008. Putin may well continue these policies when he exchanges offices with Medvedev. During his previous two terms as Russian president (2000 to 2008), Putin demonstrated a strong pragmatic streak that enabled him to accept without much fuss the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, the establishment of NATO military bases in Central Asia, and the U.S. withdrawal of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

It is not even foreordained that Putin’s return to the presidency will see Russia pursue harder line domestic or foreign policies. Putin has a strong pragmatic streak. During his first years in office, he introduced major liberal economic reforms before rising oil prices reduced his incentive to continue this line. His foreign policy saw efforts to cooperate with many countries regardless of ideology, only souring on the United States in the 2006-2008 period for reasons that still remain unclear. Putin’s policies starting with his return to the presidency next March could see a continued drive to secure Western investment and stabilize relations with other foreign governments if international conditions warrant such an approach.

As a strong leader with well-respected nationalist credentials, Putin has the authority to ram through major compromises like accepting the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty as well as the U.S. invasion of Iraq with equanimity, expressing regret and criticism regarding the wisdom of the decision but not raising major obstacles to its implementation. In addition, the end of the Putin-Medvedev tandem might also bring greater order to the Russian inter-agency system by enshrining both formal and informal powers in the single personality of Putin rather than dividing them between the presidency and the prime ministership.

Putin will also be in a better position to implement the contested military reform program that Russia has pursued during the past few years. The reforms have been carried out primarily under the office of the prime minister, who supervises the work of the Ministry of Defense, so they must have had Putin’s backing. Putin reaffirmed his support for the reform program when he declared his candidacy. Furthermore, the resignation of budget hardliner Aleksei Kudrin, who as finance minister fought against Medvedev’s proposed $65 billion defense spending increase as breaking the national budget and undermining efforts to diversify the economy away from military-industrial production, removes one possible barrier to the increased spending.

Furthermore, Russian public opinion will not constrain Putin and other Russian leaders from cooperating with the United States. Russian leaders are much more a taker than a shaper of Russian public opinion. Anti-Americanism rises and falls in Russia, but is more a product of the government’s policy line rather than a constraint on state behavior. One does see surges of xenophobic nationalism in Russia, but these are directed mostly inward against immigrants and guest workers from the south of Russia rather than outward against foreign countries. Most Russians still identify themselves more with Western societies than Asian ones and seem open in principle to cooperating with Western governments in the pursuit of common interest. Of course, American public opinion will constrain that types of policies the United States pursues toward Russia, though Russian-related issues are much less salient in American politics than previously.

And just because Putin chooses a policy course does not guarantee that it will be effective or achievable. For example, realizing Putin’s proposal for a new Eurasian Union under Moscow’s control will prove difficult. The existing international institutions in the former Soviet bloc—which include the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the Customs Union—have proved unable to achieve concrete cooperation and sustain their momentum. Although many of the leaders of Soviet republics were not seeking independence in 1991, they have grown to enjoy their autonomy and have generally resisted sacrificing it. Many of these newly independent states are eager to develop their relations with China or the West to balance their ties with Moscow.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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