Russia-US Relations: Hypotheses and Recommendations

Russia's Pacific and Arctic interests will become increasingly significant. (Credit: Bigstock)
Dr. Richard Weitz (Credit: The Hudson Institute)

By Dr. Richard Weitz

12/12/2011 – Editor’s Note: Starting next year on the Second Line of Defense Forum ( we will start a series of pieces debating key decisions to be made after 2012 in the United States about foreign and defense policy.  We will shape a short list of core opportunities or low hanging fruit which the next President can act on.  This article is the first in this series.

As we approach the elections seasons in Russia and the United States, we should bear in mind the key hypotheses and recommendations that have appeared in Second Line of Defense coverage of this issue during the past year.

Russia's Pacific and Arctic interests will become increasingly significant. (Credit: Bigstock)
Russia's Pacific and Arctic interests will become increasingly significant. (Credit: Bigstock)

The United States and Russia have a number of overlapping interests that require some level of cooperation. The long-term strategic interests of the two countries are generally in close alignment. Islamic fundamentalism, the rise of China, nuclear proliferation, even energy (fundamentally sellers need buyers) are all areas where common interests exist. It is mutually beneficial to engage on these issues, which to some extent can and should be isolated from differences in other areas.

Of course, these differences should not be underestimated. They include Russian opposition to U.S. primacy and alliances in Europe and Asia; Russian concerns about U.S. military activities in Central Asia; diverging threat perceptions regarding Iran, North Korea and other problematic states; the Russian governments’ shortcomings in the areas of human rights and democracy; popular hostility and opposition in both countries regarding the other’s foreign policies; and missile defense.

Russian and U.S. policy makers often express their goals regarding the other in negative terms—to cease acts that impeding the others’ foreign policies. Indeed, both countries have the potential, and have often acted, as spoilers regarding the other’s policies, thwarting its national security strategies. In addition, due to their limited economic cooperation and past history of antagonisms, there is not a large group of stakeholders in either country that support better relations.

Yet, there is no inherent conflict between acknowledging mutual differences but still building on mutual interests.

The problem in recent years has been with Russia’s leaders (and a few of their American counterparts) who allow old thinking to distort their perceptions and priorities, misidentifying areas of potential cooperation as unavoidable areas of conflict, or underestimating opportunities for cooperation.

These background conditions mean that the current “reset” was (as its name implies) a quick, necessary, and largely successful fix to a badly frayed U.S.-Russian relationship that had reached its post-Cold War nadir in the last years of the Bush administration due to the disputes over missile defense, NATO membership enlargement, and the war in Georgia. But the existing reset needs a broader and more enduring foundation to become a more enduring partnership between Russia and the West. And this more fundamental restructuring of Russia-U.S. relations will not materialize until Russian policy makers adopt more common values with the West and see more of their interests aligned with the West rather than against it.

The United States has mixed interests at stake regarding the issue of Russia’s future power. A Russia that had become relatively stronger regarding the United States and the other great powers could more easily threaten U.S. regional security interests and resist Western efforts to transform the country into a liberal democracy. But it could also provide more support for U.S. efforts to counter nuclear terrorism, maritime piracy, and China’s growing power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Conversely, a Russia relatively weaker to the United States would have less capability to challenge the United States but can provide less assistance for realizing common U.S.-Russian goals. A weaker Russia may also find it harder to control its WMD assets and become vulnerable to external predators not friendly to the United States (e.g., China and Iran). But in all probability Russia will still have sufficiently strong nuclear forces to ward off external threats. Most worrisome, a Russian leadership that perceived Russia on a slope toward protracted decline might feel compelled to take drastic measures, internally and externally, to reverse its descent. The German Empire, Imperial Japan, and other great powers in the 20th century attempted to reverse their feared decline in ways that helped precipitate disastrous global wars.

The United States can have little direct impact on the core political, economic, and military policies of a sovereign Russia. The country’s leaders are unlikely to make the liberalizing changes sought by Americans since a Russia with a more liberal economy and political system would risk undermining the elite that most benefits from Russia’s current political and economic system. Many of Russia’s socioeconomic problems (e.g., corruption) may have become institutionalized during the traumatic communist and post-communist periods. But the United States could have an indirect impact by promoting Russia’s integration into global and regional institutions that enshrine Western liberal democratic and free market values. Select U.S. intervention on some narrow issues—such as state policies that violate a particular person’s human rights, or denunciations of Russian xenophobia—might make a difference on the margin.

Russian leaders will be most open to U.S. suggestions that aim to help Russia overcome its weaknesses. For example, U.S. advice on how to secure more foreign investment in certain limited sectors (e.g., energy) may be implemented even if not attributed to foreign inspiration. U.S. proposals to help address Russia’s demographic and health problems might be accepted and would not necessarily harm U.S. interests. Demographic crises could lead the Russian leadership to take drastic and destabilizing actions to reverse or cover up weaknesses.

But other Russian weaknesses—such as the vulnerabilities due to the country’s absence of an institutionalized, regularized, and legitimate means of transferring power in the Kremlin—are beyond America’s power to rectify.

Nongovernmental contacts through Track II and other dialogues can supplement public exchange programs aimed to cultivate a positive U.S. image in Russia, but the main source of anti-Americanism, which varies considerably from year to year, is the way in which the United States and U.S. policies are depicted in Russia’s state-controlled mass media. Popular perceptions of the United States also do not appear to affect Russian government policies due to the constraints on popular impact on Russian government policies.

USN 7th Fleet Visit to Russian Port at Vladivostok. How much collaboration is possbile? (Credit: Bigstock)USN 7th Fleet Visit to Russian Port at Vladivostok. How much collaboration is possbile? (Credit: Bigstock)

Russia is unlikely to support a “global nuclear zero”—or even major reductions–in its nuclear weapons arsenal in coming years unless the United States agrees to constrain its missile defense capabilities substantially and China consents to limit its own military buildup. Since neither of these developments are likely, the United States will need to retain nuclear weapons – or at least considerable nuclear weapons potential — indefinitely.

The next strategic arms control negotiations between Russia and the United States need to address those issues that were quickly excluded from the New START negotiations because Russia and the United States were in a rush to reach a “bridging treaty” to restore some arms control verification measures that had lapsed with the expiration of the START Treaty in December 2009. These issues include theater nuclear weapons, non-deployed nuclear warheads, strategic systems armed with conventional warheads, and third-party nuclear forces. Although Russia and the United States may be able to negotiate one more arms control treaty on a purely bilateral basis, at some point they need to achieve some kind of arrangement with Beijing in which China would commit to constrain its own nuclear potential and make its nuclear activities more transparent, especially given recent claims that China’s nuclear warheads arsenal is perhaps ten times less than previously thought by Russian and U.S. analysts.

NATO may decide to remove the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons currently based in several European members of NATO, and “shared” with them for operational purposes, but such a decision should not be made with much of an expectation that Russia will reciprocate these reductions. The Russians see these non-strategic weapons as a valuable resource that they will not yield without NATO’s making major and improbable concessions regarding NATO membership enlargement, its conventional forces, US nuclear weapons in Europe, and of course missile defense.

The ambitious Russian plans to revitalize the country’s conventional forces are unlikely to be realized. Corruption, inefficiency and outdated practices will continue to dissipate Russian defense spending. U.S. force planners would do better to develop capabilities and options to counter China’s growing naval and air power in order to deter Chinese adventurism. Russia’s nuclear weapons will remain the country’s most potent weapon, but the United States will lack the means to negate them other than through mutual assured destruction.

The Russian government is now more open to purchasing weapons from Western governments in order to fill gaps unmet by Russia’s own defense industries as well as spur domestic Russian defense producers to contain their costs and improve their capabilities. The United States should encourage greater allied discussions regarding how to manage this development. France’s decision to sell Mistral class amphibious warships to Russia despite some opposition by other NATO governments illustrates the potential problems of allowing unconstrained Western sales.

The United States cannot acknowledge the legitimacy of Russian claims to have a “sphere of influence” in the former Soviet republics. Russian aspirations to affirm its “privileged interests” in the post-Soviet space have been persistent. Putin’s proposal for a Eurasian Union is their latest manifestation. These schemes are unlikely to succeed unless accompanied by Russian economic and military coercion, which the United States should oppose. In their absence, the centrifugal forces in the former Soviet Union are too great, and include the paucity of positive incentives to bind with Moscow and the desire of the local elites for autonomy and options to develop ties with other regions, including Europe, China, and the United States.

Russia will not relinquish control of the two separatist regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but Moscow might be more open to allowing a greater role for Georgian representation in the two regions as well as a more relaxed regime for people and businesses. The recent Russia-Georgia WTO agreement might provide an opening for exploring expanded links, though major improvements are unlikely to improve until the next generation of leaders assume power in both countries.

Russia’s support for the NATO effort in Afghanistan is conditional. Russians naturally prefer that the United States and its allies make the main effort in countering regional terrorist threats. Important Russian groups also earn income by selling fuel and transportation resources to the NATO war effort. If the United States and its allies were ever to stabilize the security situation there, Moscow would likely try to push NATO combat forces out of Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Given all the problems with sending NATO supplies to Afghanistan through Pakistan, the United States should try to expand the volume of supplies sent through Northern Distribution Network’s South Caucasus route. Such a move would boost the U.S. regional presence in the South Caucasus and reaffirm the U.S. commitment to these countries as a key partner in this endeavor by strengthening security ties between the United States and these states, which are unlikely to soon receive NATO membership. But expanding NDN South would probably require more U.S. and NATO resources to address logistical and infrastructure bottlenecks.

Although fear of China’s rising military strength is less among the political and military leaders of Russia than in many other Asian countries, recent years have seen more indications that at least some Russian national security experts are concerned about this trend. The United States may find it useful to encourage this new thinking by, for example, launching a more extensive diplomatic initiative to resolve the dispute between Russia and Japan.

Russian leaders do not want North Korea, Iran, or other countries to acquire nuclear weapons. Russia-U.S. cooperation on nonproliferation issues is generally strong, and extends to an extensive partnership against WMD terrorism. But Russians are unwilling to incur major costs in averting nuclear proliferation, so they will not risk a confrontation with North Korea over its WMD programs or agree to end economic ties with Iran to pressure Tehran to end its controversial nuclear policies. Russian cooperation with the West regarding Iran is also limited due to Russian recognition that Moscow benefits from Iran’s alienation from the West, which expands opportunities for Russian businesses in Iran and constrains Iranian oil sales to international markets. Russian diplomats also do not want Iranian leaders to challenge Moscow’s control over the North Caucasus or become more confrontational over other regional security issues. The United States should encourage Russia to refrain from selling Iran destabilizing weapons like the S-300 surface-to-air missile system or from elevating Iran’s status to that of a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Russia will try to sell arms to any country that is not under UN sanctions explicitly limiting such sales, which includes further sales to Iran, Syria, and other countries with odious national security establishments. In some cases, Russia may renounce certain sales opportunities, but over time the fear of losing markets to the improving Chinese arms export industry may weaken this trend. U.S. diplomacy should pressure China to refrain from backfilling for Russian defense and other firms that end their ties with Iran and other states of concern.

Although Russia often has good relations with individual European countries, Russians feel excluded from Europe as a collective. This alienation, which encompasses resentment over EU visa policies and EU criticism of Russian domestic policies, is felt most strongly in the security realm. The United States needs to make Moscow more comfortable with a NATO-dominated European security order by offering Russians more opportunities to participate in NATO activities.

The United States should continue to encourage Europeans to reduce their dependence on Russian energy sources due to the risks of short-term politically inspired interruptions and longer-term shortages due to the limited growth of the Russian energy sector. More generally, Washington should encourage the EU governments to adopt a more collective and coherent approach to Russia to reduce Russian “divide-and-conquer” opportunities through bilateral cooperation with key European leaders.

Russian policy makers would like to avoid a confrontation for Arctic resources, primarily to exclude NATO from the region but also because they could benefit from joint Russian-Western business ventures designed to exploit the opportunities resulting from climate change. U.S. diplomacy should aim to encourage this cooperative orientation. The United States and other countries will have less success changing Russian ambivalence regarding global climate change. Many Russians believe localized warming could reduce Russia’s heating and other domestic energy requirements, boost Russian agriculture production, open up northern sea routes to Russian maritime navigation, and make it easier for Russia to exploit its Arctic riches.

The United States could benefit from having Russia more engaged in the Asia-Pacific region. Russia’s economic role in East Asia is marginal and often that of a natural resource supplier to the more dynamic economies. Greater foreign investment from other countries in the Russian Far East could help balance China’s economic activities there. Russian diplomacy regarding North Korea has generally been positive, and has included discouraging DPRK adventurism and integrating North Korea into Russian plans to expand its transportation networks with South Korea. U.S. interests in East Asia would be furthered by a reduction in tensions between Japan and Russia; the two countries should be natural economic partners and share a strategic interest in discouraging aggressive Chinese policies in East Asia.

The United States needs to replenish its experts regarding Russia and the other former Soviet republics. Language training and regional expertise are essential for understanding Russia and its neighborhood. There is an especially urgent need for more American experts on the Russian economy given that its future health will perhaps be the most important driver determining whether Russia will become a declining or rising global power in coming decades.