The Next Administration and Dealing with the Russian Challenge: The US and Russian Liberal Perspective


2016-10-31 Based on his recent travels to the former Soviet Union, Richard Weitz provides a series looking at the potential evolution of the Russian-American relationship and rivalry under the next Administration.

According to Weitz: “I spent the last few weeks in Russia giving presentations and holding meetings at various Russian institutions in Moscow, including The Gorbachev Foundation, the Moscow State University, the Financial University, the American Centre, the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Russian International Affairs Council.

“I then spent four days at the annual Valdai Conference in Sochi, attended by President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian officials as well as more than one hundred foreign experts, many of whom were former high-level government officials or long-time Russian experts.”

He starts by looking at one might call the U.S. and Russian liberal perspectives.

Mutual Depression: Russians and American Liberals on The Bilateral Relationship

Many of the Russians and Americans present at these sessions adhered to what might be termed the “liberal school” of Russia-U.S. relations, favoring better bilateral relations under moderate democratic governments in both countries. However, whereas most liberals are optimistic by nature, both the Russian and American liberals contemplating current Russia-U.S. relations were pessimistic about the potential for good bilateral relations in coming years, even if Senator Hilary Clinton becomes the next president of the United States, as both groups preferred.

By contrast, as I will explain in a later post, some of the more conservative nationalist groups saw greater opportunities for cooperation.

According to the liberal analysts, Russian-U.S. relations have reached a post-Cold War low from which they will not soon recover. Both the Russian and the U.S. liberal analysts expect that Clinton will be elected as the next U.S. president and enter office with a pessimistic view of the possibilities of achieving much progress with Putin, who U.S. liberals see as irreconcilably hostile to the United States and Russian liberals believe has been demonized in the Western media.

Both Russians and Americans anticipate that Putin will remain Russia’s president for many years to come. They also expect that the U.S. political establishment, led by the Republicans in Congress, will pressure a President Clinton to adhere to a hostile attitude toward Russia.

In particular, the Russian liberals saw the Washington establishment as unanimous in seeking to contain Russia en route to replacing its regime with one that would pursue a pro-Western foreign policy. Meanwhile, Americans worried about threats to globalization from stagnation in many major national economics, the weakness of international economic integration and trade, and the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-trade popular movements.

As a result of these conditions, both the Russians and the Americans foresaw several years of confrontation that would impair both governments’ ability to address mutual global challenges, especially international terrorism and nuclear disarmament.

The best they would hope for would be reducing the intensity of the risks of their rivalry and avoiding direct military confrontations over Syria, the Baltic States, Ukraine, or other regions by minimizing dangerous misperceptions, developing improved crisis management and crisis prevention mechanisms through adoption of codes of conduct and enhanced rules of the road, and transactional deals in limited areas of strong common interest.

These measures would focus on achieving cooperation on a limited number of local issues that would be most important for both countries, where Russia and the United States would have the greatest potential impact (what one Russian expert termed “maximum added value”), and issues that could be embedded in a broader multilateral framework rather than a narrow bilateral one—the presumption being that involving third countries could help dampen bilateral tensions.

The topics that these experts saw as falling in this category included nuclear materials security, international terrorism, nonproliferation, European security, cyber security (which was seen as a major but manageable challenge through codes of contact and mutual restraint), and operational arms control through confidence-building, transparency, early warning. and crisis communications measures, perhaps through the NATO-Russia Council or OSCE.

The Russian and U.S. scholars were hopeful that Russian-U.S. relations would rebound after 4-8 years of confrontation as the two sides grew tired of it, desired to reduce the risks and costs of conflict, and realized that their conflicts only provided an opening for competing rising powers, such as China.

In my view, Russians exaggerate the determination and especially the capacity of the U.S government to change their regime.

When the United States potentially had the opportunity in the 1990s to integrate Russia into the West, Washington and its allies treated the question as a low priority—contributing to the current crisis in the relationship.

Conversely, both sides underestimate the challenge of achieving operational arms control measures, especially in the cyber domain, and because it may be Russian state policy to use war scares to rally domestic support behind the government and to raise alarm in Europe about the need to reduce tensions with Russia to avoid nuclear crises.

They also exaggerate the potential for stronger Russian-U.S. ties to drive global cooperation.

During the Cold War, Moscow and Washington could sign a ceasefire and then force Israel and the Arabs to accept it—but now, even if they could agree on Syrian peace terms, they can hardly expect the Syrian terrorists to accept them. If anything, the bilateral relationship looks to be more determined by external events—as we saw with the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the

Meanwhile, the United States has probably overcorrected for earlier security gaps in curtailing scientific and academic ties with Russia, whose universities have great scholars and students who would be open to pursuing a more pro-Western line once government ties improve.

Unlike in the case of China-U.S. relations, where the extensive social and economic ties provide a ballast to limit the damage of their bilateral security disputes, Russian-U.S. commercial and humanitarian ties are embarrassingly small given their potential.

However, some of these Russian and U.S. perspectives and proposals make sense—such as recognizing that bilateral and multilateral arms control agreements focused on force cuts are unlikely for the next few years due to difference Russian and U.S. priorities, mutual claims of cheating (though the Russian charges seem less genuine and more retaliatory), and the disinterest of other countries to accept limits on their own forces in the absence of deeper Russian-U.S. cuts.

These analysts are correct that for now Russia and the United States would find it easier to focus on curbing further nuclear proliferation to other countries through supply- and demand-focused measures aimed at factors facilitating and driving nuclear proliferation.

Despite recent tensions, Russian-U.S. collaboration regarding preventing Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons has persisted.

With the prospects of success for formal Russian-U. S government talks so limited, the analysts correctly highlight the importance of sustaining a robust unofficial Track II dialogue—not with the expectation that these talks can by themselves prompt their governments to change course, but to build a foundation for when the political relationship improves sufficiently that leaders in both capitals will look around for new ideas and initiatives for cooperative projects.