This article is the second of three essays on U.S.-Russian relations in the transition to a new U.S. administration. The first is here.
Realism takes reality as its starting point, and the reality is that U.S. policy over the past 25 years has failed to secure the transformation of Russia into a country that shares our perspective the way that Western and Central Europe and Japan do. We must therefore set aside the notion of a U.S.-Russian strategic partnership based on common values and interests and accustom ourselves to dealing with Russia transactionally. This is not the end of the world; perhaps it’s only the end of an illusion. Frankly, even in the days when Washington and Moscow were thinking and talking in terms of strategic partnership, much of their bilateral interaction was really transactional in nature anyway.
Having disabused ourselves of the notion of a strategic partnership, we must dispel a related myth that still lingers—the idea that there is some broad foreign-policy agenda where U.S.-Russian cooperation is indispensable, and that the two countries could dedicate their joint efforts to resolving the world’s problems if only they could put inconsequential nuisances like Ukraine behind them. The action items on this agenda typically include nonproliferation, counterterrorism, climate change, Iran, Syria, North Korea, peace in the broader Middle East, and battling diseases such as AIDS and Ebola.
The notion of a U.S.-Russian global agenda is based on three reasonable presuppositions:
- The U.S. and Russia are uniquely qualified to tackle transnational problems, and the rest of the world looks to them for leadership.
- There is a synergy to be achieved by U.S.-Russian cooperation on any given issue.
- There is a direct correlation between the state of the bilateral U.S.-Russian relationship on the one hand, and the level of cooperation and results achieved on the other.
All three of these reasonable presuppositions are demonstrably erroneous.
A multipolar world has little use for U.S.-Russian leadership. The United States is still the most powerful and influential state, but its unipolar moment has passed. Russia is a declining middling power with a world-class nuclear arsenal and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but its peculiar leadership credentials in areas like countering climate change and fighting disease are not readily apparent. On any global problem where economic muscle and soft power are essential, U.S. cooperation with the EU or China would make far more sense than some duopoly with Russia.
In addition, some of the world’s problems are simply impervious to even the best-coordinated efforts of outsiders. The multiple convulsions wrenching the Islamic world (Sunni vs. Shi‘a; Arab vs. Persian; traditional piety vs. radicalism vs. secularism; autocracy vs. the Arab Spring) will be played out within that great civilization, with little regard to what outsiders might think, want, or do. Even in terms of mitigating the effects of this rolling cataclysm (e.g., minimizing the spread of Islamic radicalism or providing humanitarian relief), what specific suggestions do the proponents of U.S.-Russian joint action have in mind? How would they reconcile the very different approaches of Moscow and Washington in the Middle East? Moscow has rather smugly contrasted U.S. abandonment of Mubarak with Russian loyalty to Assad, and the post-Qaddafi anarchy in Libya with the survival of central government in Syria. However, it is not clear that the Middle East would be better off if the United States were bombing Egypt on behalf of Mubarak the way the Russians are bombing Syria on behalf of Assad, nor do the citizens of Benghazi, for all of Libya’s chaos, appear perceptibly worse off than the inhabitants of Aleppo. Neither Washington nor Moscow has exactly come up with a winning strategy in the Middle East (admittedly a well-nigh impossible task), and it is difficult to fathom how combining their efforts would make things appreciably better.
The U.S.-Russia disconnect on dealing with the Middle East is illustrative of a basic problem with the notion of a bilateral global agenda—even where the U.S. and Russia share a concern, they often differ radically in both their perceptions of the problem and their policy prescriptions to address it. To give another example, both Russia and the United States have worried for years about stability in Central Asia and the risk posed there by Islamic radicalism. However, their approaches have been diametrically opposed. Washington, fearing that poverty, repression, and poor governance in the region would lead to radicalization, has urged reform. Moscow, worried that reform would actually precipitate destabilization, has tended to back the status quo. These divergent approaches have been constant over the past 25 years, notwithstanding the shifting barometer of U.S.-Russian relations. Either approach might prove to have been correct, or perhaps neither would save Central Asia from political convulsion. Alternatively, perhaps the Central Asians will manage the problem themselves without recourse to the well-intended admonitions of either Washington or Moscow. The point is that a) U.S.-Russian cooperation is fundamentally trickier than it would appear from tidy little joint-action agendas; and b) the overall climate of the bilateral relationship may have no bearing whatsoever on the inability to generate deeper U.S.-Russian cooperation to resolve regional or global problems.
Moreover, to what degree does progress on global issues really depend on some U.S.-Russian synergy? Is there something vital to be gained from the United States and Russia cooperating on climate change that we could not achieve from each country working on the problem separately? Are there potential health breakthroughs contingent on the U.S. and Russia combining their medical research efforts? It seems unlikely.
Counterterrorism and nonproliferation deserve special attention—not because they genuinely offer greater promise for U.S.-Russian cooperation, but because they generate the greatest amount of wishful thinking about a grand U.S.-Russian global agenda. The issue is not that Ukraine, for example, is more important to the United States than counterterrorism or nonproliferation—it clearly isn’t. The problem is that our dispute with Russia over Ukraine outweighs anything we might reasonably hope to secure from Moscow in pursuit of U.S. counterterrorism or nonproliferation goals.
The lack of deeper U.S.-Russian cooperation on counterterrorism, as with many other issues, is not due to some spillover effect from unrelated disagreements over NATO enlargement, but results from substantive differences in perceptions and interests. Moscow and Washington have had no difficulty finding a common language on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which accounts for their fruitful cooperation on Afghanistan (e.g., the Northern Distribution Network) even at times, such as the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian War, when relations were otherwise severely strained. Beyond that, however, their views on terrorism diverge. Russia generally labels any separatist activities in its North Caucasus region as “terrorism,” a term that the West has reserved for specific crimes of individuals such as Basayev or al-Khattab. Moscow has sought the extradition of several Chechen separatist officials (Ilyas Akhmadov and Akhmed Zakayev) as terrorists, but has failed to substantiate allegations of their personal involvement in acts of terrorism. Failing to comprehend an independent judiciary or separation of powers, features lacking in their own system of government, Russians have viewed the granting of political asylum to Ahkmadov and Zakayev as a Western double standard on terrorism. On the other hand, Moscow’s indulgence of state-sponsored terrorism by its Syrian and Iranian clients, and its refusal to treat Hamas or Hezbollah as terrorist organizations, have generated the perception that Russian maintains a certain double standard of its own.
Even in the halcyon days of U.S.-Russian accord on counterterrorism following 9/11, pretty much all we could manage, aside from the Northern Distribution Network, was the sharing of some intelligence data, which was by most accounts of marginal operational value to either side. What exactly would more fulsome U.S.-Russian cooperation on counterterrorism even look like? Would they join us in bombing Raqqa while we join them in mopping up Aleppo? Would we start extraditing North Caucasus separatists as Russia turned its guns in Syria against Hezbollah? It seems improbable. In any event, it is safe to say that the fundamental disconnect regarding who is a “terrorist” would hardly be resolved by unilateral Western concessions to Russia on European security.
The Holy Grail of the U.S.-Russian joint agenda is nonproliferation. What, indeed, could be more important for our own interests and for all humanity? Should we not therefore compromise on lesser matters and renew our friendship with Russia in order to facilitate progress on our highest priority?
Alas, on closer examination, nonproliferation proves to be as unsatisfying as any other item on the U.S.-Russian global agenda.
“Nonproliferation cooperation” that is devoid of context is devoid of content. For most practical purposes, our nonproliferation agenda with Russia is a country-specific one. With regard to North Korea, Russia has little leverage and we frankly don’t have a lengthy list of desiderata regarding Moscow; it is China that we need to rein in Pyongyang. Russia has cooperated on sanctions against North Korea when Pyongyang’s behavior has been so egregious that it threatened to trigger U.S. military action. Regarding Iran, Moscow’s longstanding tactical entente with Tehran has made Russia reluctant to react harshly to Iranian WMD programs, even when U.S.-Russian bilateral ties were in better shape than they are currently. The late Georgy Mirsky, the preeminent Russian expert on Iran, recalled hearing a Russian diplomat remark some years ago that “a pro-American Iran is more dangerous for us than a nuclear Iran”—a comment that speaks volumes about Moscow’s priorities with regard to Iranian WMD. In any event, the deepening chill in U.S.-Russian relations did not affect Moscow’s willingness to engage constructively in negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Beyond these two discrete issues, I’m at a loss to understand what “cooperation” we need to elicit from Russia on nonproliferation. Our efforts to keep WMD out of the hands of jihadists proceed in parallel but largely separately, and there was no particular synergy there even when the climate in bilateral relations was significantly warmer. Moreover, we don’t require any U.S.-Russian cooperation whatsoever to prevent WMD proliferation to the very large number of countries that aren’t even seeking such weapons.
I anticipate at this point an objection—what about the successful effort to dismantle Syria’s chemical-weapons program? Surely this episode is an example of precisely the sort of counter-proliferation cooperation we could expect if only the U.S. would drop lesser priorities like European security and the sovereignty of several dozen countries.
Actually, the removal of Syria’s chemical-weapon stocks teaches a very different lesson altogether.
First, the removal of Syrian chemical weapons might not have been as thorough or complete as it has been portrayed. Second, and more to the point, Putin’s dramatic proposal for their removal was, to the best of my knowledge, the first time the Russian authorities had ever admitted, publicly or privately, that Syria even had a chemical-weapons program. Moscow, in fact, had provided political cover for Syrian WMD efforts dating back to Soviet days, consistently denying the very existence of a program that had been an open secret for decades. Putin’s initiative was extremely welcome, but it was not the result of a deep, principled commitment to nonproliferation, nor of sudden pangs of conscience over Russia’s long-standing policy of denial and deception regarding Syrian WMD. It was most emphatically not a byproduct of healthy U.S.-Russian bilateral ties.
Indeed, productive U.S.-Russian counter-proliferation cooperation in Syria occurred not in the context of broad overall agreement or warm bilateral relations, but when it appeared that Obama might be unable to avoid ordering airstrikes against Assad. Similar nonproliferation cooperation with regard to Iran has occurred in the context of likely U.S. or Israeli military action against the Islamic Republic. It is a similar story with regard to North Korea. The perceptive reader is perhaps beginning to discern a pattern.
In all fairness, the problem of forging a common U.S.-Russian nonproliferation agenda does not lie solely with Moscow. Imagine Washington’s reaction to a Russian-drafted joint action plan on nonproliferation that identified Israel’s nuclear-weapons program as the top priority.
In any event, the takeaway is this: Advancing the U.S. global agenda is not contingent on securing Russian goodwill, any more than Moscow requires U.S. buy-in to further Russian interests. Rather, we need to find areas where our interests actually coincide, or where we can identify a suitable tradeoff. The largely successful U.S.-Russian cooperation on Afghanistan met the first criterion, and the removal of Syrian chemical weapons—in order, as we have seen, to avert a U.S. air campaign against Assad—met the second.
Eschewing NATO enlargement and accepting some Russian sphere of privileged interests in the post-Soviet space would not magically harmonize radically divergent U.S.-Russian perspectives on a host of global and regional issues. It would not induce Moscow to abandon Assad; to work for the democratic and free-market transformation of corrupt, authoritarian states; to condemn Shi‘a-sponsored terrorism directed against Israel and the West rather than Russia; or to crack down hard on the WMD efforts of states, such as Iran and Syria, that are well-disposed toward Russia. Frankly, on most of the issues glibly enumerated on notional U.S.-Russian global agendas, Russia’s help is either a) not all that important; or b) unlikely to be forthcoming under any conditions we could accept.