MOSCOW – When US President Barack Obama canceled last month’s scheduled summit in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he effectively terminated his four-year effort to “reset” the bilateral relationship. The failure of that effort should come as no surprise, owing to its deeply flawed foundations.
While the obvious catalyst for Obama’s decision was Putin’s grant of temporary asylum to the former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, the bilateral relationship has long been faltering. In 2011, after the US and its allies convinced Russia’s former president, Dmitri Medvedev, not to block a United Nations resolution to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, they launched a full-scale military bombardment of Libya, which helped to bring down the regime – a move that Russian officials called “deceptive.”
Since Putin’s return to the presidency last year, the relationship has deteriorated further, owing to disagreements over arms control, missile defense, and human rights. For example, late last year, the US Congress imposed sanctions against Russian officials implicated in human-rights abuses, prompting Russia to institute a ban on adoptions by American families.
Moreover, Obama and Putin remain at odds over the crisis in Syria. Obama continues to support President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, while Putin has been backing the regime, owing to fear that its collapse would usher in a radical Sunni-led government – or chaos. Farther east, the US and Russia are not cooperating as expected on Afghanistan’s post-war transition.
But, while disagreement on these issues has undoubtedly weakened US-Russian ties, the real reason that the bilateral relationship has been crumbling is more fundamental. Instead of acknowledging geopolitical shifts, and adjusting their relationship accordingly, US and Russian officials remain committed to an obsolete post-Cold War dynamic.
While Russia and the US remain capable of destroying each other many times over, they have had no intention of doing so for a long time. But admitting that there was no longer any threat of direct attack would have been politically impossible in the aftermath of the Cold War, when the bilateral standoff still seemed to be a cornerstone of international stability.
Today, the prospect of either country launching a nuclear attack against the other seems almost ridiculous. Given this, the legacy of the Cold War should give way to issues like ensuring that China’s rise remains peaceful, preventing the current chaos in the Arab world from spreading beyond the region, limiting the scope of nuclear-weapons proliferation, and contributing to global efforts to address climate change, water scarcity, food security, and cyber-crime.
But, rather than pursuing joint initiatives aimed at advancing the two countries’ shared interests in these areas, the US proposed nuclear-weapons reductions as the primary mechanism of the diplomatic reset. Russian diplomats, whose outlook also remains largely shaped by the Cold War, seized on the proposal. And, just like that, the old disarmament dynamic was renewed, as if by nostalgic old friends.
The subsequent negotiations produced the much-vaunted New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which, despite doing little to advance disarmament, provided a political boost to both sides and bolstered the bilateral relationship. But progress soon stalled, with Russia rejecting US proposals for further reductions, especially of tactical nuclear weapons – an area in which Russia dominates.
Russia, whose nuclear arsenal represents one of the last remaining pillars of its “great power” status, declared that it would agree to further cuts only after the US offered a legally binding agreement that its proposed anti-ballistic missile (ABM) shield in Europe would not be aimed at Russia. In Russia’s view – which is, probably, fanciful – such a shield could intercept its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), thereby posing a strategic threat.
In the hope of breaking the deadlock, Obama signaled his willingness to compromise. But Putin had little reason to reciprocate, not least because agreement on the issue would have opened the way to further nuclear-arms reductions. Moreover, members of Russia’s military and political elite hoped to use some of the country’s oil revenues to deploy a new generation of ICBMs. And it seems that some Russians began to believe their own propaganda about the danger posed by a European ABM shield.
By focusing on nuclear disarmament and New START, Obama’s reset strategy remilitarized the US-Russia relationship, while marginalizing issues that could have reoriented bilateral ties toward the future. In this sense, the initiative was doomed from the start – and the whole world has suffered as a result.
Both countries’ leaders should acknowledge what should now be obvious: nuclear-weapons reduction can no longer serve as a reliable basis for bilateral relations.
But the recent US-Russian agreement regarding the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles offers hope that the two sides are beginning to set a new agenda, based on international law and a shared desire to prevent further deterioration of the desperate situation in the Middle East. Indeed, it is possible that Putin’s Syrian intervention will beget greater global influence for Russia.
By proposing a diplomatic solution to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Putin offered Obama a way out of the political impasse – threatening a military intervention with little support at home or abroad – in which he found himself. If Syria’s chemical weapons are destroyed, the agreement will have established an invaluable precedent concerning the behavior of great powers in a time of crisis. Acting in one’s own interest and in the interest of the international community need not be mutually exclusive.