A 21st Century U.S.-Russian Relationship

July 12, 2010

U.S.-Russian relations will always be complex, at any given time demanding both collaboration on shared priorities and firm stands where our security interests and values diverge.  The ‘reset’ back to a stabilized diplomatic partnership allows the U.S. to seize opportunities to advance its interests – as the recent arrest of Russian spies in the U.S. and the subsequent “spy-swap” demonstrates. Since taking office, Obama has worked to improve the relationship and utilized that improvement to advance U.S. interests, obtaining concrete progress on important issues ranging from Iran to Eastern Europe to Afghanistan.  The foundation of the relationship has been the new START accord that increases U.S. and global security by securing nuclear stockpiles and building a stable and transparent nuclear relationship between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.  All of this occurs in parallel with the realities of espionage and competition – and is a reminder of why the U.S. needs to use diplomacy to stay in the game, not remain on the sidelines.  This is the type of relationship that best serves America’s interests.

“Reset works:” mature view of U.S.-Russia relations allows U.S. to advance its interests. By resetting U.S.-Russia relations, and eliminating the volatility of the past, the White House is able to seize opportunities to advance U.S. interests when they arise. As the intelligence community’s decade-long investigation into the activities of the Russia spy network picked up in earnest, the President’s national security team began devising ways in which it could play to America’s advantage. A weekend report in the Washington Post summarized the development of the Administration’s response: “Although there had been no final decision, the CIA and State Department had begun assembling a list of candidates for a swap, focusing on criteria that included humanitarian concerns and the general category of espionage…The list eventually included three former KGB officers and a researcher for a Moscow think tank who had been convicted of passing sensitive information to what Russia had alleged to be a CIA front company in London.”  A prisoner swap “made perfect sense,” an official told the Post, as  the U.S. “didn’t really have anything to learn from the agents themselves. We’d basically been looking over their shoulders for years.”  “Before long, the sides had reached an agreement that included pledges that neither would engage in any further ‘retaliatory steps,’ such as a diplomatic freeze or expulsions, and that neither would harass each other’s officials or citizens,” reported the Post.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, “By agreeing to the swap just 12 days after the U.S. busted the Russian agents, both sides avoided a series of drawn-out U.S. spy trials that would have strained an improving relationship that the two countries’ presidents are eager to maintain. ‘It’s the best example of President Obama’s policy to reset relations,’ said Nikolai Zlobin, a Russia specialist at the World Security Institute in Washington, an independent think tank. ‘Reset works.’” [Washington Post, 7/10/10. Wall Street Journal, 07/11/10. Sam Charap, Foreign Policy, 6/16/10]

U.S.-Russian reset has facilitated several successes for U.S. national security.  The Administration has worked to reverse the frayed U.S.-Russian relationship after years of shaky relations under President Bush.  The reset has solidified cooperation on areas of mutual interest and resulted in several successes.

Reduces the threat of nuclear weapons:  The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) locks in a stable, transparent nuclear relationship and limits the strategic nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States, the world’s two largest nuclear powers. [National Security Network, 6/25/10]

Unprecedented cooperation toward Iran:  The U.S. garnered Russian support for strong international sanctions against Iran, a move which later resulted in the cancellation of the long-planned sale of Russian S-300 air defense missiles to Iran.  [Washington Times, 6/22/10]

Stability for Eastern European allies: “In recent months, American officials have worked visibly to bolster regional confidence through NATO contingency planning, Patriot missiles in Poland, military exercises in the Baltic and Black Seas, the creation of strategic consultative mechanisms and forward movement on the new missile defense architecture.” [Mark Brzezinski and A. Wess Mitchell, NY Times, 4/7/10]

Over-flight privileges for U.S. troops and supplies headed to Afghanistan:  The Afghanistan Air Transit Agreement and Russia’s participation in the Northern Distribution Network have facilitated critical ground and air transit for U.S. troops and supplies headed to Afghanistan. [Samuel Charap, Center for American Progress, 4/10]

In a 21st century global environment, a U.S.-Russia relationship grounded in principles and pragmatism is crucial.  The recently released National Security Strategy (NSS) recognizes that “Russia has reemerged in the international arena as a strong voice,” with a seat on the Security Council, massive energy resources, and a renewed sense of its own role.  On the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship the NSS says, “We seek to build a stable, substantive, multidimensional relationship with Russia, based on mutual interests. The United States has an interest in a strong, peaceful, and prosperous Russia that respects international norms. As the two nations possessing the majority of the world’s nuclear weap­ons, we are working together to advance nonproliferation, both by reducing our nuclear arsenals and by cooperating to ensure that other countries meet their international commitments to reducing the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. We will seek greater partnership with Russia in confronting violent extremism, especially in Afghanistan. We also will seek new trade and investment arrangements for increasing the prosperity of our peoples. We support efforts within Russia to promote the rule of law, accountable government, and universal values. While actively seeking Russia’s cooperation to act as a responsible partner in Europe and Asia, we will support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbors.”

A renewed focus on the important common interests we share makes U.S. efforts to promote our own values and interests where they differ that much more credible. As Sam Charap of the Center for American Progress wrote in an April report, “maintaining an atmosphere that allows the two countries to identify areas for cooperation is in the interest of the United States and offers a better chance that policies that further our values can succeed. Thus far, the reset has done just that.” [National Security Strategy, 2010. David Ignatius, 6/16/10. Samuel Charap, Center for American Progress, 4/10. Sam Charap, Foreign Policy, 6/16/10]

What We’re Reading

At least 64 people were killed in Kampala, Uganda, when bombs exploded in a synchronized attack on large gatherings of World Cup soccer fans watching the World Cup finals.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai plans to seek the removal of up to 50 former Taliban officials from a U.N. terrorism blacklist in a gesture intended to advance political reconciliation talks with insurgents.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan is assessing the damage from its defeat in the Upper House elections. The loss came less than two months after Naoto Kan was appointed prime minister.

Intense fighting in border areas and a reluctance to have a large American presence is causing major delays in the training of the Pakistani army.

Iran’s judiciary chief has temporarily halted the execution by stoning of a woman accused of adultery.

Switzerland declared filmmaker Roman Polanski a free man after rejecting a request to extradite him to the United States to answer for a child sex case dating back more than three decades.

Escalating violence in Afghanistan is now at its worst since the early months of the nearly nine-year-old war, with 1,074 civilians killed so far this year.

A total of 221 people died in tribal fighting and other violence in Sudan’s Darfur in June as the region’s two main rebel groups continued to shun peace talks.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has begun to chafe at the American presence in the Dutch Antilles; the islands host an American Air Force installation pivotal in fighting the region’s drug trade and a huge refinery that turns Venezuelan oil into gasoline.

Indian and Pakistani officials are downplaying the chances of a major breakthrough when the two countries’ foreign ministers meet in Islamabad on Thursday for the first time since the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

Commentary of the Day

Robert Holleyman argues for trade strategy with China that focuses on achieving results — measured in increased U.S. exports — instead of never-ending negotiations about discrete issues.

Jacob Heilbrunn writes that Obama’s critics are wrong; the New START treaty enhances our security.

Jean-Max Bellerive and Bill Clinton call on donor governments and the World Bank to live up to their promises and reduce red tape for Haitian reconstruction.

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