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The Russia Challenge: Prospects for U.S.-Russian Relations

The Russia Challenge: Prospects for U.S.-Russian Relations

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President Barack Obama’s first meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev brought a halt, at least temporarily, to the deterioration in bilateral relations between Russia and the United States. Next month Obama will visit Moscow, seeking to further his administration’s goal of resetting and improving relations wth Russia.

Improved ties with Russia are clearly in U.S. interests, as is Russian cooperation in dealing with a range of strategic issues. The key question is whether U.S.-Russian relations can improve in a serious, sustainable way? The short answer is no. Barring changes in Russia behavior and policy, Obama’s efforts to reshape relations between Washington and Moscow will face serious, perhaps insurmountable, hurdles. This brief argues that the current Russian leadership does not, for the most part, share American interests, threat perceptions, or values and that as long as that is the case, extensive cooperation and significantly improved relations will be difficult to achieve.
President Barack Obama’s first meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev brought a halt, at least temporarily, to the deterioration in bilateral relations between Russia and the United States. Next month Obama will visit Moscow, seeking to further his administration’s goal of resetting and improving relations wth Russia.

Improved ties with Russia are clearly in U.S. interests, as is Russian cooperation in dealing with a range of strategic issues. The key question is whether U.S.-Russian relations can improve in a serious, sustainable way? The short answer is no. Barring changes in Russia behavior and policy, Obama’s efforts to reshape relations between Washington and Moscow will face serious, perhaps insurmountable, hurdles. This brief argues that the current Russian leadership does not, for the most part, share American interests, threat perceptions, or values and that as long as that is the case, extensive cooperation and significantly improved relations will be difficult to achieve.

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Published by: German Marshall Fund of the United States on Jul 02, 2009
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Summary: President Barack
Obama’s rst meeting with Rus
-sian President Dmitri Medvedev
brought a halt, at least temporar
-
ily, to the deterioration in bilateralrelations between Russia and the United States. Next monthObama will visit Moscow, seeking  to further his administration’s goalof resetting and improving rela
-
 tions with Russia.Improved ties with Russia areclearly in U.S. interests, as isRussian cooperation in dealing with a range of strategic issues.The key question is whether U.S.-Russian relations can improvein a serious, sustainable way?The short answer is no. Barring changes in Russia behavior andpolicy, Obama’s efforts to reshaperelations between Washingtonand Moscow will face serious,perhaps insurmountable, hurdles.This brief argues that the currentRussian leadership does not, for the most part, share Americaninterests, threat perceptions, orvalues and that as long as that is the case, extensive cooperationand signicantly improved relationswill be difcult to achieve.
Wider Europe
As President Barack Obama preparesor his visit to Moscow next month, hedeserves credit or trying to reset rela-tions between the United States andRussia. His positive rst meeting April1 in London with Russian PresidentDmitri Medvedev brought a halt, at leasttemporarily, to the deterioration in bilateralrelations. Obama and Medvedev issued two joint statements: one on the way orwardon urther reductions in strategic arms, theother outlining a broad agenda reectingcommon interests but also areas o dis-agreement. Upon close examination, thesecond broader statement may look a-miliar. In act, it is very similar to a jointstatement agreed almost a year beore by President George W. Bush and PresidentVladimir Putin in Sochi. Tat Sochiagreement, coming at the end o thosetwo presidencies, went nowhere due toRussia’s invasion o Georgia last August.Are prospects any better or U.S.-Russianrelations to improve in a serious, sustain-able way as outlined in the Obama-Med- vedev statement? Te short answer is no,because while the United States has hitthe amous “reset” button, Russia has not.But the Obama administration has anobligation to try nonetheless in case thesituation in Russia somehow changes orthe better.Obama and his team entered oce intenton improving U.S.-Russian relations.Vice President Biden’s reerence in Febru-ary in Munich to the reset button under-scored American interest in a resh start.Improved ties with Russia are clearly inU.S. interests, as is Russian cooperationin dealing with a range o strategic is-sues. American ocials have also voicedsupport or Russia’s membership in theWorld rade Organization (WO) andhope that the U.S. Congress will graduateRussia rom the Jackson-Vanik Amend-ment. Russian ocials have welcomedthis change in tone rom Obama and hisadministration but remain unconvincedthat it constitutes a real change in policy rom the Bush administration. And i it is a change, which aspects o the lasteight years will be dierent? Will it, orexample, be more o a “realist” approach?As they try to discern what Obama hasin mind, Russian ocials have oeredno reset o their own policy. Instead,they continue to cite a litany o griev-ances against the Bush administrationand argue that the burden or improvingrelations is on the new team in Washing-ton. When asked during a recent visitto Washington whether there were any lessons to be learned o Russian oreignpolicy over the past 20 years and whatRussia might reset, Russian ForeignMinister Sergei Lavrov answered in a very revealing way: “Lessons, what we woulddraw, I never thought o this, rankly. Idon’t have time to draw lessons. I will dothis when I retire.”And therein lies the problem—Moscow’s
The Russia Challenge: Prospects forU.S.-Russian Relations
by David J. Kramer
1
1744 R Street NWWashington, DC 20009T 1 202 745 3950F 1 202 265 1662E ino@gmus.org
June 9, 2009
1
David J. Kramer is a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of GMF.
 
Policy Brie 
 
2
Wider Europe
unwillingness or inability to reciprocate with its own reset but-ton and its lack o introspection. It is as i Russia were a country with no mirrors because the elite there blame others or all prob-lems, never themselves. Barring changes in Russian behaviorand policy, Obama’s eorts to reshape relations between Wash-ington and Moscow will ace serious, perhaps insurmountable,hurdles. Tat is not an argument or giving up on the relation-ship at this early stage, but it is a reason to keep expectations very modest and to approach today’s Russia with eyes wide open.
Common national interests? Not so fast
Recent reports by various think tanks and organizations advisingthe Obama administration on how to repair relations with Rus-sia (a useul compilation o them can be ound at http://www.amacad.org/russiapolicy.aspx) list areas in which the UnitedStates and Russia should be cooperating: Iran, Aghanistan,North Korea, non-prolieration, and Middle East peace. Tepremise behind the majority o these reports is that Russia andthe United States have common national interests and can reachcommon understandings o how to address these challenges. Tereality is that the current Russian leadership (and it is important todistinguish Russia’s leadership rom the general population) doesnot, or the most part, share our interests or threat perceptions,to say nothing o our values. As long as that is the case, extensivecooperation and signicantly improved relations will be dicultto achieve.Other actors play a role in Russian decision-making such ascorruption and personal interests. Non-transparent, murky,behind-the-scenes deals in arms sales, the energy sector, anddomestic policy highlight the role o corruption and extend toco-opting (or buying) Western accomplices who advocate onRussia’s behal. Te double-hatting o many Russian ocialswhere, in addition to their top government jobs, they also holdsenior positions in Russian companies – or example, Medvedevwas chairman o Gazprom while serving as chie-o-sta to Pu-tin, and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin is also chairman o Rosnef—raises questions about what motivates ocials’ deci-sions and actions. Te extent to which corruption plays a role inRussian decision-making is hard to quantiy and even harder todeal with i other governments try appealing to Russian ocialson national interest grounds when personal interests may be moredominant actors. But what seems clear is that the Russian elitepursues its own interests, including hanging onto power and theperks that come with it, over the pursuit o the country’s overallinterests. By its actions, the elite demonstrates its undamentaldistrust o the population at nearly every turn.Recovering Russia’s wounded sense o pride and place on theworld stage as a global power also explains its leadership’sbehavior. Te collapse o the Soviet Union, the loss o the WarsawPact, and then the chaos and weakness o the Yeltsin years troublemany Russians to this day. Putin amously described the collapseo the USSR as the “biggest geopolitical catastrophe” o the 20
th
 century. Under his leadership, thanks mostly to the rising priceo oil, Russia was able to bounce back, ex its muscles again,and gain the respect o other countries around the world. Tecrowning achievement marking Russias return was hosting the G8meeting in 2006; winning the right to host the Olympics in Sochiin 2014 is also a source o pride, especially to Putin.With this renewed sense o pride comes an arrogance, cockiness,assertiveness, sel-condence, and even aggressiveness that iscombined at the same time with paranoia, insecurity, and hy-persensitivity. Tis is a bad, even combustible, combination thatreects a Russia that is both strong and weak at the same time.It is certainly a stronger country than during the 1990s, but italso is a country acing massive demographic, inrastructure, andsocial problems that, i not addressed, will pose many economicchallenges or its leadership and or other countries. Indeed, thePutin years, or all their hype, may be viewed in 20 years (or less)as a time o real missed opportunity or the lack o investment inthe country at a time when Russia’s central bank held the thirdlargest hard-currency reserves in the world.From attempting to undermine the Organization or Security andCooperation in Europe (OSCE) over its emphasis on democracy and human rights and trying to block NAO enlargement tocriticizing the EU’s new Eastern Partnership and decrying mis-sile deense, Russia’s leaders seek to drive wedges between andamong NAO and EU members and between the United Statesand Europe. o the extent that they have a strategy (and the jury is still out on that), it is a counter, anti, or negative strategy. osome degree, this strategy has worked:
 
Georgia and Ukraine were not oered a MembershipAction Plan (MAP) in Bucharest in April 2008 as Russiahad eared (they were oered the prospect o eventualmembership, but Russia, xated on the MAP possibility,didn’t ocus on that);
Policy Brie 
 
In proposing a vague new European security architecture,Russia has distracted attention rom its ailure to abide by existing security agreements such as the ConventionalArmed Forces in Europe reaty (CFE) and last August’sGeorgia ceasere agreement; and
Russia emerged virtually unscathed vis-a-vis NAO despiteits actions last August against Georgia because NAO allieswere unable to agree on how to respond.Moreover, Russian ocials hope that by persistently and loudly raising objections to certain U.S. policies, specically missiledeense and policy toward Russia’s neighbors, the United Stateswill unilaterally compromise on its policies. Tey do this by linking a post-SAR agreement to the uture o missile deensesites in Poland and the Czech Republic. An arms control deal,deemed possible just two months ago—“low hanging ruit”is how one senior U.S. ocial described it in April afer theObama-Medvedev meeting—is looking less likely unless Russiabudges rom this linkage position (or, worse, the U.S. yields).Agreement on a post-SAR arrangement is in U.S. interests,but it is in Russia’s interests much more, or Moscow cannot a-ord to maintain its aging nuclear weapons nor could it competewith the United States in any new arms race. Tat would seemto provide the U.S. side with more leverage, but the Obamaadministration has indicated its strong desire or an agreementby the end o the year to demonstrate that relations are back on track. In the process, it has created the impression that theUnited States is the demandeur, oreiting its leverage. Still, themore that Russian ocials insist that the United States back down on missile deense, the harder it will be or the Obamaadministration, skeptical about missile deense to begin with, todo so to avoid appearing to cave to Russian pressure.
The values gap
A number o the American think tank reports signicantly downplay the importance o Russia’s deteriorating domestic situ-ation, overlooking the act that the United States’ best relation-ships are with countries that are democratic and share its values.Russia’s leadership, alas, is moving in the opposite direction.Countries that share U.S. values are much more likely to shareU.S. interests, even i they don’t always agree with their policies,as demonstrated with the Iraq war in 2003 when Germany andFrance (countries with whom the United States share common values) strongly disagreed with its policy; those disagreements,however, did not mean a undamental rupture in bilateralrelations. As Obama said in his June 4 speech in Cairo,democratic systems o government are “ultimately more stable,successul, and secure.”With Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 1999 (rst as prime ministerand then as acting president), Russian authorities launched anaggressive campaign to control national television—and thus theow o inormation or the majority o Russians—and to narrow thespace or independent media organizations. Te example made in2003 o Russias richest oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, lef anunmistakable impression on the other oligarchs, who, duringYeltsin’s time, had signicant inuence over policy and resources.Elimination o gubernatorial elections in 2004, authorities’ heavy-handed response to any sources o opposition and criticism, andeorts to ensure a rubber-stamp parliament are evidence o aconcerted move away rom the central elements o democraticgovernance. Unsolved murders o journalists, human rightsactivists, and lawyers—including critics living outside o Russia—have renewed a real climate o ear.For the United States, the values gap is a serious problem be-cause not only is Russia moving in the wrong direction domesti-cally, it is actively opposed to Western eorts to help its neigh-bors democratize as well. Not even China, protective o its owndomestic developments, plays such an aggressively negative roleagainst our eorts at democracy promotion in other countries.Especially afer the color” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine,Russian leaders view such democracy promotion activities as athreat, as Putin made clear in his bellicose speech at the MunichSecurity Conerence on February 10, 2007.Te outlook or Russia’s political development is not brightbecause the current economic crisis is likely to make the au-thorities more inclined toward tighter control to snu out any potential sources o unrest and opposition. Barring a restructur-ing toward a more accountable, representative system o govern-ment, prospects or improvement o the situation are dim. Hopesthat Medvedev would represent a more liberal approach are soar wishul thinking, and the evidence points to a widening gapbetween the West and Russias leaders that is bound to have an im-pact on the possibilities or real cooperation and better relations.Obama and his team deserve credit or raising with Medvedev thecase o Lev Ponamaryev, a human rights activist who was beatenthe night beore the London meeting. When he travels to Moscownext month, Obama should send a strong signal o support or
3
Wider Europe
Policy Brie 

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