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Stop Treating Russia Like a Donkey

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When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov the "reset button" with the botched Russian translation of the word "reset," Lavrov -- being the experienced, stoic diplomat that he is -- probably would have smiled graciously, thanked Clinton for the nice gesture and not drawn attention to the flub. But he had little choice other than to answer her question directly when Clinton specifically asked Lavrov, "We worked hard to get the right Russian word -- do you think we got it?"

Gimmicks aside, what are the prospects for resetting U.S.-Russian relations? At first glance, it seems long overdue. Under the administration of former President George W. Bush, relations hit their lowest point since 1985, culminating in Russia's invasion of Georgia in August and the cutoff of gas to Ukraine in January. At that auspicious moment, enter the newly minted President Barack Obama, promising a fresh and unjaundiced look at all aspects of American foreign policy.

The first gambit in Obama's strategy was the so-called secret offer to trade the missile defense system to be installed in Poland and the Czech Republic for Russian help in shutting down Iran's nuclear weapons program. This was a nonstarter for several reasons. First, Russia wants to be treated as a respected equal, not as a donkey to be coaxed with carrots and sticks.

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Second, Russia's position on the issue is that installing elements of a missile defense system in Central Europe is a dumb idea that should be jettisoned because of its intrinsic flaws. The Kremlin believes that the U.S. project is intended to thwart an unproven threat and should not be traded for something of real value. They suspect that the real U.S. goal is not to deter Iranian attacks but to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe. Bearing in mind that many advisers in the Obama administration nonetheless are not fully convinced of the effectiveness of the missile defense program and that public opinion in the Czech Republic is against the plan, Russia can still reasonably hope that the project will collapse under its own weight.

During the election campaign, Obama pushed all the required buttons that make up the Washington consensus on the evils of Russia: condemning the Russian military action in South Ossetia and asserting the right of Ukraine and Georgia to apply for NATO membership. These themes are also consistently prominent in the published writings of Michael McFaul, the new Russia hand at the National Security Council, who has been particularly vocal in denouncing Russia's backsliding on democracy.

This new line seems remarkably similar to the U.S. position during the administration of former President Bill Clinton: The United States is Russia's friend because it is in Moscow's own national interest to integrate with the West. It's only a matter of time, the argument goes, before the Kremlin sees the error of its ways and accepts U.S. leadership. Furthermore, the central goal of U.S. policy should be to encourage reform and a breakthrough to market democracy in Russia. This line of reasoning prevents Washington from making any fundamental concession to Russia's strategic interests (as understood by the Kremlin) on issues such as missile defense or NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. The United States complains about Russia trying to maintain a sphere of influence in its own backyard, but since the end of the Cold War it opened new bases around Russia's borders, from Romania to Uzbekistan.

Reinforcing this administration's reluctance to come up with a new approach is the flood of commentary predicting that Russia is on the brink of systemic collapse because of the slump in oil prices and the global financial crash. The consensus view in the United States is that Russia's revival is over, the prospects for democracy are nil, and the country is returning to the familiar basket-case status of the 1990s, which was so dear to many Americans. In that case, why rush to rebuild relations by making serious concessions? Wait another year until Russia's hard-currency reserves are exhausted and Washington will be able to win a better deal from Moscow.

One issue that cannot wait is the extension to the START treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons, which will expire on Dec. 5. Mutual deterrence worked well, and it is premature to throw it out the window when Russia still has 4,000 nuclear weapons. Moreover, arms control by the two nuclear superpowers is directly connected to progress in nonproliferation. Although many believe that Russia has no interest in signing off on a START extension, the two sides should move quickly or they may not be able to put a new treaty in place by December.

The Bush administration was willing to see START expire on the grounds that bilateral arms control was a 20th-century concept that only constrained U.S. military options. Bush's neocon reasoning was that since Russia cannot afford to modernize or even maintain its strategic missiles, it is not in U.S. interests to agree to parity with Russia's shrinking arsenal; the United States should be free to pursue full-spectrum military dominance and power-projection capacity into every corner of the world, including central Eurasia. The Obama administration should firmly reject this dangerous line of reasoning.

Even if an agreement is reached on START, the prospects for broader bilateral cooperation look bleak. The United States is not willing to give Moscow a free hand in its "near abroad," and Russia not willing to acquiesce in U.S. power projection. It may only be a question of time before the relationship blows up again.

Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

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