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America and Russia Can Skip a Reboot

Job C. Henning

One often hears that the United States needs to work on overcoming mistrust and improving relations with Russia, based on purported shared interests. All the while, however, the relationship seems to careen from crisis to crisis, ranging from Syria to Snowden.

The fact is this time any effort to reboot ties with Russia isn’t likely to work. Whatever the merits of the “reset” effort in 2009, it is not a good idea for Washington to spend time and political capital to once again try to build a strategic partnership.

First, arms control, which was a key focus of the “reset” and is at the center of calls for new efforts to rebuild a relationship. While the United States sees the 2010 New Start treaty as a step toward a zero-nuclear world, the Russian government has shown no interest in further reducing its nuclear capability, especially given its weakening economic prospects and declining conventional forces.

If there are any doubts, note that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel failed to elicit any positive response from the Kremlin when he announced in March a unilateral decision not to build the fourth and final phase of the European missile defense shield, which was to include long-range interceptors that would have done more than any other part of the program to undermine Russia’s strategic deterrent.

As desirable as they may be, President Obama’s calls from Berlin last month for further reductions in deployed nuclear weapons and a discussion of limitations on tactical nuclear weapons are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Second, renewed attention to a strategic U.S.-Russia relationship, especially one based on an atavistic platform of great-power arms control, is likely to augment the waning domestic support for Vladimir Putin.

There is no indication Putin has a need to actually reach any deals with the United States; on the contrary, he wins by demonstrating that the United States needs him.

At the same time, trying to reformulate a relationship around criticizing Russia’s human-rights record would achieve little other than to empower cynics who see such criticism only as a tool to weaken Russia.

Third, cooperation on Iran is often described as a key benefit of the “reset” and a goal of an improved relationship. But Russia supported three rounds of U.N. sanctions on Iran prior to the “reset,” in 2006-2008. And over the past several months Russia has been warding off new sanctions as Iran promises to stop enrichment at the 20 percent threshold. At the same time, the Russian-built civilian Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran has come on line, and in Moscow, Putin welcomed the outgoing Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to discuss energy exports, space cooperation and joint naval training in the Caspian.

While Russian cooperation on sanctions against Iran is important, it is not the product of a strategic relationship between Russia and the United States, but a tactical calculation by Russia to constrain Iranian power while at the same time ensuring prolonged tension between Iran and the United States.

Fourth, the short-lived spurt in U.S.-Russia counterterrorism coordination after the Boston bombing was more a product of expediency than common interests. It was important for Putin to demonstrate Russia’s preparedness in the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics. Apart from a very few instances, Russia’s domestic security problems simply have nothing to do with those of the United States.

Fifth, regarding Syria, Russia is solely focused on preserving its port and its trade relationship there, while the United States seeks to end the conflict and stabilize the region through a combination of military assistance and training, possible intervention and negotiations. As the death toll rises above 100,000, Russia is sending advanced anti-ship weapons to Syria and indicates no reluctance to proceed with the delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles systems — the only purpose of both being to deter potential action by the international community.

The fact that such shipments are not currently prohibited by multilateral sanctions is a failure of strategy and diplomacy — but also beside the point. Strengthening Bashar al-Assad’s ability to shoot down U.S. and allied planes is outrageous by any standard.

Finally, in Georgia, Russian troops continue to occupy the sovereign territory of another state — a country that last year held free and fair elections that led to a peaceful transfer of power and is making a notable contribution to allied military operations in Afghanistan.

These divergent interests simply will not support a new and productive strategic relationship between the United States and Russia. But sometimes there is nothing wrong with maintaining a tactical, opportunistic relationship. Washington should remain ready to exploit opportunities for cooperation with Putin on issues where interests do happen to overlap.

At the same time, the United States should focus its strategic attention elsewhere. As it settles into its second term, the Obama administration can exercise far-reaching global leadership through a reinvigorated trans-Atlantic alliance, the pivot to Asia, and free trade negotiations in the Pacific and the Atlantic.

Job C. Henning is adjunct senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington


International Herald Tribune. 2013, 31 July