For the past several weeks, the Washington Post has featured numerous editorials and articles denigrating Russia as more expansionist and assertive toward the West and arguing against improving bilateral relations between Russia and the United States.
Fred Hiatt, the editor of the editorial page, used Vice President Joseph Biden's commitment "to press the reset button" in relations with Russia to make a case against improved relations. Jim Hoagland, the paper's senior op-ed writer on foreign policy, warned that any effort to improve relations would merely "spark misgivings and apprehensions among European and Arab allies." And Jackson Diehl, a member of the paper's editorial board, recently argued that the deepening domestic repression in Russia points to greater external belligerence, which happened to be former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's rationalization for making no effort to improve Russian-American relations. All of these charges represent a distortion of recent events in Russia as well as the key events in Russian-American relations.
These views are typical, nevertheless, of the mindset that dominates many elements of the U.S. mainstream media as well as the views in Britain's newsmagazine, The Economist. The Economist's senior writer on Central and Eastern Europe, Edward Lucas, recently published "The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West," which predicts a geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the United States and describes Putin's Russia as a "markedly authoritarian system" that represents an "ideological mishmash of tsarist imperialism, Soviet nostalgia, and xenophobia inspired by nationalist visions of a Greater Russia."
Even some of President Obama's advisors on Russia during the presidential campaign, including senior Russian experts such as Stephen Sestanovich, Strobe Talbott, and Michael McFaul, drafted a misguided report of the Council on Foreign Relations titled "Russia's Wrong Direction."
These charges exaggerate the nature and scope of Russian policies, ignore the anti-Russian policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations over the past 16 years, and omit the geopolitical reasons for improving Russian-American relations. The weakening of democratic institutions in Russia over the past several years and last summer's five-day war between Russia and Georgia are worrisome developments, but the United States certainly would have more leverage in Moscow in an atmosphere of strengthened bilateral relations than in the current atmosphere of strained relations. The U.S. role in training and equipping the Georgian army and encouraging the deployment of a large Georgian contingent in Iraq certainly played a role in the worsening of Russian-Georgian ties.
A missed opportunity took place in 1991 when the sudden and unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union afforded an unusual opportunity to anchor Russia to the Western security system and to remove one of the major obstacles to increased international stability and predictability. President Bill Clinton was responsible for the unnecessary expansion of the NATO alliance in the mid-1990s that introduced former member states of the Warsaw Pact into a military and political alliance that was designed to contain the former Soviet Union.
President George W. Bush abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, which was the cornerstone of strategic deterrence, and championed the deployment of a costly and ineffective national missile defense (NMD). The interests of the military-industrial complex and the unilateralist views of the Bush administration were driving NMD, not a desire to promote national security. The neocons of the Bush administration also supported the deployment of NMD in Poland and the Czech Republic, an expanded NATO membership to include Georgia and Ukraine, and a military presence in Central Asia. These steps contributed little to American national security and all of them helped to worsen Russian-American relations.
In view of the growing political and economic constraints on US power and the shared strategic interests of the United States and Russia, there is an obvious case for a return to détente between the two nations. The United States and Russia have more than 90% of the world's nuclear weapons, and their two treaties on strategic arms reductions will expire in President Obama's first term. Progress between the United States and Russia on resolving their differences would open up the disarmament agenda to include lowering the caps on major weapon systems around the world and perhaps bringing India and Pakistan into the Non-proliferation Treaty.
The recent collision between British and French nuclear submarines, which carried hundreds of nuclear warheads, testifies to the need for bringing their forces into the arms control arena. Instead of deploying a missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, which the U.S. justifies as a defense against Iranian programs, Washington and Moscow should work together to limit the nuclear threat from Tehran. Neither Moscow nor Washington would welcome nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran or North Korea.
Russia could also play a useful role in the two most urgent problems that confront the Obama administration--Iraq and Afghanistan. The withdrawal from Iraq over the next 19 months and any eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan will require regional dialogue and cooperation, and having Russia on board will make it easier to communicate with such key regional actors as Iran, Syria, Pakistan, India, and China. All of these nations could play a part in helping to stabilize weak governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moscow and Washington also have common concerns on nonproliferation, counter-terrorism, drug trafficking, and energy security.
The successful arms control policies of Presidents Nixon and Reagan placed a measure of predictability and stability at the center of Russian-American relations. The policies of President Obama could do the same for this important strategic relationship. In any event, it is long past time to return the common interests and strategic concerns of Russia and the United States to the center of their bilateral relations.