Accessibility links

Breaking News

Restarting U.S.-Russia Relations Will Take More Than Pushing A Button

U.S. Vice President Biden (left) with NATO's Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at a recent meeting.
U.S. Vice President Biden (left) with NATO's Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at a recent meeting.
Commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have now taken up the mantra first uttered by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the recent Munich security conference that it is time to "push the restart button" on U.S.-Russia relations. I tip my hat to his speechwriters for their apt formulation. At the very least, it gave a little work to specialists in the area of U.S.-Russian relations: In just a couple of weeks, there have been many reasonable and highly constructive proposals, and maybe a couple of productive theories on precisely what should be done to improve those ties.

Nonetheless, in my opinion, the fundamental question remains unanswered: Why in the world would the regime of Vladimir Putin be interested in better relations with the United States? From Washington's point of view, everything is clear enough. Russia is -- if not exactly on the periphery of U.S. interests -- definitely not at the center. In the center, there is Iraq (have to get out), Iran (have to reach an agreement), and Afghanistan (have to win). And, of course, China, which is Washington's main partner-rival in the current century. It was no accident that the new U.S. secretary of state made her first trip abroad not to Moscow, but to Beijing.

Under these circumstances, Washington obviously doesn't need much from Putin and Co. -- just that they stay out of the way and don't interfere. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted, with clear irritation, that Moscow is sending conflicting signals. On the one hand, it is demonstrating its total willingness to help out regarding Afghanistan, including allowing the ground transit of nonmilitary cargoes across Russia. On the other, it is doing everything possible to hinder the U.S. effort, including, for instance, forcing Kyrgyzstan to close down the U.S. air base outside of Bishkek.

So the U.S. strategy vis-a-vis Russia is more or less clear: demonstrate all possible respect to the fallen superpower in order to placate the Kremlin's inferiority complexes. One excellent opportunity to do this would be full-scale negotiations on offensive strategic weapons. Such talks would elevate Russia's status, which after all remains the only country in the world capable of completely destroying the world's only remaining superpower. It is worth noting at this point that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her visit to Beijing, stated clearly that the new U.S. administration does not intend to get hung up on defending human rights and freedoms in other countries. She announced that Washington's priorities in relation to other countries boil down to three Ds: defense, diplomacy, and development. Commentators were quick to note the absence of a fourth D: democracy.

Putin 1:0 West?

All this would seem to signify the complete triumph of Putin's policy, the main goal of which has been ensuring the West's noninterference (it is another question whether the West intended to interfere or that is just a result of Putin's paranoia) in the domestic affairs of our native "sovereign democracy."

Achieving this noninterference was the reason for Moscow's hysterics regarding the threat of the proposed U.S. missile-defense system in Europe and over NATO's supposed superiority in conventional weapons. This is why the Kremlin was threatening the United States with all sorts of "countermeasures." This is why Moscow had identified in advance various possible future bargaining chips, such as the base in Kyrgyzstan. And now -- happily -- the Americans are ready to give ground on everything. They are ready -- as in the years of the Cold War -- to discuss numbers of warheads and delivery systems. And they are willing, if not to abandon their missile-defense plans, at least to slow them down considerably. And they seem ready once and for all to finally shut up about political rights and freedoms in Russia.

Now the Kremlin can stretch out some multiyear talks on strategic weapons, haggle over cooperation regarding Afghanistan and Iran, and -- in doing so -- show their own people that Russia has once again risen from its knees.

Not So Simple

The problem is that Putin doesn't really need this. We are in the midst of a crisis. Good relations with the United States and with the West as a whole won't help -- there is no money in it. And you can't put hungry people to work with fairy tales about getting up off your knees and about how "Washington has been forced to acknowledge Russia's international authority."

No, for this you need stronger measures. For instance, a national mobilization against an insidious enemy who is preparing an imminent attack. And we aren't talking about China. So what good are Washington's intentions to delay the missile-defense shield or to postpone practically indefinitely NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine? Moscow will immediately throw up some new conditions and complaints. For example, the Kremlin might call for overall limits on the military forces of all NATO countries so that they do not exceed the forces of the Russian Federation. Or the Kremlin might insist that any future NATO expansion be done only with Moscow's consent.

An unwillingness to comply with any of these demands will be interpreted as proof that NATO is preparing aggression against Russia. The survival of the Putin regime does not depend on cooperation with the West but with a "managed" chronic conflict. Everyone who is reciting the "hit-the-restart-button" line should give some thought to how compatible the two machines that are set to be restarted actually are.

Aleksandr Golts is deputy editor of the website "Yezhednevny zhurnal," where this comment first appeared. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL