The cyclical nature of Russian-American relations

The negotiations conducted over 8 – 9 June on anti-ballistic missile (ABM) issues as part of NATO-Russia Council can not be called successful. The parties involved did not come to a compromise about the format for Russia’s participation in the “European missile defense” project. This gave rise to a plethora of comments in the Russian and American media about the end of the “reset policy”. Russian-American dialogue, of course, will continue. But no one can deny that this is an alarming sign for Moscow-Washington relations.

The June setback

The “reset policy” crisis has been discussed in the Russian and U.S. media for nearly a year. Both the Kremlin and the White House reported progress: from START-III entering into force to expanded economic contacts. But after the Washington summit that brought presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev together on 24 June 2010, there has been an increasingly dominant sense that the “reset” process is, somehow, going very wrong. The U.S. refusal to compromise over its ABM system, ongoing tensions over Iran, Libya and Georgia, Washington’s support for Japan in its territorial disputes with Russia, the U.S. media’s infatuation with the “Khodorkovsky case” — all these are symptoms of a deeper problem.

Now, the situation is different. The preamble to START-III focuses on the balance between strategic offensive and defensive weapons. Both parties, however, interpret this differently: the USA views it as an aspiration for the future, whereas Russia sees in it the need to reach agreement on ABM. Over the past year, Moscow has offered the United States two options for a potential compromise: either signing a special protocol to START-III or implementing the “European missile defense” project. Washington’s refusal to compromise on missile defense casts doubt over the idea that START-III (the main achievement of the two-year “reset policy”) stands any real chance of being implemented.

Moscow and Washington, of course, will try to reach a compromise on ABM. But the purpose of the “reset policy,” i.e. building new partnerships and reviving relations between Russia and the United States, seems to be fading. Russian-American relations appear to have reverted to the traditional type, with issues relating to arms control comprising 80% of their agenda. Over the past two years the parties have failed to bring them to a new level.

Cycles of convergence and divergence

There is nothing special or unusual about the current difficulties. Over the past twenty years, both Russia and the United States have experienced several cycles of convergence and divergence in their bilateral relations. It seems that Moscow and Washington are doomed to repeat these cycles time and again.

Such changes in bilateral relations are no mere coincidence. Russia and the United States base their relations on mutual nuclear deterrence. The material and technical foundations for Russian-American relations differ little from those underpinning the Soviet-American relations of the 1980s. Thus, these cycles of Russian-American rapprochement are due to two factors. First comes the desire to consistently reduce aging nuclear systems so that during disarmament neither party risked destroying the military-strategic parity. Second, the reaction to a major military-political crisis after which the parties seek to reduce confrontation and update the rules of conduct in the military-political sphere. After confronting these tasks, Russia and the United States returned to a state of low intensity confrontation.

The first rapprochement cycle was observed in the early 1990s. Yeltsin’s government needed U.S. support in recognizing Russia within the 1991 borders of the RSFSR. Boris Yeltsin also needed U.S. assistance in addressing the problem of the Soviet “nuclear legacy” and taking on the Supreme Council. The administrations of George Bush Senior and Bill Clinton were willing to help the Kremlin solve these problems. However, the Americans demanded major strategic concessions from Russia in return, outlined in START-III: making the elimination of heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles a priority. The parties reached an unofficial compromise: U.S. recognition of the Russian leadership in exchange for the rapid decrease in Russia’s strategic nuclear forces (SNF).

However, the stronger Russian state institutions became, the weaker the impetus to the rapprochement. In autumn 1994, Russia refused to ratify the original version of START-II and declared NATO’s eastward expansion unacceptable. The United States adopted the concept of “mutually assured safety” (January 1995) under which Russia’s democratic reforms qualified as inseparable from continued armament reduction. The “Overview of U.S. nuclear policy” in 1994 also confirmed that America deemed Russian strategic nuclear forces a priority threat.
The crises that unfolded during the late 1990s in Iran and Yugoslavia were, like NATO expansion, the logical results of a restoration of the old approach to Soviet-American relations.

It was actually the events of 1994, not 2000, that in fact predetermined the subsequent development of Russian-American relations.

The second cycle of Russian-American rapprochement was also rooted in strategic considerations. In 2000 START-II and the ABM Treaty collapsed. Both Washington and Moscow were faced with the problem of their agreed decommissioning of nuclear systems dating back to the 1970s. These events pushed presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush to reach a strategic compromise at a meeting in Crawford (12 November 2001). The United States agreed to sign a new Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), and Russia did not object to Washington’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. Instead of the ABM Treaty, the parties signed the Moscow Declaration on May 24, 2002, under which the United States pledged to consult with Russia on all issues pertaining to missile defense deployment.

However, after the “compromise at Crawford,” the agenda for Russian-American rapprochement was exhausted. The disputes between Moscow and Washington over Iraq, Iran, Georgia, Ukraine and Beslan, which had been gathering steam since 2003, necessitated a return to the traditional format for Russian-American relations. At the Bratislava meeting (February 24, 2005) President Vladimir Putin refused to accept George W. Bush’s suggestion of including issues of fissile material safety in the agenda. Since then, the “rapprochement” between Russia and the U.S. has reached a dead end, including at the official level.

The real objectives of the “reset policy”

The third cycle was the “reset policy” proclaimed in February 2009. Predictably, it was also based on strategic concerns. First, during the five-day war in August 2008 Russia and the United States came dangerously close to direct military confrontation. Second, it was time for the agreed decommissioning of nuclear systems in the first half of the 1980s. In the next two years, the Kremlin and the White House coordinated the parameters for START-III and discussed the new rules for military activities in Europe under the framework of the Euro-Atlantic security initiatives.

The next period of Russian-American rapprochement peaked on April 8, 2010, when START-III was signed in Prague. The relationship went on to follow the traditional pattern. The parties still demonstrated convergence. But contradictions in the core (strategic) area became an increasingly regular occurrence.

That is why now, in mid 2011 the “reset” is going through a difficult time. But this fact is no indicator of inefficiency of either Russian or American diplomacy. Put simply, the tasks assigned two years ago have been completed. The problem is that Moscow and Washington have failed to develop their relations beyond the strategic sphere, which is a cause for concern.

The potential for new cycles 

At first glance, the cyclical character of U.S.-Russian relations seems encouraging. Even taking this negative scenario into consideration, Russia and the United States should enter a new rapprochement cycle in about 2016. That is when they will need to have agreed on the decommissioning of their aging nuclear systems and overcome this unnecessary hostility. However, the problem is that in the second half of the 2010s the potential for a “rapprochement cycle” may well have been exhausted for the following reasons.

First, Russia and the United States have now reached critical ceilings in reducing strategic nuclear forces: up to 1,550 operational warheads deployed by each side. A further ceiling reduction may result in a possible strike to disarm the strategic forces of either party.

With the development of missile defense systems and precision weapons accelerating, Moscow is unlikely to agree to develop a new, more fundamental, START-IV.

Second, over the past twenty years, Russia and the United States have upgraded their strategic nuclear forces much more slowly than they did in the 1970s and 1980s. The potential to decommission these nuclear systems will be far less than it was pre-2009. If it is to maintain the current groupings of strategic nuclear forces, Russia will be forced to extend the operating life of its nuclear weapons. Presumably, the United States, in turn, will not agree to compromise on missile defense without substantial concessions from Moscow.

Third, the parties are not ready to begin a dialogue on tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) reduction. For Russia, this functions as compensation for NATO’s superiority in conventional forces. For the United States it is a mechanism by which they preserve their nuclear presence in Europe, especially in Germany. Theoretically, Russia could exchange the partial reduction of tactical nuclear weapons for the involvement of Britain and France in the INF Treaty (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty) and thus get guarantees for the non-development of Britain’s nuclear capability. But the experience of 2010 proved that Washington is unlikely to be able to convince London and Paris to join these Russian-American agreements.

Fourth, Russia and the USA have ever fewer compromise opportunities on missile defense issues. Washington has allocated vast resources for this project, and American business gets big military orders. Americans do not yet know what major concessions Moscow should make in exchange for an agreement on limiting anti-missile systems. Russia, in turn, is not prepared to reduce the strategic potential for the sake of attractive promises about partnership on ABM issues.

In this sense, the failure of June’s missile defense talks is a greater cause for anxiety than any of the previous obstacles encountered. Strategic relations between Russia and the United States are dwindling. In the sphere of arms control both Moscow and Washington will go through a really difficult period in the second half of the 2010s. Will it be possible to expand the agenda of the Russian-American dialogue before that starts?


Alexei Fenenko is Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences.



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