US-RUSSIA: Let's Be Frenemies

A long list of top U.S. officials is urging renewed diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Russia.

by Marina LitvinskyIPS
February 26th, 2009

At a press conference Thursday, the Partnership for a Secure America (PSA), a bipartisan group of top foreign policy and national security officials, released a concrete list of steps the Barack Obama administration can take to revitalise cooperation between the two countries.

The statement, "U.S and Russia: A Window of Opportunity," says that the U.S. and Russia share a wide range of critical interests, from preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to addressing global energy concerns, to combating international terrorism and the illegal drug trade - all points many analysts agree on.

But strains on the relationship in recent years have held back robust cooperation.

"The U.S. and Russia need to build a very strong, positive bilateral agenda if they are in anyway going to be able to overcome the negatives that have so prevailed in our relationship in recent years," said Amb. Thomas Pickering, a highly regarded diplomat and signatory of the statement, at Thursday’s press conference.

Pickering referred to "sensitivity with respect to the potential for difficulties in the future" because the two countries combined posses more than 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.

He approved of moves that were already being made by the Obama administration and said that many of them mirrored the statement even before its writing. But he said that the statement could be a "sign-post" for further building.

"Both U.S. and Russian leaders appear open to improving ties and increasing cooperation on our many shared interests," PSA Advisory Board Co-Chair former Rep. Lee Hamilton said. "The Obama administration should take advantage of this window of opportunity to move ahead on a series of steps that will rebuild trust and confidence between our countries, and make future cooperation possible."

"Today," said another signatory, former Ronald Reagan administration National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, "I think the opportunity is better than it has been in the last eight years to move forward."

The statement was signed by more than 30 top foreign policy and national security officials, including nine former senators, two former representatives, four former secretaries of defence, two former national security advisors and four former ambassadors to Russia.

"President Obama and his administration have an opportunity to turn the page and, as Vice President Biden said on Feb. 7, ‘reset’ the relationship. Doing so is in the U.S. interest," said Steven Pifer, visiting fellow in Foreign Policy at the Centre on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, in testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Wednesday.

These recommendations come on the heels of Kyrgyzstan’s agreement to close a U.S. air base inside the country, which many believe was the result of Russian pressure in exchange for 2.0 billion dollars in loans and grants. A similar deal was made with Uzbekistan in 2005.

Many experts and diplomats consider the U.S.-Russia relationship to be in its worst shape since the end of the Cold War.

According to Pifer, "The Moscow summit in May 2002 represented the high point in U.S.-Russian relations under Presidents Bush and Putin. It produced the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), a joint declaration on a new strategic partnership, and joint statements promising broader cooperation in areas such as energy, missile defence and people-to-people exchanges. The presidents spoke of ‘a new era’ and ‘qualitatively new relations.’"

However, with the two presidents preoccupied with other issues, including the war in Iraq for Bush, and cultivating relations with Europe for Putin, "the two countries failed to realise this potential," said Pifer.

Relations declined in the coming years. Russia saw the 2003 Rose and 2004 Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, respectively, as U.S.-organised and a direct threat to Russian interests in the region. Russia’s more assertive policy in Eastern Europe sparked anxiety in Washington over Russia’s intentions

"The trajectory of the relationship has been steadily downward," Micheal McFaul, Stanford University political science professor and expert on post-Soviet countries, told the Los Angeles Times in early 2008. After peaking just after the Sep. 11 attacks, "it’s now the worst it’s been in 20 years."

The Russia-Georgia conflict, in which the U.S. pledged its support to Georgia, in August 2008 further eroded the shaky relationship.

"We are not doomed to repeat history," said Matthew Rojansky, executive director of the PSA. After meeting with Russians across the political spectrum in Moscow recently, he reports their reaction "as very positive" to the call for revived diplomatic relations.

"The key term here is ‘window of opportunity’ and we have to do some concrete things," he said, pointing out that the new recommendations will "open up and build confidence."

The statement said the Obama administration can restore mutual confidence and trust with Russia by taking steps including emphasising the importance of the NATO-Russia Council and inviting Russia to participate fully in a collective security strategy, beginning with peace and stability for Afghanistan.

Rojansky contends that "a baseline of trust on issues" must be established between the two countries in order to continue to work on common interests. One way to do this, he adds, is to quell Russia’s fears about the existence of NATO so close to its borders. "The key is to find NATO and Russia to work together so it is clear that NATO is not a threat to Russian security," he said.

Other recommendations include: Reiterating U.S. support for Russia’s WTO candidacy, calling on Congress to repeal the "Jackson-Vanik" trade sanctions, and encouraging other member states to offer Russia a clear path to membership based on its commitment to the WTO Charter; Expanding the U.S.-Russia dialogue on energy and climate change, to include seeking common ground on environmental concerns and new oil and gas pipelines to guarantee reliable energy supplies for the entire North Atlantic region; and Encouraging Russia to take a leadership role in multilateral negotiations with Iran to stop uranium enrichment.

"Russia has a key role to play in overcoming our most serious international challenges, from Afghanistan to nuclear non-proliferation, to combating terrorism and the drug trade," said McFarlane. "But it is essential that the U.S. and Russia address these challenges in concert rather than in competition."