Moscow’s support of NATO operations in Afghanistan has been, in addition to the New START Treaty, a key pillar of the “reset.” But as NATO pulls out of Afghanistan, Washington’s need for Russia’s support diminishes and the urgency for filling the gap in relations created by NATO’s withdrawal grows. However, finding common ground to close this void will be difficult, in great part because Washington’s and Moscow’s interests often diverge.
In addition to Russian reluctance to reduce its nuclear arsenal and the political challenges presented by the United States Senate, New START has, for now, exhausted prospects for deepening relations through further strategic nuclear disarmament. As of yet, substantive missile defense cooperation appears impracticable and indeed, remains an irritant in relations. While talks on tactical nuclear weapons reductions are a logical next step, Russia is reluctant to cut its arsenal because they provide artificial assurances against a superior Chinese military.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has proven to be an unreliable partner on Iran, and relishes in its role as the principal interlocutor between Tehran and the West. On trade, however, the White House has so far proven unable to secure Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization or to convince the Congress to eliminate the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment which leads to counterproductive trade discrimination against Russia.
Concomitantly, Russia appears diametrically opposed with the West on democratic efforts around the globe, in part because the Kremlin fears the influence these movements may have on encouraging similar change at home. Concerned more with preserving its influence and economic interests, Russia has consistently failed to support, and indeed has subverted, democratic efforts throughout its own backyard, chose not to recognize Libyan rebels until it was clear that Colonel Gaddafi had fled Tripoli and that its lucrative oil contracts could be under threat, and has lambasted international efforts to constrain the murderous regime in Damascus.
At the same time, Afghanistan is rapidly becoming Russia’s problem. Already battered by the influx of heroine from the Afghan countryside, Moscow worries about how NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will fuel instability, drug trafficking and radical Islam south of Russia’s border. Not surprising, Russia has agreed with Dushanbe to extend the deployment of its military base in Tajikistan –which shares a lengthy and porous border with Afghanistan– with the aim of boosting Moscow’s regional influence after the NATO pullout. Tempted by the heavy handed ban on drugs and the relative stability provided by the Taliban pre-2001, the Kremlin may be inclined to look the other way in the face of a Taliban return in Kabul with the mind of returning to the status quo ante bellum. This is easier than continuing to cooperate with NATO –who is more than eager to walk away from its costly attempt to create a democratic Afghanistan– and thus further alienate the Taliban and support a continued robust American footprint in Central Asia.
If U.S. and Russian interests increasingly diverge, we risk seeing a return to the characteristically passive aggressive relations that dominated much of the previous decade. If prevailing forecasts are correct, a return to the Kremlin by the America-weary Vladimir Putin –with whom President Obama has little rapport– will further wedge relations. Diverging interests will also give room to greater American scrutiny –and in turn Moscow’s anger– of Russia’s “managed democracy” and the Kremlin’s heavy handed methods in the Caucasus, where, in a vicious cycle, those disenchanted with Russia’s increasingly authoritarian government run on corruption and disregard for the rule of law find a growing voice in Islamic fundamentalism. Rejecting Russian notions of a “sphere of influence,” Washington will also broaden its engagement with other Eurasian states that better suit U.S. objectives, but draw Moscow’s ire for meddling in its self-proclaimed imperial backyard.
In 2009, within a context of enduring conflicts in interests and historical distrust in relations, Presidents Medvedev and Obama “reset” relations by agreeing to disagree on important issues, namely Iran, missile defense and Georgia, as a means to cooperate on issues of common interest, namely Afghanistan and slashing their strategic nuclear arsenals. Though the Obama-Medvedev Commission then created has achieved results in various areas and fostered a positive environment to improve relations, initiatives that have the potential to transform relations have yet to emerge.
The “reset” urgently needs a new angle, but any such proposal is unlikely to emerge before next year’s U.S. presidential election and hence greater clarity as to whom the Kremlin will be talking with. Agreement on limiting Russian and NATO conventional forces in Europe is a start, which in turn would facilitate talks on reducing American and Russian tactical nuclear weapons, because if Washington and Moscow can agree that their conventional and nuclear forces do not threaten one another, they will be more inclined to limit them. Progress, however, will require trade-offs between U.S. and Russian concessions, including the withdrawal of the small number of American tactical weapons remaining in Europe.
At the same time, cooperation on containing China’s rise and growing regional influence has the potential to transform relations beyond the historical pillar of security issues. Though Washington and Moscow will continue to disagree on important issues, they can agree on leveraging their ties with India and post-Soviet Eurasia, and their increasing mistrust about China, to control the region’s most important actor of the 21st century. This shared, broad-based and long-term strategy will attenuate perceptions of conflicting U.S.-Russian Eurasia policies, draw Russian attention south and eastward to where it is most needed, provide the assurances necessary to induce Russia to reduce its tactical nuclear arsenal, and set the base for greater cooperation on addressing other shared regional concerns, namely Afghanistan, terrorism and Islamic extremism.