America Must Try to Thaw Its Relationship With Russia
There is no denying that U.S.-Russia ties have seen better days. President Donald Trump’s attempt to improve relations between the two countries notwithstanding, Washington and Moscow view one another through a hostile lens. American diplomats are bearing much of the brunt of this shift; in the latest instance of Russian intimidation, the Kremlin arbitrarily delayed the evacuation of a sick U.S. military attaché from the Russian capital this past August.
Relations between the two nuclear superpowers can always get worse, which is precisely why Washington and Moscow should try to prevent any further deterioration. The most impactful way to inject some much-needed restraint into the relationship is by investing time and energy into new strategic stability talks while keeping peace-building agreements alive.
In the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and the United States have built a pile of grievances. Foreign-policy leaders in Washington remain highly disturbed by what Vladimir Putin’s Russia has become: a declining power seeking to reclaim some of its former Soviet glory by sowing disinformation operations in the West and lending an economic, military, and political lifeline to kleptocratic governments from Syria to Venezuela. Meanwhile, policymakers in Moscow are angry and distrustful of U.S. intentions. They see U.S.-led regime-change campaigns in the Middle East and two decades of NATO expansion as a concerted campaign to knock Russia down and curtail its freedom of maneuver.
The situation has degenerated to such an extent that meetings at the head-of-state level, once viewed as standard practice, are now condemned as dangerous and naive. In both capitals, bilateral diplomacy has become captive to zero-sum thinking. Statecraft has been put on a short leash.
Washington and Moscow have a long road ahead of them just to stabilize the relationship, let alone improve it. It may take a new generation of American and Russian leaders before mutual animosity makes room for constructive pragmatism.
But in the meantime, it would be a dereliction of duty if the United States and Russia failed to at least begin this long and difficult process. While modern-day Russia may be militarily and economically weaker than its Soviet predecessor, the United States can’t wish Moscow away or pretend it doesn’t exist. Even more so for Moscow, whose ambitions for great-power status are far grander than its anemic economy and military strength can support.
It is naive to think the United States and Russia can solve every issue dividing them. But the one area that can be addressed is promoting stability and predictability at the strategic level. With over 12,600 nuclear weapons between us, it is simply untenable and unwise to passively allow an arms-control regime that has kept a lid on the arsenals of the world’s two biggest nuclear powers to disintegrate. Withdrawing from agreements like the Open Skies Treaty -- treaties that aim to promote military transparency in order to limit misunderstandings and miscalculations -- is a recipe for heightened tensions. Legitimate worries about Russian violations, such as restrictions of surveillance flights in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, should be worked through diplomatically rather than used as an excuse to destroy the accord altogether.
Similarly, holding hostage the extension of New START -- an agreement that caps the number of deployed launchers and nuclear warheads on each side -- to the fantasy of a bigger, better, and more ambitious deal leaves open the possibility of a 21st century arms race. It is not in the U.S. national security interest to let New START expire and lose all of the access and verification mechanisms on Moscow’s nuclear weapons infrastructure that come with it.
The basic equation is elementary but no less important: The less verification and information there is, the more likely the United States and Russia will assume the very worst about one another’s intentions. Such a scenario is not only unnecessary, but an insult to common sense -- particularly when a potential disaster could have easily been avoided.
Washington and Moscow don’t have to be the best of friends for the two capitals to deal with one another, especially when the issue is as serious as nuclear stability. For two powers that possess 90 percent of the world’s nuclear stockpile, the only wise option is to maintain a degree of strategic cooperation. If U.S. and Russian officials were able to strive toward this objective during the most intense days of Cold War competition, surely they can do so today.
The time is fast approaching when new negotiations will be required to address a growing array of more sophisticated weapons. It will be far easier to write new rules of the road with an arms-control regime in place than without one. With New START scheduled to expire in February 2021 and the Open Skies Treaty hanging on by a thread, Washington must smarten up before another moment is wasted.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner. The views expressed are the author's own.