Not so long ago, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said they were going to “reset” U.S.- Russian relations. Both sides recognized that there was room for improvement.
Attention now shifts to new Secretary of State, John Kerry, who has lived abroad and speaks German and French fluently. His father was a Foreign Service officer in the Department of State. That kind of a background help Kerry in his new position..
There have been areas in which our two governments cooperated, such as the fight against terrorism, drugs and crime. Of special note, the Russians came to our aid when the roads through Pakistan to Afghanistan were closed and supply trucks were either set aflame or forced to sit. The Russians permitted us to ship badly needed equipment across Russia to Afghanistan.
We do, however, have difference. Russians believe they are still a major power in spite of their social, economic and military weaknesses. And in the past two years. our respective national interests have clashed several times.
Points of contention involve our respective policies on Libya and Syria. Moscow saw these conflicts as U.S. efforts to shift power away from Russia to the United States. The Russians do not like Syria’s ruler, but they have a base in naval base in Aleppo,. Although Russia does not now have any ships there, Moscow has announced it will send 10 ships to the Mediterranean. Most are 20 years old and do not constitute much of a naval threat, but permit the Kremlin to show the flag. Their presence would be part of an effort to convince NATO and Washington not to further aid aid rebels in Syria.
Apart from a crisis in the Middle East, the most important aspect of the U.S.-Russia relationship involves arms control. We have a long history of cooperating in that area; from SALT to START, as well as limitations on chemical and even conventional weapons. At present, tensions between our countries exist, as is evident in the dispute over American citizens adopting Russian orphans. However, differences over human rights pale in significance when it comes to arms control. History shows that we can make progress despite differences over human rights. During the Communist period, when we continually clashed over human rights, we signed SALT I. It was an agreement that was in both of our interests.
In a sense, we are now in a similar situation. We don’t agree on the meaning of democracy or human rights. But there is the area of arms control. Getting an agreement will not be easy. We will have to give on the issue of missile defense. We argue that these missiles, stationed in Europe, are aimed at Iran. The Russians acknowledge that, but argue that those missiles could easily be redirected toward Russia. The military can’t calculate a threat based on intentions because intentions can change in a minute. Rather, it must calculate the danger of a country’s weapons systems. Given how far the Russians are behind the West in this area, they might make an agreement contingent on U.S. movement on the missiles.
In the United States, a number of conservative supporters of missile defense fear that Obama will make major concessions to the Russians. After all, he told former Russian president Dmitri Medvedev that he would have more flexibility in this area in his second term. Furthermore, in his State of the Union address, he said the United States would “engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals and continue to lead the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands.” Then Vice President Biden purportedly told Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov that we should begin normalizing our relations with cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation. Indeed Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, who is an expert in arms control, is traveling to Moscow to discuss arms control. Furthermore, the appoint of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense suggests that Obama will have little opposition from Pentagon if he decides to make concessions to the Russians.
Stay tuned. Obama appears to prepared for movement in U.S.-Russian relations.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.