Given how much of my life I have devoted to trying to understand first the U.S.S.R. and later Russia, I was pleased to hear then-Secretary of State Clinton’s call for a “re-set” in our bilateral relations.
President Obama has indicated his intention to follow that path. Russian President Vladi-mir Putin has expressed similar aspirations. Unfortunately, nothing seems to be happening. At times, both sides seem more interested in restarting the Cold War than in improving bilateral relations.
There are a number of reasons that go beyond the simplistic explanation that it is “the Russians fault.” I am well acquainted with the obdurate, frustrating, mind-boggling nature of Russian diplomacy
We — the United States — can also be difficult to deal with. I remember a congressional delegation’s visit to Moscow. We were walking up an elaborate staircase, and halfway up was a landing with a big painting of Lenin’s return to St. Petersburg. The congressman went over to the picture and made a vulgar gesture toward Lenin. The Russians were understandably outraged. I told the congress-man that he was on very thin ice — they were talking about tossing him out of the country. Dismayed, he said, “Ah, shucks, I was just joshin’.” He immediately apologized and the visit went forward.
One huge problem is the economic and military disparity between our two countries. The United States has one of the world’s strongest economies and — if sequestration and budget cuts don’t kill it — the strongest military. Russia, on the other hand, has an economy almost totally based on extractive industries and a weak military.
All countries are primarily interested in advancing their national interests. The first questions asked in the White House or the Kremlin are, “How strong are they?” and “What is in it for us?” Nations are not charities.
One key reason for the downturn in our relations is that Russia has fallen on hard times. To make matters worse, the Russians, both civilians and military, realize how far they have fallen and deeply resent their situation. Bilaterally, Russia simply is no longer that important for America, politically, economically or militarily.
Yet there are a number of reasons why Russia, even in its current position, is important to us. First, it is in our interest to make Russia part of the solution, not part of the problem. Russia will not likely always be this weak. If and when it comes back, it is in our interest to have a friendly relationship.
Another reason involves China. We may need Russian help someday in dealing with Beijing. We are happy to have Russia’s support in the United Nations with regard to North Korea. Russia’s backing is also critical in dealing with Syria,. On this,Russia has been frustrating — backing the Assad government. However, I doubt that it will be possible to exclude them from any settlement.
Then there is arms control. If Obama is sincere about cutting back on nuclear weapons, the Russians are critical. They may have some problems in that area, but the they are the other “great power” when it comes to nuclear weapons. That includes our efforts to deploy air defense systems (against which the Russians have no counter-deterrence).
Russia is also critical when it comes to the next frontier — the Arctic. Russia already has military units trained to operate in that vast region. We also may need Russian assistance with Iran. Yes, Russia has cooperated with Iran on Syria, but the Russians have make it clear to Iran that that they oppose its possession of nuclear weapons.
From the U.S. perspective, the biggest problem in our bilateral relations is Putin. He is increasingly authoritative and in some of his comments and speeches, has become increasingly anti-American. He sometimes sounds like a Soviet leader from the Cold War. He signed the bill prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian orphans in response to an action by the Obama administration (unwise in my opinion) in an unrelated case.
Like it or not, Russia is still important internationally, and it behooves us to be pragmatic in dealing with the Russians.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor, has spent a lifetime dealing with Russia as a diplomat, naval officer and academic.