No Pause for the «Reset»


No Pause for the «Reset»

Эксперты МГИМО: Троицкий Михаил Алексеевич, к.полит.н., доцент

The U.S.-Russia «reset» has become an acknowledged foreign policy triumph for the incumbent administrations in Washington and Moscow. However, amid the difficulties with negotiating further arms control agreements, politicians and pundits on both sides are tempted to conclude that the reset has largely run its course. Such talk is premature at best and harmful to U.S.-Russia relations at worst.

Relations between the United States and Russia have long been haunted by a vicious circle of disagreements on regional issues, nuclear deterrence and deeply-rooted distrust. This situation looked increasingly absurd against the backdrop of pressing domestic policy issues in both countries as well as the rapidly evolving array of shared international challenges. The leaders of both countries acknowledged these two and a half years ago and agreed that a «reset» of the U.S.-Russia relationship had long become overdue.

Indeed, disagreements on conflict resolution and defense alliance dynamic across Eurasia remain the major sources of tension between Moscow and Washington. Both sides appear to believe that enhanced security for one side and its allies necessarily comes at the expense of the other’s interests. This logic has effectively applied to the prospects of further expanding NATO, resolving the Georgia and Moldova disputes, and — until recently — military base deployments in Central Asia.

This rivalry has kept alive the antiquated cold-war posture of mutual nuclear deterrence. Having officially declared an end to their cold-war rivalry in 1992, the United States and Russia have nevertheless remained committed to planning for situations in which they might use nuclear arms against each other. Many in Russia believe that only nuclear missiles can guarantee the country’s security while some influential politicians in the U.S. believe that Russia still presents a strategic threat — on a par with the rogue nations that seek to develop nuclear weapons.

These assumptions are flawed: a number of large states effectively deter each other in the absence of nuclear arms. Adding a nuclear dimension to deterrence — as is the case with the United States and Russia — only increases the psychological and, as a result, political antagonism. India and Pakistan provide a vivid example of this point.

Nuclear deterrence is the ultimate manifestation of distrust in world politics in general and in U.S.-Russia relations in particular. Planning for situations in which nuclear retaliation may become inevitable is a sign of total distrust. If two states distrust each other to the «nuclear extent," there is no way they can resolve tactical disagreements on the ground — for example, in Russia’s near abroad. Here the negative feedback loop closes up: these disagreements, as we have seen earlier, compel you to plan for using nukes.

If Moscow and Washington are to continue deriving economic and other benefits from their expanded ties, they need to break the vicious circle. This constitutes the next task for the U.S.-Russia «reset». To maintain the momentum, both sides will have to pursue three tracks, addressing each source of contention.

First, they must work to build trust among state bureaucracies through day-to-day cooperation on issues of key importance to both of them. This is already happening in the field of security in the form of U.S.-Russia policy coordination on Afghanistan and Iran. However, acute common challenges are usually short-lived and unlikely to generate long-standing cooperation agendas. Restoring trust is a gradual process. Trust is the product of efforts to resolve practical differences, not a precondition for cooperation.

Second, Moscow and Washington would be advised to seek new ways to overcome the destructive impact of nuclear deterrence on U.S.-Russia relations. The New START Treaty, which entered into force on February 5, 2011, represented a great step forward in this direction by increasing confidence and reaffirming the commitment of both sides to nuclear disarmament. However, further progress in U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations has become contingent on resolving the differences across post-Soviet Eurasia.

Therefore, Russia and the U.S. must also intensify dialogue on the issues of mutual concern in the regions around Russia. Certain trends, such as the evolution of stakeholders’ positions on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and developments, such as the ones unfolding in Belarus or Kyrgyzstan, have caused concern in both Moscow and Washington. It is through increased policy coordination, not unnecessary competition that their respective goals can be achieved more effectively and in a way that is respectful of the smaller countries’ sovereign choices.

It will not be easy for Moscow and Washington to avoid becoming hostage to parochial influences on their policymaking with regard to states in post-Soviet Eurasia. However, if they can build up a reserve of experience of refraining from provocative moves and statements, the rationale for nuclear deterrence will wither away with a positive ripple effect for the whole relationship.

The way forward for the U.S.-Russia «reset» cannot be clearer. And yet an unfortunate string of events could bring the «reset» to a halt during the upcoming Russian and American election seasons. However, if that occurs, it will not be the result of a lack of agenda, but rather of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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