Shadow Government

The U.S. and Russia still disagree where it counts

By Christian Brose

Dan Drezner agrees with this from Matt Yglesias about President Obama’s goals in his visit to Moscow:

It makes a lot more sense to focus a visit on something like the nuclear issue, where U.S. and Russian interests are roughly in alignment and some high-level discussions stand a decent chance of bearing fruit.

I’m all for “de-linkage” in U.S.-Russia relations -- working together where our interests converge, agreeing to disagree where our interests conflict, and preventing those disagreements from impeding constructive cooperation. In short, what Bush and Putin spelled out last April in Sochi.

That said, let’s be honest about what that means for our interests: It means that Obama has just invested a lot of time and effort to secure an agreement to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles to a level that could still annihilate the world several times over. This may be an achievable goal, but it is hardly a pressing one -- not when Iran is speeding toward a weapon of its own, and the United States and Russia cannot seem to find much agreement on how to proceed on that.

Indeed, the question of Iran is illustrative, because Russia has solid national interests in never, ever wanting to see Iran open to the world -- the critical carrot that the West holds out in every diplomatic gambit it has conceived on the Iranian nuclear question. The reason? Gas. Nick Gvosdev explains:

One potential concern for Russia is that if it joins in putting real pressure on Tehran, Iran could eventually negotiate a Libya-style settlement with the West, clearing the way for major new Western investments in Iran’s energy sector.

Right now, Moscow benefits from Iran’s isolation from the West. Not only are Iran’s formidable gas reserves not accessible to European users, preserving Russia as the Continent’s major supplier, but alternate routes for Central Asian energy that could traverse Iran are also not possible.

Yet resolution of the nuclear issue could open up the vast reserves of Iranian natural gas for use through the Nabucco line, the major pipeline on the drawing boards for getting energy to Europe without going through Russia. The project is currently nearly moribund because there isn’t enough supply to justify the huge investments. Iran would be a game-changer. 

So color me skeptical that Russian interests will ever lead it to be an effective partner in pressuring Iran on its nuclear weapons ambitions. And what's more, anyone who thinks the U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions that Obama just won will help to halt the Iranian nuclear program needs to refrain from operating heavy machinery. Something tells me that Iran’s rulers will be none too persuaded to give up their nuclear aspirations simply because the United States and Russia have now agreed to retain a couple thousand fewer nukes apiece between them.

As for the other accomplishment of Obama’s trip -- Russia’s offer to open its airspace for U.S. military re-supply of the war in Afghanistan -- I’m of two minds: Given the uncertainty still surrounding Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan and the insecurity of supply routes through Pakistan, it’s nice to have another option; but we are now directly at the mercy of Russia for a service that they can use against us as a political weapon if they see fit. Just ask Ukrainians with gas-heated homes how that’s working out for them.

All of this should raise a fundamental question for those who harbor high hopes for hitting that reset button with Russia: How good should we feel about a U.S.-Russia relationship where we can make progress on many issues of questionable importance while we disagree over most of the important stuff?

Shadow Government

The sources of Russian conduct (same as ever)

By Will Inboden

This week brings President Obama’s visit to Moscow, and with it a cauldron of questions over the state of US-Russia relations and the curious trajectory of Russia itself. Continuing uncertainties over who is really in charge in Russia and what Russia wants were further complicated by Prime Minister Putin’s abrupt announcement a few weeks ago that -- sixteen years after applying and just as admission seemed to approach -- Russia was suspending its bid for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and instead forming a trade bloc with Belarus and Kazakhstan (which, at 66th and 53rd respectively in global GDP rankings, are hardly economic powerhouses).

This odd gambit, seemingly against Russia’s own economic interests as well as President Medvedev’s previous statements, recalls an earlier episode in history. In February 1946, the Soviet Union decided against participating in the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, both of which were just being formed as institutional pillars of the post-war global economic order. As George Kennan relates in his memoirs, this news caused no small amount of distress within the US Government, as it seemed to go against the USSR’s own economic interests and indicate an adversarial posture towards the West. And it was also this Russian decision against international economic cooperation which prompted Kennan, then a diplomat at the US Embassy in Moscow, to compose the “Long Telegram” inquiring into the puzzle of Russian behavior.

Expanded the next year into an article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct", Kennan’s argument is remembered today as the paradigmatic exposition of the containment doctrine that defined American grand strategy during the Cold War. But one of Kennan’s central themes is easily overlooked yet unfortunately still relevant. This is his analysis of Russian political character, or what might be called the Sources of Russian Conduct.  Before studying Marxist-Leninist ideology, Kennan was first and foremost a student of Russia -- its language, history, culture.

Even hinting at parallels between the Soviet Union of the past and the Russia of today is fraught with peril, because they are not the same, and the United States is not in a “new Cold War” with Russia, and should not seek a new Cold War with Russia. On this President Obama got it exactly right when he warned Putin against such a posture. But just because history should not be repeated does not mean it should be ignored. 

So Kennan’s article still has much to teach us, as it described a nation with an intrinsic distrust of others and a zero-sum view of international relations.  Kennan observed how Soviet ideology interacted with Russian history in the minds of the nation’s leaders.  It “taught them that the outside world was hostile...[and] the powerful hands of Russian history and tradition reached up to sustain them in this feeling.”  Moreover, members of the Russian government “are unamenable to argument or reason which comes to them from outside sources. Their whole training has taught them to mistrust and discount the glib persuasiveness of the outside world.” Presumably, such “glib persuasiveness” would include things like “reset buttons."

Kennan also described a lamentably familiar posture towards dissent: “all internal opposition forces in Russia have consistently been portrayed as the agents of foreign forces of reaction.” Such slurs are well-known to the brave few remaining Russian political dissidents and independent journalists who are regularly disparaged as tools of the West, or America, or Britain, or Georgia, or whomever the Putin regime’s villain du jour may be. 

This kind of paranoia and xenophobia may seem oddly misplaced, even irrational, today. After all, it is hard to conceive of a threat that the United States and the rest of the outside world really pose to Russia, especially to a Russia whose most profound problems may be its own demographic death spiral. But here Kennan’s analysis may still help explain Russian actions that might otherwise seem to go against Russia’s own interests -- whether it be WTO application suspension, continued belligerence toward Georgia, arms sales and a political heat shield to Iran, and fulminations against the third site ballistic missile defense.

President Obama, for his part, has thus far admirably resisted including Russia in his series of international apologies. And the Russians seem willing to show some good will, at least in their own way, by dialling back on the state-sponsored media slander of America during Obama’s visit. His meetings this week seem to be producing some modestly encouraging cooperative steps, such as the nuclear arms reduction agreement (though still a sideshow from the more substantive issues in US-Russia relations). Yet on the most contentious issues a firm and realistic posture is needed, and promising in this regard is NSC Senior Director Mike McFaul’s assertion that,

We're not going to reassure or give or trade anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense...We're going to define our national interests, and by that I also mean the interests of our allies in Europe with reference to these two particular questions.

Whatever the outcome of this week’s summitry, going forward relations with Russia will probably continue to be a significant challenge for the Obama administration.  Perhaps most prescient is this line from Kennan, as true in 1947 as it is today: “we are going to continue for a long time to find the Russians difficult to deal with.”