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U.S.-Russia Interests on Collision Course

Author: Lionel Beehner
February 14, 2007
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

U.S.-Russia relations during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tenure have seesawed between mutual cooperation and confrontation. Recently tensions have escalated over American moves to establish an antimissile shield, further expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and encourage the installation of pro-Western governments across Eastern Europe, Moscow’s former sphere of influence. During a biting speech at a recent international security conference in Munich, Putin accused Washington of creating a unipolar world, reviving a nuclear arms race, and demonstrating an “almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations.” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates disputed accusations the United States was reverting back to a Cold War-like atmosphere of bilateral relations.

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A Demand for Respect

Arms control considerations—as well as pre-1991 perceptions of nuclear parity—influence Russia’s outlook on the world and factor heavily in its foreign policy with the West. “In a deeper sense, what this reflects is a kind of classical expression of Russian anxiety,” explains Richard Burt, a former senior State Department official who now chairs Diligence, a commercial information and security services firm. “I think Putin’s speech was a message of traditional Russian paranoia, victimization, and strong desire to be taken seriously by the West,” says Burt, who was present in Munich for Putin’s speech. “Russians get a lot of psychological satisfaction from sitting across from the United States and being seen as a major power.” Putin accused Washington of reneging on its nuclear treaty obligations and of hiding nuclear weapons in warehouses and “under the blanket and under the pillow.” That is why Putin favors returning to an era of regular U.S.-Russia arms negotiations, Burt says. Gates appeared open to the idea of a more formalized security partnership with Russia but did not provide many details. "We all face many common problems and challenges that must be addressed in partnership with other countries,” he said, “including Russia."

Withdrawing from the ABM Treaty

Nuclear arms relations between Moscow and Washington have been strained since December 2001, when the United States announced it would unilaterally opt out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the 1972 accord limiting the use of missile systems. A subsequent strategic arms reduction treaty did little to relieve Russian anxieties. “Its few details and minimal verification provisions reflected the low priority that the Bush administration assigned to arms control,” according to a March 2006 CFR Task Force report. The report also advocates a “high-level nuclear dialogue,” which includes “resuscitation and implementation of the 2000 agreement on exchanging ballistic-missile launch data, an assessment of the impact on stability of existing early-warning capabilities, and the need to anticipate the expiration both of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I (START-1) in 2009 and of the Moscow Treaty in 2012.”

U.S. plans to install an antimissile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic have rattled nerves in Russia (as have plans to establish American military bases in Romania and Bulgaria). Putin said the move “could provoke nothing less than the beginning of a nuclear era.” Some analysts viewed Putin’s speech as bluster. The Washington Times’ James Hackett likened Russia’s response to the Soviet Union’s opposition to the basing of Pershing II missiles in Europe during the 1980s. Yet others felt Putin’s concerns were valid. “What Putin says is not entirely crazy,” says Marshall Goldman of Harvard University. “These are legitimate questions.” Gates, apparently taking Putin’s words more literally, stressed the shield was not intended to defend against an attack from Russia but rather from a third-party rogue threat (i.e. Iran or al-Qaeda) and thus does not undercut Moscow’s deterrent capabilities.

Countering Antimissile Moves

Still, Russian officials claim such a system of antimissile radars and interceptors should not be necessary for NATO members, which already enjoy collective security (Article V) protections. Experts say Russia may feel compelled to add dummy warheads to confuse the U.S.-installed missile defense system. “We have the capability to surpass any antimissile system,” said Sergei B. Ivanov, Russia’s defense minister and a potential successor to Putin in 2008. “It doesn’t mean that we threaten others.”

Putin also hinted that Moscow’s new Topol-M ballistic missile, currently under development, was in part in response to U.S. efforts to build a missile shield in Russia’s backyard. Russian defense spending last year jumped 23 percent to a new post-Cold War high of $32.4 billion, as the Kremlin unveiled a new $189 billion rearmament program to develop Russia’s high-tech military capabilities. “Russia is once again returning to international arms competition with a heavy accent on advanced weaponry,” writes George H. Wittman, a founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy, in the American Spectator. This buildup in the size and readiness of Russian military forces is partly in response to a Foreign Affairs article by Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press from last spring, much discussed in Russia but little noticed in the United States, that confirmed “the era of international great-power wars had ended” because of a “series of improvements in the United States’ nuclear systems” and “the precipitous decline of Russia’s arsenal.” The article set off a fresh round of soul-searching and gave validation to the claims of Russian Cold Warriors who favor a stronger military role for Moscow and a revamping of its military-industrial complex.

Fueling Russia’s New Complacency

Indeed, Russian foreign policy has taken on a more assertive and anti-Western tone in recent years. The reason, claims Harvard’s Goldman, stems from the “realization that Russia is now stronger relative to Europe and the United States than at anytime in its history.” Russia is swimming in cash; it holds the world’s third largest holdings of gold and convertible currencies. “Eight years ago the vaults were empty,” Goldman says. “Now there’s been this metamorphosis from bankruptcy to robustness.” But its booming economy—roughly 7 percent annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth over the past few years—has been primarily buoyed by soaring global oil prices.

Russia boasts the world’s largest known reserves of natural gas. Moscow has used its energy supplies to wrest higher gas prices and more favorable transit rights from many of its energy-dependent neighbors. The Kremlin has imprisoned energy tycoons like former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky who fell afoul of its brand of see-no-evil politics. It has revised production sharing agreements (PSAs), signed with foreign consortiums during the unsteady days of the 1990s, to develop oil fields near the Sakhalin Islands. Its bully-like moves were met with opprobrium from the international community. Vice President Dick Cheney, on a May 2006 visit to Lithuania, slapped Russia’s wrist for using energy as “a tool of intimidation and blackmail.” Last year’s CFR Task Force report found that U.S.-Russia relations were “headed in the wrong direction.”  

Moscow Seeks Friends Elsewhere

One unintended consequence of Putin’s tough talk and downturn in U.S.-Russia relations is a shifting of alliances. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said Putin “did more in a single speech to unite Europe and America than anything we could have done in a decade.” Yet Eberhard Sandschneider of the German Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, hesitated to go that far.” Some of [Putin’s anti-U.S.] criticism echoed complaints made by European politicians about Washington’s alleged ‘unilateralism,’” he said. Other experts say Russia’s more assertive, anti-Western foreign policy may increasingly push Moscow into the arms of countries with similar foreign outlooks (i.e. China and Iran).

The growing importance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—whose members include China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan—is one manifestation of this security reconfiguration. Begun as a sleepy mechanism to demilitarize China’s borders a decade ago, the SCO has slowly morphed into a powerful player in an energy-rich region teeming with terrorists and drug pushers. The Shanghai club is retooling its mission statement to include counterterrorism operations, intelligence sharing, and even election monitoring. Meanwhile, the orientation of its members is increasingly aligning to project a more united front that experts say is, if not hostile to, then outwardly suspicious of U.S. military, economic, geopolitical interests in Central Asia.  Iran, currently an SCO observer, is clamoring to join the club.   

Indeed, Russia-Iran relations continue to irk Washington. Moscow supplies Tehran with assistance to develop its civilian nuclear energy program. Russian engineers helped build the $8 billion nuclear reactor at Bushehr, set to go online later this year. There is also talk of forming an OPEC-like oil cartel between Iran and Russia, which could drive up global oil prices. But perhaps most worrisome to U.S. policymakers is the burgeoning Russian arms trade to Iran. Since 1992, Russia has sold Iran hundreds of major weapons systems. The total value of arms transfer agreements between Iran and Russia ballooned from $300 million between 1998 and 2001 to $1.7 billion between 2002 and 2005.

The Kremlin claims its arms trade with Iran does not pose a threat to American or European interests because Tehran does not possess long-range missiles capable of reaching continental Europe. On the issue of arms trade, Putin says Russia’s “military and technical cooperation with Iran is minimal” and pales in comparison to U.S. arms shipments to other Middle Eastern countries. “We recently delivered an anti-aircraft weapon system to Iran—that is true,” he admits. “Why did we do this? So that Iran did not feel it had been driven into a corner.” But the budding energy and arms relationship between Moscow and Tehran comes at a tense time of UN negotiations to punish Iran for refusing to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. Russia, along with China, has sought to water down a sanctions regime against Tehran for fear of losing lucrative energy contracts there.

Tensions over the “Near Abroad”

President Putin bristles at the mention of pro-Western revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. Moscow holds that the former Soviet states of Eastern Europe and Central Asia are within its sphere of influence, or so-called “near abroad.” The general feeling from the Kremlin is these revolts were orchestrated by U.S. and Europe-based civil society groups whose ultimate goal is to weaken Russia’s influence in the region. “The Russians are very much concerned about these different revolutions,” says Harvard’s Goldman. “They see them in countries surrounding them but some of the players have indicated Russia is next.” Putin was especially critical of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which he says has become “a vulgar instrument designed to promote the foreign policy interests of one or a group of countries.” He slammed the work of foreign non-governmental organizations that operate in Russia and offer support to opposition parties aligned with the West as undermining democracy. 

U.S.-Russia interests have also butted heads in the Balkans, most recently over the future status of the Serbian province of Kosovo. Russia has traditionally sided with its ethnic allies, the Serbs. More importantly, it is wary of setting of precedent of allowing local referendums to decide a people’s political status, given its own troubles at taming pro-independence forces in Chechnya. Putin says Russia’s role is to “create the necessary conditions and act as the guarantors of certain agreements. But we should not impose these agreements.” It remains unclear if the Kremlin will use its Security Council veto to block a pro-independence vote for Kosovo.

The Limits of Personal Ties

Against this backdrop of worsening U.S.-Russia relations is a general feeling among Russians of growing resentment toward American influence and foreign policy in the world. According to a 2006 poll by the Levada Center, one-third of Russia’s population views the United States as an unfriendly state hostile to Moscow’s interests. “Even among [Russia’s] middle class, anti-Americanism runs very deep,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin insider and political scientist, told the Moscow Times. Yet while their countries repeatedly clash over issues ranging from Iran to NATO to nuclear bans, President Putin and President Bush enjoy warm relations. Their friendly relationship is an “anomaly,” says Goldman, given that their “constituencies on both sides are heading in opposite directions.” Experts expect U.S.-Russia relations to remain lukewarm at best after Bush and Putin exit the political scene in 2008. Despite all the recent heated rhetoric, few analysts expect a reversion to a Cold War-like bilateral relationship. Most policymakers in Washington and Moscow probably agree with Secretary Gates’ sentiment that “One Cold War was quite enough.”    

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