April 1, 2011  

Developing better relations

The Obama administration has made improving relations with Russia one of its main foreign policy goals and its efforts have borne fruit and put U.S.-Russia relations on a positive footing for the future. For its part, NATO has re-engaged in a concentrated effort to improve relations with Russia since NATO-Russia Council meetings were suspended in 2008 following Russia’s military action in Georgia.

As a result of these efforts, relations between the U.S., NATO and Russia have steadily improved over the past 2½ years. And in spite of lingering mistrust and marked differences on some issues, the U.S., NATO and Russia have created a positive political environment in which real dialogue and engagement on a number of shared interests makes possible a “true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia” for the 21st century, as expressed in NATO’s new Strategic Concept. Moreover, as important strategic issues such as counterterrorism, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and now the unrest in the Middle East/North Africa continue to challenge all sides, and other external powers continue to evolve, cooperation seems as important now as at any other time since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. In February 2009 at the Munich Security Conference, Vice President Joe Biden first announced the administration’s “reset” policy saying, “… it’s time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia.” In July 2009, at the U.S.-Russia Summit in Moscow, President Barack Obama re-emphasized the “reset” policy saying, “… President [Dmitry Medvedev] and I agreed that the relationship between Russia and the United States has suffered from a sense of drift. We resolved to reset U.S.-Russian relations, so that we can cooperate more effectively in areas of common interest.”

A tangible example of the reset with Moscow is in the reduction of strategic nuclear arms. In January, Medvedev signed the ratification of a nuclear arms reduction treaty with the U.S., known as the New START Treaty. Obama signed the ratification documents in February. New START limits the number of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 (down from the previously agreed-to ceiling of 2,200) and limits strategic sea, air and intercontinental delivery systems to 800 (only 700 of which can be deployed at any given time). The New START Treaty is an important bilateral arms control agreement that reduces the number of nuclear warheads in both the U.S. and Russian arsenals and provides for a verification regime of each other’s nuclear warhead stockpiles and capabilities. More importantly, New START is part of the broader U.S. and NATO efforts aimed at developing better relations with Russia in order to enhance Eurasian security for the 21st century.

In terms of the reset bearing fruit, in addition to the New START Treaty, a significant outcome of the July 2009 summit was the creation of the U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission. The working groups cover many important areas of cooperation including: economic development; energy and the environment; nuclear energy and security; arms control and international security; defense, foreign policy and counterterrorism; preventing and handling emergencies; civil society; science and technology; space; health; education; and culture.

Overall, the Obama administration’s approach has been pragmatic in working to improve affairs with Russia. Russia has welcomed the reset, albeit somewhat cautiously.


In his first major public speech after taking office, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen focused on Russia, saying in September 2009 that “…of all of NATO’s relationships with partner countries, none holds greater potential than the NATO-Russia relationship.” Rasmussen also said NATO should reinforce cooperation against common security threats, rejuvenate the NATO-Russia Council and conduct a joint review of 21st century security challenges.

In addition to calling for a “true strategic partnership” with Russia at its November 2010 Lisbon Summit, NATO’s new Strategic Concept attempted to assuage lingering Russian mistrust of the alliance by stating emphatically that “NATO-Russia cooperation is of strategic importance as it contributes to creating a common space of peace, stability and security. NATO poses no threat to Russia.”

In a similar cooperative vein, at the November 2010 NATO-Russia Council meeting, parties agreed to develop a comprehensive joint analysis of the future framework for missile defense cooperation (progress of which will be discussed in June) and endorsed the Joint Review of 21st Century Common Security Challenges. Specific security challenges endorsed included: Afghanistan (including counternarcotics), terrorism (including the vulnerability of critical infrastructure), piracy, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, as well as natural and man-made disasters.


As the U.S. reset policy agenda and NATO-Russia Council Joint Review of Common Security Challenges suggest, U.S. and NATO cooperation with Russia clearly makes sense when considering the broad array of common interests and security challenges. However, while there is agreement on many areas of common interest, there are other areas where the parties disagree in part and, yet, still other areas where the sides remain far apart.

A list of the areas of common interest drawn, in part, from the previously mentioned strategic documents would look something like this:

• Afghanistan

• Arms control

• Counternarcotics

• Counterpiracy

• Counterterrorism

• Cybersecurity

• Economic cooperation (e.g., Russia’s Skolkovo “Silicon Valley,” modernization initiatives and World Trade Organization accession)

• Energy security

• Iran

• Natural and man-made disasters

• North Korea

• Missile defense

• Organized crime

• Peaceful government transition in the Middle East and North Africa

• Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery

• Resolution of frozen conflicts (e.g., Transnistria in Moldova, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and Nogorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan).

However, if New START is an example of agreement in an area of common interest, then missile defense and frozen conflicts are examples of areas where there is partial agreement or some disagreement.

Missile defense has been called a “game-changer” in the media. In other words, it is an issue that has the potential to become a genuine breakthrough in terms of U.S., NATO and Russian political and security cooperation. However, missile defense probably falls into the category of a common interest where the parties disagree in part.

First, at Lisbon, Medvedev proposed a “sectoral approach” to missile defense, and aspects of that proposal are still being studied by NATO. Further, Medvedev called for Russia to be an equal “partner” with NATO in missile defense, but it is not clear that NATO views Russian participation in that light. Finally on missile defense, it’s not clear that Russia’s threat perception of Iran is the same as the U.S.’s assessment of the Iranian ballistic missile theat. Because of differing threat assessments of Iranian capabilities, Russia could, down the road, call into question the validity of the planned land-based missile defense assets in Central and Eastern Europe. Put another way, if Russia does not believe that Iran has the ballistic missile capability to reach Central Europe in 2018, Russia may question the need for NATO to deploy land-based missile defense systems in Poland or in Romania, for that matter. Russia also perceives that land-based systems in Central and Eastern Europe could impact the U.S.-Russia strategic nuclear balance, a potential issue during the latter stages of the “phased adaptive approach” for missile defense in Europe.


On the issue of frozen conflicts, there appears to be less political will on the part of Russia to resolve the conflicts than on the side of NATO or the U.S. The U.S. National Security Strategy from 2010 broadly stated U.S. policy vis-à-vis Russia and frozen conflicts when it said, “While actively seeking Russia’s cooperation to act as a responsible partner in Europe and Asia, we will support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbors.” Each conflict merits its own attention and discussion, but the conflict in Georgia points to a fundamental disagreement between the parties. In August 2008, Russia fought a five-day war with Georgia and later recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In July 2009, at a joint press conference with Russia’s president, Obama reiterated U.S. support for the inviolability of Georgia’s borders, saying, “Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected.” This dichotomy illustrates how far apart the two sides are on the issue. Indeed, Russia’s recognition of the two disputed areas suggests the conflict is resolved from their viewpoint. Clearly, greater international involvement is needed and much works remain to be done.

Finally, in spite of recent positive NATO-Russia developments, there remain multiple points of contention. For example, Russia is opposed to NATO’s open-door policy toward Georgia and Ukraine; believes a new security architecture for Europe is needed to replace the outdated NATO model (see Russia’s November 2009 proposal for a new European Security Treaty architecture); and still does not accept Kosovo’s independence from Serbia (an issue that also is viewed by Russia as a precedent for its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia). Meanwhile, NATO is concerned about Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory, Russia’s suspension of its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, and Russia’s selective prosecution of businessmen (e.g., former head of oil giant Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and opposition leaders.


Looking to the future, here are two general recommendations for developing better relations and cooperation with the Russian Federation.

Continue to build trust.

There remains a trust deficit on both sides, and that mistrust has proved difficult to overcome after years of Cold War animosity. However, the current positive environment started under the Obama administration presents an opportunity to engage in regular dialogue like that which is being done under the auspices of the Bilateral Presidential Commission working groups, military-to-military exchanges and other private venues (e.g., Silicon Valley dialogue).

NATO’s Strategic Concept stated that “NATO poses no threat to Russia” and that it seeks “… a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia.” However, from Russia’s perspective, if this statement is true, then there remain questions about the need for NATO contingency plans for member states who are also neighbors to Russia. Russia’s aggressive approach to dealing with its neighbors through force, in the case of Georgia, or through other means (energy, in the case of Ukraine) also perpetuates mistrust. As pragmatic as the U.S. and NATO approaches have been toward Russia, it is just as important in the future that Russia reciprocate positively. Transparency in common approaches to dealing with common interests also is essential to building trust.

Sustain momentum in areas of common interest.

The U.S., NATO and Russia share many common interests. Therefore, there are numerous opportunities for collaboration and confidence building where there could be win-win outcomes versus the Cold War zero-sum game mentality. Afghanistan is a good example. Clearly, the U.S. and NATO’s interest is to fight terrorism and to create a stable Afghanistan for the future. Russia’s interest in Afghanistan is more keenly tied to counternarcotics, owing to the problems that Afghan-produced drugs create in Russia. According to a recent report from the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime, “Russian addicts consume 75 to 80 tons of Afghan heroin each year, and an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Russians die in drug-related incidents annually.”

However, Russia also is concerned about the potential that violent extremists in Afghanistan will go elsewhere when the conflict is over or if NATO pulls out of Afghanistan precipitously. As a result, Russia has cooperated with NATO by providing transit routes through Russia for cargo and troops, and has provided helicopter support and training to Afghan security forces. Moreover, Afghanistan is a case where we see several linked issues or interests; the country is connected to terrorism, drugs and crime. Therefore, it’s possible, as we see in Afghanistan, that cooperation in one area could lead to cooperation in other unforeseen areas in the future.

Overall, the U.S. reset policy toward Russia — and NATO efforts to re-engage Russia — have accomplished both tangible results and created a positive political atmosphere where the parties can work together on common interests looking toward the future. This presents a real opportunity for dialogue and cooperation. Given the many common security challenges of the 21st century, and despite some differences, collaboration now in areas of common interest is in the best interests of the individual countries involved, and also benefits regional and international peace and security.

Lt. Col. JOHN D. JOHNSON is an Army fellow assigned to the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. He has served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of the Army Staff, U.S. Army Europe, Multi-National Forces-Iraq (Baghdad), III Corps, U.S. Division South-Iraq (Basra), the 1st Infantry Division, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the 501st Military Intelligence Brigade. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or Defense Department.