By William Pomeranz, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: William Pomeranz is the acting director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. The views expressed are his own.
U.S. President Barack Obama famously told then-President Dmitry Medvedev in March that he would have more “flexibility” to deal with Russia once he got through his re-election campaign. Well, Obama has now emerged victorious, but U.S.-Russian relations have taken on a static, even retrograde look. Indeed, as the United States formulates a foreign policy for the 21st century, the United States and Russia appear stuck in the 20th century, re-hashing old disputes and consistently missing opportunities to change the terms of engagement.
One of the most prominent legacy issues between the two countries is arms control. No one underestimates the importance of nuclear weapons reduction, and clearly, both countries would benefit from a further decrease. Yet the broader impact of such discussions appears limited. The 2010 START treaty did not serve as a catalyst to greater mutual trust and understanding, and it is unlikely that further arms control negotiations will be able to jump-start the U.S.-Russian relationship.
That leaves Iran, Syria, and the missile defense shield at the top of the U.S.-Russian agenda – three disputes deeply mired in Cold War mentalities. The U.S. will seek some flexibility from Russia on Iran, but is unlikely to receive it. For historical (and self-interested) reasons, Russia remains a strong defender of the principle of national sovereignty and therefore opposes what it perceives as any sort of outside interference into another country’s internal affairs. The same argument holds true for Syria, although as the al-Assad regime teeters, Russia may choose to take a more pragmatic approach.
Russia in turn expects some flexibility from the United States on the proposed European missile defense system, especially after Russia just reluctantly accepted NATO’s deployment of defensive missiles in Turkey against Syria. Obama’s vision of missile defense includes significant cooperation with Russia, but at the same time, offers no legal guarantees that might limit the program. Obama has little room to maneuver from this position, since any compromise invariably would produce howls of protest from Republicans.
Russia and the United States have been able to work together in some hot spots, most notably Afghanistan. The great hope for U.S.-Russian relations going forward, however, is trade, and on this front, there have been some developments that bode well. The two countries have just completed 19 tortuous years of negotiations to finally allow Russia to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO), with significant trade benefits for both countries. But in what should have been a genuine moment of mutual benefit and good will, the U.S. Congress initially delayed approving Russia’s accession to the WTO and then attached human rights provisions (the Magnitsky Act) to the final WTO legislation. It is ironic that only Russia could produce such a rare moment of bi-partisanship in Congress. The consequence, however, was a lost opportunity to mark a true breakthrough in U.S.-Russian relations.
Even under the best conditions, however, it will take years – if not decades – for trade to transform the U.S.-Russian relationship. Russia currently stands as the 20th largest trading partner of the United States, and in order to move up the ranks, Russia has much work to do to improve the investment climate within the country. The U.S. government maintains programs that can increase exports to Russia on the margins, but in order for trade to transform the bilateral relationship, Russia still faces the difficult task of convincing U.S. business to invest more in the country.
There are other sustained contacts between the United States and Russia that collectively exert a positive influence on U.S.-Russian relations, although much of this work occurs below the radar screen. Indeed the United States and Russians have been talking on numerous subjects – health, space cooperation, energy, counter-terrorism, the environment – for the past four years as part of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, with some notable successes. Whether such dialogue eventually can overcome the hardened positions at the top remains unknown, but nevertheless such discussions need to be encouraged if only to create alternative channels of communication between the two countries.
In reality, the 2012 election cycle has not been kind to U.S.-Russian relations. Putin used his presidential campaign in 2012 to heat-up the anti-U.S. rhetoric, and his words have been followed by legislation cracking down on civil society. Putin not only sees the United States as a source of validation – confirming Russia’s status as a major power – but also as a handy target of vilification, the alleged instigator of domestic unrest and main obstacle to Russia’s international ambitions. Human rights have moved to the top of the U.S-Russian agenda, and Putin has done much over the past six months to put them there.
By contrast, during the U.S. presidential election, Obama generally pushed Russia to the sidelines, indirectly admitting that the vaunted “reset” represented more of a political liability than a major foreign policy success. Instead, Obama looked to developments in the Middle East and the pivot to Asia as the most pressing issues for his next administration. Of course, Russia theoretically should be an important part of the latter discussion, since approximately two-thirds of its territory is located in Asia. Yet the Russian Far East and Siberia are so economically under-developed – and sparsely populated – that Russia rarely enters the discussion of U.S. policy in the region.
A generational shift will eventually occur in Russia, one that should bring forward people with less historical baggage and more direct knowledge of the West. At the same time, Putin just turned 60, and no one should expect the last Soviet generation to leave the stage quietly. Obama is unlikely to invest the same amount of political capital in the U.S.-Russian relationship during his second term as president as he did during his first. Therefore, the immediate challenge for the next administration is to manage the uneven status quo – and to encourage multiple dialogues with Russian society – while watching to see if the political winds inside Russia begin to change.