By Olga Oliker, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Olga Oliker is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
What’s going on with the U.S.-Russia relationship? It often seems that the United States government takes pains to laud bilateral cooperation, while the Russians seek out every new opportunity to needle the U.S. The United States says it wants further nuclear reductions? The Russians need to think about it. Edward Snowden is sought by U.S. authorities? The Russians may or may not grant him asylum. And then there are the usual disagreements over Iran, the continuing standoff on the question of Syria, and consistent tension regarding U.S. relationships with Russia’s neighbors.
Are U.S. officials deluded about the prospects for cooperation with a country that is fundamentally determined to undermine its goals? No, they are not. In fact, they are pursuing a rational approach towards a state that shares U.S. interests in some key areas, even as it fundamentally disagrees in others.
Russia’s reasons for its policies are rooted in genuine security concerns and views. The fact is that the United States has a more activist foreign policy agenda than does Russia. Washington seeks to affect politics abroad. It wants regime change in Syria and it critiques other states’ domestic policies. Moscow has doubts about this agenda, and no interest in promoting it. Thus, for example, Russia is not supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria to oppose the U.S. Instead, Russia is supporting the al-Assad regime because its foreign policy approach places a high premium on sovereignty and non-intervention – and because it has long and consistently been concerned about what might take al-Assad’s place.
Putin and his government also see benefits from demonstrating a foreign policy divergent from that of the United States. Moscow is not alone in its nervousness about Washington’s proactive policies. And, as Russia seeks a stronger global role, it knows its credibility is enhanced when it shows independence on matters of importance. Moreover, mistrust of the United States remains substantial at home, and the Kremlin gains when the public sees it pursuing Russian interests, and not anyone else’s.
This does not mean that Russia is diametrically opposed to the United States in all areas. Indeed, some of Russia’s interests align well with those of the United States. Continuing cooperation on moving people and supplies to and from Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network is an excellent example. The quiet cooperation between law enforcement organizations brought to light in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings is another sort of collaboration that suits everyone’s needs. The two countries share a strong interest in countering al Qaeda and other extremist terror groups. Similarly, Russia and the United States should be able to find a way forward on arms control, because both stand to gain from more stability in this realm.
The Snowden case is instructive. When Russian pundits and political figures speak of Snowden as a hero, they view him in a purely zero-sum context: “What’s bad for the United States is good for Russia.” This, as I have noted, plays well to certain audiences and will be played to advantage by the Kremlin. At the same time, however, Putin and his advisors know that Russia has little to gain and much to lose from shielding a man who has admitted to leaking classified information about government surveillance programs. In Russia, criticizing the government without any access to such information can lead to arrest and prosecution, as protesters and opposition leaders have been reminded over the last year. And in Russia, government surveillance is far-ranging and longstanding.
Hypocrisy aside, global public awareness of the intelligence approaches and methods surely hurts Russia, just as it does the United States. So when Putin said that Snowden might be granted asylum if he promised to cease activity harmful to the United States, he was not doing so because of U.S. pressure or lobbying. Putin also does not want Snowden raising the questions and revealing the information that Snowden seeks to raise and reveal.
All this means that the current effort to maintain cooperation with Russia when it is possible and keep an open dialogue when the two disagree actually makes good sense. The United States will not change Russia’s mind through browbeating, and it will only hurt both states if it cuts existing cooperation. Indeed, cutting cooperation may eliminate avenues for discussion that could reveal common interests and approaches thus far unexplored. Insofar as the United States can convince Russia of its positions or help shift Moscow’s incentives, it may be possible to influence its policy.
We have seen that there is little room to maneuver in many cases, meaning a continued dialogue is critical for any progress. The fact is that Russia, like all countries, has its own interests and goals – and the role of U.S. diplomacy must be to accept and navigate them.