Barack Obama was elected to a second term as president of the United States in early November. He is currently choosing the key figures of his new administration. The nomination process will not start until after the inauguration in late January 2013. All nominees must be approved by the US Senate. Since the Democrats retained their majority in the Senate, Obama will evidently have no problems getting his close associates approved. The process will likely conclude by March (just for the key people), and that will let the government to get down to business. In the meantime, it will be analyzing recent developments, including the future of Russian-American relations and proposals for adjusting foreign policy.
Obama is a problem for Russia’s leaders. Republican Mitt Romney would have been easier to understand — bilateral relations would have grown a little worse (within limits, of course). Now, much will depend on both objective and subjective factors. The latter is evident from the upcoming changes in the Obama administration. For example, if Susan Rice, who is known for her negative attitude toward Russia, were to become Secretary of State, relations with Moscow would be unlikely to improve before 2016. However, that has not happened due to strong resistance in the Senate: US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice committed a grave political error when she commented on the tragic events surrounding the death of Christopher Stephens and three of his colleagues in Benghazi while lacking full knowledge of what had occurred. As a result, Senator John Kerry has become the leading candidate for the post. Another possible candidate is National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon.
Noted Russian experts believe that distrust is currently on the rise between the political elites in Russia and the United States. There are no irreconcilable differences between Moscow and Washington, but factors destabilizing to bilateral relations do exist. They include the establishment of a global missile defense system in Europe; significant disparities regarding solutions to the Syrian, Iranian and Afghan crises; further cuts in strategic offensive arms (the START treaty); the withdrawal of US tactical nuclear weapons from Europe; implementation of the Prompt Global Strike concept by the US Armed Forces; weapons in space, etc. Passage of the Magnitsky bill by Congress was proof of that. Russia plans to respond by banning Americans guilty of human rights violations from entering the country and freezing the work of several groups of the Presidential Commission set up earlier by Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama.
I should mention that a “reset” of Russian-American relations got underway in 2009 by mutual agreement. It replaced Russia’s rather difficult relations with the United States that had developed during George W. Bush’s presidency. The following achievements can be attributed to the “reset:”
- Ratification of the new (Prague) START treaty, which is underappreciated by many. It was the first document at that level since the end of the Cold War (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in Moscow in 2002 was a framework agreement and was based entirely on START-1);
- Russia’s consent to ground and air transit of goods for US and allied forces in Afghanistan;
- Expansion of bilateral cooperation against terrorism and drug trafficking, as well as cooperation on resolving the Iranian nuclear problem.
Russian experts have noted that during Obama’s first term the United States began showing more consideration for Russia’s interests in the post-Soviet space, limited support for the Saakashvili regime in Georgia, delayed Ukraine’s and Georgia’s accession to NATO, helped Moscow join the World Trade Organization and joined in establishing a bilateral Presidential Commission.
However, the “reset” has not fundamentally changed Russian-American relations. For example, the parties formulated the new START Treaty in mutual nuclear deterrence terms. The Senate ratification process was difficult. To get it done, President Obama was forced to make serious political commitments that significantly increased the level of distrust between the Unites States and Russia.
The US administration is prepared to further reduce strategic offensive arms, but it insists on accounting for all nuclear warheads simultaneously, including tactical weapons. Also, as a result of the NATO summit in Chicago, Washington is refusing to withdraw its tactical nuclear arms from Europe. This approach is unacceptable to Russia in view of the nuclear weapons possessed by America’s allies Great Britain and France, NATO’s significant conventional weapons superiority, the large number of high-precision munitions in the US inventory, and the possible existence of military threats around Russia’s perimeter.
The situation with missile defense is similar. The United States constantly improves its capabilities, while turning a blind eye on Moscow’s objections. US cruisers and destroyers equipped with Aegis missile control systems and SM-3 anti-missiles are technically capable of intercepting Russian submarine launched ballistic missiles and their warheads in their boost phase. It makes no sense to station these kinds of ships in the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea to contain the largely contrived Iranian missile threat. On the other hand, that poses a potential threat to the naval component of Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces. Nevertheless, Washington does not plan on limiting the areas where it deploys its Aegis-equipped warships in the northern seas.
All of this has exhausted the “reset” impulse. Progress will only become possible if fundamental changes occur in Russian-American relations. We will not have a new Cold War, of course. There is still a need for military-political cooperation at the regional and global levels, and our financial and economic interdependence means there are limits to how bad bilateral relations can get, That is why Russia and the United States avoid confrontation and try to keep the existing cooperative mechanisms going. However, regional problems make that difficult: the civil war in Syria, the destabilization of Afghanistan, the armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, and the standoff between Iran and Israel, the United States and several other countries.
Therefore, Russian-American relations are unlikely to improve significantly over the next 2-3 years; they will be unstable. However, we should not dramatize the emerging situation. It is important that we keep talking about our differences. This is the only way we will be able to reach new agreements, even on missile defense or tactical nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, we should expand the dialogue. Taking advantage of Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization is one way we could do that.
Vladimir Yevseyev is a columnist for New Eastern Outlook.