A new climate of understanding between the U.S. and Russia is becoming increasingly visible. This is bound to have an impact on a range of security issues.
With Afghanistan and Iran hogging the limelight on the centre stage of President Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda, a success story lurks shyly in the shadows — the United States' “reset” of ties with Russia. Except for the circle of the initiated in Washington and Moscow, the debris of the George W. Bush era when U.S.-Russia relations chilled to their lowest point remains a visible heap.
In bits and pieces, however, a new climate of understanding between the two powers is appearing which, of course, will be of immense consequence to a range of regional and global security issues — be it Afghanistan and Iraq, the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East or nuclear non-proliferation and terrorism. Countries as varied as Iran and Georgia, Venezuela and Ukraine — or China and India — cannot but notice that what began as a delicate waltz of an uncertain future is steadily intensifying in grace and movement. Sixteenth century French philosopher Montaigne would say the dancers are beginning to hold each other so closely that their faces might soon touch.
In an article last week titled “Russian Diplomacy in the Changing World,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged the growing aplomb. He wrote: “A convergence trend has emerged in the Euro-Atlantic region. This trend is manifested in the improved atmosphere of Russia-U.S. relations, including the elaboration of the new treaty replacing the START I, further formation of the strategic partnership with the European Union and ongoing normalisation at the Russia-NATO Council. Conditions are forming to overcome the Cold War bloc mentality in the European architecture and the consequential fears about spheres of influence.”
Cold War prejudices can only die a slow death. Much will depend on the focus of NATO's reform, which the alliance's Lisbon summit in November has on the agenda. NATO's enlargement remains a sticking point. The peace dividend offered by the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and the unilateral disbandment of the Warsaw Pact were missed when the western powers “not only preserved the Cold War lines that divided Europe into zones with varying degrees of security but also moved the lines eastward,” as Mr. Lavrov lamented. Russia is still awaiting the West's constructive response to its proposal for a new security architecture in Europe. There are also new factors such as the strengthening of China's role in the world economy and finance, and the transformation of the Asia-Pacific region into the locomotive of global economic growth.
All the same, a “convergence trend” is indeed manifesting in the U.S.-Russia relationship. To illustrate, last week alone, the Obama administration took two further steps toward advancing the “reset.” One, Mr. Obama submitted to the U.S. Congress a nuclear energy pact with Russia which provides for an exchange of nuclear energy technology, collaboration in joint commercial nuclear power ventures and cooperation in pushing forward nuclear non-proliferation goals. (Incidentally, the pact has implications for New Delhi since it enables Russia to reprocess U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel in third countries that use American reactors — countries such as Taiwan or South Korea and, potentially, India.) Two, Mr. Obama has invited his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, to visit the U.S. in June — for the second time this year. The two leaders have already met twice this year — in April in Prague for the signing of the new START agreement and in Washington on the sidelines of the “nuclear summit.”
In a recent interview with the Russian media, Mr. Obama voiced support for NATO's consultation with Russia developing “in a much more systematic way than has been observed … My sense is that all the parties in Europe, all the members of the NATO alliance, want to have a strong, cooperative relationship with Russia.” Significantly, Mr. Obama stated that the U.S. is “very concerned about what is happening in Europe … And if we can stabilise Europe, that will be good for the United States and that will be good for Russia as well.” In the same spirit, Mr. Obama stressed that the U.S. is “examining … very seriously” the Russian President's proposal for creating a new security architecture in Europe spanning the geopolitical space from Vancouver to Vladivostock — a proposal that effectively superseded the NATO and could bring the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian regions under a common roof.
Mr. Obama's thinking is reflected in a series of American moves in the recent period. The U.S. virtually acquiesces with the Russian plans to buy and sell weapon systems with the NATO countries — something unimaginable until now. The NATO has mooted the idea of working with Russia on a missile shield. In the geopolitics of Caspian energy, there are signs of a shift in the U.S. thinking. The U.S. has distanced itself from Azerbaijan and has stopped competing with the two Russian gas pipelines — Nord Stream and South Stream — which will create a new bonding between the European energy markets and Russian energy sources. All indications are that the U.S. not only did not try to torpedo Ukraine's attempts to foster close ties with Russia but is probably coordinating with Moscow in stabilising Ukraine, which is an extremely vital chip on the European chessboard. Credit goes to the Kremlin's statesmanship in crafting an altogether new matrix that brings Russia and Ukraine back together in a symbiotic relationship, but Washington also senses that Ukraine-Russia friendship is the collective wish of the two brotherly peoples and to hinder it will not only be an unnatural thing to do but will be a litmus test of the U.S.' intentions toward Russia.
The fact remains that if a signpost can be put on the progression of post-Soviet Russia's “new-cold war” alienation from the West to its acute trajectory in recent years, it all happened circa 2004 with the Orange Revolution in Kiev. From the Russian perspective, that was an act of “motiveless malignity” in which Moscow perceived unmistakeable evidence of the U.S. containment strategy. There was no conceivable reason for the U.S. to have overthrown Eduard Shevardnadze (“Shevvy” as cold warriors in the U.S. fondly remember him still) except that Mikheil Saakahsvilli who succeeded him in Tbilisi could be entrusted to relentlessly set up bear-traps in the tangled Caucasus mountains to get Russia bogged down, debilitating its resurgence on the world stage.
In short, Mr. Obama's refusal to see Ukraine as a zero-sum game with Russia in the heart of Europe holds a profound meaning for Moscow. It underscores a shift in the U.S. thinking that without in any way reviving the Cold War paradigm of “spheres of influence,” the U.S. and Russia could have “common interests” in the Eurasian space. A positive fallout of this creative thinking is already visible in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia which is passing through yet another cycle of “colour revolution.” The diplomatic pirouettes of the past month underscore that neither Moscow nor Washington seems anxious to appropriate the new interim government in Bishkek. Moscow is not striving to exploit the continuing fluidity in Bishkek to evict the Americans from the Manas military base. Nor are Americans bragging about their influence with the head of the interim government, Roza Outnbayeva. Indeed, Kyrgystan is strategically far too crucial by its location to be left to the tantrums of clan politics but the incipient signs are that the big powers could be possibly searching for a healthy mutual accommodation of vital interests and core concerns.
Mr. Obama made a hugely significant point when he told the Russian media, “I think it's important to recognise that the whole concept of reset between the U.S. and Russia is not just on issues of security.” The approach is suggestive of a broad vista of partnership that Russia too has been seeking. Gleb Pavlovskiy, the well-known Russian strategic thinker who is close to the Kremlin, pointed out recently that “peace is being established on our [Russia's] European and South-Western borders … Medvedev is reaping the harvest today Putin spent a long time sowing without success. Putin was handed a country that was to all intents and purposes isolated, in a state of siege. And he spent a long time breaking out of it. But Medvedev's foreign policy success is creating an opportunity for new achievements … the consolidated policies of Moscow and Washington are creating new opportunities for us in the post-Soviet area. This is a great success.”
To be sure, the footfalls of the U.S. servicemen resounded against a historic backdrop as they marched alongside Russian soldiers on the Red Square in Moscow to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Victory Day of World War II. Mr. Obama pointedly recalled that the memory of the “strength of the [Soviet-American] alliance” 65 years ago still remains for him “one of the most important military alliances of all time.” And Chinese President Hu Jintao, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Russian leaders on the Kremlin ramparts, told Mr. Medvedev that “there is a profound meaning for countries to jointly celebrate the anniversary.” Alas, Indian diplomacy faltered in missing out on the authenticity of history.