TWQ: Resetting U.S.-Russian Relations: It Takes Two - Winter 2010
January 1, 2010
In controversial comments made as he was returning from a July trip to Georgia and Ukraine, Vice President Joseph R. Biden referred to Russia’s looming demographic crisis, its ‘‘withering economy,’’ and its difficulty in adjusting to ‘‘loss of empire.’’ He noted Russia’s interest in negotiating further cuts in nuclear weapons because they cannot afford to maintain even current levels, adding that it is ‘‘clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.’’ Though arguably indiscreet in his comments, Biden nevertheless spoke the truth about the problems facing Russia. His conclusion that Russia’s weakness and problems would induce Moscow to be more in synch with U.S. interests and likely to cooperate on issues such as Iran, however, was widely off the mark.
The problems Biden identified, in fact, make Russia’s leaders less, not more, likely to work with the United States on a whole host of issues. They are apt to deflect their population’s attention from the growing number of difficulties at home by shifting attention onto others, such as neighboring Georgia or Ukraine, or to clamp down even more against the slightest possible threats to their control inside Russia. That kind of Russia will be extremely difficult for the Obama administration to work with on issues such as Iran, missile defense, and the states along Russia’s borders. That kind of Russia will have fewer interests in common with the United States and expose a widening values gap between the two countries.
Since Obama’s trip to Moscow, provocative visits to Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Medvedev and Putin respectively, Medvedev’s renewed threats to target Iskander missiles against the Czech Republic and Poland if U.S. missile defense plans move forward in those two countries, and the murders of human rights activists and charity heads in Chechnya have cast a shadow over the relationship. At the end of the day, Russia’s current leadership—corrupt, revisionist, and insecure as it is—will likely decide that perpetuating the image of the United States as a threat is more important to maintaining the Kremlin’s grip on power than a new, more positive chapter in U.S.—Russia relations.
Four issues are likely to dominate the relationship for the foreseeable future: policy toward Russia’s neighbors, missile defense, strategic challenges such as Iran, and developments inside Russia. Alas, none of these issues offers much promise for building a strong foundation for the bilateral relationship.