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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Is Underpinning U.S.-Russian Relations?

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The tiff between the United States and Russia over Iraq had a happy ending, with Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush demonstrating their sympathies for each other in St. Petersburg last weekend. The Washington "optimists" who had predicted that nothing could be simpler than restoring relations between Moscow and Washington were vindicated. All it took was for Putin and Bush to shake hands, hug and exchange some empty phrases about strategic partnership, and in a flash everything returned to normal.

The main problem of U.S.-Russian relations is that they largely consist of benevolent but essentially meaningless words. The thing is, for at least one of the partners the relationship is not vitally important. It stopped being so the moment it became clear that Russia was no longer a serious threat to U.S. security. For more than half a century, mutual containment was the cornerstone of our relations. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the main goal of the Clinton administration was to reduce Russia's nuclear potential as much as possible. As a result, as in Soviet times, U.S.-Russian relations were based on a system of strategic offensive arms reductions treaties.

Bush put an end to this when he withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Thus, the U.S. administration cleared the way for the creation of a national missile defense system. However, by doing so it was depriving Russia of its VIP status as a country that could destroy the United States (and thus, in some sense, was the equal of the most powerful country in the world.)

You would think that no one really needs all this nuclear casuistry concerning mutual containment now that neither Moscow nor Washington seriously plans a nuclear war against the other. However, up to now no other foundation has been established on which to build relations.

And it is no coincidence that when the presidents needed something to show for the cooperation between their countries, they exchanged the ratification documents of the Moscow Treaty on nuclear arms reduction, which was signed a year ago. In effect, this shows that nothing concrete has been accomplished over the past year. What exactly the presidents will agree upon during Putin's September visit to Camp David is now an issue of particular concern following the St. Petersburg meeting. On energy cooperation? But this is too far in the future -- and even then depends on Washington deciding to diversify away from cheap Iraqi oil. On a joint stand against terrorism? But besides Afghanistan, where there was indeed very effective cooperation, Moscow and Washington clearly cannot agree on which countries pose a terrorist threat.

It would seem that there is no option but to return to nuclear strategy as the basis for relations between the two countries. However, the task of creating a "positive agenda" in the area of security has become extremely tricky. The Foreign Ministry long ago admitted its intellectual bankruptcy by failing to offer anything except the "confrontational model" of U.S.-Russian relations based on limitation and containment. Furthermore, the Americans were not joking when they warned their Russian colleagues that the Moscow Treaty would be the last of its kind. And in actual fact, the treaty doesn't really reduce anything. Moscow and Washington have effectively dressed up a unilateral decision about the structure of their nuclear arsenals as a treaty. The United States responded without enthusiasm to Russian attempts to make implementation of the Moscow Treaty the subject of separate discussions. The U.S. side is perfectly happy with the vague formulations of the treaty and is in no hurry to clarify or concretize them. It can already be said with a good deal of certainty that those responsible for implementing the Moscow Treaty will not achieve any concrete results.

Moscow's attempts to foist negotiations regarding tactical nuclear weapons on the United States came to nothing. Having pushed through the U.S. Congress a bill authorizing the resumption of research into low-yield nuclear devices known as "mini-nukes" (it is reasonable to assume that these will form the basis of the U.S. pre-emptive strike doctrine), the Pentagon has no interest in its programs being constrained by bilateral treaties with Russia. Moreover, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently exploited Moscow's refusal to hand over data on its tactical nuclear weapons without lengthy negotiations. Trying to convince journalists of the necessity of building mini-nukes, he assured them that Moscow produces such weapons "on a daily basis." Thus, the topic of weapons limitation and reduction seems to have been exhausted: The current U.S. administration does not wish to take on any obligations in this area.

The U.S. side is proposing its own agenda, which seems to contain two items. First, there is a proposal to work together in the implementation of Bush's Proliferation Security Initiative. The details are not known, but it is pretty clear that it revolves around the establishment of a more strict regime of control over nuclear technologies than is currently provided by the IAEA. However, this can hardly suit Moscow, which always appeals to the IAEA the moment the United States expresses concern about Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran. At the presidents' joint news conference in St. Petersburg, Putin supported the line of the Nuclear Power Ministry, which has long asserted that the United States is using this as a pretext for squeezing Russia out of the Iranian market. This is despite the fact that two months ago Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda effectively admitted that Moscow knew Iran was engaging in prohibited nuclear activities. Thus, in the area of counterproliferation, Russia and the United States disagree on more than they agree upon.

The second item is collaboration on developing a missile defense system. Washington has just announced that allies and friends of the United States should be involved in development of a strategic missile defense system -- and Russia is viewed as a friend. Ivanov has also of late been acknowledging the possibility of such cooperation, although he has qualified this by saying that neither side is making much of an effort. Furthermore, before having discussed possible areas of cooperation, Ivanov expressed concern about protection of Russia's intellectual property. The main condition demanded by Ivanov is a guarantee that the new missile defense system would not be used against Russia. Essentially Moscow is demanding from the United States a commitment to build the system in such a way that Russian missiles could penetrate it, which would de facto be a return to the ABM Treaty from which the United States has withdrawn.

So, nothing except cooperation in the sphere of strategic stability can form the basis of U.S.-Russian relations. However, extremely influential forces, such as the Nuclear Power Ministry, Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry, do not want any cooperation whatsoever. Putin's pro-Western foreign policy course remains a one-man show.

Alexander Golts, deputy editor of Yezhenedelny Zhurnal magazine, is currently a visiting fellow at the Center for Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.