Reflections on Russia-West Relations: A UC Fellow's Perspective

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Reflections on Russia-West Relations: A UC Fellow's Perspective

Samuel Ramani
St Antony's College, University of Oxford

Samuel Ramani (St Antony's College, Oxford) contributes to our ongoing series of responses to the current state of Russia-West relations, following his participation in the fourth UC Module at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).

Since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, Western policymakers have consistently described Russia-West tensions as an intractable conflict fuelled by decades of ideological resentments and competing strategic ambitions. The prevalence of new Cold War rhetoric in the highest echelons of political power, and the propensity of both Western and Russian policymakers to escalate tensions for political expediency has prevented substantive progress towards meaningful Russia-West cooperation.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime security has become increasingly intertwined with maintaining an anti-Western identity, and Western policymakers continue to deeply distrust Moscow’s intentions, the prospects of an imminent reconciliation or a marked improvement of bilateral relations over the next decade appear remote. Yet even as we progress along this pessimistic trajectory, there is still potential for meaningful collaboration.

Implementing an issue-specific approach that builds trust incrementally, much like Reagan and Gorbachev thawed relations beginning with arms control, is the most effective way to improve the state of the Russia-West relationship. Such an approach would constitute a tacit recognition by both sides’ of each other’s indispensability and highlight unequivocally that there are issues of mutual concern that can only be resolved by bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

To revive the spirit of cooperation that defined the New Thinking era and the early 1990s liberal interregnum, Western policymakers should focus on engaging Russia on three critical issues. The first area of potential collaboration is counter-terrorism. The struggle against the common threat of Islamic extremism profoundly shaped the early 2000s thaw in US-Russia relations. However, the United States’ willingness to carry out regime changes in the name of counter-terrorism and the instrumental nature of Moscow’s invocations of the threats posed by terrorist groups in Chechnya, Central Asia and the Middle East derailed collaboration on this issue.

The tensions that unraveled the early 2000s rapprochement remain relevant to current struggles against terrorism in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. To rectify the trust gap that has undercut counter-terrorism cooperation, the United States and Russia should coordinate via a framework of incremental escalation. This framework would involve hosting joint military drills against common opponents, like Jabhat al-Nusra in areas of Syria not held by government forces.

A successful counter-terrorism operation against al-Nusra would build trust between the US and Russian militaries, and demonstrate the potential interoperability of both countries’ armed forces. Trust accrued through battlefield successes will ensure that both Russia and the US are eventually able to implement grand bargains with a greater sense of mutual respect and common purpose. This spirit of cooperation will encourage both countries to make necessary compromises, without jeopardizing either’s national interests and provide the basis for durable peace settlements.

A second area of potential cooperation that could improve the trajectory of Russia-West relations over the next decade is nuclear disarmament. Negotiations on the size of Washington’s and Moscow’s respective nuclear arsenals have historically helped thaw bilateral tensions, because implementing an agreement that is mutually recognized by both sides breeds trust between policymakers from both countries. The SALT treaties, Reagan-Gorbachev agreements on the path to a nuclear-free world, and the Obama administration’s New START treaty contributed to durable improvements in relations between Washington and Moscow.

Over the next decade, Russia and the United States should hold bilateral summits aimed at regulating the size and scope of their nuclear arsenals, as both countries have strained relations with each other due to acts of brusque unilateralism. The Bush administration’s 2001 withdrawal from the ABMT agreement dealt a major blow to the early 2000s Russia-US rapprochement. Russia’s recent modernization of its nuclear forces has triggered reciprocal defensive escalations in Eastern Europe.

An agreement to cut the size of both countries’ nuclear arsenals, and a mutual acknowledgement on both sides of the defensive nature of existing deterrents will ease Russia-West tensions. It would also reduce the frequency of non-productive acts of saber rattling, like Russia’s deployment of nuclear-capable military equipment on the coasts of Western states and NATO’s increased deployments of troops in countries where Russia is very unlikely to intervene militarily.

Bilateral cooperation on nuclear capabilities can be used as a springboard for fruitful collaboration on restricting WMD capabilities in the developing world. WMD proliferation is an issue of shared concern for both Western and Russian policymakers. For example, holding joint US-Russia dialogues on North Korea’s nuclear program, modeled after the 2013 chemical weapons disarmament deal in Syria could help strengthen ties between Russia and the West. 

The third sphere of prospective cooperation between Russia and West is at the individual and project level. While Russian exposure to Western education does not necessarily correlate with moderated opinions towards the West, educational exchanges have powerful symbolic significance and can help shape the long-term trajectory of the Russia-West relationship. Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s benchmark February 2012 Memorandum of Understanding on Educational Cooperation with Moscow should be expanded, especially if tensions defuse enough for sanctions removal to take place.

In addition to educational exchanges, the tightening of non-military technology sharing platforms can also strengthen the Russia-West relationship. Space exploration has been cited as one area for fruitful cooperation that could indirectly facilitate cooperation in the nuclear sphere. Clean energy and medical technology have also been earmarked by the US Department of State as potential arenas of scientific cooperation that revive information sharing practices established by the Nixon administration to strengthen Détente.

While the trajectory of the Russia-West relationship is unlikely to appreciably improve in the short-term, due to vastly different conceptions of the international order, domestic political factors and competing strategic interests, issue-specific collaboration could heighten prospects for long-term collaboration. As the benefits of cooperation are tremendous, Western and Russian policymakers should embrace bold collaborative solutions to pressing economic and security challenges shared by both countries.