Introduction and Summary

As the Bush administration comes to a close, U.S.-Russian relations have fallen to their lowest level since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Unresolved and problematic issues dominate the agenda, little confidence exists between Washington and Moscow, and the shrill tone of official rhetoric approaches that of the Cold War.

This state of affairs is a far cry from what Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin envisaged in 2002, when they defined a framework for a qualitatively different U.S.-Russian relationship. Both sides bear responsibility for the failure to realize that vision.

As President Barack Obama takes charge of the Oval Office, he confronts a wary and assertive Russia among the many foreign policy challenges in his inbox. Moscow desires to reclaim “great power” status, an ambition fueled over the past five years by hundreds of billions of dollars in energy revenues. Its desires are colored by a bitter perception that the West took advantage of Russian weakness in the 1990s and that Washington has failed to take serious account of Moscow’s interests. Building a more sustainable relationship with Russia will not prove easy.

Securing Russian help in controlling nuclear materials, pressuring Iran not to acquire nuclear arms, and countering international terrorism is very much in the U.S. interest. Getting Russia right, however, will require a carefully considered, focused and sustained Russia policy, not just treating Russia as a function of the U.S. approach to other issues. Washington should seek to put U.S.-Russian relations on a more solid footing.

Building areas of cooperation not only can advance specific U.S. goals, it can reduce frictions on other issues. Further, the more there is to the bilateral relationship, the greater the interest it will hold for Russia, and the greater the leverage Washington will have with Moscow. The thin state of U.S.-Russian relations in August gave the Kremlin little reason for pause before answering the Georgian military incursion into South Ossetia with a large and disproportionate response. Washington should strive to build a relationship so that, should a similar crisis arise in the future, Russian concern about damaging relations with the United States would exercise a restraining influence.

The Obama administration should aim for a balance in its approach toward Russia, making clear the unacceptability of Russian actions that violate international norms while encouraging cooperation and integration that will make Russia a stakeholder in existing international institutions. The new administration can offer initiatives in several areas to test Moscow’s readiness for cooperation on issues of interest to Washington:

  • A revived nuclear arms control dialogue could lower the number of nuclear weapons capable of striking the United States while exerting a positive influence on the broader relationship. The Obama administration should propose reducing each side to no more than 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads, with ancillary limits on strategic nuclear delivery vehicles (missiles and bombers).
  • Different timelines for Iran’s missile development and for U.S. missile defense deployment in Central Europe offer a possibility to defuse the missle defense issue. The Obama administration should impose a two- or three-year moratorium on the construction of missile defense facilities in Central Europe and in form the Russians that the moratorium could be extended if the Iranian missile program slows or stops.
  • Expanding commercial links would add economic ballast that could cushion the overall relationship against differences on other issues. Specific steps include bringing Russia into the World Trade Organization, moving forward with the agreement on civil nuclear cooperation, and conferring permanent normal trade relations status on Russia by graduating it from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.
  • Greater creativity in the NATO-Russia channel could, over the longer term, reshape how Moscow views the Alliance and European security. This should include new areas for NATO-Russia cooperation, such as counter piracy operations, and greater transparency about NATO plans.

Transnational challenges may offer other areas for U.S.-Russian cooperation. Proposing new ideas to develop better relations with Moscow does not mean overlooking unacceptable Russian behavior or areas of difference, and differences will remain, even in an improved relationship. For example, the United States will continue to have concerns about the course of democracy within Russia. These questions should be addressed candidly and clearly. But the Obama administration should seek a different way to conduct the dialogue from that of the past five years, which has not worked.

This paper reviews how U.S.-Russian relations went off course. It looks at what Moscow wants. It offers policy recommendations for the Obama administration and concludes with suggestions on tactics and a notional calendar for engaging Russia in 2009.