The Putin-Obama meeting at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland resulted in a new mode of U.S.-Russian relations: selective pragmatic cooperation. But is it sustainable?

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, in 2012. Photo: AP

The Putin-Obama summit in Northern Ireland clearly confirmed that the “mini-crisis” in U.S.-Russian relations of 2012 has been overcome. Neither of the sides is interested in a serious deterioration of relations, which have acquired a model of “selective pragmatic cooperation.”

According to this model, the two countries will cooperate when their national interests converge and will not hide their disagreements when they diverge. But this divergence is expected not to produce an overall crisis in relations and their general mood will remain positive, or at least neutral.

Is this model sustainable? Given the results of the summit, followed by the new U.S. initiative to cut nuclear arsenals, proclaimed by Barack Obama in Berlin on June 19, it is not.

The situation might change for the worse this fall, when Russia will probably give its final “no” to the new U.S. nuclear reductions initiative, which the Obama administration considers important for its foreign and security policy, for American soft power in the world, and, last but not least, for the heritage of the current U.S. president.

Major results of the June Obama-Putin meeting

The major outcome of the summit is that both sides are committed to the overall positive mode of relations and cooperation when possible and desirable, despite the growing number of contradictions.

Support for the Geneva-2 conference on the ways of political reconciliation in Syria by all the G8 countries and by Barack Obama in particular is an important gain for Russian diplomacy, especially against the background of clams that the Bashar Assad regime has allegedly used chemical weapons and thus crossed the “red line.”

However, the probability that this conference will take place, not to mention – succeed, is still low, and the U.S. decision to supply arms to the Syrian opposition groups diminishes it even further. The most likely scenario in Syria is a stalemate, coupled with a gradual acceleration of hostilities, which will poison the U.S.-Russian relations for a long time to come.

ABM and New START treaty: Looking for a breakthrough

A battery of the American Patriot air defense missiles deployed at the Polish town of Morag, not far from the border on Russia's Kaliningrad Region. Photo: RIA Novosti / Igor Zarembo

No progress has been made on another important issue – arms control. Russia has called the U.S. decision to cut the most problematic for Moscow Stage 4 of the European Phased Adaptive approach (the deployment of interceptors capable of intercepting Russian ICBMs in Central Europe) a step in a right direction, but claimed it is not enough.

Indeed, this decision does not bring the sides any closer to agreement on the quantitative, qualitative and geographical limitations on the U.S. missile defense in Europe, on which Russia insists.

Another crucial issue remains locked in a stalemate – nuclear arms reductions beyond the New START, which Washington presents, again, as a major priority toward Russia for Obama’s second term and the crucial deliverable it hopes to achieve by cooperating with Russia.

Remarkably, one of the major reasons behind Russia’s inflexibility on missile defense is its unwillingness to engage in a new round of nuclear arms reduction.

The alleged “threat” of missile defense is the best justification to avoid further nuclear reductions and invest large money into modernizing the strategic nuclear arsenal.

The reasons behind Russia’s position on nuclear arms are both military and political. Moscow attaches great importance to preserving the strategic military balance with the United States and to “mutually assured destruction.”

Provided the United States continues clinging to a policy of interventionism, coupled with the American dislike for the political regime in Russia, many in Moscow consider it important to keep the strategic deterrence with the United States in its Cold War sense intact.

Politically, Russia views the preservation of the unique MAD-based strategic balance with the United States as an important criterion of its great power status and something that favorably distinguishes Russia from the other great powers, including the nuclear ones, such as China.

Afghanistan: A new source of U.S.-Russian rivalry

NATO troops in Afghanistan. Source: PA Photos / Ben Birchall / ITAR TASS

Finally, the meeting between the two presidents did not help to overcome another burning issue in U.S.-Russian relations – Afghanistan beyond 2014, when the majority of U.S. troops are supposed to leave the country. Washington is trying to preserve some long-term military presence in Afghanistan.

Russia strongly objects, regarding this intent as a way for the United States to exert geopolitical influence on Central Asia, thus undermining Russia’s position in this important region. Moscow is also very critical of virtually all major U.S. long-term initiatives toward Afghanistan and Central Asia aimed at ensuring security, stability and economic development of the country, as well as at fighting drug trafficking.

Thus, from a major pillar of a positive U.S.-Russian agenda, Afghanistan can by 2014 become a serious source of deterioration and even spark a new round of U.S.-Russian geopolitical rivalry in the region.

Interpreting the results of the Obama-Putin meeting

Despite all these factors and the “cold atmosphere” stipulated by media reports, the concrete results of the summit are quite promising.

The mechanics of cooperation established during the “reset” period (2009-2011), above all the Bilateral Presidential Commission, were not only preserved, but also strengthened. A new working group was established – on threats in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) – thus launching U.S.-Russian cooperation on the increasingly important issue of cyber security.

A new cooperative pattern focused on intensifying the dialogue between the Russian prime minister and the U.S. vice president on economic matters, resembling the former Gore – Chernomyrdin Commission, was established.

Finally, the sides set up a new format of high-level talks on strategic stability and security issues – with the participation of foreign and defense ministers from both sides.

As for the substance, the summit also revealed that the sides are doing everything possible to find new elements of a cooperative agenda and thus to keep the relations in a positive mode.

The sides emphasized the importance of cooperating on international terrorism and strengthening economic relations, especially provided Russia’s membership in the WTO and the establishment of a Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) regime between Russia and the United States.

Finally, a crucial positive result of the summit is the U.S. agreement to hold a bilateral U.S.-Russian summit in Moscow in early September. It would be Obama’s second visit to Moscow since the summer of 2009. It was then that the foundation was laid for the most impressive improvement of the U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War.

September US-Russia summit: What to expect

It is obviously unrealistic to expect a similar outcome from Obama’s next visit to Moscow: there won’t be a second “reset.” Still, the approaching bilateral summit is expected to give the relations a crucial impetus for further development.

Most likely, the sides will come out with a renewed Nunn-Lugar program on threat reduction (the elimination of excessive weapons and nuclear materials), which is important for nuclear non-proliferation.

The launch of some cooperation on missile defense is unlikely but also possible, especially given the U.S. decision to cut Stage 4 of the EPAA. Some deals could be declared in the economic sphere.

Beyond the announced agenda

Barack Obama has high hopes for “Prague agenda” (gradual nuclear reductions). Photo: AP

However, the real reason for America’s agreement to hold a bilateral summit with Russia is different, and this very reason proves that U.S.-Russian relations are still fragile and the emerging “selective pragmatic cooperation” pattern is not very stable.

The United States needs Russia to continue implementing Barack Obama’s “Prague agenda” – gradual nuclear reductions, the reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in the U.S. defense policy and nuclear non-proliferation. It was declared in 2009 and remains a key priority of his administration’s foreign policy.

This U.S. agenda, aimed at strengthening American leadership and soft power, was the major reason behind the “reset” with Russia and the elaboration of the New START back in 2009, and the major reason why the United States is showing goodwill and pursuing engagement now.

Two months of diplomatic bargaining

The problem is, though, that while in 2009, the initial steps of the “Prague agenda” (the New START) corresponded with the Russia’s interests, today they do not.

As mentioned above, Russia is against further bilateral nuclear reductions and is arguing in favor of limiting the other factors that increasingly impact strategic stability in present-day conditions.

Moreover, Russia is quite concerned with the U.S. inclination to pursue a reduced role of nuclear weapons in defense and deterrence: This reduction automatically raises the importance of conventional capabilities and missile defense – fields where Russia is far behind the United States.

It also automatically reduces Russia’s political role in international affairs as such, because this role is now inseparable from Russia’s status of a nuclear superpower.

Despite continuous warnings from Russia, the United States decided to move forward with the “Prague agenda,” which manifested itself in Barack Obama’s speech in Berlin two days after his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Northern Ireland.

This speech showed that these warnings were largely ignored, and again, despite a clear divergence of policies toward nuclear weapons, the United States decided to put nuclear arms reductions in the center of U.S.-Russian relations for the next four years.

The Obama administration recognizes these difficulties, but hopes that showing some flexibility on missile defense, not criticizing Russia much on democracy and human rights and declaring goodwill in general will lead to some progress.

Thus, the agreement to go to Moscow in September and the elimination of Stage 4 of the EPAA are elements of the same policy: they are a sort of a “prepayment” to Russia. The United States anticipates a dividend, and Obama’s speech in Berlin showed what kind of dividend it should be.

The Obama administration is certainly not naive and understands that given the existing differences, it is foolish to expect some concrete agreement on nuclear reductions by September.

Still, there are grounds to think that it does hope to get at least preliminary decisions made on the matter, such as Russia’s very agreement to start negotiations, or some agreed principles on dealing with tactical nuclear weapons, or an agreement to change existing Cold War era protocols and decision-making procedures on launching a nuclear strike. Thus the remaining two months will be very intensive in terms of diplomatic bargaining.

How should Moscow respond?

President Vladimir Putin talking to RT TV Channel about the future of U.S.-Russian relations. Photo: AP

This presents Russia with a very difficult dilemma. On the one hand, accepting the U.S. agenda as it was presented in Berlin would be a big political defeat and would trigger an outcry inside the country.

The political atmosphere in Moscow is not in favor of even minor reductions. The general narrative is about increasing and modernizing, not cutting, the deterrence potential.

The chances that the United States would agree to limit the other factors that impact strategic stability, or that third nuclear states would agree to join the U.S.-Russian nuclear talks, thus making them multilateral, are virtually nil.

Finally, it would be very unwise to again put the arms control issue at the center of the U.S.-Russian agenda. This would strengthen, not weaken, the strategic deterrence philosophy in the U.S.-Russian relations and the sides’ national security establishments’ perception of each other as potential adversaries. It distracts Moscow and Washington from cooperating on the really important and desirable issues, such as Afghanistan and Central Asia beyond 2014.

Making arms control the central issue of the “reset” was a mistake back in 2009, and made sense only as a starting point to achieve progress on other issues (Afghanistan, Iran, the Post-Soviet space, etc). Now there are even fewer reasons to follow this pattern.

On the other hand, an outright rejection of the U.S. initiative would result in a deterioration of relations quite soon, especially given the growing number of contradictions and the decreasing number of areas of cooperation in general. Washington would have much less deliverables for continuing positive engagement with Moscow.

Russia would also face profound criticism worldwide as a country opposing the morally appealing slogan of nuclear disarmament.

In search of smart decisions

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his American counterpart John Kerry looking for a smart decison. Photo: Reuters

Thus Russia’s response to the U.S. initiative should be flexible and smart, avoiding both outright rejection and full acceptance.

First, Moscow should offer fundamental talks, involving expert communities of both countries, on what the strategic stability in evolving conditions should be, how it should be achieved, what kind of deterrence should remain between Russia and the United States, what should be done with the MAD, etc.

These talks, which must result in a clear recognition of the link between nuclear and new generations of conventional weapons, should be presented as a way of implementing the “Prague agenda.”

Secondly, political bargaining and propaganda aside, there is nothing preventing Russia and the United States from establishing cooperation on missile defense in the form of data exchange and joint exercises.

This cooperation can easily coincide with further talks on limiting missile defense and with the continuing modernization of the Russian strategic nuclear arsenal. Missile defense cooperation would be a real game changer in U.S.-Russian relations, making the sides de-facto military allies and increasing transparency and mutual trust.

Thirdly, revising decision-making procedures and protocols on launching a nuclear strike is indeed not simply possible, but even highly desirable.

Despite the near-zero probability of a surprise nuclear attack between Russia and the United States, the sides are still clinging to the protocols and rules elaborated during the Cold War (that decisions have to be taken within minutes, and thus the majority of the deployed nuclear arsenal is being kept on high alert status).

De-alerting the U.S. and Russian strategic carriers would be a significant step toward eradicating the Cold War heritage in the U.S.-Russian relations.

Finally, Russia should make sure – and get firm guarantees from the United States – that some movement on the arms control track would coincide with the elaboration of a positive U.S.-Russian agenda on those issues where it really is necessary, above all Afghanistan beyond 2014 and Asia Pacific.

By doing so, Russia would keep U.S.-Russian relations in a positive state and transform Obama’s initiative in an acceptable and desirable way without rejecting it.