At a think tank event in Moscow, Russian and American experts discussed the current state of Russia-U.S. relations, emphasizing ways to restore cooperation in arms control to prevent the risk of nuclear weapons use.


A guided missile is launched from the USS John Paul Jones during a Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Navy test over the Pacific Ocean. Photo: Missile Defense Agency / U.S. Department of Defense

This week started with the newest round of U.S.- Russia sanctions tit-for-tat: the U.S. decision to expand the Magnitsky sanctions list was met by Russia imposing a travel ban on five former U.S. officials. The development further aggravates the already deteriorated state of relations between the countries and raises the risk that the confrontation between the U.S. and Russia might escalate even further.

The current state of Russia-U.S. relations – and possible ways to restore them back to the way they were before the Ukraine crisis - were the topics of discussion among Russian and American experts at a roundtable organized by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) on Feb. 2 in Moscow.

Participants of the event exchanged their views on how the relationship between both countries might be improved and pointed out the importance of preventing unauthorized and accidental use of nuclear weapons, which is more possible with policymakers becoming less responsible and more prone to hasty decisions.

“In these hard times it is important to control the emotions, overcome pessimism and try to resume the dialogue. Through the dialogue we will then understand each other better, identify areas of mutual interest and collaboration. That’s why we are here,” stated the president of RIAC, Igor Ivanov, in his opening remarks.

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Indeed, no one at the event could argue with the idea that dialogue is necessary, but opinions differed in terms of how this dialogue might be achieved.

Thomas Pickering, former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs (1997-2000) and Ambassador of the United States to Russia from 1993-1996, said, for example, that, in his view, there are a number of areas where Russian and U.S. security interests coincide. An agreement on Iran was possible to a certain extent thanks to Russian representatives who “saved the day on a number of occasions,” said Pickering, referring to the comments of U.S. delegates participating in negotiating the agreement.

He also noted that both countries have similar views on Afghanistan and the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). There is potential for mutual efforts in addressing the Syrian crisis.

“Russia-U.S. coordination, if not cooperation, is necessary,” the former diplomat concluded.

The current situation is quite paradoxical. During the Cold War, the U.S. and Russian leaders understood the risks and exercised restrained policies. Today this is disappearing, said Richard Burt, U.S. Chief Negotiator during the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in 1991.

“Opportunities for accidents are growing and it’s getting more difficult to get back to more organized dialogue. And the danger related to that is that we built an enormous reservoir of expertise on nuclear arms control and if we fail to take advantage of this expertise and pass it on the next generation we will create more instability in the future,” Burt argued.

According to him, what is vitally important to do now to avoid further destabilization is to resolve the issue with Ukraine and include the U.S. in the negotiations.

“The U.S. is not even at the table with Russia on Ukraine. It’s a big mistake on the part of Washington,” said the former diplomat.

To avoid the accidental use of nuclear weapons, it is also necessary to transition from bilateral dialogue to a multilateral one involving not just Russia and the U.S., but other countries as well (India, China, Pakistan, Israel) and share experience and information with them, pointed out James E. Cartwright, retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

On their part, Russian experts present at the event expressed concern with finding a way to resuming cooperation. Vladimir Kozin, head of the group of advisers to the director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, said that, of course, no one is against reviving the cooperation in all domains including arms control but during the current U.S. administration, it seems impossible. 

“We are still considering each other as enemies. The updated U.S. national security strategy labels Russia as aggressor six times in thirty pages,” he said. First and foremost, it is necessary to speak about U.S. steps very close to Russian borders. To avoid nuclear confrontation, both sides should renounce first strike capabilities involving all types of weapons,” Kozin remarked.

The problem of nuclear arms control is aggravated by the fact that Moscow and Washington are having no meaningful negotiations on this topic for almost three years, much like during the Cold War when Russia and the U.S. did not discuss it from 1983 to 1985, said Sergey Rogov, academic director at the Institute of the U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“In Syria we have an agreement on deconfliction between Russia and the U.S. We need the same agreement on deconfliction in the nuclear field,” the expert proposed. “That could involve not only Russia and the U.S., but also China and others.”

Moreover, Rogov believes that the revival of the work of the NATO-Russia Council can help to take advantage of the common interests and the stabilizing the relationship this year will build a good base ground for further cooperation with the start of the work of the new U.S. president.

Another urgent issue that was raised by one of the Russian participants, Andrey Gaidamaka, vice president for investor relations at Russian energy giant Lukoil, is the question of Russia-U.S. economic ties. The topic seems to be often overlooked in the discussions, notwithstanding the enormous potential that could have been realized if not for the sanctions.

Answering the question, Ambassador Pickering, who is also a consultant to the Boeing Company, which has significant investments in Russia, stated that, indeed, economics is an important driver of the relationship, but at the moment there are a number of things that the government in Kremlin should take into account when addressing the problem of capital outflow and business activity in Russia.

From his point of view, the main factor at play here is the uncertainty about the diversification of the Russian economy, which puts off people from outside. The inability to diversify the economy efficiently also makes the impact of sanctions even stronger. Moving forward, in Pickering’s words, it would be highly useful to bring the economic aspect of the relationship more to the table.

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“If we could find ways to work together we could help you,” he said.

The problem with the Russian economy is that there is no ecosystem for people to build successful companies. The question of priorities of the government is key, thinks Ambassador Burt.

“Russia can’t be simply a military power – it should an economic power, a cultural power, a well-rounded power,” he said.

As for sanctions, they were not the worst policy choice that could have been taken by the White House, the diplomat argued.

“Usually people adopt sanctions when they don’t want to do the next step," he said. "Sometimes U.S. foreign policy and the Obama administration does not get credit for the things it didn’t do and I remember a year ago there was tremendous pressure on Obama to arm Ukrainians. It didn’t happen. As a result of this not happening, we are in a much better position today.”

Ivanov, in turn, could not help but argue that, from his personal opinion, “Sanctions are not a solution to any problem.” Such steps create a bad atmosphere for discussion of other issues of mutual interest and there is no justification because sanctions do not help finding a settlement to Ukraine.