The key to rebuilding the strained US-Russian relationship is putting together a string of cooperative successes in fields ranging from energy to education.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walk together after laying a wreath at the Zakovkzalny War Memorial in Sochi, Russia, Tuesday, May 12, 2015. Photo: AP
Consistency builds confidence. Inconsistency, on the other hand, breeds doubt. Russian perceptions of U.S. policy are that of an erratic actor that doesn’t follow through on its commitments, lacks respect for its international counterparts, is arrogant in its role as a hegemon, and uses its capital and military structure to bully opponents.
Perception is reality and the perception in Russia is that American policy makers can’t be trusted to keep their word and focus on the long-term good over the latest polls. The U.S. can begin to remedy this situation despite the current climate in Ukraine through a sustained, consistent approach with Russia in a variety of capacities.
None of these recommendations will require significant public backtracking. They aren’t glamorous and won’t bolster approval ratings in the short run. However, they will put together a string of cooperative successes that will reestablish a working relationship between the U.S. and Russia that can endure future leadership changes in both nations.
Furthermore, the body of cooperative win-wins will help to stave off complete breakdowns in future flashpoints that are likely. The goals stated here are to reduce anxieties, strengthen cooperation, enhance economic opportunities, and reestablish favorable relations.
There are three key areas the U.S. can concentrate on immediately, sustain, and build upon over many years. They are: Energy Development and Investment, Regional Security Operations, and Educational/Cultural Exchanges.
Many of these moves can be done publicly without compromising the public stance on Ukraine. However, cooperation will require letting Russia assume an equal standing and sometimes even leading similarly to how U.S. handles East Asian issues.
Energy development and investment
First, sanctions on offshore energy projects, banking and transfers of technology are not going to deter Russia from its energy projects. They are only galvanizing anti-U.S. sentiment and improving poll numbers for President Vladimir Putin. Many Russians under sanctions wear them like a badge of courage. The sanctions themselves are providing an excuse for the Kremlin in explaining lagging growth when, as the World Bank and many others predicted, it was going to be flat anyway.
Lift the sanctions, privately if necessary, and give American companies the ability to participate in the development of natural resources. Exxon Mobil Corp., Schlumberger, and Halliburton are already treading in the grey area of sanctions in Russia and these companies have experience in navigating the existing institutions.
The main deficiencies of Russian energy companies are in software and offshore experience, but this hasn’t deterred Chinese and other Asian investors in filling the gap with more favorable conditions. Furthermore, the current low oil and gas prices provide the perfect opportunity for Western companies to provide capital and technology when Russia needs it most and the retern on investment (ROI) has the greatest upside.
If the EU fails to maintain its solidarity on its sanctions in the near future, which is very possible, the U.S. will be following on the issue instead of leading, creating the potential for a further standoff.
Regional security operations
Second, continue cooperation in the Afghan anti-drug program with Russia and highlight it as U.S. Ambassador John Tefft did. Expand it to include projects on isolating and eliminating ISIS with Russia as a partner. This will encourage regional leaders that the West isn’t acting solely in its own interests and successes can be shared.
Combating extremism is a high priority for Russians and promoting this type of partnership will win support domestically for both. The post-9/11 relationship between the U.S. and Russia in Afghanistan was a key win-win for Washington and the Kremlin. We need to duplicate it.
One way is the protection of shipping in the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Hormuz. Develop a better partnership with Russian naval forces as a response to the Iranian seizure of the Maersk ship and continued hostilities in Yemen.
Russia’s involvement will give them a public role that it will relish and provide a more unified front to Iran. Incorporate more Arctic Sea joint maneuvers between the U.S., Russia, Norway and Canada. Base it on a joint environmental or shipping crisis along the Eastern route from the Kara Sea to the Pacific. A North Pacific version near Sakhalin might include Japanese and Chinese contingents as well.
Educational and cultural exchanges
Lastly, restore the deteriorating educational and cultural exchange programs between the U.S. and Russia. The elimination of productive programs such as the Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) is just one example of several successful engagements that have been sidelined by political fallout.
It will likely be necessary to replace American Councils as the administrator of the program in Russia, but approach it as a partnership that the Russians can have a hand in managing. With a fresh approach, FLEX and similar programs will provide the foundation for improved relations 10 to 20 years from now, as these individuals make their way into the ranks of policy makers, business leaders, and educators.
Even more importantly, the U.S. should take an active role in assisting Russia in achieving its 5 – 100 goal at the university level and send more students to study at these universities. This initiative is fairly well funded by the Russian government to assist targeted universities in achieving “Top 100” status internationally.
Increasing U.S. assistance will build stronger ties between the two academic communities, assist with best practices strategies and their implementation, and provide a much needed flow of English-speaking students to Russian universities.
There are no easy answers here, no simple solutions, and balancing the advancement of bilateral negotiations will come with some costs although they can be minimized. The essential part of a new Russian “reset” is providing predictable behavior on the part of the U.S. in order to eliminate anxiety and developing confidence and trust over time.
However, success depends not on isolation but on interaction at every level by real people, be they educators, students, business leaders or diplomats. Engagement builds familiarity and eliminates uncertainties. Creating opportunities for Americans to play to their strengths doesn’t have to come at Russia’s expense.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff