For the U.S. to make Russia a strategic priority, Russia needs to become more capable of addressing the global, transnational challenges that face much of the world in the 21st century.

Will the West have the same interest in Russia like it was during the reset? Photo: Reuters 

President Obama’s decision to cancel his planned summit with Vladimir Putin in Moscow was just the latest in a series of blows to the U.S.-Russian relationship. Apart from the ongoing saga over the fate of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the decision to cancel grew out the White House’s belief that a summit was unlikely to produce much in the way of concrete agreements on high priorities such as missile defense, arms control or Syria.

Worse, public anger at Russia is mounting in the U.S. over Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict, not to mention the Kremlin’s crackdown on NGOs and a disturbing campaign against homosexuals. While Russia became a top foreign policy priority during Obama’s first term, in the aftermath of the canceled summit, it risks becoming an afterthought.

This swing from cooperation to indifference tinged with hostility is in part the result of individual choices, such as Moscow’s decision to give Snowden asylum. It is also structural. The U.S.-Russian relationship remains essentially transactional and based around a narrow set of issues, mostly related to arms control and regional security.

Though Russia remains a major power, it is at best a part-time partner for the United States. Absent deeper security integration, Russia’s best bet for greater relevance, both in Washington and more broadly, lies in becoming a more capable solver of global problems.

Despite the U.S.-Russia “reset” that was proclaimed in February 2009, relations were then as now based on a basic cost-benefit calculation. Deeper security integration, whether Russian membership in NATO or the creation of a common security space, is a non-starter in both countries, mainly because of Russia’s insistence on retaining its strategic independence.

A subtler problem is the mismatch in capabilities between the two countries. While the U.S. has developed a range of international capabilities—military, humanitarian, economic, nation building—Russia continues to rely heavily on traditional, military measures of power. Consequently, too much U.S.-Russian engagement focuses on issues of hard security, where Moscow and Washington pursue frequently incompatible agendas.

Obama and his advisers made a conscious decision to focus on Russia because they calculated that Russian support was critical to some of Obama’s most important foreign policy aims: cutting nuclear arsenals; stopping Iran’s march to nuclear weapons; and regaining the initiative in Afghanistan, where the Bush Administration had dropped the ball in its rush into Iraq.

Judged by these criteria, the reset was a success. Russia agreed to the New START agreement, backed more comprehensive sanctions on Iran at the UN Security Council (while cancelling a contract to sell Tehran the advanced S-300 sir defense system), and joined the Northern Distribution Network, allowing Washington and its allies to access Afghanistan, reducing dependence on lines of communication through Pakistan.

The decision to focus on Russia during Obama’s first term, and the more cooperative relationship between Moscow and Washington that resulted, did not, however, alter the fundamentally transactional nature of U.S.-Russian relations centered on hard security.

While both Moscow and Washington emphasize that they favor greater cooperation, Russia is not prepared to abandon its strategic autonomy to become part of the U.S.-led “West,” something Putin has emphasized on numerous occasions, most notably in his 2007 Munich Security Conference speech.

Russia’s insistence on maintaining its strategic independence has left Washington with few tools to promote a more enduring partnership (the U.S. has always struggled to work with countries that insist on strategic independence—just ask the French).

The problem with this transactional model of relations is that it is subject to constant re-evaluation, with neither side feeling any sense of long-term obligation. With Washington and Moscow on opposite sides in Syria, talks on missile defense cooperation deadlocked, and U.S. forces rushing for the exits in Afghanistan, Russia today seems a less important partner for the United States than it did in 2009.

Though Obama seems well inclined to Russia personally (if not necessarily to the “bored schoolboy” Putin), he appears to have calculated that Russia cannot or will not help advance U.S. interests to the same degree today as it did during his first term, and so will simply become a lower priority.

Notwithstanding the current round of recriminations over Snowden, gays, and the canceled summit, the fact remains that Russia is quite important to the United States. Not only is Russia the only state in the world with the capacity to physically destroy the U.S., it is the major regional power in Eurasia and an important actor in regions as diverse as the Middle East, Europe, and, increasingly, the Asia-Pacific.

Like the U.S.—but unlike many other major powers (including China at least for the time being)—Russia is both capable of projecting power far beyond its borders and willing to use military force to protect its interests. These great power aspirations have often been a source of tension with the U.S., but they also underscore why Washington cannot simply ignore Russia.

Yet if Russia remains a major military power, it continues to lag in many of the other tools states like the U.S. use to promote their interests internationally. Its energy dependent economy lacks the dynamism that makes others look to it as an important trading partner or source of investment. Despite occasionally using its power projection capability for humanitarian purposes, for instance after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, when Russian airlift capabilities helped evacuate victims and deliver aid, Russia lags far behind the West, Japan, and others as a provider of assistance.

Its foreign assistance budget is around $500 million a year, about 1/60 of the United States’ budget. More than half of Russian assistance, moreover, is channeled to states in the former Soviet Union, reinforcing Russia’s status as a regional more than a global player. Russia also does comparatively little to promote global public goods; despite being a major producer of greenhouse gasses, Russia’s voice has been notably absent on discussions of global climate change (the U.S. has been almost as bad, unfortunately).

Despite some efforts at developing greater non-military capacities, Russia remains something of a one-dimensional power. This one-dimensionality limits prospects for the U.S.-Russian relationship to move beyond its current transactional nature. Russia remains a necessary partner for the U.S., but only for resolving a fairly limited set of challenges connected to traditional “hard” security. When U.S. and Russian aims converge, as they mostly did during Obama’s first term, the two countries can work together well. But since U.S. and Russian perspectives on security issues tend to diverge as much as they converge, they do not provide a stable platform for building a more constructive relationship.

Meanwhile, Washington has little reason to turn to Russia as a partner in resolving global and transnational challenges, which, in contrast to hard security issues, tend to be “win-win,” and where cooperation can build over time even when political relations are stagnant. Coupled with an underperforming economic relationship, the fact that Russia continues to punch below its weight as a provider of global public goods means that the U.S. sees Russia as a partner of choice only sporadically.

If deeper security integration is not in the cards for the foreseeable future, one way to build a more lasting partnership would be to not only promote deeper economic ties (something both governments favor), but also for Russia to become more capable of addressing the global, transnational challenges that face much of the world in the 21st century. Developing a greater capacity for addressing problems like climate change, freedom of the seas, global health, and other issues would not only make Russia a more valuable partner to the United States, it would support Russia’s pursuit of a larger international role.

As usual, the biggest challenges for Russia lie at home, with a government that seeks a louder voice on the world stage, but is reluctant to take the necessary risks. As long as U.S.-Russian relations remain based on ad hoc security cooperation, Washington in particular will feel free to walk away when the going gets tough.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.