Competition and Cooperation in U.S.-Russia Relations

A new IISS report (via the Times of London) finding that, despite symbolic demonstrations of force, the Russian military still suffers from the effects of twenty years of neglect will come as no surprise to WPR readers, as Richard Weitz covered that ground already. Same goes for this Jamestown Foundation report on the impact of the financial crisis on Russia’s defense industry and much-needed military modernization program, which Richard foresaw as well. (Although the news that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is now targeting the defense industry for mismanagement and inefficiencies makes running a Chinese dairy seem like a secure job.)

What’s more interesting from the two new reports is less the military hardware side, which might be delayed but will ultimately be accomplished, than the nature of Russia’s force restructuring programs: streamlining to a fully professional army along the lines of the brigade-size model of most Western militaries. As the IISS’s John Chipman says in the Times article, “This restructuring could make Russian armed forces more capable to operateagainst modern threats and potentially better interoperable with Westernforces.”

Of course, “modern threats” means everything from non-state actors to the Georgian military, meaning Russian forces will soon be capable of either competing or cooperating with Western security goals. Or rather, competing and cooperating with Western security goals, because despite all the talk of EU-Russia and NATO-Russia strategic partnerships (and I’m favorable to a lot of it), the fact remains that Russia will remain a sometimes-partner and sometimes-rival to the West for the foreseeable future.

I was at a U.S.-Russia relations conference the other night, and the representative of the Russian embassy very candidly said as much. He also very candidly admitted that both sides shared responsibility for the recent deterioration in relations. It’s pretty clear what America could do to improve matters (e.g., reconsider European-based missile defense and NATO expansion). But the same Russian representative got prickly when I asked him what Russia could do, and basically said that Moscow had already done enough.

So the question of where the approach will be competitive and where it will be cooperative, and how to “decouple” (to use a new buzzword) the two, will determine how relations evolve moving forward. For now, most of the Russian concessions being offered — suspending deployment of Iskander missiles to the Russia-Poland border, opening Russian supply routes to Afghanistan, and relaxing resistance to Central Asian supply routes — essentially roll back retaliatory moves to the Bush administration’s more confrontational policies.

But the Iranian dossier could look dramatically different if the Obama adminsitration’s desire to engage diplomatically were backed up by a more solid contribution from Russia to making Tehran suffer consequences for not changing its own behavior. And a higher Russian profile in U.N. peacekeeping operations — outside of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that is — would enhance strained Western efforts to stabilize conflict zones that serve as vectors for transnational threats.

Like the Middle East, the challenge for the Obama administration in Russia policy will be how to repair the Bush administration’s legacy without incurring maximal costs. But the structural weakness of Russia’s military creates room for making generous offers, since the threat is much less menacing than the Cold War headlines make it seem, and Russia stands to benefit much more from a cooperative relationship based on mutual respect and security assurances than a confrontational one based on mutual suspicion and rivalry.

That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be clear-eyed and realistic negotiations. Some of the other proposals I heard the other night regarding a broad NATO-CSTO security architecture, or Joschka Fischer’s recent proposal of admitting Russia to NATO (which the Russian representative called a “strong gesture” that Russia would be unlikely to accept), struck me as being theoretically intriguing but somewhat idealistic. Fischer described his own proposal as an approach that “presupposes . . . things that don’t exist at the moment,” which has a usefulness, but a limited one.

I’ve been guilty of a bit of that myself. But the broad outlines of a NATO-EU-Russia security architecture should be considered as a longterm goal by which to measure immediate policy. In fact, including China in the equation, too, would go a long way to creating a stable backstop for the emerging multipolar order.

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