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Wonks Weigh In: What White House Would Want

I just couldn’t resist the alliteration temptation. What we’re looking at here is the broader directions that should result from next week’s Obama-Medvedev powwow.

Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski offers a three-pronged strategy in the Financial Times for President Obama when he travels to Moscow next week. In the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, Robert Legvold offers a template for improving US-Russia relations in general. Since this is a blog, and not a newspaper or brick-sized bi-monthly periodical, I’m going to re-engineer the formats of these two articles into what should be an easy reference in the future for those not willing to plow through a 6,000-word appeal to the Obama Administration to redesign relations with Russia NOW. First, Brzezinski:


Goal 1: Advance US-Russian co-operation in areas where mutual interests coincide.

Difficulty level: Easy
Examples: reciprocal reductions in nuclear weaponry; resolving ABM shield a compromise on US plans for an anti-ballistic-missile shield and joint efforts to enhance the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; other unnamed security arrangements.

Goal 2: Emphasize the mutual benefits in handling disagreements between the two countries within internationally respected “rules of the game”.
Difficulty level: Medium – sensitive but unavoidable.
Examples: Georgia-Russia relations; Iran relations.

Goal 3: Help shape a geopolitical context in which Russia becomes increasingly conscious of its own interest in eventually becoming a genuinely post-imperial partner of the Euro-Atlantic community.
Difficulty level: Hard – can only be sought indirectly.
Examples: Georgia-Russia relations; Ukraine relations; in general, reversing the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Robert Legvold goes a bit more macro-meta and takes eight times the space to spell out not just what should happen next week, but what a revamped US-Russia relationship should strive for over the next several years.

Broadly, the highest priorities are nuclear arms, energy and security. Everything else – climate change, illegal contraband trafficking, cybersecurity and international financial architecture reform are all tied for a very distant second.

The basic strategies Obama can deploy in dealing with Russia:

  1. Call things by their name – the view that Russia is an authoritarian, bullying, and aggressive power and admit that a new Cold War is on and act accordingly.
  2. Assume that despite some important areas of potential cooperation, various impediments make a genuine partnership an illusion. As Legvold puts it:

    “Russia’s readiness to contest many aspects of U.S. foreign policyand its indifference to values that Americans consider important createa fundamental barrier. According to this view, the best strategycombines selective engagement with selective containment and calibratesthe two in ways that enhance engagement while softening the edges ofcontainment. U.S. policy has more or less evolved in this directionover the last several years, albeit without a well-formulated design,and much of the U.S. political establishment and the U.S. media seem tohave endorsed it.”

  3. Forging a “strategic partnership” based on engagement, evenreconciliation, regarding energy, regional security and nuclear weapons.

Deploying the third strategy, which is the one Legvold is clearly advocating, begins with the three items that Obama laid out in April: arms control (specifically, agreeing on a strategy for continuing START I at its conclusion in December), Iran and Afghanistan. Following that, four areas dominate all others:

  1. European security
  2. Eurasian security
  3. Nuclear security
  4. Energy security

“Not coincidentally, these also frame the most friction-laden aspects of the U.S.-Russian relationship, namely, the future relationship of Georgia and Ukraine with NATO, the role of ballistic missile defense in central Europe, the U.S.-Russian interaction in the post-Soviet area, and the jockeying over oil and gas pipelines.”

On European security:

“The dialogue about European security should start with each side’s assessment of the core threats facing Europe. It should then evolve into an open-ended discussion of how Europe’s existing security institutions might be improved to better address these threats, mitigate the insecurity felt by states left outside these institutions (such as Georgia and Ukraine), and create an overarching framework in which NATO and parallel organizations in the Commonwealth of Independent States could address various security challenges together. Although this must be a conversation among Americans, Russians, and Europeans, a bilateral dialogue between Washington and Moscow would offer a crucial basis for testing the potential of a broader European security dialogue.”

On Eurasian security:

“The starting point for this discussion should be a frank and practical look at how each side sees its own and the other’s concerns, interests, and role in the post-Soviet area. However awkward and tense this discussion gets, it must address the specific sources of friction: NATO’s activities, the claims and counterclaims surrounding the separatist conflicts in Moldova and the Caucasus, the role of Western nongovernmental organizations in the region, Russia’s leverage over its neighbors, and competition over oil and gas. The dialogue must especially explore ways in which the United States and Russia can work together to manage the two most explosive issues: the future of Ukraine and the way toward a more stable and constructive Russian-Georgian relationship.”

On Nuclear security, Legvold articulates five challenges, one of which I think is redundant, so I have shortened it to four:

  1. What is the best way to strengthen nuclear nonproliferation and how can Iran and North Korea be prevented from further eroding it.
  2. Minimize the risk of nuclear proliferation as more states seek nuclear powerfor supposedly meeting their energy needs – an effort that requiresworking with nuclear power suppliers, which will require closecooperation between the United States and Russia, which is a reason torevive the stalled negotiations for a so-called 123 agreement thatpromotes peaceful commercial nuclear activities between the twocountries.
  3. “In their own nuclear relationship, the United States and Russia are no longerlike “two scorpions in a bottle,” but if left unregulated, theirchoices — about whether to pursue ballistic missile defense, weaponizespace, introduce nuclear weapons into conventional war doctrines –could still be destabilizing.”
  4. The United States and Russia will have to lead any effort to establish a broader multilateral arms control regime designed to reduce the hazardous aspects of the nuclear postures of the other nuclear powers, particularly those weapons systems in China, India, and Pakistan that blur the line between conventional and nuclear attacks.

On Energy security:

“Discussing ways to bring Russian oil and liquefied natural gas to the North American market and to enhance cooperation within the consortia developing Caspian Sea oil, while vigorously pursuing dueling pipeline projects, raises the core question: Do the two countries intend for the relationship to be cooperative or competitive?”

Finally, though this paragraph appears in the first half of the article, I though it more appropriate to close with:

“Finally, just as Russia has the right to wish for a U.S. foreign policy less given to unilateralism, less enamored of the military option, and more attuned to the security interests of other states, the United States has the right to hope that Russia will gradually understand that it is in its national interest to deal with its neighbors by adopting a strategy of reassurance rather than a crude one of wielding carrots and sticks, particularly sticks.”

Brzezinski’s original article accessible here.

Legvold’s original article accessible here.