Russia’s Ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, is once again making headlines. Known for his blunt style, Rogozin has taken to his Twitter page of late to register what has become a familiar gripe in Moscow. “The Americans and their allies again want to surround the den of the Russian bear,” he warned in reference to the planned deployment of missile interceptors in Romania. “How many times must they be reminded that this is dangerous?”
Coming on the heels of similar concerns expressed by Russia’s chief of the general staff, Nikolai Makarov, Rogozin’s comments highlight the security dilemma that has shadowed U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War. The reset in U.S.-Russia relations has been launched, but its likelihood of success will depend on a mutual understanding of each other’s motives.
In the United States, three schools of thought have emerged to explain the pendulum-like swings in our bilateral relationship.
Flush with petrodollars and renewed domestic stability, so argues one school, the Kremlin has embarked on an ambitious plan to build a multipolar world, with Russia as one of the leading poles. During the mid-1990s, Russia entertained similar aspirations but was powerless to realize its objectives.
A second school attributes blame to Washington’s shifting foreign policy priorities. Integrating Russia into the western political mainstream, a staple of American policy during the 1990s, has taken a back seat to the specter of a rising China and instability in the greater Middle East. Some argue that this has distracted U.S. policymakers from maintaining a healthy relationship with Russia, allowing minor issues to snowball into strategic disputes.
The third school focuses on the fraying “moral consensus” in American-Russian relations. Disagreements on matters of policy are now interpreted as evidence of malign intent, with Russia adopting an increasingly assertive and less cooperative posture toward U.S. initiatives.
There is much to commend in each of these three schools. But before declaring the Russian riddle solved, we need a clear-eyed assessment of how concerns about the balance of power interact with historical patterns of insecurity in Russia.
From Nicholas I’s regulations governing foreign travel in the 19th century to current preoccupations with NATO enlargement, missile defense, and U.S. bases in Central Asia, the quest for a defensible frontier has shaped Russia’s relations with the outside world.
When Russians today remind U.S. policymakers of Secretary of State James Baker’s pledge to Mikhail Gorbachev that “there would be no extension of NATO’s’ jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east” they are not simply rehashing historical grievances. NATO expansion has fueled insecurity within the Kremlin and contributed to a reassessment of U.S. motives in the region.
Russia’s legacy of economic backwardness, reflected in its aging infrastructure, weak manufacturing base, and statist model of development, has similarly shaped its foreign policy behavior. To many Russians, U.S. economic policies during the 1990s were perceived as an attempt to weaken Russia and hollow out its already debilitated military capability. Lingering suspicions on both sides have hobbled efforts to expand the bilateral flow of trade and investment and facilitate Russia’s integration into the World Trade Organization.
The challenge for the United States will be whether it can pursue its security goals in Europe without injuring Russian interests and causing a spiral in our relations. Moving forward, three steps recommend themselves.
First, the security dilemma is exacerbated when states fail to appreciate the defensive motivations of the other side. The Obama administration should redouble efforts to clarify U.S. intentions on missile defense and NATO enlargement. This will require improved structures of communication and intelligence sharing, increased academic and cultural exchanges, and a willingness on both sides to deal openly with the past.
Second, reinvigorating U.S.-Russia relations demands a bipartisan commitment, with Democrats and Republicans converging on the broad elements of strategy. Partisan rancor has had a detrimental impact on the ability to convey accurate and timely information to Moscow about our intentions.
Finally, the administration should couple plans for missile defense in Europe with renewed efforts to communicate benign intent through unilateral restraint in areas peripheral to our interests but of central concern to the Kremlin. This would entail a dialing back of democracy promotion efforts in Central Asia and a slowing down of the NATO enlargement process for Georgia and Ukraine.
Charting a new relationship with Russia will not be easy and our best efforts may still fail to convince the likes of Rogozin. But the relationship is too important to let uncertainty about intentions cloud our common interest in producing a more stable world order.