Moscow’s support of NATO operations in Afghanistan has been, in addition to the New START Treaty, a key pillar of the “reset.”  But as NATO pulls out of Afghanistan, Washington’s need for Russia’s support diminishes and the urgency for filling the gap in relations created by NATO’s withdrawal grows.  However, finding common ground to close this void will be difficult, in great part because Washington’s and Moscow’s interests often diverge.

US President Barack Obama and Russia President Dmitry Medvedev sign the New START treaty on April 8, 2010 (Photo: AP)

US President Barack Obama and Russia President Dmitry Medvedev sign the New START treaty on April 8, 2010 (Photo: AP)

New START has, for now, exhausted prospects for deepening relations through further strategic nuclear disarmament.  Future reductions below New START levels will be especially difficult and will depend on U.S. and Russian collaboration that will likely not advance until a second Obama term or until a new U.S. president is elected.  Nevertheless, any such effort will be hampered by members of the U.S. Congress who oppose arms control, portions of Russia’s military who undermine ties by misrepresenting U.S. and NATO ballistic missile defense systems, and Russian fears that its deterrent will no longer suffice against China’s nuclear arsenal.

As of yet, substantive missile defense cooperation appears impracticable and indeed, remains an irritant to relations.  While talks on tactical nuclear weapons reductions are a logical next step, the United States is reluctant to remove its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe unless Russia agrees to cut its arsenal.  But Russia is hesitant to do so because these weapons provide artificial assurances against a superior Chinese military, and are also seen as a counter-balance to NATO, and specifically, U.S. precision conventional weapons like prompt global strike.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has proven to be an unreliable partner on Iran, and relishes in its role as the principal interlocutor between Tehran and the West. Moscow perceives that this role reaffirms in western and Chinese eyes Russia’s position as a global leader, while affording the Kremlin a key issue with which to leverage the West on matters of interest to Russia. At the same time, however, Moscow also seeks to avoid undermining lucrative ties with Tehran or appearing as if Russia is capitulating to western, and namely American, prerogatives. In that regard, Moscow has only partly supported international efforts to keep up pressure on Iran’s nuclear program, despite serious concerns from the International Atomic Energy Agency that there may be a military aspect to Tehran’s program.

On trade, however, the White House has so far been unable to secure Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization or to convince the U.S. Congress to eliminate the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment which leads to counterproductive trade discrimination against Russia.

Concomitantly, Russia appears diametrically opposed with the West on democratic efforts worldwide, in part because the Kremlin fears the influence these movements may have on encouraging similar change at home.  Concerned more with preserving its influence and economic interests, Russia has consistently failed to support, and indeed has subverted, democratic efforts throughout its own backyard, chose not to recognize Libyan rebels until it was clear that Colonel Gaddafi had fled Tripoli and that its lucrative oil contracts could be under threat, and has lambasted international efforts to constrain the murderous regime in Damascus.

Concerned with preserving its influence and interests, America has also played an inconsistent role when advocating for democracy.  While the United States has quietly – and not so quietly – supported change in Tunisia, Egypt, Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet states in Russia’s backyard, it stood back and supported the Bahraini and Saudi regimes as they turned their security forces against their own people.  On Libya, Moscow asserts that NATO operations exceeded the UN Security Council mandate, namely by becoming an effort for regime change, and would agree with members of the U.S Congress who view America’s role in the NATO mission as unconstitutional.

At the same time, Afghanistan is rapidly becoming Russia’s problem.  Already battered by the influx of heroin from the Afghan countryside, Moscow has long worried about how NATO’s presence in Afghanistan fuels instability, drug trafficking, and radical Islam south of Russia’s border.  NATO’s progressive withdrawal will likely exacerbate these threats.  Not surprisingly, Russia has agreed with Dushanbe to extend the deployment of its military base in Tajikistan – which shares a lengthy and porous border with Afghanistan – with the aim of boosting Moscow’s regional influence and security mantra after the NATO pullout.

Tempted by the heavy handed ban on drugs and the relative stability provided by the Taliban pre-invasion, the Kremlin may be inclined to look the other way in the face of a Taliban return in Kabul with the mind of returning to the status quo ante bellum.  This is easier than continuing to cooperate with NATO – who is more than eager to walk away from its costly attempt to create a democratic Afghanistan – and thus not only further alienate the Taliban and other terrorists, but also support a continued American military footprint in Central Asia.  As such, like many of Afghanistan’s neighbors (namely Iran, Pakistan and China), Moscow may be willing to accept a Taliban comeback because it views this as a lesser evil to the U.S. presence in Central Asia and in particular the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan.

As NATO withdraws, many of Moscow’s neighbors will eagerly turn back to the Kremlin for help in stabilizing their restive region and keeping Iran and China in check, but at the price of greater Russian influence.  In that regard, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – which has called on the U.S. to withdraw its military forces from Central Asia – and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization – and in particular its Collective Rapid Reaction Force which will be used to counter “Arab-revolution”-type upheavals in member countries – are platforms through which Russia solidifies its regional influence and contains threats south of its border.

Notwithstanding NATO’s disengagement, a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond President Obama’s deadline to withdraw most U.S. troops by September 2012 and all by 2014, will likely clash with Moscow’s own regional agenda.  In addition to uprooting terrorists and stemming the flow of drugs and illicit nuclear material and arms, an extended American footprint also aims to prevent a neo-imperial Russian revival in Eurasia.  But as America’s military footprint in Central Asia diminishes, Washington will be forced to seek other forms of regional engagement.  Rejecting Russian notions of a “sphere of influence,” Washington will thus broaden its cooperation with other Eurasian states that better suit U.S. objectives, but draw Moscow’s ire for meddling in its backyard.

If U.S. and Russian interests increasingly diverge, we risk seeing a return to the characteristically passive aggressive relations that dominated much of the previous decade.  A return to the Kremlin by the America-weary Vladimir Putin – with whom President Obama has little rapport – will further wedge relations.  Diverging interests will also give room to greater American (namely U.S. Congressional) scrutiny – and in turn Moscow’s anger – of Russia’s managed democracy and the Kremlin’s heavy handed methods in the Caucasus, where, in a vicious cycle, those disenchanted with Russia’s increasingly authoritarian government run on corruption and disregard for the rule of law find a growing voice in Islamic fundamentalism.

In 2009, within a context of enduring conflicts in interests and historical distrust in relations, Presidents Medvedev and Obama “reset” relations by agreeing to disagree on important issues, namely Iran, missile defense, and Georgia, as a means to cooperate on issues of common interest, namely Afghanistan and slashing their strategic nuclear arsenals.  Though the Obama-Medvedev Commission then created has achieved important results in various areas and fostered a positive environment to improve ties, initiatives that have the potential to transform U.S.-Russian relations have yet to emerge.

The “reset” urgently needs a new angle, but any such proposal is unlikely to advance before next year’s U.S. presidential election and hence greater clarity as to whom the Kremlin will be talking with.  Agreement on limiting Russian and NATO conventional forces in Europe is a start, which in turn would facilitate talks on reducing American and Russian tactical nuclear weapons, because if Washington and Moscow can agree that their conventional and nuclear forces do not threaten one another, they will be more inclined to limit them and engage in talks on other pressing issues.  Progress, however, will require trade-offs between U.S. and Russian concessions, including the withdrawal of the small number of American tactical weapons remaining in Europe.

At the same time, cooperation on containing China’s rise and growing regional influence has the potential to transform U.S.-Russian relations beyond the historical pillar of nuclear issues.  Though Washington and Moscow will continue to disagree on important issues, they can agree on leveraging their ties with India and post-Soviet Eurasia, and their increasing mistrust of China, to contain the region’s most important actor of the 21st century.  This shared, broad-based and long-term strategy will attenuate perceptions of conflicting U.S.-Russian Eurasia agendas, draw Moscow’s attention south and eastward to where it is most needed, provide the assurances necessary to induce Russia to reduce its tactical nuclear arsenal, and set the base for greater cooperation on addressing other shared regional concerns.