Joseph Ferguson is vice president at the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research. He was previously a visiting fellow at Princeton University. Before that he served as director of Northeast Asia Studies at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Previously, he was a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. and a visiting Fulbright fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations. He received a Monbusho Fellowship from the Japanese government to research Japanese-Russian relations in Tokyo. From 1995-99, he worked as an analyst with the Strategic Assessment Center of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) in McLean, VA. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from SAIS, and a B.A. from Pomona College.
Articles by Joseph Ferguson
The last quarter of 2009 proved to be a quiet one for US-Russia relations. Although there were no major bilateral rifts, several issues continue to fester, including the impasse over the Iranian nuclear program. The biggest disappointment, however, may have been the failure to reach an agreement on the replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that expired on Dec. 5. Negotiations are set to resume in January, but end-of-year remarks by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin about the dangers of the US ballistic missile defense system threaten to throw a wrench into the discussions. Meanwhile, the long-awaited East Siberian oil pipeline destined for Asian markets has finally come on line.
U.S.-Russia relations began the quarter with an informal, yet cordial summit in Moscow in early July. The two presidents met again in New York and Pittsburgh in late September and agreed to push forward a number of agreements, most notably covering arms control and cooperation in Afghanistan. The two also appeared to agree that the incipient Iranian nuclear program needs urgent attention. In what some viewed as a huge concession from Washington, the Obama administration announced prior to the Pittsburgh G20 meeting that it was scrapping a controversial missile defense system that was due to break ground soon in Poland and the Czech Republic. This move, combined with vague Russian promises of support for sanctions against the newly emboldened Iranian regime, gave observers hope that relations could find a common strategic footing. Nevertheless, optimism surrounding U.S.-Russia relations is strictly cautious, as major areas of disagreement still remain, including most notably Moscow’s hostile relationship with the governments of Georgia and Ukraine.
President Barack Obama traveled to Moscow in early July to meet the Russian leadership, the political diarchy of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The meetings were conducted in a cordial atmosphere, but this particular summit stood out from summits of the past two decades between U.S. and Russian leaders: there was no backslapping camaraderie or use of first names. Obama conducted the visit with a minimum of pomp and a maximum of professionalism. His job was to assess the state of U.S.-Russian relations, assess the leadership situation in Russia, and to decide on the best path to improve bilateral relations. Although most of the headlines stated that the results of the summit were “mixed,” Obama seems to have achieved what he wanted and laid the groundwork for achieving normalcy in relations for the next six months or so. The most pressing issues, however, remain unresolved, and it is not clear if progress can be sustained beyond the end of the year.
The bilateral dialogue in the first quarter of the year was cordial, if somewhat distant. The administration of President Barack Obama sent clear and positive signals to the Kremlin. At times President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reciprocated with positive language; at times Moscow’s negative rhetoric reappeared. Clearly the Russian leadership has been making a cautious assessment of the new U.S. leader. Optimism was again evident at the London meeting between Obama and Medvedev on the eve of the G20 summit on global economic issues. In London, the two leaders pledged cooperation on a variety of issues, centering on arms control. There has been nothing positive in the bilateral relationship to report since last April when then-President George W. Bush visited then-President Putin at Sochi. Since that time, the relationship has plunged to depths unseen since the Cold War. Although many observers wish to see progress (and have come to forecast it), there is clearly much work to be done to repair the rift that has developed over the past six years.
As documented in this chapter during the last quarter (and over the last several years), U.S.-Russian relations have deteriorated to post-Cold War lows. Given the number of distractions over the last few months, relations stabilized somewhat in that the usual number of caustic barbs hurled across the oceans was limited. The leaders of the two nations are increasingly preoccupied with finding solutions to the economic ills affecting their respective nations and the entire world. As the Obama administration comes to office there seems to be a determination to reestablish a working relationship with the Kremlin, something that was obviously lacking during the August crisis when Russian troops invaded Georgia. President-elect Obama and future Cabinet members – as well as members of Congress – have publicly stated the need to recalibrate relations with Russia, starting with arms control.
Throughout the spring and early summer it seemed that U.S.-Russia relations could sink no further. Ill will beset the relationship. Heated discussions were carried out almost weekly on issues such as missile defense, Iran’s nuclear program, Iraq, energy nationalism, and perhaps most significantly, NATO expansion. At one point, Vladimir Putin compared the U.S. to a “frightening monster,” while Senator (and Republican presidential nominee) John McCain called for Russia’s eviction from the G8. In August, the worsening situation came to a head when Russian troops invaded and occupied South Ossetia (a Georgian Province), and launched attacks on other Georgian cities. The U.S. reaction was swift: condemnation, followed by the transport home of Georgian combat troops deployed in Iraq, the ferrying of supplies to Georgian ports by U.S. warships, the extension of $1 billion in aid, and the deployment of a small contingent of U.S. troops for “humanitarian” missions in Georgia. But some feel the response was not enough. The reaction did nothing to cow Moscow. By the end of August, Russia had asserted de facto control of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia and had recognized both as independent nations. Meanwhile the U.S. turned inward to deal with its financial crisis, leaving relations with Moscow on the backburner – at least temporarily.
At the conclusion of the final summit meeting between Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin at the Russian resort of Sochi in early April, relations between Moscow and Washington appeared to have righted themselves. The cordial meeting between the outgoing presidents left a sense of optimism in both Moscow and in the West that U.S.-Russia relations would improve until at least the fall presidential elections in the United States. Things have quieted down between the two nations over the last quarter, as the leadership of both countries has gone about business at home and has lessened (though not ceased) the often-negative rhetoric. But when the summer concludes, Russia will again loom large in U.S. political debates, and the big questions of U.S. foreign policy – whether they revolve around Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Northeast Asia, or even Venezuela – will necessarily include Russia policy. And as President Dmitry Medvedev unveils his own version of “sovereign democracy,” U.S. foreign policymakers will be forced to address the fundamental question of whether U.S. policy toward Moscow is centered on its strategic interests, or on democratic values.
As even the most casual of observers knows, the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship has deteriorated steadily over the past five years. Signs seemed to point to this past quarter as the culmination of the confrontation between Moscow and Washington, with a number of key events scheduled to occur: a Kosovar declaration of independence, further NATO expansion, the Russian presidential election, and a 2+2 meeting focused on the controversial missile defense system in Eastern Europe. But as the quarter ended with an unexpected, yet cordial summit meeting between Presidents Bush and Putin in Sochi, the relationship seemed to have weathered the cold winter and spring seems to have brought a harbinger of better relations – at least until the U.S. presidential election in November.
Now that the world is finally coming around to understanding the man Vladimir Putin and what it is he represents, he appears to be stepping down – sort of. In December, Putin named his preferred successor, longtime aide and fellow Petersburger Dmitri Medvedev. While George Bush proclaims to have understood Putin after their first meeting in 2001, most Russia observers in the U.S. have been arguing over Putin and what his government represents for the better part of eight years. Does he represent a true change for Russia (a democratic change for the better) or is he steering that nation back to more historically familiar, repressive patterns? Now that the Kremlin has come forward with its own explanation, and has been bandying about the term “sovereign democracy,” the question of what Putin and the Kremlin represent is no longer hard to decipher. Russia has chosen a path that is by no means unique: a mercantilist, authoritarian form of democratic government that is very familiar to Asia watchers. What is becoming apparent is that, if anything, the U.S. form of democracy is the unique model, difficult to copy and long in development. Russia and other infant democracies may arrive one day, but “sovereign democracy” is here for the time being in Russia.
Meanwhile, the designation of Medvedev as the preferred successor to the presidency could be seen as a plus for the U.S. Many leading Western analysts view him as an economic liberal; most importantly, he has no known background in the intelligence or the security services. But the fact that he is a relative political lightweight leaves the door open for the return of Putin, or his retention of power as the kingmaker behind closed doors, or even as prime minister.
Any casual observer of the U.S. and Russia recognizes the deterioration of relations since the beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003. Until recently, this entailed diplomatic lectures, energy nationalism, spying, Great Game politics in Central Asia, and a worsening opinion of one another among the general publics of both nations. This past quarter saw the re-emergence of something not seen since the days of the Cold War: military posturing. This has taken the form of military exercises, increased military expenditures, a re-emphasis on arms exports, a race to claim territory, and actual “meetings” of armed personnel in the skies and in the sea lanes around the Eurasian periphery. The primary points of contention that have existed since 2003 continue to harm relations (Iraq, Iran, the former Yugoslavia, and missile defense, among others), but now Moscow has taken the next step in reasserting itself as a global power: bolstering its long-beleaguered defense establishment.