Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 06:16 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 06:16 | SYDNEY

US-Russia: The new rules


Raoul Heinrichs

9 February 2011 09:51

With all eyes on the Middle East in recent weeks, it's been easy to overlook one of the Obama Administration's few foreign policy achievements to date: the so called 'reset' in relations with Russia. On Saturday, Secretary of State Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov formally activated New START, an arms control treaty limiting the number of strategic nuclear warheads, launchers and heavy bombers in Russian and American arsenals.

This agreement, though hard fought, will have a negligible impact on the nuclear balance between the two powers. Cuts to the arsenals will affect only excess nuclear capacity – that is, weapons that are superfluous to a stable balance of terror and which, as Winston Churchill put it, serve little purpose other than to 'make the rubble bounce'.

As a result, Washington and Moscow will retain massive nuclear arsenals, far greater than those possessed by any other nuclear power, including China, and more than sufficient to maintain a credible threat of destruction against any and all potential competitors – with plenty in reserve.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that New START has no political value. While it will not  affect the nuclear order, it is, much like the recent US-India nuclear agreement, important for its political symbolism. In particular, it reflects Washington's renewed recognition of Moscow as a nuclear peer, a legitimate great power, and a country with which it must deal respectfully and on the basis of equality.

Moreover, the treaty is the only formal element of a more profound but implicit corrective in US foreign policy designed to concede to Moscow a limited sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, which, before Russia put its foot down by invading Georgia in 2008, was at risk of being irrevocably undermined, both morally and materially, by the expansion of NATO and placement of advanced missile-defence infrastructure into Eastern Europe.

The story of US overextension in eastern Europe, like so many American mistakes, stems in large part from the pervasive triumphalism that grew out of the end of the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin wall, the end of the Warsaw Pact, Germany's unification and the sudden disintegration of the Soviet Union at once crippled Russia and emboldened NATO, propelling it eastward with the wind of a new ideological convergence behind it.

For Washington’s liberals, power politics was over. The expansion of NATO was the natural outgrowth of a new strategy that emphasised the provision of universal public goods – democracy, human rights, strategic stability and open markets – which were mistakenly assumed to accord with everyone's interests and desires, including Russia's. For realists, the analysis was different but the prescriptions were the same. Expanding NATO was about encircling a weakened Russia, consolidating US primacy and establishing a permanent and unambiguous hierarchy that would leave Moscow in no uncertain terms about the consequences of renewed adventurism.

Despite this, Russia is back – its return to power politics fueled in part by the indignities of the past two decades – and these policies are no longer tenable. In the near term, Washington needs Russia's acquiescence, if not active cooperation, on Iran and Afghanistan. Over longer time frames, as China and Iran manifest hegemonic challenges of their own, Washington needs above all to avoid being drawn into another costly and escalating strategic competition in Europe, which would divert resources from other, more salient challenges.

Whether Obama has done enough to satisfy Moscow, and how much further Washington will have to go, remains unclear. What is clear is that NATO will not be expanding further (indeed, there are serious doubts about whether it has the stomach to honour its extensive commitments as it is), missile defence in Poland and the Czech Republic has been canned, and Moscow has reasserted its dominance over the Ukraine and Georgia.

The 'Russian reset' may have been sealed with an arms control deal, but this unspoken accommodation is what it's all about.

Photo by Flickr user Amio Cajander.