The world does not hold its breath during US-Russia summits as it did in the days of Kennedy and Khrushchev or Reagan and Gorbachev. But they are still important moments of (mostly choreographed) dialogue. Without Moscow’s co-operation, Barack Obama will find it far harder to make progress in Afghanistan or in his diplomatic strategy to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. On top of this, Russia still has the capacity to create huge problems in Eastern Europe and Central Asia for the United States. It must be prevented from becoming a more chauvinist and aggressive power — otherwise Washington will be forced to choose between conflict and breaking its promises to the fledging democracies on Russia’s borders.
At the end of the Cold War, there was a moment — briefly — when both the Soviet Union and the United States could claim (at least to their own peoples) that they had triumphed by ending it peacefully. But the break-up of the USSR and the economic disasters of the 1990s dashed that illusory symmetry. Instead, Russia smarted at its humiliation. In only seven years, it had been relegated from superpower to mendicant nation bailed out by the IMF. Nato’s bombing of Serbia was a brutal demonstration that Russia could not even prevent military action against one of its historic allies in its ‘near-abroad’.
Much of Vladimir Putin’s political success has reflected his deft capacity to tap that resentment — leading, in turn, to the unproductive revival of a Cold War adversarial mindset. For instance, Russia, despite the modest progress made by Obama and Medvedev this week, remains extremely hostile to America’s plan for a missile defence shield with bases in Eastern Europe, viewing the shield as an attempt to allow Washington to strike without fear of retaliation. But this is absurd. A missile defence shield is essentially useless against any sizable nuclear arsenal. As an established nuclear power, Russia has an equally strong interest in the development of defences against nuclear attack from rogue states.
To be clear: there have been some positive signs at this summit. Both sides have agreed to reduce significantly their number of nuclear weapons and launchers. This should build confidence; even if it is hard to see what practical good it does as both countries still have the capacity to blow each other up many times over. Moscow’s decision to allow the US over-flight rights to resupply its forces in Afghanistan is encouraging evidence of a willingness not to view the relationship as a zero sum game and to recognise that both countries have a common interest in stability in Central and South Asia, and elsewhere.
But we should also acknowledge that there are other areas where the interests of Russia and the West are presently at odds. Russia wants to re-establish a sphere of influence in its near-abroad, to have a veto over the security arrangements of its neighbours. The West is rightly committed to the principle that sovereign, democratic governments have a right to make their own arrangements for their defence. The West wants to promote freedom and democracy. Moscow does not. It was no coincidence that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was warmly welcomed in Russia straight after Iran’s rigged elections.
On Iran generally, our aims are not aligned. The West wants to see Iran abandon its nuclear programme and become, by stages, a full member of the international community. Russia has no desire to see Iran emerge as an alternative gas supplier to Europe, something that would happen if Iran were to stop being a global pariah.
Real progress in relations between Russia and the West will only come about when Moscow abandons Cold War ways of thinking (although Obama’s own emphasis on a nuclear-free world suggests that he hasn’t entirely jettisoned his own Carter-style baggage). For that reason, it remains in the interests of the United States to continue to promote greater openness in Russia, however this strategy may be viewed by the current regime in Moscow. A more liberal Russia will be one more liberated from its past.