6 March 2009
US-Russia: Pressing the “Reset” Button
By Gwynne Dyer
Over the past year the United States and Russia have been drifting into a hostile relationship, driven by the US decision to install anti-missile defences in eastern Europe, the war in Georgia last August, and the recent fiasco over Russian natural gas supplies to Europe. There was nervous chatter about a new Cold War, but last month US Vice-President Joe Biden said that the Obama administration was going to “press the reset button” in its relations with Russia. Now it has done it.
At the NATO summit on 5 March, the alliance agreed to resume high-level contacts with Moscow in the NATO-Russia Council, which were suspended after the Georgian war. The following day, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Brussels and gave him a mock reset button. “There was a rather confrontational approach towards Russia in the prior administration,” she explained.
The notion of a new Cold War was pretty silly anyway, since Russia, unlike the old Soviet Union, is not a “peer competitor” to the United States. It has only half America’s population, its former industrial base has largely evaporated, and the only areas in which it is technologically competitive with the rest of the developed world are defence and space.
Even if there were a NATO-Russian confrontation, it would a little local difficulty, not a world-spanning Cold War.
None of the disputes and misunderstandings between Washington and Moscow came from a hostile intent on either side. Take the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defences being built in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Bush administration said that the interceptor missiles and radars of the system were there to intercept nuclear-tipped long-range missiles fired by Iran, and expected the Russians to believe it.
Unsurprisingly, the Russians didn’t believe it, because Iran has neither missiles capable of reaching the United States nor any nuclear warheads to put on them. So Moscow thought the ABM system was really intended to shoot down Russian missiles and thus undermine the country’s ability to deter the United States.
Russia worked itself into such a lather about the ABM missiles that President Dmitry Medvedev announced on the day after Barack Obama’s election victory last November that short-range Russian missiles would be installed in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Polish border, to destroy those American bases on short notice. But the ABM missiles are in the wrong place to intercept Russian ICBMs, and they don’t really work anyway.
They have never worked properly, despite tens of billions of dollars poured into the ABM project (aka “Star Wars”, National Missile Defence, etc.) during the past quarter-century. The sole practical result of the programme, over the whole of its existence, has been to pour money into the pockets of American defence contractors. But the Russians are too paranoid to accept that, and the programme has such strong support in Congress that the Obama administration is merely “reviewing” it, rather than cancelling it outright.
As for the war in Georgia last August, it was Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili who started it, not the Russians. They responded violently to Georgia’s attempt to conquer South Ossetia in a surprise offensive, but they did not stay long in Georgia itself, nor did they seize the capital, Tbilisi, although the road was wide open.
Hillary Clinton still insists that the door is open to Georgian membership in NATO, but that would simply turn it into a two-class alliance. Regardless of what promises they made, NATO countries would never really fight a war with Russia on Georgia’s behalf.
It’s the same with the quarrel between Russia and Ukraine over the price of gas that left half of eastern Europe freezing in their homes last December. There was incompetence and bloody-mindedness aplenty on both sides, but it wasn’t part of some Russian master-plan for world domination.
So it is high time to reset the relationship.
There are belligerent minor players on both sides, but the Obama administration seems to have sent out orders to squelch them. Last week, for example, a couple of Russian bombers flew to within a couple of hundred kilometres (miles) of Canada’s Arctic coast, a mere five thousand kilometres (three thousand miles) from the Canadian capital.
Canada scrambled fighters to “send a strong signal that they should back off and stay out of our airspace,” according to Defence Minister Peter McKay, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper sternly declared that Canada would not be intimidated. “This government has responded every time the Russians have done that,” he said. “We will defend our airspace.” But the Russians were not in Canada’s airspace.
“The Russians have conducted themselves professionally,” responded General Gene Renuart, the American officer who commands NORAD, the Canada-US air defence alliance, in an implicit rebuke to the sabre-rattling Canadians. “They have maintained compliance with the international rules of airspace compliance and have not entered the internal airspace of either country.”
That is probably just what the Obama administration wants from
Russia: a professional relationship between two grown-up countries that know and respect the rules. For a start, Hillary Clinton and Sergei Lavrov committed the two countries to negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) by the end of the year, but more will follow. The tide has turned.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“The notion…War”; and