Hope springs eternal: time for a reset with Russia?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Whenever a new US administration takes over in Washington, among the first foreign policy issues to appear on the agenda is whether it is time for a reset with Russia. Samuel Johnson famously described second marriages as the “triumph of hope over experience”. It is similar with Russia’s relations with the West. Despite all the disappointments of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine, its interference in Syria and Libya, its violations of arms control agreements and its cyber and disinformation campaigns, many Western policymakers remember a time in the 1990s when Russia cooperated with the US and its European allies.

In the years of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, the Berlin Wall came down and Russia withdrew its forces from Central and Eastern Europe. It concluded sweeping arms control agreements, joined the West in opposing Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait and pulled the Kremlin’s support for national liberation movements across Africa and Latin America. For a while the NATO-Russia Council seemed to bring the old adversaries together. Russia sent a naval infantry battalion to join the NATO IFOR stabilisation force in Bosnia, helped the alliance with logistics and transport links in Afghanistan and the patrolling of airspace over Europe and joined NATO exercises in the Mediterranean. All this activity gave the lie to those pundits who argued that Russians were incapable of embracing democracy and that Russia’s imperial past would make it impossible for it to be a reliable partner in a new European security system.

Harking back to this happier time, the West has long hoped for a periodic reset in its relations with Russia. Yet, it has seen a strategic interest in preventing Russia from growing closer to China, working with Moscow on the Iran and North Korea nuclear files and exchanging intelligence on Islamist terrorist groups. The hope was that over time this cooperation on global challenges would improve the atmosphere between the West and Russia, making it easier for NATO to placate the Kremlin’s anger over the alliance’s enlargement to the former communist countries in Eastern Europe or its military interventions in the Balkans.

If the reset comes from the Russian side, will it have a greater chance of success?

At the beginning of the Obama administration, the then secretary of state Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a red reset button, unfortunately mistranslating the word into Russian. At the beginning of the Trump administration, the new president stated that it would be better for everyone if the US and Russia could get along. He invested heavily in one-on-one summitry with President Putin in hopes that personal diplomacy could achieve an instant breakthrough in a way that painstaking negotiations by his diplomats in the State Department had not.

Unsurprisingly, waving the magic wand of reset soon proved an illusion. Clinton became Putin’s most hated adversary on account of her support for the Russian democracy movement and colour revolutions in Russia’s neighbouring states. Despite Trump always indulging Putin personally, his administration also ended on a sour note with Russia. The US pulled out of arms control agreements alleging Russian violations, beefed up NATO’s defences in Eastern Europe, slapped sanctions on Russian companies, banks and oligarchs and lobbied hard to stop Germany from building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to bring more Russian energy to Europe. The Trump Pentagon even bombed Russian forces in northern Syria and Congress pressured the administration over reports of Russia paying bounties to the Taliban to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan.

The top security issue in the closing days of the Trump presidency was a severe cyber-attack on the US Treasury and other government departments via the management software of the US company, Solar Winds. Trump pointed the finger at China but the consensus among the US intelligence services was to blame Russian state hackers. The growing focus on China obscured the fact that Trump achieved even less with Russia than his predecessor, President Obama. The latter at least secured the Kremlin’s cooperation in concluding the New START nuclear arms control agreement, putting pressure on Iran to limit its nuclear processing activities and avoiding a Russian veto in the UN Security Council in 2011 when the US participated in NATO air strikes against the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

Given these inauspicious precedents it is not surprising that the new Biden administration has avoided any suggestion of another reset with Russia. The Biden foreign policy team contains a number of old Russia hands who are unlikely to believe in any major inflexion in the Kremlin’s stance towards the West while Putin remains in power. Last year the Russian president changed the constitution, enabling him to stay in the Kremlin potentially until the mid-2030s. Indeed, the presumption is that the Biden administration will be tough on Russia, having already demonstrated this by condemning the Kremlin’s arrest of opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, and crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in a number of Russian cities. Interestingly, at a time when we could anticipate US-Russia relations entering a new Ice Age, it is the Kremlin which is extending the hand of detente. The Kremlin spokesman, Dimitri Peshkov, has called for talks to settle differences. If the reset comes from the Russian side, will it have a greater chance of success?

What should be the objectives and the message of the Western allies?

Russia is too big to be ignored and channels of communication must be kept open if only so that Russia does not underestimate the West’s unity and resolve and subsequently miscalculate its actions. It is encouraging that President Biden has already spoken to Putin frankly and directly about the irritants in the bilateral relationship. This may indeed be a good time to press the Kremlin more forcefully as it may now have an interest in an easing of tensions. The Russian economy is underperforming and the cost of propping up unsavoury allies like Assad or General Hafter in Libya is increasing. Russia can ride out asset freezes or travel bans against individual oligarchs, but a more comprehensive set of US and EU sanctions, such as restricting its access to financial markets, investments and technology, in response to the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare activities or human rights repression would certainly bite deeper. So, if Russia is now ready for a serious dialogue, what should be the objectives and the message of the Western allies? We know that they need to have realistic expectations and certainly avoid conveying a willingness to strike deals at any price. Unity and perseverance over time have always been the prerequisites for negotiating with the Kremlin. Yet, this said, what should be the West’s priorities? I see four.

The first is to insist that Russia gives up state-organised criminal behaviour, otherwise known as hybrid warfare. Of course, the Kremlin always denies its implication in this kind of activity and ridicules Western accusations as anti-Russian propaganda. Yet the evidence of its involvement has piled up from Western intelligence agencies over the years and the Kremlin frequently makes little effort to cover its tracks. The message has to be that the transatlantic allies will name and shame the perpetrators and impose harsher penalties. They should also publicise more evidence of the involvement of the Russian leadership in this activity and indicate a willingness to move against Russian networks of influence in financial and stock markets, the media and political parties and Moscow-financed NGOs. In their dialogue with the social media companies, Western governments need to explore methods to unmask Russian trolls, identify the circulation of fake or stolen material in the form of disinformation campaigns, and ensure bogus material is either labelled as lies and propaganda or removed from such platforms altogether.

Of course, these countermeasures have to go hand in hand with efforts by the transatlantic allies to identify their own vulnerabilities and increase their resilience. Treating an attack on one as an attack on all, as NATO does for a military aggression under Article 5 of its treaty, would be a good principle to follow. After the Salisbury Novichok incident, the NATO and EU member states took collective action in expelling hundreds of Russian diplomats. This seriously depleted Russian intelligence gathering and made the Kremlin pay a much higher price than it was anticipating. So, NATO and the EU could produce a joint list of those hostile activities which could give rise to collective responses and sanctions, for instance, interference in elections, support for terrorism, targeted assassinations, use of chemical agents, destructive cyber-attacks and so on. The aim would be to turn a form of behaviour that the Kremlin has seen as low-cost and high-gain into precisely the opposite.

Both sides have something to offer the other in order to restart the arms control process

The next area is arms control. One of the main objectives of Biden’s call to Putin was to confirm US willingness to extend the New START treaty for a further five years, as the treaty is due to expire in just one weeks’ time. The Trump administration had been dragging its feet on this issue, looking for only a one-year extension and a new mandate for nuclear negotiations to include shorter range missiles, lower yield warheads and, above all, the inclusion of China as it builds up its own nuclear force. From a long-term strategic perspective, Trump was not wrong to formulate these objectives, but the perfect was the enemy of the good. Trump would have thrown away a treaty that limits Russia to 1,550 deployed warheads and provides for 19 different means of verification for a new mandate that might never have been agreed, especially given China’s refusal to join the talks. So, the US agreement to extend New START unconditionally offers a breathing space for the detailed diplomatic work on a new, more extensive mandate.

At the same time, the US and NATO allies can discuss how now-abandoned arms control treaties can be resurrected. Key planks of the post-Cold War security architecture between Russia and the West have either disappeared or been eviscerated. It is probably not possible to go back to these treaties as Russia is unlikely to own up to the violations that caused their demise, but ways have to be found to deal with the threats that they covered, adjusted to today’s different geographical and strategic circumstances.

Biden and Putin have agreed to resume US-Russia Strategic Stability Talks and this is the right high-level and expert forum where new negotiating objectives and mandates can be agreed. The US will obviously need to consult closely with the allies in the North Atlantic Council to generate a common stance, especially given that conventional forces and open skies involve all allies and that the US-Russia nuclear balance both in Europe and at the global level is the lynchpin of NATO’s deterrence. The NATO-Russia Council, which has rarely met since Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014, can be reactivated to serve as a venue to discuss and resolve compliance and verification issues. Looking ahead, both sides have something to offer the other in order to restart the arms control process. The NATO allies want better transparency and restraints on Russia’s missile deployments in Kaliningrad, while Russia wants assurances that US radars and missile defence interceptors in Turkey, Romania and Poland cannot be used for strikes against Russian targets. Both sides want better oversight over each other’s military activities in space. They also seek more transparency regarding exercises, flight paths and new military deployments. So, there are possible trade-offs to bring Russia and NATO back to the table.

Beyond the bilateral issues, Russia and the West could work together to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at this summer’s review conference in New York. They both rely on nuclear deterrence and thus face a common challenge from the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty which entered into force at the United Nations just last week. In order to withstand mounting pressures to delegitimise nuclear weapons and aim for universal disarmament, they have an interest in demonstrating that the step-by-step, verifiable NPT approach is a more realistic and viable option. As the Biden administration says that it wants to return to the Iran nuclear deal, if Iran comes back into compliance, Russia has an interest in helping the US there too by putting pressure on Iran. It would certainly bolster Putin’s non-proliferation credentials.

Russian cooperation will not work for every regional conflict but it may work for some

A third area is conflict resolution. Putin has stepped up Russian activism not only in the ‘near abroad’ of the former Soviet Union but also in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic, partly by sending regular Russian forces and partly by using mercenaries. These interventions have helped keep Russia’s allies in their palaces and in control of their territories, but they have done little to solve the underlying problems and construct political settlements acceptable to all the conflict parties. Yet, political frameworks exist to move diplomacy and conflict resolution forward. The UN Special Envoy for Libya has negotiated a ceasefire, a withdrawal of foreign forces (not so far complied with) and a national consultation forum to select a new government and move Libya towards elections next December. In Syria, the UN has also been trying, so far fruitlessly, to bring Assad and the non-extremist opposition together to draft a new constitution and an interim government with Assad departing before elections. The US should push Russia harder to support this UN-led effort rather than set up parallel processes.

In Afghanistan, the US has drawn down to 2,500 troops and launched peace talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban. In the past Russia has cooperated with the US and NATO in Afghanistan as it shares fears of the spread of Islamist extremism to its own southern provinces. So, the US can test Russia’s readiness to pressure the Taliban to agree to a credible power sharing agreement with President Ghani. Solving what have been called ‘endless wars’ will not be easy but the Kremlin often declares that it wants to achieve a political solution, albeit one that favours its proxies and allies on the ground. Russian cooperation will not work for every regional conflict but it may work for some. The key precondition will be that the US also demonstrates its readiness to re-engage in the diplomacy of conflict resolution.

The art of diplomacy is to exploit openings no matter how narrow

Finally, it is worth returning briefly to cyber activity. It has been mentioned as part of Russia’s hybrid warfare tactics but it has a special status. This is because it is arguably the biggest irritant in the US-Russia relationship. Large-scale Russian cyber-attacks energise Congress, the Pentagon, US government departments and agencies, the intelligence community and business. Recovering from cyber-attacks can cost the government and business billions of dollars. Media coverage is intense and rogue cyber activity can rapidly blacken Russia’s image in the US, quickly lead to sanctions and retaliatory cyber-attacks, thus limiting room for US diplomats to manoeuvre and attempt to improve relations with Russia. It might be useful for the Biden administration to try to negotiate an agreement with Russia on responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. Such an agreement could outlaw certain targets, such as critical civilian infrastructure, businesses and hospitals, and provide for better cooperation over investigations. Of course, a negotiated package of cyber confidence-building measures would never work perfectly with Russia given its past behaviour, but it would be a tool to hold Russia to account, decide on penalties and facilitate the indictment of individuals found to be behind the cyber-attacks. The Obama administration negotiated a cyber restraint agreement with China. It is worth a similar effort with Russia.

In conclusion, it is doubtful diplomats are looking forward to yet another round of arduous negotiations with the Kremlin and the long-serving Sergei Lavrov. Yet, the art of diplomacy is to exploit openings no matter how narrow. So, let us studiously avoid grandiose talk of resets, keep expectations low and give it a try based on a clear sense of our own security needs and interests. Moreover, we need to look at issues on their own individual merits rather than hope that we can transform Russia in the process and turn it into a friendly partner. As said, only the Russian people can do that. Before Western diplomats sit down for the talks, they need to resolve divisions that Russia can drive wedges into. This is particularly the case with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project and Turkey’s purchases of Russian military equipment. Germany and Turkey may not be forced to give up these procurements but they should give guarantees that they will not increase their dependency on Russia and subsequently diversify their supplies in future.

After all it was the unity of the West that finally brought us glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. That particular Russian revolution did not ultimately produce the democratic transformation that we hoped for, but it reminds us that Putin’s Russia is not the only model for modern Russia. There are more democratic alternatives and while we must focus inevitably on dealing with the Russia that is in the immediate future and constraining its hostile behaviour, we should never lose hope in those elements within Russian society that want to move the country in a more peaceful and less authoritarian direction.

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