From Afghanistan and Central Asia to the Asia-Pacific, there are a number of geopolitical flash points that could become the basis for a new, more cooperative agenda for the U.S. and Russia.
U.S. Army soldiers prepare to board a C-130 aircraft at the army base flightline in Bagram, Afghanistan, for redeployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Photo: AP
The postponement of a full-fledged bilateral summit between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama in early September and aggravation of the U.S.-Russian diplomatic clash over Syria has triggered a new round of fateful speculation about the gloomy prospects of U.S.-Russia bilateral relations.
It has become commonplace to claim that their mutual agenda is waning, and that the sides have almost nothing to talk about.
Indeed, the decision to postpone the bilateral summit to an uncertain future date was caused by the lack of progress on the two issues prevailing in the U.S.-Russia agenda today: nuclear arms reduction, and arms control in general, and Syria.
There is also a lack of new achievements on another issue essential for U.S.-Russia relations, which has been one of the major pillars of their positive agenda since 2009 – the issue of transit to and from Afghanistan for the U.S. via Russian territory.
The idea to expand this link by establishing a new transit center in Russia’s Ulyanovsk has not materialized so far; and the U.S. is making it clear that it is unwilling to increase its dependence on Russian transit.
This is quite an alarming signal, because, since 2009, the U.S. dependence on Russia for Afghan transit was one of the most important factors that encouraged the Obama Administration to improve relations with Russia.
However, in no way does it mean that Russia and the U.S. now have less or almost nothing to discuss and do together. Rather, it means that the old, artificial agenda of U.S.-Russia relations has finally and unequivocally proved unworkable and unsuitable. As a result, Washington and Moscow have again found themselves at the crossroads.
They can either overcome bureaucratic and cognitive inertia and opt for a new agenda for the relationship, or doom their relations for a new period of stagnation and a new deterioration and crisis in a couple of years.
Russia, US in search of a new positive agenda
The only thing Moscow and Washington need to realize today is that they have indeed been going in the wrong direction – not that they physically cannot go together, as some observers wrongly claim these days.
In fact, there are broad opportunities for U.S.-Russia cooperation in today’s world on both global and regional issues. Over time, the number and importance of these issues will only grow.
Both Russia and the U.S. are declining centers of power and are concerned with the consequences of the rise of China. They both are interested in preventing geopolitical polarization in the Asia-Pacific region and a fundamental shift in the world in a peaceful direction.
Moscow and Washington: Nothing to talk about? Photo: AP
They both are not interested in Afghanistan sliding into chaos after International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) withdraws from the country in 2014. This would bring sharply negative consequences for Central Asia, as well as a comprehensive degradation in the situation of the countries of the greater Middle East touched by the “Arab Spring”, and in general, the deterioration of the situation in the region.
Afghanistan and Central Asia
The most pressing area for U.S.-Russian cooperation, where it is necessary immediately, is Afghanistan and Central Asia. The choice is very simple: either the two sides start to cooperate on the future of Afghanistan and contribute to the stabilization of the situation in the region or they stick to their current strategies, and thus, contribute to the accelerating deterioration of the country and the region in general. Such a deterioration would lay the groundwork for the region becoming a new contested region in the U.S.-Russian geopolitical rivalry at the edges of the former Soviet Union.
So it is either a win for the region and for U.S.-Russia relations, or a loss for both.
The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, and with the ISAF withdrawal in 2014, the civil war is likely to intensify. This can resonate with the domestic sources of instability in Central Asia, where the situation is also far from stable. The result would be to throw the whole region into chaos.
Neither Russia, nor the U.S., can cope with this on their own. Rather, what’s needed is a coordinated cooperative effort involving all the regional actors (Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran) and the U.S.
Pakistani behavior (today it acts as the major impediment for Afghani stability by supporting the Taliban and other Islamic radicals) could be changed easier if its main patron in the region – China – is included in the multilateral cooperative efforts, together with the U.S. and Russia.
Participation by China would be also crucial for at least a relative relaxation of the U.S.-Chinese geopolitical rivalry. It would alleviate Chinese concerns that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is part of an “encircling China” strategy.
Unfortunately at the current moment, the strategies of the key players in resolving the Afghanistan problem, including Russia and the U.S., diverge. The closer is the end of 2014, the less compatible they are.
Despite official recognition that, beginning in 2015, the regional, not external, players must take the lead in stabilizing Afghanistan, the U.S. fails to coordinate its policies on the country with key regional players – Russia and China – and pursues its policies in a way that raises their concerns.
Washington even rejects discussing its plans to leave several heavily armed military bases in Afghanistan beyond 2014, not to mention, any plans to multi-lateralize decision-making on the provision of security in the country in that time.
The U.S. tries to facilitate security, economic and counter-narcotics cooperation between Afghanistan and Central Asian countries, but finds minor, if any, role in these plans for Russia, China and Russia-led regional institutions (CSTO, EurAsEc). It also promotes independent cooperative projects for the region – those that center on the U.S., but exclude Russia and China.
In turn, Russia is critical of every important aspect of the U.S. security, economic and counter-narcotics policy towards Afghanistan beyond 2014. Russia expresses concern about U.S. plans to preserve a permanent military presence in the country, as well as to facilitate its economic and counter-narcotics cooperation with the Central Asian states without Russian participation.
In Moscow’s eyes, the U.S. intends to use its long-term bases in Afghanistan to project geopolitical influence into Central Asia, thus reducing the Russian influence there.
U.S.-Russian geopolitical rivalry in the region could aggravate U.S.-Russia relations even further and almost guarantee comprehensive regional destabilization.
China is even more openly hostile to the intention by the U.S. to preserve its military presence in Afghanistan and to its policies in the region in general. Beijing thinks it is a part of the U.S. policy of encircling China, and thus demands the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. much stronger, than Russia does. At he same time, any alternative strategy of contributing to Afghani security and development is absent.
For the sake of U.S.-Russia and U.S.-Chinese relations, and even more so for the sake of security and credibility of Moscow and Washington, this dynamic should be averted immediately.
To avert regional destabilization and further deterioration of relations, a dialogue and multilateral partnership between Russia, the U.S. and China must be established before the ISAF troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan.
This trilateral partnership is the only way to impact Pakistani behavior and thus cut the support it currently offers to the Taliban and other Islamic radicals. It is the only way to make a potential long-term U.S. military presence in the country legitimate and acceptable for the region’s great powers.
It is also the only effective way to increase economic relations between Afghanistan and Central Asian countries without angering Russia and China. Instead, the latter could actively contribute to the process.
Finally, this Russian-U.S.-Chinese trilateral partnership could establish a multilateral counter-narcotics task force, making cooperation between Afghani and Central Asian officials effective and productive. The sides could even go as far as making stabilization of Afghanistan an official mission of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), simultaneously granting the U.S. observer status in the institution.
Neither Washington, nor Moscow want Russia to be "a junior ally" of China. Photo: Reuters
Whereas Afghanistan demands U.S.-Russian cooperation in the short-term, an area where their cooperation is desirable from a long-term strategic viewpoint is Asia-Pacific. The region has become a center of gravity of the global economy and international politics, and both the U.S. and Russia have proclaimed their “pivots” to Asia-Pacific.
Still, the sides simply do not see eye-to-eye in the region. So far the U.S. strategy towards Asia-Pacific, in its both military-political and economic components, finds no place for Russia.
In turn, Russia, at least officially, does not prescribe any role for the U.S. in the major component of the Russian “pivot” – the development of Siberia and the Far East. Russia also raises concerns about some aspects of the U.S. policy in the region in general, thus aligning itself with China.
These policies are contrary to the fact that Russia and the U.S. share objective common interests in the region, while serious contradictions between them in the Asia-Pacific are absent. For instance, both are not interested in Chinese foreign policy becoming increasingly assertive or even aggressive, or the region itself becoming increasingly polarized.
A scenario of Russia becoming a “junior ally” of China is a nightmare for both Washington and Moscow. Finally, it is neither in the Russian, nor in the U.S. interest, if China becomes the dominant external partner in developing Siberia and the Far East.
This establishes the basis for potential – and highly desirable - U.S.-Russian cooperation in the region. As with Afghanistan, it should not be strictly bilateral, but should involve China as a trilateral partnership.
First, the sides should establish an active strategic dialogue on the geopolitical evolution of Asia-Pacific, including the consequences of the rise of China. They should work towards Russia’s political and military integration into the region as an independent power center – independent from both U.S. and China, but sustaining partner relations with both of them.
Thus, Moscow could become a balancing force, capable of preventing the region’s negative polarization. This would require sharp increase of cooperative projects (such as joint military exercises, diplomatic efforts, etc.) between Russia, the U.S. and American allies in the region, as well as improvement of Russia’s relations with some of them, such as Japan.
It is vital that simultaneously Russia sustains a strategic partnership with China and makes it clear that its increased cooperation with the U.S. is not at all its participation in a “containment” and “encirclement” China’s strategy.
Managing the North Korean nuclear problem should be part of this strategic dialogue with a tripartite U.S.-Russian-Chinese core.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, discussing strategic plans with military personnel. Photo: Reuters
Second, Russia should pursue an active dialogue with the U.S. on economic development and modernization of Siberia and Far East. It is in the Russian interest to avoid Chinese economic dominance in its underdeveloped eastern province and diversify its foreign economic presence there.
Among the most attractive sectors for investment - apart from energy resources and raw materials - are the agriculture and water industries. Among other things, this seems like one of the few ways to establish strong U.S.-Russian economic ties.
The greater Middle East is another region, where U.S.-Russian cooperation is desirable and possible. Despite the current contradictions over Syria and different assessment of the “Arab Spring,” the two sides share long-term interests in preventing the region’s sliding into chaos, preventing radical Islamists from coming to power, opposing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), fighting transnational Jihadist terrorism, and preventing and resolving conflicts.
Developments in Libya, Tunisia and especially in Egypt, where a democratically elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the military, clearly show that the “Arab Spring” is heading in a direction very far from what the U.S. has been talking about – freedom, democracy, moderate Islam, etc.
Now it is clear that the U.S. policy of supporting revolutionary forces with simultaneous attempts to shape them in a way more appropriate for Washington is failing. In a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Syria, where rebels swarm with Sunni radicals, including Al-Qaeda participants, this policy could lead to even more devastating results.
Thus, it is high time for the U.S. and Russia to engage in a serious dialogue about the strategic future of the greater Middle East and how to make regional development more manageable and less dangerous. More cooperation is needed in the U.N. Security Council. Greater intelligence collaboration is desirable for more effective anti-terror cooperation.
Human rights activists in the U.S. condemn the ongoing clashes between Egyptian civilians and military and police. Photo: Reuters
Finally, there is no better way to counter nuclear proliferation in the region than for the U.S. and Russia to act jointly. They can exert pressure on acting (Iran) and potential (Saudi Arabia) proliferators and, even more importantly, offer joint nuclear security guarantees to all nuclear-free states of the region, as well as to Israel in exchange for elimination of its nuclear arsenal and to Iran in exchange for its rejection of its military nuclear program.
This means that Russia and the U.S. would be obliged to commit a nuclear strike against any country that attacks the “nuclear guaranteed” states with nuclear weapons. These guarantees would not just constitute security of the greater Middle East countries, but could make the basis for regional security architecture, which is currently absent.
Other possible areas of US-Russia cooperation
The described projects constitute the most obvious, desirable and urgent examples of where the U.S. and Russia could cooperate in the world today and how they could build a positive agenda for their relations.
In reality, this potential agenda is even broader and includes other regions, such as the Arctic, and other spheres, such as nuclear non-proliferation and missile defense. Thus, it would be a grave mistake for both sides to conclude that, given the crisis of the old U.S-Russia agenda based on arms control and nuclear reduction and their competition over Syria, there is nothing else the sides could do together. Such a development would make both of them weaker.
This is why on both sides it is vital to do everything possible to make sure that the current deterioration of the U.S.-Russia relationship does not result in both sides starting to losing interest in each other. Instead, a new agenda for both sides would prevent further degradation in the relationship, as well as lay the groundwork for a fundamental renewal of the relationship on the basis of a new philosophy.