The West and Russia: Real Rapprochement on the Horizon?

Charles A. Kupchan, Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a CEPA Advisory Council member and the author of How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Sta

Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and CEPA Advisory Council member Charles A. Kupchan sees the benefits to Europe offered by the reset, but stresses its contributions to wider U.S. global interests and the prospects for continued cooperation beyond the New START Treaty.
These are not the best of times for the Euro-Atlantic community. The European Union (EU) is struggling to shore up the Euro-zone – a task that has exposed worrisome political fissures and raised troubling questions about the overall health of the Union. Meanwhile, the United States is suffering through a prolonged economic downturn and an era of intense political polarization.

But amid the gloom, there is at least one significant piece of good news: the Atlantic community is quietly but steadily improving its relationship with Russia. If the momentum behind rapprochement continues to build, the United States and its European allies may be able to complete the main piece of unfinished business left over from the era of East-West rivalry: Russia’s inclusion in the post-Cold War settlement.

It is understandable that since 1989 NATO and the EU have focused on consolidating democracy and stability in Central Europe. The countries of the region were ready and willing for inclusion in the West and sought strategic insurance in the face of uncertainty about Russia’s intentions. But the West would be making a historic mistake if it continues to exclude Russia from the Euro-Atlantic order.  History makes clear that including former adversaries in a post-war order is critical to the consolidation of great-power peace.

It is therefore good news that both sides of the Atlantic seem committed to charting a new and more cooperative course with Russia. If the Euro-Atlantic community ultimately fails to include Russia, let it be due to the Kremlin’s missteps, not because the Atlantic democracies failed to make an earnest effort.

Rapprochement between the West and Russia is proceeding along two parallel tracks. One is bilateral relations between the United States and Russia. On this front, President Barack Obama’s policy of resetting relations with Moscow is gradually succeeding in overcoming decades of suspicion and mistrust. The other is relations between the EU and Russia. On this front, EU members – notably including Poland – have been reaching out to Russia under the presumption that engaging rather than isolating Moscow ultimately offers Europe its best prospects for security.

President Obama’s reset with Russia is part of a broader strategy of engaging countries with which the United States has strained relations. While pursuing rapprochement with Russia, Washington has also sought dialogue with Burma, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria.

With the likes of Iran and North Korea, engagement has yielded few results. Neither Tehran nor Pyongyang has reciprocated Washington’s overtures by demonstrating a readiness to rein in its nuclear programs. But with Russia, engagement has paid off handsomely. On issues ranging from Afghanistan to Iran to nuclear arms control, the reset is affording an unprecedented level of cooperation between Washington and Moscow. Although rapprochement between the two is still gelling, both seem genuinely interested in laying the foundation for a strategic partnership.

Despite Moscow’s new willingness to work with Washington, critics of engagement contend that Russia’s lagging performance on matters of democracy and human rights, along with its heavy hand in Georgia, Ukraine and Central Asia, suggest that Obama’s policy is in fact not working.

Such criticism is off the mark. To be sure, recent developments in Belarus and the Middle East reinforce the importance of U.S. efforts to promote the protection of human rights and the advance of political reform. But the United States must pursue these objectives within the context of its broader strategic interests. The Kremlin’s illiberal inclinations are certainly regrettable, but the United States and the EU should nonetheless capitalize on the important strategic benefits offered by cooperation with Russia. Accordingly, the West should judge Moscow’s readiness to be a partner on the basis of its foreign policy, not the character of its domestic institutions.

Moreover, rapprochement takes time. Leaders on both sides need to start with moderate steps forward, if only because they need to build domestic support for reconciliation. The difficulty Obama encountered in ratifying the New START Treaty made clear that the reset policy faces ample opposition in Congress. Similarly, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin have to tread carefully at home as they reciprocate Washington’s overtures, especially in light of the anti-American sentiment that the Russian leadership too often propagated during the past decade.

The challenge for Washington and Moscow is to sustain the momentum. Next steps include arms pacts that cover tactical nuclear weapons and conventional forces, cooperation on missile defense and tackling the most contentious areas of disagreement – such as the future of NATO enlargement and the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Progress on these issues will not come easily – and will depend in part on Europe’s ongoing efforts to pull off its own reset of relations with Russia.

The EU has long been divided over how to deal with Russia. In broad terms, Western Europe has been keen to use the EU and NATO to deepen ties to Russia. In contrast, Central Europe has been intent on using those same institutions to hedge against the return of Russian expansionism. Germany has been expanding its economic linkages to Russia while France has been selling warships to Moscow. Meanwhile, Central European states have been demanding that NATO do more contingency planning to prepare for their defense against threats from the east.

Though understandable that decades of Soviet occupation have left Central Europe suspicious of Russia, this reaction is not necessarily productive. It has essentially put on ice Russia’s potential inclusion in the Euro-Atlantic order, not only alienating Moscow, but also straining transatlantic relations. Washington was justifiably irked by the 2009 letter signed by a group of Central European luminaries complaining that the Obama Administration’s focus on Russia meant that “Central and Eastern European countries are no longer at the heart of American foreign policy.”  Questioning America’s commitment to Central Europe is unwarranted; rapprochement between the United States and Russia simply does not come at the expense of Washington’s steadfast  partnership with its NATO allies.

Of late, such stark differences of perspectives on the Russia question have shown significant signs of abating. The main driver of this change has been Poland’s readiness to begin exploring the potential for reconciliation with Russia. The improving prospects for rapprochement are in part accidental. Russia’s empathetic response to the tragic loss of President Lech Kaczyński and other Polish officials in the airplane crash last April won Moscow considerable favor among grieving Poles.

But Warsaw has also been quite deliberate in pursuing a constructive dialogue with Moscow. A more mature and self-confident foreign policy in Poland means less obsession over its relationship with the United States and a new focus on its ties to Russia and its role within the EU. Poland seems to realize that becoming a “normal” Western ally like Italy or Spain is not a demotion – but an auspicious sign of the consolidation of security in Central Europe. Under Warsaw’s more diversified diplomacy, Poland can engage Russia and increase its profile in Europe – while still maintaining a close bond with the United States.

Rapprochement between Poland and Russia is still nascent; it has thus far taken primarily symbolic forms – high-level dialogue and gestures of good will. It is now time to turn the improved atmospherics into concrete cooperation on a range of issues, including trade, energy and security.

Russia’s participation in the NATO summit in Lisbon last November demonstrated the potential for lasting reconciliation between Russia and the West – but also made clear that much hard work is still ahead. Making the NATO-Russia Council a more meaningful forum for consultation and expanding strategic cooperation between Russia and NATO members offers the best mechanism to advance the cause of a durable rapprochement.

A historic opportunity has opened to finally anchor Russia in the Euro-Atlantic order. Achieving this objective would be a definitive win for the United States, the EU and Russia. Fortunately, all three parties seem to be waking up to that reality.

Post-Crisis World Institute