ACURA Viewpoint: A View from Moscow: Throwing in the Towel? by David C. Speedie

A commentary this week from the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Center’s director, Dmitri Trenin, is titled “No Emotions or Illusions: the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations”.

Let me begin by saying that I consider Trenin both a friend and perhaps the most astute, and even-handed, of experts on these matters… All the more disturbing, therefore, is his opening salvo: “Three decades after the collapse of the USSR, the mindset of the Soviet-American détente and ‘equal, mutually beneficial cooperation’ is hopelessly outdated.”  Variations on this theme follow: “Emotions compel Russia to escalate the confrontation with the United States, or even to turn the fight against U.S. global domination into the central idea of Russian foreign—and to some extent domestic—policy”.  Does he really think that the “escalation” of confrontation—to a level of mutual acrimony equal to the worst days of the Cold War—is Russia’s doing, rather than Moscow reacting to provocations from the United States and the West [NATO expansion, missile defense, war on Serbia, sanctions after sanctions?]  Apparently not.  Regardless of who is to blame for the prevailing iciness in relations, Trenin’s pessimistic conclusion is that “It is an illusion that Russia can still prove something to the United States, bring Washington to its senses and force the United States to respect Russian national interests on the basis of a global Russian-American understanding: some sort of a grand bargain.”

The commentary then lists ten points for what may or should lie ahead in terms of Russian forward planning, in order to avert further catastrophic possibilities.  Some of these are just plain common sense: good communication to ensure that any unforeseen incidents involving Russian and U.S./NATO military are avoided or quickly resolved; cooperation on matters of grave mutual concern—climate change, pandemics, global terrorism; moving away from preoccupation with the U.S. relationship—continued cultivation of relations with China, while avoiding being embroiled in any U.S.-China conflict.

Other points, however, strike one as—to say the least—counterintuitive.  For example, #2, where Trenin advocates “reinforcement of mutual nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence…. deterrence, not arms control agreements, is the foundation for strategic stability” [further development of this thought would be helpful].  Point #3 suggests that Russia should “begin talks on strategic stability [recognizing that] Washington will try to negotiate from a position of strength” and goes on “Russia must be ready to uphold strategic stability without an international agreement framework”.  Given the past thirty years, is another word for this “capitulation”?  Point #8 reads “Give up any attempt to influence U.S. domestic policy….There are no politicians in the United States who hold an amicable position toward Russia and none are likely to appear in the foreseeable future.”  This latter observation is arguable [I think there may be a few exceptions] but, if so, and given recent history, is the United States likely to reciprocate by not interfering in Russia’s internal policies?

The oddest point is #7: “Regard U.S. sanctions as a stimulus to work toward further economic, financial, technological, informational and cultural independence amid global competition.”  Again, language and thoughts are highly compressed, but there is upon further review credit to be given to President Putin, which mitigate the generally pessimistic tone of Trenin’s commentary.  In a Financial Times op-ed on Monday 29 March [“Fresh sanctions may barely dent Fortress Russia”] Ruchir Sharma, Morgan Stanley Investment Management chief global strategist, describes how Russia has actually emerged stronger from the ruble collapse [twice] in the 1990s and the global financial crisis of 2008.  He writes:

“Though he is often compared with erratic autocrats, Putin has long been relatively careful on macroeconomic policy.  After 2014, he turned even more defensive, and focused on turning Russia into a financial fortress invulnerable to external pressure, including sanctions.  To a surprising extent, he has succeeded.  Once among the most crisis-prone emerging nations, Russia is now one of the most conservative and stable.  While peers like Turkey’s Recip Erdogan grow increasingly unorthodox on economic policy, Putin ahs become a model of orthodoxy”.

I mention this view of a senior global economist, and question some of Dmitri Trenin’s points, merely to try to counter what seems to be an uncharacteristic fatalism on his part—a throwing in of the towel perhaps—for serious bilateral engagement that reflects Russia’s strategic interests.  I am, on the other hand, glad to note that he ends on a positive note; point #9 urges “differentiation between the U.S. political class and the media, and other groups of U.S. society—business, technology and research, and public organizations–nonpolitical connections.”  Encouraging these, and exchanges with Russian peers is a priority for the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord, one that we shall pursue with vigor and optimism for more positive engagement and greater mutual understanding.

David Speedie is a member of the ACURA Board and was for many years Senior Fellow and the director for U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the entire Committee.

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