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Long Cycles of Russian-U.S. Relations: Containment Must Be Overcome

U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission Graphic and Issue AreasMikhail Troitsky is an associate professor at the Department of International Relations and Russia's Foreign Policy of the MGIMO University. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume Containment, especially when based on nuclear deterrence, was the main link in the vicious circle that emerged in Russian-U.S. relations after World War II. The situation has changed dramatically since then, but people's mindsets have not ­ you can't trust the one you seek to deter. The lack of mutual trust makes it highly difficult to resolve conflicts.
Original of image copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036 www.rferl.org

During the 2008 presidential election campaign in the United States, U.S. and Russian experts, as if competing with each other, belittled the importance of Russian-U.S. relations for American voters and in the general context of U.S. foreign policy. In fact, the Russia policy has become one of the priorities of the Barack Obama administration. The U.S. official National Security Strategy, made public in May 2010, describes Russia, along with China and India, as "key centers of influence" with which Washington is "working to build deeper and more effective partnerships" on issues "of bilateral and global concern." Thus, Washington's policy towards Moscow is part of a "grand strategy" whose contours are outlined in the above Strategy. Moreover, the change in the nature of contacts with Russia was to serve as a major incentive for the further transformation of the entire foreign-policy approach of the United States.

However, the "resetting" of relations between the two countries, which climaxed in mid-2010, may now decline. Obama's policy of rapprochement with Russia is fiercely criticized by his Republican opponents, who have a chance to deny the Democratic Party a majority in Congress in the November elections. The former experience of similar "resetting" attempts ­ in the early 1990s and the 2000s ­ also leaves no reason for optimism. In both cases, it soon turned out that those attempts were merely tactical and failed the test of geopolitical tensions. What are the fundamental reasons that send Russian-U.S. relations, again and again, back to their habitual track?


The objective competition and subjective mutual irritation between Russia and the U.S., which grew by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, were due to several reasons.

First, in the current European security architecture, molded largely by Washington, Russia has been barred from the main decision-making institution ­ NATO. Some NATO members still see their primary mission in countering Russia, and many influential politicians in Washington sympathize with such views. As Karl-Heinz Kamp, the Director of the Research Division of the NATO Defense College, wrote in the Russian-language version of Russia in Global Affairs earlier this year, the "Russian threat" can once again serve as the main excuse for the Alliance's existence because attempts to adapt the bloc for conducting large-scale operations outside of the Euro-Atlantic area have failed.

Second, Moscow and Washington are competing for sympathies of Russia's neighbors. Due to Russia's geographical position, regions surrounding it have long evoked Washington's special interest. The United States is seeking, although it has never admitted it officially, to limit Russia's influence in neighboring territories, as Moscow's policy potentially complicates the implementation of the U.S. global policy. In turn, Russia is supersensitive to U.S. support for political forces playing the "anti-Russian card." Even though the tensions between the two countries have subsided under Obama, conceptually nothing has changed.

Third, Moscow and Washington disagree over some key international security issues, ranging from criteria of recognition or non-recognition of self-proclaimed states to approaches to the Iranian nuclear issue.

Fourth, the U.S. does not conceal its interest in diversifying routes by which hydrocarbons are supplied from Eurasian deposits to world markets. Washington supports projects for building pipelines from Central Asia and the South Caucasus to the West and ­ in the long term ­ to the South, bypassing Russian territory. For Moscow, this is much more than routine competition between Russian and foreign companies. As distinct, for example, from the competition between the aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, which play important but not decisive roles in the U.S. and EU economies respectively, the oil and gas competition affects the interests of a backbone sector of the Russian economy and can undermine a major source of the Russian budget, which would have fundamental strategic consequences.

Finally, the political discourses in both countries largely aim to portray the other side as an irreconcilable rival in the international arena, both geopolitically and ideologically. Influential circles in both capitals need the perception of antagonism between Russia and the United States as an insuperable and constant factor to justify their own international and even domestic policies. These vested interests will oppose any real "resetting," and it will take much political capital on the part of those Russian and American policymakers who are willing to change the existing stereotypes. In other words, it is much more risky to call for a revision of the foundations of bilateral relations, well-established over decades, than to try to mold public opinion into opposing hostile external forces.

These differences have long become chronic. At any time throughout the past two decades, one or even several of them were in the phase of aggravation. As a result, any rudiments of cooperation between Moscow and Washington were immediately suppressed. Of course, there is hardly a state that would not have any ideological or material conflicts with the United States. However, relations between Russia and the U.S. have a fundamental distinction ­ they are "cemented" by mutual strategic containment.


Three major factors distinguish containment from other strategies in the conflict.

First, a state conducting a policy of containment believes that the other party a priori seeks to cause damage to its security and other vital interests. Therefore the opponent must be kept from doing harm and must be convinced that a response would be no less devastating. Cooperation between the states containing each other is possible in some areas, but in general they view each other in the context of a permanent zero-sum game.

Second, the parties do not rule out military confrontation as a possible scenario for the development of their relationship and are ready to use the risk of escalation as an instrument of containment. The ease with which Russian and U.S. experts began to speculate about the possibility of war between Russia and the United States in the light of the events in South Ossetia in August 2008 indicates that military confrontation is still perceived as acceptable at the rational level. For example, political analyst Nikolai Kosolapov in Mezhdunarodniye Protsessy magazine (January-April 2009) concludes that "the possibility of a direct military clash between Russia and the United States cannot be ruled out" and that "the risk of a clash has been increasing ever since 1991." Characteristically, many people in Russia wonder: Would Russia's potential of conventional weapons have been enough to contain the United States or did Washington refrain from providing military support to Georgia only because Russia has nuclear weapons? The majority thinks it was the latter.

Finally, parties containing each other seek to prevent the weakening of their capability to inflict serious damage on the opponent not only in the short term but also in the long run. In other words, they rule out the very possibility of changes in the nature of their mutual relations. The Cold War experience has shown that, if containment of a concrete mighty opponent becomes a dominant priority in a state's security policy, this state channels its major resources into these efforts, which would otherwise be helpful in addressing other important problems, including internal development and the countering of other external threats. Characteristically, serious cuts in defense spending was a taboo issue for a majority of governments (the U.S., Russia, China, countries of the Middle East and South Asia, and even the EU countries) even during the economic crisis of 2008-2009. To all appearances, none of major international players believes that the realities of the contemporary global and interdependent economy reduce the importance of the military factor.

Discussions that began in the United States in 2003 showed the importance of the borderline between containment and non-containment of a major international player for U.S. policymakers. Influential neo-conservative politicians discussed in earnest whether the U.S. should start containing France, which had taken a principled position against the Iraq operation. Of course, it is hard to imagine one NATO member containing another. However, the very discussion of a possibility of adopting such a strategy towards Paris was a signal for the entire (not only foreign-policy) state bureaucracy and exacerbated still further the relations between the two allies, which were already on the decline.

In case of Russia and the United States, the situation of mutual containment is aggravated by nuclear deterrence. The only conceivable function of nuclear weapons is to contain potential adversaries from launching massive attacks. So, if a country has obtained nuclear weapons, it cannot do without an enemy "deserving" nuclear deterrence. The U.S. is such an enemy for Russia, and vice versa.

Once the parties believe that it is only fear of nuclear retaliation that keeps the opponent from implementing aggressive plans, they start fearing a decline in the credibility of their own nuclear capabilities. In their dialogue on the reduction of strategic armaments, Russia and the United States proceed from the assumption that the other party seeks to increase the opponent's vulnerability to nuclear attack in order to convert the advantage thus won into diplomatic or economic dividends. The model of relations between the two countries will not change for as long as this approach persists.


The containment strategy can freeze a conflict, but it cannot pave the way to its solution. Nuclear deterrence represents existential confrontation. Realizing this, economically developed nations seek to avoid a situation of containment (especially one involving nuclear weapons) in relations with any significant economic partner. Potential commercial costs would be too high.

By containing each other, the U.S. and Russia strongly impede mutually advantageous bilateral cooperation. The saga of Russia's accession to the WTO, which has broken all records for the process's duration, is hard to explain by anything other than the West's psychology of containing Moscow. The refusal to sell the Opel car company to a Russian investor has shown that NATO member-countries are reluctant to share their latest industrial technologies (and not only military ones) with countries that are their opponents (at least potentially) in the military-political sphere. Mutual containment feeds mistrust, prevents interaction in the field of modernization and impedes efforts to find effective solutions to climate change, to work out a mutually advantageous regime for using transportation routes and natural resources in the Arctic, etc.

History knows examples of states making large-scale economic exchanges between themselves without establishing socio-economic or political rapprochement (for example, the Soviet Union and Finland during the Cold War). However, there have never been full-fledged economic relations between major powers containing each other. Strategic containment and overemphasis on the maintenance of the nuclear balance is against the logic of interstate relations within the economically developed part of the international community and against the imperative of multilateral cooperation in addressing the increasingly challenging global problems.

Today, this is well understood by China, for example. Beijing and Washington do not trust official declarations of mutual intentions in the military-political sphere. At the level of military planning, they probably proceed from the assumption that in case of exacerbation of the Taiwan problem, for example, the parties will have to resort to the rhetoric of nuclear deterrence. However, now that the U.S. accounts for about 15 percent of China's trade, both Beijing and Washington are seeking to downplay the significance of potential nuclear deterrence.

Otherwise, economic cooperation with the United States, which is vital for China's development, would directly depend on the parties' perception of each other. In the event of a bitter confrontation between the two countries, in which they would contain each other in the security sphere, the employment by U.S. companies of even civilian advanced technologies for the production of goods and the provision of services in China would become a politicized issue. This would bury China's hopes to maintain its economic growth rates and, consequently, social stability in the country.

Interstate relations within military-political alliances are the only sphere that guarantees against containment. Yet the psychology of the zero-sum game between Moscow and Washington is not a direct consequence of the fact that Russia is not a NATO member. The United States maintains close partner relations with states that are not in a formal alliance with it and that often oppose Washington on the international scene. These states include a wide range of different actors, from European "neutrals," China and India to some Middle East countries. Russia also has experience of long and trustful interaction with countries that do not have formal allied relations with it. These include, for example, large states in the Middle East, some European countries and Russia's neighbors that are not parties to the Collective Security Treaty Organization and that do not fully share Moscow's position on military-political issues.

A revision of the situation of mutual nuclear deterrence between Russia and the United States would not necessarily mean that Moscow and Washington will reach full agreement on the dynamics of further arms reductions. The renunciation of deterrence is not directly linked with the controversial "nuclear-free world" project and does not require an immediate recognition that nuclear weapons are rather a threat to international security than a factor of stability. As long as the parties are confident that the possession of nuclear weapons is an indicator of prestige and a factor of influence in the contemporary world, nothing prevents them from maintaining their nuclear arsenals at a level that they deem necessary and that they can justify to the public from a financial point of view.

The deterrence problem is not technical but political and psychological. It is not even the number of warheads and delivery vehicles the parties have that really matters, or the response time available to the leaders of Russia or the United States to an impending nuclear attack. These issues are only secondary to the perception by Moscow and Washington of each other as strategic rivals in the nuclear field. American diplomat and disarmament expert James Goodby wrote in his book Europe Undivided: The New Logic of Peace in U.S.-Russian Relations back in 2000 that it is desirable to exclude any nuclear conflict between Russia and the United States from possible development scenarios for sub-rational reasons. The parties must be kept from aggressive actions not by the awareness of huge material costs but shared values.


Containment, especially when based on nuclear deterrence, was the main link in the vicious circle that emerged in Russian-U.S. relations after World War II. The situation has changed dramatically since then, but people's mindsets have not ­you can't trust the one you seek to deter. The lack of mutual trust makes it highly difficult to resolve conflicts. So, strategic containment, mutual mistrust and concrete political conflicts form the vicious circle in which Russian-U.S. relations keep moving.

Two decades of attempts to focus on only one link of this vicious circle have brought no results. For example, Moscow and Washington have been discussing ways to resolve specific conflicts, especially in regions adjacent to Russia, for nearly 20 years. However, for as long as the two parties seek to contain each other, any agreement between them with respect to small states would be viewed in America as a cynical trade-off, while in Russia it would be taken as a U.S. concession in the conditions of the ongoing struggle. So, the two countries are doomed to reproduce tensions between themselves.

Is there any chance to break the vicious circle and remove system barriers to cooperation? Modern history provides at least one example of how Russia has overcome mutual containment, including nuclear deterrence, in relations with a major international player, namely China.

In the nuclear age, Soviet-Chinese relations approached the verge of war several times ­ suffice it to recall the conflict on Damansky Island in 1969 and the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979. Moscow and Beijing considered the possibility of an armed conflict as feasible and were engaged in containing each other by means of diplomacy and nuclear deterrence.

The process of solving conflicts in a comprehensive way was started in the late 1980s by Mikhail Gorbachev. To avoid falling into the strategic trap of simultaneous confrontation with Washington and Beijing, Moscow took measures to remove the causes of concern to China ­ in particular, it withdrew its troops from Afghanistan and Mongolia and reduced the strength of troops deployed in the Russian Far East. Mutual trust between Russia and China kept growing throughout the 1990s, which paved the way for a honeymoon period in bilateral relations in the early and mid-2000s. The "second wave" of U.S. post-bipolar interventionism during George W. Bush's presidency, when the United States sharply increased its military presence in Eurasia, caused Moscow's and Beijing's shared concern and served as an additional incentive for the two countries' rapprochement.

It is very difficult to establish a causal relationship between the development of economic cooperation between two countries and the elimination of their mutual security concerns. In his recent book How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace, U.S. political scientist Charles Kupchan cites several cases when enmity between large states was overcome, yet he believes that the above relationship most often does not exist. At the same time, the seven-fold growth in Russian-Chinese trade between 2000 and 2008, as well as the willingness of Chinese banks to make long-term investment in the Russian economy ­ for example, by lending Russian oil companies ­ would surely have been impossible if the parties had continued their strategic containment policies towards each other.


Moscow and Washington still hope to strengthen their positions by weakening the opponent party ­ Russia hopes to do this in the short term, and the United States in the long term. If mutual weakening is asymmetric, the containment factor will then acquire additional significance for the weakened party, while the strengthened country may have a temptation to apply coercion against the other party. However, if both countries grow weaker symmetrically and at the same rate, or if they believe that such weakening is happening, Moscow and Washington may find it advantageous to give up their containment policies.

The renunciation of the current model is possible not only due to a "balanced weakening" of the parties but also if they rethink their role and place in the world in the context of the ongoing changes. For example, China and the Soviet Union decided to give up their bitter competition with each other for the role of the main ideological center of the international Communist movement in the late 1980s. Both countries realized that they could greatly benefit from economic cooperation and coordination of their foreign-policy moves if they stopped viewing world politics only through the prism of Soviet-American confrontation.

The rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing proceeded against the background of qualitative changes in the entire global situation ­ in Soviet-U.S. relations and the system of military-political alliances in Europe and Asia. Various international actors rethought their place in the emerging new system and looked for a niche in the post-bipolar world. Similarly, the overcoming of the Russian-U.S. containment in the early 2010s must be accompanied by changes in the strategies of U.S. NATO allies, influential Islamic countries and Israel, and conflicting parties in Eurasia.

China is once again a separate and very important factor. Its rapid growth is creating a situation of uncertainty: neither Moscow, nor Washington has a clear idea of how to build relations with Beijing in the medium and long term. Models that were typical of the second half of the 20th century ­ namely, containment, engagement or formal alliance ­ cannot be applied to China in the present conditions. It is likewise impossible to form a coalition against China. However, the challenge that China's rapid development poses for both Moscow and Washington requires a flexible response, which is impossible if these two countries remain in the state of mutual containment.

It is easier to take a fresh look at one's foreign-policy goals and priorities in the face of a common imminent threat. However, if unpredictable catastrophic scenarios are ruled out, there is no factor in the current international environment that can pose a serious common challenge to the security of both Russia and the United States. The existing sources of concern ­ Afghanistan, the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, and possible attempts to launch mega-terror attacks ­ are not sufficient motivation for Washington or Moscow to give up their mutual strategic containment overnight. Worse, these global challenges serve as pretexts for conflicts over tactical issues. The same factor stands in the way of Russian-U.S. interaction in such spheres as combating the effects of climate change or the development of the Arctic, where cooperation between Russia and the United States is really necessary.

In the absence of a clear unifying threat, the nuclear deterrence between Russia and the U.S. will become an anachronism during the next decade due to the erosion of clear-cut benchmarks in world politics both for large and small states, as Russian analyst Timofei Bordachev wrote earlier in Russia in Global Affairs. The international situation is becoming so multidimensional that even the strongest military-political alliances, including NATO, are facing ever more difficulties when trying to formulate a common agenda. The "foreign-policy equation" of every actor now includes ever new variables, ranging from energy security and the need to respond to the climate change and to cope with the aftermath of natural disasters to the growing influence of ethnic and religious communities and specific socio-cultural values on foreign policies.

These factors prompt experts to predict a weakening of rigid post-bipolar alliances (not only NATO but also, most likely, all mutual relations in the economy and security throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States; the integrity of the EU is also causing growing doubts). Against this background, there are likely to emerge new opportunities for countries for deriving benefit from cooperation with traditional opponents, even if in tactical issues. It is becoming increasingly evident that the mutual nuclear deterrence between the two nuclear superpowers ­ a rigid, inflexible form of relations between potential partners ­ does not meet the emerging new realities of a pluralist world.

This is particularly true as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is going out of control and as entirely new tasks are appearing on the international agenda, above all, the task of containing new nuclear powers with regional ambitions. Instead of persisting in the largely ritualistic mutual nuclear deterrence, Russia and America should jointly act as guarantors of security in those parts of the world where there are threats of local nuclear confrontation, above all, in South and East Asia and the Middle East, especially if Iran obtains nuclear weapons.

There is no doubt that a new world situation will make countries hastily give up outdated stereotypes already in the near future. Yet it is important that the Russian-U.S. nuclear deterrence become a relic of the past before the global situation gets out of control. Therefore, what we all need is concerted action by sagacious policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic and an active discussion by the expert community of the containment problem.


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