Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

Reflections on US-Russian Relationship

    Author:
  • Ambassador Linton Brooks
| Aug. 14, 2015

Six years ago, Ambassador Linton Brooks offered some remarkably prescient thoughts on what the U.S.-Russian relationship might look like in 2015, and the implications for nuclear security cooperation — though, of course, he could not have anticipated the conflict in Ukraine. Brooks’ 2009 assessment is reproduced below, followed by his reflections on the topic today:

“Yet it would be unrealistic to ignore the probability that significant political strains will remain in 2015. While both countries will work to reduce current tensions, they may not be completely successful. While political conditions could improve, they may remain the same or even deteriorate. It is possible, and perhaps likely, that in 2015 the United States will be concerned, as it is today, with an apparent Russian drift toward authoritarianism and away from pluralism. If so, Russia will regard, as it does today, U.S. pressure as an inappropriate interference in Russian internal affairs based on a failure to appreciate the special character of the Russian political system and the difficulties of Russia’s post-Soviet transition. Similarly, in 2015, Americans will continue to regard the continuation and expansion of NATO as a way to draw all European states into a 21st century international regime and will assert that Russia should not find this threatening. Russians will continue to ask who such a military alliance is aimed at and will have difficulty accepting that many European states formerly allied with (or part of) the Soviet Union seek military ties to the United States and links to its extended nuclear deterrent because they fear a future return of an expansionist Russia. Americans will continue to seek ballistic missile defenses aimed at Iran and North Korea, while Russians will fear such defenses could (and may be intended to) weaken the Russian nuclear deterrent. In 2015, Americans will continue to look askance at periodic apparent Russian nostalgia for a Soviet-era past that Americans see as marked by despotism and aggression. Russians will continue to recall the international respect they gained as one of the two superpowers more clearly than they recall the accompanying problems of that bygone era. And no amount of desire for partnership can alter the fact that two major powers with global interests will sometimes find that their national interests are in conflict…

But it would be a serious error of both analysis and policy to believe that either internal political developments or the existence of such tensions precludes strengthened cooperation in the area of nuclear security. Even at the height of the Cold War, when military planners on both sides thought that nuclear war was a real possibility, the United States and the then-Soviet Union cooperated to help create the international non-proliferation regime that, despite the challenges it faces today, has served humanity well. The challenge for today’s policy makers and analysts is to find those areas where cooperation is possible and build on them to strengthen the overall relationship.”

--Linton Brooks, “Leadership Through Partnership: A Vision for the 2015 Nuclear Security Relationship Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation,” in Ashot A. Sarkisov and Rose Gottemoeller, Editors; Future of the Nuclear Security Environment in 2015: Proceedings of a Russian-U.S. Workshop (Washington, DC: Joint Committees on the Future of the Nuclear Security Environment in 2015; in cooperation with the Russian Academy of Sciences; National Research Council, 2009).

REFLECTIONS BY THE AUTHOR LOOKING BACK AFTER FIVE YEARS

The issues between the United States and Russia were pretty clear to most of us in 2010.  If anything in this passage rises to the level of insight, it is not the listing of issues but the recognition of two specific aspects of those issues.  The first is that they were not likely to go away or to be resolved in the foreseeable future.  The second was that they reflected very different Russian and American perspectives.  This second point will seem obvious, but for many Americans it is not.  As a society, we tend to assume that others will—or at least should—have the same understanding of both present and past events that we have.  That is often an error.  There is no reason we need to accept someone else’s version of history, but it is important to understand that they may really believe it.  

What is missing from the 2010 piece is any recognition of the potential for the relationship to become more adversarial, more confrontational and more strident.  The events in Ukraine have forced us to recognize a significant adversarial component to our relationship, at least on the Russian side.  That growing Russian sense that the United States is out to threaten and destabilize the Russian Federation did not start with Ukraine but has been building for at least a decade.  There are probably people who recognized that fact in 2010, but I was not among them. 

Finally, reflecting on the relationship five years later strengthens my view that “it would be a serious error…to believe that either internal political developments or the existence of such tensions precludes strengthened cooperation in the area of nuclear security” and that the “challenge for today’s policy makers and analysts is to find those areas where cooperation is possible and build on them….”

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Brooks, Linton.Reflections on US-Russian Relationship.” Nuclear Security Matters, August 14, 2015, https://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/publication/reflections-us-russian-relationship.

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