The Missing Debate
Another cold war is brewing between the U.S. and Russia.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Neither of the presidential candidates has seriously addressed Russia’s singular capacity to endanger or enhance our national security. Overshadowed by the U.S. disaster in Iraq, Moscow’s importance will continue long after that war ends.
Despite its diminished status after the Soviet breakup in 1991, Russia alone possesses weapons that can destroy the United States, a military-industrial complex nearly America’s equal in exporting arms, vast quantities of questionably secured nuclear materials sought by terrorists, and the planet’s largest oil and natural gas reserves. Our national security may depend more on Russia than Russia’s does on us.
And yet U.S.-Russian relations are worse now than they’ve been in 20 years. The relationship includes almost as many serious conflicts as it did during the Cold War– among them, Kosovo, Iran, the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia, Venezuela, NATO expansion, missile defense, access to oil and the Kremlin’s internal politics– and less actual cooperation, particularly in essential matters involving nuclear weapons. A growing number of observers think the relationship is verging on a new cold war.
Even the current cold peace could be more dangerous than its predecessor. Its front line is Russia’s own borders, where U.S. and NATO military power is increasingly ensconced. Lethal dangers inherent in Moscow’s impaired controls over its vast stockpiles of materials of mass destruction and thousands of missiles on hair-trigger alert exceed any such threats in the past. Also unlike before, there is no effective domestic opposition to hawkish policies in Washington or Moscow, only proponents and cheerleaders.
How did it come to this? In 1989-90, the Soviet Russian and American leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush, completing a process begun by Gorbachev and President Reagan, agreed to end the Cold War, with “no winners and no losers.” In the U.S. policy elite and media, the answer is that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s antidemocratic domestic policies and “neo-imperialism” destroyed that historic opportunity.
During the past eight years, Putin’s foreign policies have been largely a reaction to Washington’s winner-take-all approach to Moscow since the early 1990s. In that new narrative, America “won” the 40-year conflict and post-Soviet Russia was a defeated nation.
The policy implication of that bipartisan triumphalism has been clear to Moscow. It meant the United States had the right to oversee Russia’s post-Communist political and economic development, while demanding Moscow yield to U.S. international interests. It meant Washington could break strategic promises to Moscow, as when the Clinton administration began NATO’s eastward expansion, and disregard extraordinary Kremlin overtures, as when the Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty and granted NATO membership to countries even closer to Russia.
Such behavior was bound to produce a Russian backlash. It came under Putin. Those U.S. policies have helped revive an assertive Russian nationalism, destroy the once strong pro-American lobby, and inspire widespread charges that concessions to Washington are “appeasement,” even “capitulationism.” The cause and effect threatening a new cold war are clear. Because the first steps in this direction were taken in Washington, so must be initiatives to reverse it. Three are urgent: a U.S. diplomacy that treats Russia as a sovereign great power; an end to NATO expansion before it reaches Ukraine; and a full resumption of negotiations to sharply reduce and fully secure all nuclear stockpiles and to prevent the impending arms race, which requires ending or agreeing on U.S. plans for a missile defense system in Europe.
American presidential campaigns are supposed to discuss such issues, but senators John McCain and Barack Obama have not. Instead, each has promised to be “tougher” on the Kremlin than President Bush.