A US-Russia freeze isn't in the interests of Putin - or the West

Despite continuous disagreements, the relationship is beneficial both ways

Share
Related Topics

President Obama’s decision to cancel next month’s summit with Vladimir Putin may be understandable but it must not be allowed to become a total break in relations. There is too much at stake on both sides.

While the Snowden affair is only the most recent addition to a long list of issues on which the two sides can’t agree, from arms control and missile defence, to Syria, trade and human rights, there is a larger strategic contex that has to be borne in mind. Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, an important diplomatic player in the Middle East and a key actor in Euro-Atlantic security affairs. It is a partner in P-5 efforts to address nuclear challenges in Iran and the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, making it central to any global deal to meet that existential threat. And it is a vital supplier of energy to many of the U.S.’s key European trading partners. To pursue core US and wider western interests the U.S. has no choice but to find effective ways of working with Russia, however distasteful it finds the current occupant of the Kremlin. 

The good news is that this is in Russia’s long-term interests as much as it is in the West’s. Despite Putin’s anti-American posturing and talk of a new relationship with China, a Eurasion Union, or a BRIC bloc to counter western influence, his foreign policy options are limited.

The BRIC’s do not share enough of a common agenda to become the focal point of a serious Russian foreign policy doctrine. The Eurasion Union, for its part, involving closer ties with Kazakhstan and Belarus, is a sensible approach to relations with close neighbours but also has its limits. Both Belarus and Kazakhstan are wary of losing national sovereignty and being dominated by Russia. The two also have small economies and combined account for only 7 per cent Russia’s global trade, making the Union a modest one at best.

When it comes to relations with China, the dynamics are somewhat reversed. Russia accounts for just 2 per cent of China’s external trade and its attempted pivot to Asia and the Pacific is motivated as much by anxiety over Chinese influence in its sparsely populated east as it is by any desire to pursue a new strategic partnership with Beijing. The Russian-Chinese relationship has its own long history of mistrust of course, and is further constrained today by China’s reducing need for Russian military technology. Despite warm rhetoric, and a shared mutual concern about being hemmed in by US power, China contrasts its own perceived march to superpower status with what it sees as Russian stagnation and economic decline.

Whether he likes it or not, President Putin is the leader of a country who’s population and economic centre is still concentrated in the West. His official military doctrine is dominated by concerns about the United States and NATO. Russia’s economy is stagnating, needs western technology and investment to carry out a badly needed programme of modernisation and consists mainly  of hydro-carbon exports, again primarily to the west. Meanwhile, Russian social welfare costs and demands are growing. For both economic and domestic political reasons, therefore, Russia cannot afford a full break-down in relations with the West and a new arms race any more than the West can afford one itself. Putin needs the US and its allies just as much as we all need him.

If the short term politics do condemn the relationship to transactional rather than strategic status, it is also worth remembering that transactional relationships are not insignificant. In recent years, in the absence of any real strategic meeting of minds, the US and Russia have agreed a New START Treaty to cut the strategic nuclear forces of both; an amendment to a Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement that led to the safe disposal of enough plutonium for seventeen thousand nuclear warheads; and joint measures aimed at bringing Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons to a close. The U.S. and Russia also cooperated to secure Russian entry to the World Trade Organisation after 18 years of trying and agreed an over-flight arrangement that as of January 2013 had allowed some 460,000 U.S. military personnel and equipment to cross Russian airspace en route to Afghanistan. Despite the continuous disagreements and the noise in the relationship, all of this has been worth having.

What the leaders of both countries have to realise is that the key challenge in today’s international environment is not the management of a zero-sum struggle for dominance between the major powers but a struggle for order in a world where challenges cross borders and power is diffuse.

The US and Russia must be partners with each other in this endeavour whether they like it or not. Working with others with whom you have profound disagreements is, in fact, inherent to the enterprise.  Western leaders seem ready to stomach this when dealing with undemocratic regimes in places like China and Saudi Arabia. A longer term view of what’s at stake and cool heads must prevail in US-Russia relations too.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Web developer (C#, MVC4, HTML5, CSS3, Javascript, Jquery)

£30000 - £44000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Web deve...

Senior Automation QA Engineer (Java, Selenium WebDriver, Agile)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Senior A...

Web developer (C#.NET, ASP.NET, MVC3/4, HTML5, CSS3, JAVASCRIPT

£35000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Web deve...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation on the country's Independence Day in New Delhi, India  

With Modi talking tough and Sharif weak, the India-Pakistan love-in could never last

Andrew Buncombe
At the time of the investigation Patrick Foster published a statement on Twitter, denouncing the “unnecessarily heavy-handed police investigation”  

Long-term bail allows lazy police and prosecutors to leave cases to gather dust

Oliver Wright
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment