Putin’s U.S. card in the China-Russia-U.S. triangle

By Andrew C. Kuchins

Andrew Kuchins explains why playing a pro-U.S. card might enhance Moscow’s leverage in Eurasia.

Photo: Reuters

The activities and international peregrinations of Edward Snowden have stolen the news headlines from the G8 meeting held June 17-18 at which President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin met together for the first time in almost exactly a year at the G20 in Los Cabos, Mexico.

The past year has not been a particularly good one for U.S.-Russia relations as even the most significant achievement, Russia’s WTO accession and revocation of the long-time irritant, the Jackson-Vanik amendment, was overwhelmed by the congressional passing of the Magnitsky Act and the Russian Duma’s response with the Dima Yakovlev Act which made adoption of Russian orphans by American citizens illegal.  Constantly in the background over the past year has been the escalating conflict in Syria with the Russians supporting the Assad government and the United States supporting, at least in principal until recently, some rebel forces and Putin’s steadily increasing measures to repress opposition political forces in Russia.

In the face of this further deterioration of bilateral relations, the Obama Administration has undertaken in the past few months a series of measures to re-engage with Putin and the Russian government.  The presidential meeting on the sides of the G8 marks a mid-point in this campaign, and the scheduled Obama-Putin summit in Moscow around the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg in September will mark a watershed moment to evaluate the degree of success of these efforts.

Despite Putin’s often-acerbic anti-U.S. rhetoric, one of the takeaways from his recent meeting with Obama is that both presidents would like to foster a more constructive relationship between Washington and Moscow.  One of the signals of this mutual interest was the agreement to re-establish the “2 plus 2” format which brings together U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense with their Russian counterparts, and the first meeting is supposed to take place in early August, almost a mid-point between now and the September summit.

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In addition, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have been tasked to work together to promote U.S.-Russian economic ties.  And Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Minister of International Affairs Sergei Lavrov have been meeting regularly over the past two months to try to resolve the conflict in Syria.

All of this activity amounts to a virtual bureaucratic full-court press to re-track U.S.-Russian relations on a more positive trajectory.  Success in this campaign means that Obama will continue to make Russia a high priority in his foreign policy for the duration of his second term, and maybe Vladimir Putin would even be the recipient of an invitation to a Sunnylands summit like China’s President Xi Jinping.  Such a meeting would recall the height of U.S.-Soviet détente 40 years ago when Nixon hosted the Brezhnevs at his “Western White House” on the California coast in San Clemente.

On the other hand, failure in these efforts would lead Obama to conclude that going out of his way and mobilizing considerable U.S. government cadres and resources to working with Moscow is simply not worth the effort.

What are the criteria for success? I think we know some of the key issues. One is obviously Syria, and this is a tall order since the conflict has deepened and the players internally and externally have multiplied since its emergence nearly two years ago.  Russia’s strategic calculation that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad had more staying power than believed by Washington, Ankara, or our European allies has proven right.

Putin’s concern that extremist jihadi forces in the opposition would gain sway through their effectiveness on the ground has also proven right.  Nevertheless, the fact that the conflict’s cross-border impact has increased potential regional instability in the Greater Middle East has alarmed Moscow and moved Russia again try to work with the U.S. to try to stabilize the situation initially through a second Geneva conference possibly in July.

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Frankly the chances for a major breakthrough seem slim, but the fact that the Putin and Obama administrations are trying to work together marks a positive step forward, even if success is likely outside of their mutual capabilities.

Another issue, and the one I believe will be the core criterion by which success will be evaluated, will be nuclear arms reductions and broader strategic stability. In his speech in Berlin, Obama proposed mutual unilateral strategic arms cuts by approximately one-third for both the United States and Russia. The Russian response was lukewarm at best.  Statements by Foreign Minister Lavrov and other Russian government officials indicate conditions for further nuclear cuts of the magnitude proposed by Obama are virtual deal killers.

Demands for multi-lateralized negotiations for nuclear cuts at this stage will certainly not be welcome by China. And Congress will not accept demands for restrictions on U.S. deployments of missile-defense systems.

The Russians also want to include in strategic stability discussions the role of Prompt Global Strike—or near nuclear capable long-range conventional munitions in discussions of strategic stability.  But these are opening negotiating positions, not necessarily the final outcome.

If the two sides agree on a framework for conducting negotiations in time for the September summit that would mark a sufficient enough breakthrough.

Remember that it was reductions in nuclear arms around the world and nuclear security that Obama identified as one of his legacy issues more than four years ago, and continued initial engagement with Russia is absolutely essential. And this is the legacy Cold War issue that puts the Russians on an equal pedestal with Washington.

There is an interesting potential parallel to today and the Nixon/Brezhnev heyday of détente of forty years ago. And that is the role of China.  When Nixon and Brezhnev were hugging each other in San Clemente over vodka toasts, the United States had just one year earlier made the dramatic strategic opening to China.

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At that time, the United States and the Soviet Union were the preeminent global powers competing around the world, and China was viewed by both as a critical “swing state.”  Today it seems increasingly likely that the United States and China will be the preeminent global powers for decades to come, and perhaps Russia will be able to increase its leverage by playing the role of swing state as Mao’s China did.

Of course China viewed the Soviet Union as an existential threat at the time as the two nearly came to war in 1969 over a very serious border skirmish.  But additionally, Beijing viewed Moscow in the 1970s as the ascendant superpower and the United States in decline and thus less of a threat.

Today, Russian leaders and most political elites view China as the ascendant superpower and the United States in decline. Especially given their close proximity, sharing the second longest border in the world and dramatically juxtaposed economic and demographic profiles, it would seem logical for Moscow to have more balanced relationships with Washington and Beijing.

But to paraphrase and mix Maoist metaphors, Russia has “leaned” very far in Beijing’s direction while very cold winds prevail in the U.S.-Russian relationship.  Even a modest breakthrough in discussions with the United States about strategic stability would place Russia in a more balanced position in a new triangular relationship between Washington and Beijing.

For nearly the past two years since the announcement of the tandem switch Putin has been focused, nearly obsessed, with playing the anti-U.S. card to mobilize his traditional and conservative domestic constituencies in Russia. Maybe this would be a good time for him to consider playing a pro-U.S. card to balance Russia’s global equities and enhance its leverage in Eurasia.