Russia Still Matters: Strategic Challenges and Opportunities for the Obama Administration

Article excerpt

Russia's institution of a ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans, an appalling response by the Duma to U.S. sanctions against officials involved in the Sergei Magnitsky case, (1) was a clear indicator that bilateral relations will assume a lower priority in the next 4 years for both capitals. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the measure despite open misgivings by some of his own key aides and against the opposition of most of Russia's civil society. The Russian Internet response was scathing, producing an instant winner for best sick joke of 2012: "An educated American family has decided to adopt a developmentally disabled Duma deputy." (2)

Despite Putin's calculated pandering to anti-American sentiment, however, there are important areas of the bilateral relationship where cooperation and improvement are possible. At his last face-to-face meeting with President Barack Obama at the Los Cabos G20 summit in June 2012, for example, Putin suggested both a desire and basis for real cooperation, particularly in expanding the economic aspect of the relationship. Putin's public signals are mixed, but America remains the most important actor in the world for Russia, and Moscow by no means wishes to put the brakes on its relationship with Washington either in this or in half a dozen other key areas.

Looking beyond the low point in bilateral relations, reached at the beginning of February 2013, Russia will not cease to be important to U.S. policymakers and American geopolitical interests for a number of reasons. The country retains its Soviet-era inheritance of permanent membership and veto power in the United Nations (UN) Security Council, where its cooperation or opposition can prove decisive. The Russian Federation is still the only country in the world that can obliterate the United States with a nuclear strike. This is not a fading, obsolescent capability. Instead, Russia's new rearmament program is beginning to resuscitate military challenges dormant since the collapse of the Soviet Union and to upgrade the nuclear arsenal. Finally, cooperation with Russia on nuclear issues of all sorts is crucial to U.S. nonproliferation goals, many of which Russia shares.

Regional developments are altering the security architecture of the world and America's place in it. In addition, Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) may slowly change the investment climate in Russia and, with passage of permanent normal trade relations, has already opened the door to expanded U.S. access to the Russian market, the sixth (by gross domestic product [GDP] measured by purchasing power parity) or ninth (by nominal market GDP) largest in the world. (3) Despite numerous governance shortcomings, Russia's remaining great power attributes give it the ability to influence events in a number of key regions around the globe:

* In South Asia, Russia will be important to the modalities of the International Security Assistance Force troop drawdown in Afghanistan, to the maintenance of any long-term U.S. presence there post-2014, and to the context of U.S. relations with adjoining countries, especially those in Central Asia.

* In the Middle East, Russia is maneuvering to play a key role in the Syrian endgame and will be an important player as the P5+1 (4) engage in the next and possibly decisive set of negotiations with Iran over its troublesome nuclear enrichment program.

* In the Asia-Pacific region, Russia has set in motion its own pivot and is eager to be a part of the new multipolar security architecture developing as China's rise continues to evoke a regional response.

* In Europe, expanding U.S. exchanges with Russia over the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) to missile defense will determine the possibilities and shape of any post--New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and European theater arms reductions.

* In the Arctic, Russia is at the forefront of exploiting the Northern Sea Route for more efficient East-West commerce, has already begun to engage major U. …