The U.S. and Russia after Iraq

By Saunders, Paul J. | Policy Review, June-July 2003 | Go to article overview

The U.S. and Russia after Iraq


Saunders, Paul J., Policy Review


THOUGH PRESIDENTS GEORGE W. BUSH and Vladimir V. Putin continue to express their desire to work together after sharp differences over Iraq, their governments have not yet managed to do so in a meaningful way. The two leaders seem likely to try to overcome their differences at their first meeting since the war on June x in St. Petersburg. Yet, even after that meeting, the future of the U.S.-Russian relationship will be somewhat uncertain. Before the flare up over Iraq, the United States and Russia enjoyed what some have described as their best relationship since Russian independence. Despite disagreements over the American withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the second round of NATO enlargement, the strong personal connection between the two presidents and new cooperation in the war on terrorism had contributed to a sense of optimism that Washington and Moscow were finally on track to becoming real partners. As a result, Russia's assertive opposition to the U.S.-British war against Saddam Hus sein came as a particular shock to many in the United States (and confirmed the suspicions of those who were not shocked) -- and the impact has only been worsened by Moscow's thus-far obstructionist postwar conduct.

Yet the relationship remains one of considerable importance to American national interests. The Kremlin's cooperation in the war in Afghanistan -- in sharing intelligence, stepping up its preexisting effort to arm the Northern Alliance, and setting aside earlier objections to a major U.S. military presence in the region -- significantly aided U.S. forces in the field. And a strong and sustainable relationship with Moscow can serve important and even vital American interests in many other areas, ranging from the war on terrorism to non-proliferation and international trade and investment. Conversely, a weak relationship with Russia could embolden "rogue states" hostile to the United States, return the United Nations Security Council to its Cold War uselessness, and expose Americans to additional danger from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

This raises two questions. What can be done to strengthen the U.S.-Russian relationship and put it on a more solid foundation? And, taking into account obvious and substantial differences with Moscow on some major international issues, how far can the relationship really go?

What went wrong?

ANY DISCUSSION OF improving the U.S.-Russian relationship should begin with an understanding of the status of the relationship today and analysis of "what went wrong" in American efforts to win Russian support for, or at least acquiescence to, the war in Iraq.

Unfortunately, even before Iraq, neither Washington nor Moscow was satisfied with the progress in the relationship. American officials frequently complained that in the absence of Kremlin involvement, Russian government departments routinely obstructed effective collaboration. Russian officials similarly grumbled that only the White House could force action from Cold War-era bureaucrats in the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency. Analysts and commentators in both countries lamented excessive reliance on the personal relationship between the two presidents.

Nevertheless, American and Russian officials continued to declare their commitment to building a strong U.S.-Russian relationship, and - despite reservations about the American use of force and concerns that Russia could face more terrorism after a war -- Moscow initially seemed inclined to accommodate the United States on Iraq, where Russian economic and other interests were significant but not first-order concerns. After their meeting in St. Petersburg in November, Presidents Bush and Putin issued a joint statement essentially reiterating the message of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 by calling on Iraq "to completely and immediately comply" with all relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions or "face serious consequences.

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