The Snowball Effect of Continued U.S.-Russia Strategic Mistrust

October 18, 2016

By Robert Shines

In early October Russia suspended an agreement with the U.S. to convert weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear fuel. It did this as a result of the collapse of the Syrian ceasefire deal involving both the U.S. and Russia. As a result, both powers have allowed yet another regional proxy conflict, post-Ukraine, to undermine the longer-term foundations of global security.

Disagreement increases the U.S.-Russia security dilemma

Recriminations have been exchanged between the United States and Russia regarding the actual commitment of the other to sustain and implement the recent Syrian ceasefire agreement. While some may attempt to point out how one party or the other is more at fault for this failure, this entirely misses the main point: that the U.S.-Russia disagreement over Syria has increased global insecurity for all parties.

One would think that any headline or topic involving the words “U.S.”, “Russia”, and “nuclear” would immediately command worldwide attention and foster a policy of more restraint with respect to resolving conflict between the two powers. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case. On the one hand, the failure of the plutonium deal mirrors the Russian cancellation of its rocketry usage to launch U.S. satellites into space several years ago. The failure of the continued rocketry deal has long-term implications, potentially involving joint space exploration, something which affects all of humanity.

Conversely, the failure of the plutonium deal is much worse in that its aftereffects are more likely to be felt sooner rather than later. While nuclear deals between Russia and the United States may not be considered as “sexy” as they once were during the Cold War in terms of garnering frontpage headlines, they are no less critical in fostering global security than resolving any myriad number of regional conflicts.

To emphasize this point, Russia has also simultaneously suspended the 2010 Implementing Agreement concerning cooperation on feasibility studies of the conversion of Russian research reactors to use low-enriched uranium fuel. Additionally, Russia has suspended the 2013 Russian-U.S. Agreement on Cooperation in Nuclear- and Energy-Related Scientific Research and Development. All three suspensions were announced within the span of a few days, perfectly illustrating the unforeseen, magnified consequences that continued U.S.-Russian hostilities will have for the “foreseeable” future.

The failure of the plutonium deal not only will have ramifications with respect to non-state actors like terrorists, but longer-term strategic relations between the U.S and Russia directly. This is because the failure will not only potentially impact both states’ efforts at nonproliferation globally, but will actually increase the U.S.-Russian security dilemma itself. Though the agreement, known as the Plutonium Disposition and Management Agreement (PDMA), is not as crucial as the INF or New START treaties, its abrogation has dissolved the perceived boundary between the “nuclear” and “conventional” compartments in U.S.-Russia relations.

Patience is key to great power pragmatism

Even though some in the United States may consider China to be a longer-term threat to U.S. interests than Russia, the sharp decline and rapid pace of deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations threatens to overshadow even the importance of U.S.-China relations. China’s primary instrument of its “comprehensive national power” is its economic base. Russia’s main instrument is its nuclear component, something even China doesn’t have (yet). Because of this, U.S. options for resolving conflict with Russia in general are getting ever smaller in number.

While many may be frustrated with Russian actions in Syria, the position taken by some that the U.S. needs to try military means to stop Russian moves in Aleppo is deeply misguided. There is no way to possibly foresee the aftereffects of direct U.S. military action against Russian forces in Syria, especially coming in the wake of the recent U.S. airstrike on Syrian government forces. A power like Russia that is explicitly bent on using its nuclear parity with the U.S. as a key element in its great power resurgence campaign would probably not respond well to being attacked, especially after its ally (Syria) has already been attacked, accidentally or not.

Russia has used the plutonium deal impasse as an avenue to demand not only decreased NATO military levels in Eastern Europe to year 2000-levels and repeal of the Magnitsky Act, but also to demand an end to (as well as compensation for) all sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine. This countermove has, in one fell swoop, annihilated the justification for continued sanctions against Russia by some, namely that sanctions will somehow affect Russia’s calculus in Ukraine and bring its behavior more into compliance with Western wishes. Needless to say, while Russia’s maneuvering may indeed seem contemptible to some, it has nevertheless caught Western leaders off-balance yet again.

Exasperated, many will ask, “How then to best ‘manage’ Russia if both military and economic means are off the table?” A clue may be found in many proponents’ views towards U.S.-China relations. Both Russia and the U.S. will need to adopt a more realistic, sober, and patient approach to the other based on cooperation where possible, while also recognizing that competition in other areas will inevitably exist. This also forms the crux of the “great power pragmatism” school of thought, which Putin originally came into office believing in and adhering to.

This competition exists because of the unalterable nature of great powers’ national interests which, unsurprisingly, remain intact despite threats or pressure from other great powers. Patience then, above all else, will be required from both parties when playing this long-term chess game, while simultaneously recognizing their shared roles and responsibility for upholding both regional and global security.

Robert Shines
is a Senior Analyst and Editor with Global Risk Insights and a writer for Geopoliticalmonitor Intelligence Corporation. This article originally appeared on the Foreign Policy Association blog. 


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