Distrust between Russia and the United States at Unprecedented Level

Former Russian Foreign Affairs Head Igor Ivanov considers the future of relations between Moscow and Washington

Kommersant September 16, 2020

In August 2020, Politicomagazine published three articles representing a range of views on how the United States and the West in general should build relations with Russia. The first article released on August 5, 2020 and signed by over 100 renowned policymakers, diplomats, and military commanders, states that Washington’s current policy on Russia “isn’t working” and calls on leaders to rethink this policy. The article’s proposals can be summarized as follows: the United States “must deal with Russia as it is, not as we wish it to be, fully utilizing our strengths but open to diplomacy”.

A group of former US ambassadors and political analysts reacted to the article in a missive published August 11, 2020, followed by a group of renowned political figures from Poland, the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia on August 31, 2020. The main message of these two responses is that the time has not yet come to review Russia policy.

I am well acquainted with many of the people who signed these three statements. I worked quite closely with some of them when I served as foreign minister, some of them I met in the course of negotiations, and I am still in close contact with some of them in a variety of unofficial international projects. Since the majority of the people involved in this emerging discussion are professionals with extensive experience and public figures whose position regarding Russia is well known, the list of signers of each article hardly came as a surprise to anyone.

While I do not think we need to examine in detail the arguments set forth by the parties, based on my experience in Russian-American relations, I would like to express some personal considerations on this matter.

The first point is about the possibility or advisability of a “new reload” in relations between Washington and Moscow.

One gets an impression that the authors of these statements see the “old reload” initiated by Barak Obama’s administration as a sort of bonus or an advance provided by the United States in expectation of good behavior on Russia’s part.

They dispute whether or not Russia has lived up to these expectations, whether or not it deserves a new bonus. I personally cannot recall any case when the United States (under the Obama administration or any other administration) gave Russia any “bonuses” or “advances,” made unilateral concessions or did anything at all that did not further American interests.

The “reload” policy, in my opinion, was aligned with the long-term interests of both countries, especially in the security sphere. Only an extremely biased observer could have asserted that the New START was a unilateral concession by Washington to Moscow. It is equally hard to interpret the NATO Lisbon Summit Declaration on forming a strategic partnership with Russia as a unilateral concession. In both cases, the interests of both parties were taken into account, as well as the interests of international security in general.

Russia and the United States remain the leading nuclear powers with the largest strategic weapon capacity. Over the decades, mutual deterrence has existed between Moscow and Washington. However, an unbiased analysis of challenges and threats to Russian and US security shows that the real – not farfetched – threats our countries face do not originate with the opposite party, but with processes and trends located outside of our bilateral relations. We cannot accurately forecast possible and desirable prospects for relations between our two countries without an analysis of the general context of the international system.

We have to admit that distrust between our countries has reached a level unprecedented in modern history, and improvement will take years, even decades. However, I have no doubt that eventually we will have to start moving in this direction, and not because one party leaned on the other, forcing its opponent to make unilateral concessions or even surrender completely. First of all, each party has a significant reserve of strength and readiness to continue this confrontation for years. Second, history shows that peace obtained through unilateral concessions rarely lasts long.

Instead, life itself and each party’s understanding of its long-term security interests will force us to resume moving toward cooperation. In my opinion, this understanding has nothing to do with elections in our countries or with the opportunistic expectations of certain political forces. Independently of such expectations, the world is moving fast toward a line beyond which a global catastrophe looms ever more clearly.

After looking over this line, everyone in this world – especially the leading countries, which have a special responsibility for the fate of the world – will have to make decisions over and above their immediate interests.

Speculations on when and with whom in Russia the United States should start a dialogue have no practical meaning. It would be highly unreasonable and even irresponsible to delay negotiations, waiting until more compliant or more convenient interlocutors appear, or hoping that the general political environment will become more favorable for negotiations.

As a minister, I was in constant contact with the United States, first with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, then with Colin Powell. This was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The bombing of Yugoslavia, the war in Iraq, the Middle East crisis, NATO expansion, and many other factors clearly hindered the Russian-American dialogue. We had serious differences on many issues. But at the same time, we did not stop our dialogue for even a day, no matter how difficult it was.

That is the art of diplomacy: to talk with a difficult partner and reach agreements where the parties’ positions differ significantly and the chances for compromise seem minimal.

Critics would argue that the Russian-American dialogue at the beginning of this century did not prevent multiple conflicts and wars. That is true. However, it did help avoid even graver consequences, and we were able to reach mutually acceptable agreements (on the New START and other matters) where it was possible. The entire experience of global diplomacy teaches us that solutions may be found only through dialogue. And the sooner our political leaders realize this, the sooner we will move from public recriminations and destructive information wars employing most advanced technology to serious negotiations on the most important issues of the 21st-century agenda.

It is easy to give general advice. It is even easier to take a proud stand of moral superiority, emphasizing the commitment to one’s own values and principles. It is much harder for those in power to make decisions. As the great American economist John Kenneth Galbraith once noted, in politics one has to choose not between the good and the bad; but between the disastrous and the unpalatable. We can only hope that political leaders in our countries will prefer the unpalatable to the disastrous.

Igor Ivanov was Russia’s Foreign Minister in 1998-2004. He is President of Russian International Affairs Council, Professor of Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Source: Kommersant