Quo Vadis

Igor Ivanov, President of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia (1998-2004)

Russia and the United States showed that, even during periods of increased tension, they are capable of mitigating the risks of military conflicts and the threat of nuclear war

The Geneva meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden had several dimensions.

On the one hand, the meeting was supposed to give an idea of the future direction of relations between the two largest nuclear powers, which largely determine the general state of global security. On the other hand, the meeting was expected to indicate the main trends in the general development of global affairs, which is equally important. Therefore, politicians, journalists, and experts are still focused on the meeting’s outcome and its implications for international relations.

As for bilateral relations between Russia and the United States, the presidents’ meeting on the whole seems to have met the parties’ realistic expectations. After such a protracted and severe collapse, it would be unrealistic to expect serious, practical agreements that would enable constructive cooperation. And there was clearly not enough time to draw up such agreements. No one expected to sign detailed documents. However, the presidents of Russia and the United States issued a joint statement that outlines a number of committed positions and objectives that, if implemented, could lead to concrete decisions and progress in the field of strategic stability.

The presidents reaffirmed their adherence to the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. This seemingly self-evident statement actually contains considerable semantic content. Recent years have seen heated debates around the military doctrines of the United States and Russia. There has been a great deal of speculation that, under certain circumstances, the first use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. These discussions took place during the destruction of the legal framework for nuclear arms control and of bilateral communication in general, which significantly increased the risks of unintentional conflict, perhaps even nuclear. The readiness of the two leading nuclear powers to work together to prevent a nuclear catastrophe, which has been confirmed at the highest level, can provide the blueprint for a number of practical steps to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons being used. This readiness will also reinforce the nuclear non-proliferation regime in general.

The US and Russian leaders recognized strategic predictability as the only thing that can mitigate the risks of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war. This understanding also existed during the most intense years of the Cold War. Today, when security challenges are growing increasingly complex, and the risks are becoming inevitably greater as new advances in modern technology are introduced into the military sphere, predictability is becoming a major factor in reducing risk and restoring confidence.

“Predictability goes hand-in-hand with trust; one is impossible without the other”

How can we achieve predictability in a fundamentally unstable world? The only way is through intensive negotiations involving diplomats, military personnel, and scientists, and by agreeing on documents that would allow the parties to exercise effective control and perform verification in those areas where appropriate understandings will be reached. Now, following the essential political understandings achieved in Geneva, the professionals who have deep understanding of the subject matter and can advise on stabilizing the nuclear arms equation should take center stage. Predictability goes hand-in-hand with trust; one is impossible without the other.

As for practical steps, the presidents agreed on the prompt launch of a comprehensive dialogue on strategic stability, which should, further down the road, lay the foundations for the future arms control regime. What makes this dialogue both difficult and different from similar mechanisms in the past is primarily the need to negotiate on several matters at the same time, including nuclear and conventional strategic arms, missile defense systems, cyberwarfare, space systems, and much more. As far as we know, Russia has already presented its views on the relevant bilateral working groups; let us hope that Washington does not delay in responding to these ideas.

Not by chance, strategic stability issues were the focus of the US-Russia summit. Without mutual understanding in this area, it would be virtually impossible to consider any bilateral cooperation on specific global or regional issues. When such understanding is achieved, compromises will become possible, even where the interests of the parties are significantly different.

As often happens, bilateral relations are moving toward an equally important period when the fundamental agreements between the two presidents will be carried out. Bureaucracies around the world have one thing in common: they are excellent at delaying the implementation of political initiatives and constantly shifting responsibility to the other party. We have seen this happen many times in US-Russia relations. The danger is especially great today, because there are many pessimists on both sides who do not believe in the possibility of progress in bilateral relations. It is vital that a detailed schedule for implementation of the Putin-Biden agreements be drafted immediately and that both leaders personally monitor the efforts of the relevant ministries and agencies. Only then can a set of specific documents be prepared for the next meeting of the two presidents, which should not be delayed.

For obvious reasons, the significance of the US-Russia Geneva summit goes far beyond the countries’ bilateral relations. The summit has already had a positive impact on the overall political situation in the international community.

First, the way the world watched the summit and the reaction to its outcome convincingly showed that, despite the profound changes in the world and the complex processes taking place inside Russia and the United States, our countries are still key players on the global stage. Without agreements between Moscow and Washington, there can be no question of ensuring international security and stability.

Second, the summit gave hope that practical implementation of the agreements between the presidents of Russia and the United States might provide an opportunity to unite the efforts of the international community to restore manageability in international relations. In this regard, the Russian President’s initiative to hold a summit of the permanent members of the UN Security Council takes on new meaning. A summit would be a logical and natural continuation of the dialogue that took place in Geneva.

Third, despite the importance of US-Russian cooperation in the area of strategic stability, other states will eventually need to be included in this process. Russia and the United States showed that, even during periods of increased tension, they are capable of mitigating the risks of military conflicts and the threat of nuclear war. Other countries should follow suit and demonstrate their commitment to regional and international stability.

Unfortunately, some of today’s politicians see confrontation as the perfect state of global politics because it allows them to make names for themselves without bearing any responsibility for the consequences. Irresponsible populism and foreign-policy adventurism are extremely dangerous under the current conditions. A passive approach to foreign policy and the willingness of some countries to leave security problems at the discretion of their partners and allies are no less dangerous. Europe faces a particular challenge in this regard if it is to maintain its independence on the global stage.

Over the years, there have been summits that have left a mark in the history of international relations by heralding an upcoming turn in the global politics cycle and opening up conceptually new opportunities for dialogue. Let us hope that the meeting in Geneva will become one of such summits.

Source: Rossijskaya Gazeta