The Policy World Meets Academia: Designing U.S. Policy toward Russia

Chapter 8: Formulating U.S. Policy toward Russia

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Timothy J. Colton, Timothy Frye, and Robert Legvold
U.S. Policy Toward Russia

Steven Pifer

While efforts to “reset” relations with Russia may not have gone as far as many people would like, U.S.-Russia relations have improved significantly since the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia conflict in August 2008.1 That progress has been made in part because the Obama administration came into office prepared to consider trade-offs and to address some Russian concerns in order to improve the broader U.S.-Russia relationship and secure a more cooperative approach toward Russia on issues such as Afghanistan and Iran.

I worked with Celeste Wallander, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia Policy in the U.S. Department of Defense, as part of the foreign policy team for Obama’s election campaign. In August 2008, the team had a conversation that led to a strategy paper for engaging Russia, which included the kinds of trade-offs the United States might offer in order to improve the relationship and secure Russian cooperation on other questions. By February 2009, it was clear that the Obama administration was ready to act on some of the key issues.

One of the issues the administration chose to prioritize was strategic arms reductions. It shifted from a Bush-administration approach to an arms-control approach that was more familiar to Russia. The new strategic arms reduction agreement was to be legally binding, limiting not just warheads but also missile launchers and bombers. That was a comfortable framework for the Russian government, and a move that the Obama administration viewed as good for arms control and as an acknowledgment of Russian concerns.

Another step the Obama administration took was the September 2009 decision to reconfigure missile defense in Europe. Although the move was advertised as being driven by a reassessment of the Iranian ballistic missile threat, and I believe that was largely true, it would not have passed unnoticed to Russia experts in the U.S. government that Moscow would see the reconfiguration as a positive gesture. The Russian government is undoubtedly displeased that the plan still entails the deployment of American military infrastructure in countries such as Poland. But such infrastructure will not include a missile interceptor with a range of 10,000 kilometers; the interceptor will have a range of 900 kilometers—a very different question for Russia in real military terms.

Officials in the Obama administration said from the beginning that they hoped moves such as resumed arms control negotiations would encourage a positive response from Russia. Arms control measures, though important to the United States, were also meant to garner Russian cooperation on issues that matter to the Obama administration, namely Afghanistan and Iran. Administration officials, in private conversations in Spring 2009, were very explicit about their reasoning.

In fact, several of us who took part in those conversations came away with the strong impression that Russia’s response to U.S. gestures, such as the resumption of strategic arms negotiations, might well influence a White House decision on the amount of time and attention the president would devote to Russia, given everything else on what is a very full foreign-policy plate. Russia did respond, for example, with the move announced in July 2009 to allow U.S. overflight of Russia with lethal military equipment going to Afghanistan. There was a sense that Russia was prepared to reciprocate in some other ways, too.

With Iran, my impression is that the U.S. administration hopes for more cooperation from Russia; I wouldn’t say the administration expects it. But there, too, is a story that so far appears to be successful. President Medvedev has envisioned a more robust attitude toward Iran, in terms of possible sanctions, than Russia has proposed at any previous time. The crucial moment will be when the UN Security Council takes up the issue of new sanctions; we will then see how far Moscow is prepared to go. I believe that in the end Russia will be helpful, though Moscow is probably unprepared to commit to the full extent of U.S. proposals for new sanctions. The result may be a two-tiered structure: a set of sanctions adopted by UN Security Council resolution and then, perhaps, additional sanctions applied by the United States and Europe.

Whether a victory is declared for U.S. policy will depend on the degree to which Russia is prepared to cooperate on new sanctions, which is yet unknown. But the United States is seeing more positive movement from Russia on issues of U.S. concern than in the past.

In the case of European security, my sense is that the Obama administration is ready to engage in discussions on the topic, taking into account Medvedev’s proposal. The United States should approach that dialogue with the confidence that it has the support of NATO, the European Union, and countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Russia will not be able to muster a great deal of support for the problematic ideas in Medvedev’s draft treaty, such as proposals in Article II of the Russian draft treaty that suggest Russia would all but have the right to veto enlargement of NATO and the European Union. We have to be creative in thinking about ways we could use that dialogue to advance U.S. and Western interests—and then engage in a conversation on Russia’s treaty proposal.

The post-Soviet space is potentially the largest source of friction between Washington and Moscow because each country’s position fundamentally contradicts the other’s. In July 2009 in Moscow, head of the Russian Council for Foreign and Defense Policy Sergei Karaganov had an interesting perspective on the issue. He said Russia was prepared to help America deal with its problems with Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan—provided that the United States concede primacy to Russia in the post-Soviet space. That’s not going to happen. Washington will continue to execute an approach that engages Russia’s neighbors by building robust relations and keeping doors open for those countries to develop their links with the West. That said, the problem of managing U.S.-Russian differences over the post-Soviet space should become easier as issues such as extending NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia move to the back burner, in the former case because Ukraine has largely taken itself out of the NATO game. But at some point, there will likely be tension with Russia over the post-Soviet area.

The role of Central Asia is a special case. With everything that’s on America’s foreign-policy plate, it may be difficult for Washington to devote much energy, time, and resources to Central Asia. China’s involvement in Central Asia may be a positive development: to the extent that countries in Central Asia have greater room to maneuver—which China is giving them, as China can offer an alternative to Russia—those countries have options.

For example, there are clear differences between China and Russia, particularly regarding energy in Central Asia. The United States has wanted to see multiple pipelines coming out of Central Asia, and there is now a gas pipeline extending from Turkmenistan to China. That’s a good development for the region.

Perhaps we should look at how to involve India in the region as well, in a manner that would not raise Pakistani concerns that India is encroaching on Afghanistan. The fact that there are multiple players in Central Asia may compensate for the limited time and energy the United States can devote to the area.

Finally, at Robert Legvold’s suggestion, I would like to offer a couple of general thoughts on academia and the policy world from the perspective of a former policy professional. The essays prepared for this collection are very interesting. But they also make clear that the academic and policy worlds speak two completely different languages. If the objective of these essays is to influence policy, they are unlikely to succeed, as essays such as these may never reach the right audience in the U.S. government.

This reality is unfortunate because there is a lot of good thinking in the academic world, thinking that could be useful to policy-makers. But that work often is not conveyed to the policy world. Packaging this work in a way that is accessible to and easily digested by policy-makers would be valuable—and would increase influence on policy. But it would require significant repackaging.

First, be brief. A nine- or ten-page paper is considered short in the academic world. For the policy world, one to two pages is the target. To get the information to the right people, you have to be able to boil it down to the essential points.

Second, analysis is good, but in the urgency of the moment, the policy-maker is looking for the solution. What’s the proposal? What’s the policy suggestion? Offer very basic analysis; the policy—the prescription—is the important part.

Third, choose topics to have influence. Some topics are not appropriate to tackle. For example, when several of us at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., wanted to look at U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reductions last year, I spoke with people in the administration and asked, what happens after the New START negotiation? The answer seemed to be that it was impossible to know, because the focus of everyone working on START was on completing the treaty by December. This reality told us two things. One, we probably ought not to be thinking about what is being done for the New START treaty, because it is a moving target and the U.S. government is thoroughly engaged on the subject. But there was, perhaps, some useful contribution to be made in terms of thinking about the next round, after the New START Treaty was done. By talking to people in government, one gets a sense of what they may not be focusing on because their plate is full, and that may give some ideas about areas to tackle where writing and proposals will have greater impact on the policy world.

Fourth is timing. The beginning of an administration is a good time to present policy proposals. In the first six to eight months that the current administration was in office, it was open to ideas on U.S.-Russia policy. After October or November, the foreign policy course for engaging Moscow was more or less set in place. There are certain periods when there will be greater receptivity to ideas and when one in the academic world may have a chance of maximizing impact.

The difficulty of communication between academia and the policy world, however, remains a big problem for both sides. The policy world needs to think about how it can take advantage of the ideas that are out there. Academia needs to think about how to make its writing accessible to policy-makers. Greater communication would benefit both.


1. This essay is modified from remarks given at “The Policy World Meets Academia: Designing U.S. Policy toward Russia,” a conference held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, January 29, 2010.