08/25/2008 - 14:30

U.S.-Russian relations after the conflict in Georgia

Pavel Podvig

Pavel Podvig

A physicist trained at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Podvig works on the Russian nuclear arsenal, US-Russian relations, and nonproliferation. In 1995, he headed the Russian...

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If there's a consensus about the confrontation between Russia and Georgia, it's that the conflict has seriously strained the relationship between Moscow and its Western counterparts--namely, the United States and NATO. Now that the worst of the conflict seems over, it appears that the harshest measures suggested in the first days of the conflict, i.e., expelling Russia from the G-8, won't materialize. Despite all of the disagreements and mistrust, each party seems to understand that severing ties between Russia and the West isn't realistic.

The problem is that while G-8 membership is highly visible and symbolic, it isn't the most important element of the partnership between Russia and the West. This partnership is only as strong as the network of concrete agreements and bureaucratic arrangements that allow governments to work closely together, creating what someone aptly named "habits of cooperation." Today's sorry U.S.-Russian relationship is a direct result of Washington and Moscow neglecting in recent years the few existing cooperative arrangements between the countries.

We should try to remember that cooperation isn't a reward for good behavior. Rather, 'the habits of cooperation' are important building blocks of an equitable and trusting relationship that would make conflicts such as the one in Georgia impossible."

The danger is that in the emotional atmosphere of the aftermath of the Georgia conflict, the United States and Russia could damage the foundation of their relationship further, strengthening elements in both countries that are either indifferent or hostile to the idea of a partnership. Already, the early signs seem to indicate that we're moving in that direction.

Military cooperation between NATO and Russia may be the conflict's first political victim. For instance, Moscow has decided to halt joint military-to-military projects with NATO--a move that would cancel about 10 joint exercises scheduled for this year. And while both NATO and Moscow are leaving some room for normalization, the mood in the Kremlin seems to be that Russia has nothing to lose if it severs all ties with NATO.

The U.S.-Russian agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation is another likely casualty of the conflict. Although the agreement probably wouldn't have entered into force during the Bush administration--the administration got the timing wrong--now it's probable that Congress will pass a resolution explicitly rejecting it, making it difficult for the next administration to bring the agreement back--even if that administration decides that the agreement is an important means in which to cooperate and secure a powerful Russian ally, Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency. I should note that Rosatom representatives are upset that the conflict in Georgia could potentially prevent the agreement from becoming a reality.

It's also unlikely that any of the proposals for transparency or cooperation regarding European missile defense will get a chance--especially given that the Georgia conflict quickly led to Washington and Warsaw finalizing a deal that would feature Poland hosting missile defense interceptors. Russian generals responded by threatening to add Poland to Moscow's nuclear target lists--a particularly ominous threat.

At this point, no one knows the full extent of the fallout from the Georgia conflict. Some pessimists have gone so far as to ask if Russia will pull out of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program and other efforts to reduce the danger of nuclear weapons or curtail access to the International Space Station. Personally, I don't envision this happening--precisely because these are established programs that have substantial internal support in Russia.

Of course, setbacks are inevitable--it's difficult to make a case for continuing a partnership in the midst of a crisis. But we should try to remember that cooperation isn't a reward for good behavior or a bargaining chip. Rather, "the habits of cooperation" are important building blocks of a stable, trusting, and equitable relationship that would make conflicts such as the one in Georgia impossible.