What the Crimea crisis will do to US-Russia relations

By Pavel Podvig | March 27, 2014

Over the years it has become cliché for commentators on US-Russian affairs to observe that the relationship between the two countries has hit its lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, these observations more often than not reflected reality, as despite brief peaks and slightly longer plateaus, relations sank to ever-lower levels with each new crisis. The current one, which reached a flashpoint when Russia annexed Crimea on March 18, may strain ties between Moscow and Washington beyond the breaking point. While one element of the relationship—cooperation on arms control—has survived so far, retreats in other areas are likely to cut much deeper. Even if the situation does not deteriorate further, bringing basic trust and confidence back to relations between Russia and the West will take a very long time.

The problem this time is not the severity of the crisis, but rather the threat it poses to the very fabric of cooperation between Russia and the West. Until now, various collaborative programs not only survived the upheavals, but also provided a safety net of interconnectivity and mutual interests that dampened the impact of the crises.

Unfortunately, it looks like the forces that the Russian intervention in Crimea has set in motion could be too strong for the safety net to handle. While the breakdown will not happen overnight—the interdependence is deep enough to prevent sudden changes—we will probably see a gradual shift away from cooperation and interaction. Mutual interests will shrink dramatically as a result, making it much more difficult to return to the partnership, however uneven it has been so far.

The change may not be very visible at first, mainly because key elements of the arms control and disarmament infrastructure have remained intact. When some news reports suggested that Russia may suspend inspection activities under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in response to sanctions imposed by the West, the Kremlin quickly made a statement saying that it has no intention of reneging on its arms control obligations. Indeed, Moscow has made an effort to demonstrate its commitment to transparency in the military domain: On March 11, it allowed a series of Ukrainian overflights under the Open Skies Treaty. It also granted Ukraine’s request to conduct an inspection of a “non-declared military activity” in a border region. This kind of inspection is allowed under the 2011 Vienna Document, which built a framework for transparency on conventional forces in Europe.

New START activities were also unaffected—during these tense weeks, Russia duly notified the United States of the routine test launch of a ballistic missile, and conducted an inspection of the US strategic nuclear arsenal as called for under New START. Even though there have been bumps, like Moscow repeatedly blocking an observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from entering Crimea, the structure of military arms control has held up reasonably well. There is no reason to expect this to change in the future—after all, arms control worked during the much darker days of the Cold War. Moreover, Russia seems to be trying to separate the Crimea issue from other aspects of its relationship with the West, which include cooperation on Iran and Syria.

The West, however, does not seem inclined to treat Crimea as an isolated incident, so cooperation will probably suffer across the board, even though Russian participation is indispensable to a number of high-profile projects. For example, Moscow’s Soyuz rocket is currently the only way to take people to the International Space Station. The United States has been working on its own piloted spacecraft for some time, and we can now expect this work to accelerate.

Russia’s contract to supply RD-180 rocket engines could also suffer. This was a very valuable, commercially viable project in which Russia provided engines for most of the US military’s rocket launches. Now production is likely to move to the United States, and the US Air Force will be looking for alternative ways to launch its payloads. Termination of the RD-180 project would be a serious setback for US-Russian cooperation. Plus, the Russian producer of the engines, Energomash, would lose about 60 percent of its revenue, and the United States would have to spend about $1 billion to start production.

Russia may find that its interests suffer in a number of other areas where it had started to establish itself as a reliable partner. The nuclear power industry is one of them. Following the Crimean crisis, some European countries that were considering building nuclear power plants with the state-run Russian energy company Rosatom—including the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom—have started to have reservations about working with Moscow. And despite Rosatom’s best efforts to reassure Ukraine, its largest foreign customer, of its reliability as a supplier of nuclear fuel, it is likely that Russia will lose this market in the long run. These are, of course, mostly commercial losses that Russia will have to bear, but it would be wrong to underestimate the importance of projects like these for integrating Russia into the larger global framework of security and cooperation.

For the moment, prospects for economic and security cooperation between Russia and the West do not look good. Clearly, those in Russia who understand the value of integration and collaboration do not have much influence on the decisions being made in the Kremlin today. Russia’s coming isolation, which will result from the curtailing of many military and economic links, will probably make these voices even weaker. Key elements of the post-Cold War arms control, transparency, and confidence-building architecture appear to have survived the storm, at least. But they alone are unlikely to prevent the relationship between Russia and the West from slipping to new lows.

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