Liu Ping

Selective Cooperation and Restrained Contention — Comments on Current US-Russian Relations

By Liu Ping

Извор/Source: International Strategic Studies, 3, 2011, serial No. 101, pp 39-46, China Institute for International Strategic Studies, Beijing, China

Објављено по посебној дозволи у е-библиотеци „Философија рата и мира“ у оквиру Културне мреже „Пројекта Растко“ • Published under a special permission in “Philosophy of War and Peace” E-library by Project Rastko Cultural Network


Abstract: Since the beginning of this year, the US-Russian relations have been improving in general, with further increase in cooperation in some areas and the bilateral relations entering a new cycle of cooperation. However, the structural conflicts between them still exist, and the struggle between containment and counter-containment and between control and counter-control will continue for a long time. "Selective cooperation" and "restrained contention" will be the basic state of their bilateral relations.


Since the beginning of this year, the US-Russian relations have carried on the positive momentum over the past two years since the "restart", with a further general detente and a rise in the cooperative aspect. This has been a choice of policy made by both parties on the basis of national interests and the current domestic and international situation. However, the structural conflicts between them still exist. For some time to come, "selective cooperation" and "restrained contention" will dominate the basic state of their bilateral relations. The coming of the general election cycle for both countries will bring new complicating factors in their bilateral relations.

I . The US-Russian relations have been improving in general, with further increase of cooperation in some areas and the bilateral relations entering a new cycle of cooperation

1. The political relations have obviously warmed up. Since the beginning of 2011, there has been an increase in high-level contact. US President Obama and Russian President Medvedev had a bilateral meeting that lasted about one and a half hours in May during the G8 summit in Deauville, France. US Vice President Biden and Defense Minister Gates visited Russia successively in March to pave the way for Obama's visit to the country within the year. President Obama said that the US-Russian relations had been successfully "restarted" and brought positive results to both sides, that the "period of mutual mistrust" had passed, and that the development of their bilateral relations faced new opportunities. Before his visit to Russia in March, Biden issued a statement saying that the purpose of the visit was to "expand the results of the 'restart' of the US-Russian relations". Russia, on its part, said that it expected to develop a real "strategic partnership" with the US. During the G8 summit in Deauville, Obama and Medvedev emphasized four times that the bilateral relations were good. In the second half of this year, they may meet and communicate at the East Asian Sum­mit and the informal meeting of the APEC leaders in Hawaii.

2. A new level has been reached in strategic balance. In terms of the reduction of nuclear weapons, Obama, who has been advocating the idea of a "world free of nuclear weapons", called the new START a cornerstone of the US-Russian relations and actively pushed ahead with the new round of US-Russian talks on the reduction of strategic arms. Riding the tide, Russia has given an active response and expects to maintain a low-level "strategic balance" with the US. Thanks to both parties' efforts and mutual compromise, in February 2011, US Secretary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov had a meeting when attending the Munich Security Conference to exchange the instruments of ratification of the New START treaty, thus making it officially take effect. Clinton called it a "new milestone" in the US-Russian relations, and Lavrov said that the new treaty would be "helpful for international stability". In terms of missile defense, to avoid too much provocation against Russia, the Obama administration adjusted the Bush administration's plan for the Eastern Europe missile defense system, slowing down deployment, changing the sites of deployment, and pushing ahead with the building of the missile defense system with a low profile. In terms of geopolitical contention between the US and Russia, it is becoming less intense for the time being. The US has tolerated Russia's aggressive posture in the CIS and slowed down the eastward expansion of the NATO. It also declared its position in mild terms over Russia's intervention in Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine's drop of its efforts to join the NATO.

3. There has been an increase in coop­eration in hotspot issues. In terms of the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, Russia did not oppose the US when the latter persuaded the UN to pass a resolution on establishing a no-fly zone in Libya despite its opposition to foreign intervention in the domestic affairs of Libya and other countries in turmoil. In fact, it has moved its stand closer to that of the US and other Western countries. When attending the G8 summit in Deauville, Medvedev said that the Gaddafi regime had lost its "legitimacy" and that Russia would "help" Gaddafi to step down and go into exile. Concerning the Afghanistan issue, which is one of the US' major concerns in its foreign strategy, in March 2011, Medvedev officially approved the previously reached agreement for the US to enter Afghanistan across the Russian territorial air space. This has provided a legal basis for the US and its allies when they transport weapons, military technological equipment, and military supplies as well as personnel participating in the International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan across Russia, saving at least $ 130 million for the US each year. Over the non-proliferation issue, Russia has stopped opposing the US' insistence on sanctioning Iran through the UN Security Council (SC). It voted for SC Resolution 1929 proposed by the US and other Western countries, stated that the Security Council sanction had been upgraded due to Iran's failure to give a positive response to the international community's goodwill, and suspended the sale of the S-300 air defense system to Iran to avoid provoking the US. Russia also took an active part in the Four-Party Talks over the Middle East issue in order to push ahead with the Middle East peace process. Over the anti-ter­rorism issue both the US and Russia have stated that the crackdown on terrorism one of the areas with the most urgent call for cooperation. Russia consented to the US' killing of bin Laden, and the US' attitude toward Russia's crackdown on the terrorists in Chechnya has also undergone a subtle change. The US decided to list Umarov, the Chechen terrorist leader it had previously called a "freedom fighter", among terrorists and has offered a $ 5 million award for information about his whereabouts. Moreover, the US and Russia have issued a joint statement about anti-terrorist cooperation, saying that they will step up cooperation in the collection of anti-terrorist intelligence and other areas. Russia's NATO envoy Rogozin said that this act was "a correct step for correcting the double standard on anti-terrorism".

4. Trade and economic cooperation has become a new highlight. The economic relatedness between the US and Russia is low in comparison with the economic relations among other major powers. Obama intended to realize his plan of doubling the US export within five years, and Russia is one of the major export markets he expects to rely on. Medvedev has said that the US is an important source of investment and technology necessary for Russia's economic modernization and that he expects American capital and technology could help Russia to achieve this goal. In March 2011, when meeting Vice President Biden, Medvedev reiterated that the economic relations between the two countries had lagged far behind their political relations. Concerning Russia's effort to join the WTO, the US government has repeatedly voiced its support for Russia and the intention to abolish the Jackson-Vanik a­mendment to its 1974 Trade Reform Act, an obstacle against their trade and economic cooperation. During the G8 summit in Deauville, Obama reiterated his "confidence" in completing the talks over Russia's entry into the WTO and that this would be yet another strong impetus for the development of the two countries' bilateral relations. In terms of scientific and technological cooperation, following Russia's advice, the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission created an Innovation Working Group. During his visit to Russia, Biden gave a positive response to the proposal on establishing a "strategic partnership in innovation" between the two countries and visited Skolkovo, the Russian counterpart of Silicon Valley, which was under construction. He said that the US was willing to take part in Russia's modernization and that a new pattern for US-Russian high-tech cooperation would be established in the innovation park in Skolkovo. Moreover, the US-Russian agreement on cooperation in civilian nuclear energy was restarted.

II. The general improvement of the US-Russian relations has been a choice of policy made on the basis of national interests and the change of the domestic and international situation

1. The US and Russia have not yet fully recovered from the global financial crisis, which plunged them deep in trouble, and both of them have a continuous strategic need for improving relations. The "two wars" and "one crisis" have placed the US into the greatest plight since the end of the Cold War. Obama proposed the strategic goal of "reviving America and leading the world" for national security in the Na­tional Security Strategy report, seeking a way out of the plight through "smart power" diplomacy. The restart of the US-Russian relations is one of the key steps taken by the Obama administration for external strategic adjustment. At present, the US is still facing a host of challenges against its economic recovery; the pressure of a high financial deficit and a high unemployment rate and structural problems remain prominent; the war in Afghanistan is proceeding against heavy odds, the Middle East peace progress has yet again met a deadlock, the Iranian nuclear issue remains challenging; and thus the US has a long-term need to rely on Russia's help. Russia, on its part, has suffered a heavy blow to its economy and a serious setback in its rise due to the financial crisis. It needs to expand overseas trade and market, and has a more urgent need to join the WTO. Russia wants to resume its revitalization, improve its international image, join the WTO, and introduce foreign capital and advanced technology. As a result, it has a higher demand for a stable international environment, especially for the help of the US.

2. The pragmatic foreign policies adopted by Obama and Medvedev have provided opportunities for their practical cooperation. The Putin-Bush era saw a perpetual tension in the US-Russian relations and a great decrease in the range of cooperation; furthermore, the Russia-Georgia conflict plunged their relations to a new low ebb since the end of the Cold War. As statesmen of a new generation, Obama and Medvedev have found it easier to break with the Cold War mentality and to seek common interests through rational cooperation. After taking power, Obama proposed the idea of "smart power" diplomacy, noting that the basis of American diplomacy is "a combination of principle and pragmatism instead of fossilized ideology". Relations with Russia are one of the best platforms for Obama to implement "transformation diplomacy" and practice and display "smart power". Changing the tough policy of unmitigated suppression and containment adopted toward the end of the Bush administration, Obama highlights his effort to cozy up to Russia, repeatedly expressing the readiness to establish a partnership with Russia so that the two countries could rise to global challenges together. For Russia, relations with the US are central to its diplomatic and security strategy. After taking power, Medvedev publicized a new edition of The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation establishing the strategic goal of "turning the Russian-US relations back to the course of strategic partnership". As a young president, Medvedev also needs to display his political achievements to both his nation and other countries, enhance his prestige, and consolidate his political position both domestically and externally. These have laid a sound groundwork for both countries to adopt the concept of pragmatic cooperation based on common interests, to face up to the convergences and conflicts of interests in their bilateral relations, to get what they need through cooperation, and to prevent their differences from widening through dialog and coordination.

3. The Obama administration has secured predominance in improving the bilateral relations by taking the initiative in posture and action. US Secretary of State Clinton proffered the meaningful "restart" button first, then Obama conducted his "hamburger diplomacy" when receiving Medvedev and had a meeting of the heads of state with the latter during the G8 summit in Deauville. Unlike previous improvements of the US-Russian relations, this time the American government has come to the foreground to help the relations to develop proactively. Obama expressed the US' wish to develop its relations with Russia through reciprocal visits, meetings, phone calls and letters to or with Medvedev, and sent ranking officials and think tank members for diplomacy and security affairs for frequent visits to Russia. Moreover, he took the initiative to make the plan for "restarting" the US-Russian relations and put forward 19 suggestions for improving relations in a report on the US policy toward Russia. In particular, the two countries set up the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission. In an attempt to incorporate the improvement of the US-Russian relations into its strategic interests, the US has prompted Russia to make pro-US promises on its major concerns, such as the Afghan situation, the Iranian nuclear issue, and the reduction of strategic weapons. In addition, it has thrown baits from time to time on Russia's concerns, such as European missile defense and the eastward expansion of the NATO, to guide its relations with Russia to a desired direction. In recent years, with the increase of Russia's diplomatic means and resources due to a rapid rise of national strength, Russia has begun to change its passive role in dealing with its relations with the US. While fully expressing the wish to improve such relations, it has taken the opportunity of the relative downturn in the US' ability to lead global affairs to give a high-profile response to the latter's moves and to be on the offensive in some areas. However, generally speaking, the improvement of the US-Russian relations has mainly benefited from actions on the part of the US, and its extent and direction in the future will mainly depends on the degree to which the US responds to Russia's interests and concerns.

III. The trend and focuses of a new round of US-Russian cooperation are largely apparent, but the structural conflicts between them remain, and "selective cooperation" and "restrained contention" will continue to dominate the basic state of their bilateral relations

1. The US and Russia may deal with urgent problems in their bilateral relations in a relatively calm and rational manner.

At present, the results achieved in more than two years since the "restart" of their relations have enhanced political and security-related mutual trust. Both Obama and Medvedev have voiced their satisfaction with the current US-Russian relations. Analysts have noted that such progress has to a large degree benefited from the restraint and pragmatism of the new leaders over issues concerning the bilateral relations. In particular, regarding urgent problems like the European missile defense, the eastward expansion of the NATO, and the contention for Central Asia, both sides have deliberately kept low-profile and calm, not taking any action that could be interpreted as provocative. On the one hand, both sides seem to have reached a tacit agreement on the division of their strategic spaces. Despite mutual offense and defense in various areas and directions, friction over such disagreements has been kept under control. The US maintains an obviously aggressive pos­ture in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Asia-Pacific, and Russia is giving an appropriate measure of support to the US regarding the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, the Iranian nuclear issue, and Afghanistan, among other issues. On the other hand, Obama has made it clear that the US expects to establish solid and reliable political and economic ties with Russia in order to defuse accidental political threats to their bilateral relations. Moreover, Medvedev's modernization-oriented diplomatic strategy has explicitly given priority to Europe and the US. Based on these, the two countries may transcend the "restart" and take a step further toward a "new strategic partnership".

2.Judging from the current situation, nuclear disarmament, anti-terrorism, the Afghan issue, and trade and economic issues are likely to become focuses of US-Russian cooperation. Regarding nuclear disarmament, both the US and Russia have gained political bonus in this respect. To implement the treaty and garner the economic benefits of nuclear disarmament may become a common ground of their efforts. Regarding anti-terrorism, the US still faces dire threats from international terrorist forces. Moreover, the National Security Strategy report has proposed for the first time that terrorists from within the country are a major challenge against national security.1 In its New Military Doctrine, Russia has also listed illegal armed activities among one of its security threats. The killing of bin Laden by the US may be followed by a rebound in al-Qaeda's retaliatory actions. The terrorist threats against Russia are also very serious. Therefore the two countries share the wish and basis for further cooperation. Regarding the Afghan issue, the Obama administration is having a heated debate within itself over the degree and speed of the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in July. The US has an urgent need for Russia and other external forces to help reduce the costs of the war in Afghanistan and relieve the political and financial pressure. Having permitted the US to transport supplies across its territory in legal documents, Russia may provide more help to the US-led NATO's action in Afghanistan. The two countries are also actively working on drug control in Afghanistan, having launched four joint operations in the first four months of this year. Regarding trade and economy, the Obama administration is adjusting the US' mode of economic development with focus on reviving real economy, export, and energy reform, while Medvedev has proposed the idea of pushing ahead with Russia's modernization through an "innovative society". Both of them have made trade and economy a new possible point of breakthrough in the bilateral relations. Currently, the total US-Russian trade volume accounts for only around 6 % of Russia's total foreign trade, suggesting a considerable potential for trade and economic cooperation.

3. The structural conflicts in the US-Russian relations remain, and the overt and covert strife will continue and extend to new strategic heights. The experience over the past two centuries has shown the bilateral relations between the US and Russia to be complex and changeable, with unpredictable ups and downs. They have joined hands to fight common enemies, and have also confronted each other in all respects. Strife has been interwoven with compromise, and conflicts have coexisted with cooperation. Anyway, the serious lack of strategic mutual trust and the treating of each other as a strategic adversary have remained largely unchanged. Competitiveness and conflicts have been always dominating their bilateral relations. In addition to the vast difference in cultural concepts, there have always existed a series of structural conflicts-containment and anti-containment in strategic goals, geopolitical marginalization and anti-marginalization, and, in terms of ideology, attempts at peaceful evolution and countermeasures. In the future, in trying to achieve the goal of "reviving America and leading the world" for national security strategy, the Obama administration will hardly give up its strategic mistrust and containment of Russia while continuing to rely on it for support. On the other hand, to protect its strategic interests, Russia will firmly resist America's strategic squeeze at low costs in an asymmetric way while trying to maintain stable relations with the US. In terms of geopolitics, the US has not given up the eastward expansion of the NATO and has begun to deploy the first batch of Patriot-3 missiles in Poland close to the Russian border. On its part, Russia has decided to prolong the deployment of its troops in Ukraine and Armenia, and to set up military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In terms of military strategy, the US is accelerating the build-up of the capability of "prompt global strike". It has conducted flight tests for the DARPA Hypersonic Falcon HTV-2 and the X-37B Orbital Vehicle; it has continued to push ahead with the plan to substitute conventional war-heads on its intercontinental ballistic missiles and accelerated the development of conventional means of long-range precision strike. On its part, Russia has incorporated its overseas interests and the security of its allies into the function of "ac­tive defense", which it has been stressing; it also emphasizes that it must ensure the capability of nuclear containment, optimize the organization and deployment of strategic nuclear forces, enhance the interchangeability of delivery platforms and warheads, and improve penetration capability. In terms of ideological struggle, the US has stepped up its efforts to intervene in Russia's domestic affairs in the name of "democracy" and "human rights", saying that it will spend more money on helping Russia to "develop democracy" and build a "civil society". Russia has accused the US of giving financial aid to opposition attempts at coup and emphasized that "any attempt on the part of American fake democrats to repeat the Egyptian event in Russia will be stopped".2 Over the missile defense issue, the Obama administration has repeated the Bush administration's argument that the missile defense system deployed by the US in Europe cannot intercept Russian missiles. Russia has asked the US to make a written pledge that its missile defense system will not be directed against Russia, and insists on demarcating a "responsibility area" for missile defense. The US and the NATO have refused to give any written pledge and insists that the NATO and Russia build and operate their respective missile defense systems on their own. Russia is now having a redoubled sense of urgency because America's deployment of the missile defense system in Poland and Rumania has entered a substantive stage. Senior Russian leaders have repeatedly warned that it is going to take appropriate countermeasures. Russian Chief of the General Staff Makarov has said of late that by 2020 the American missile defense system will tip the strategic balance between the US and Russia.

Recently Medvedev wrote to the NATO heads of state to stress Russia's steadfast position on the missile defense issue. As he put it, if Russia and the NATO fail to reach an agreement on this issue, Russia will accelerate the development of offensive strategic weapons and both sides may return to the state of Cold War. In addition, regarding the implementation of the new nuclear disarmament treaty, both the US Congress and the Russian parliament have added conditions when ratifying the treaty. The US has provided that the treaty cannot limit its development of the missile defense system; Russia has prescribed that it has the right to terminate the treaty once the American missile defense system endangers its national security and defense capability. Thus the new treaty is "reversible" and its fulfillment is uncertain.

Apart from overt and covert "positional warfare" in traditional areas, the strategic contention between the US and Russia shows the tendency to intensify and spread to new strategic heights such as the cyberspace and the outer space. Regarding the cyberspace, the Obama administration has unveiled the International Strategy for Cyberspace report and issued the first plan for building the capability of cyber warfare. The Cyberspace Command has acquired full combat capability and conducted frequent cyber warfare exercises. These have highlighted the US' attempt at "hegemony through the cyberspace". As for Russia, it is accelerating the upgrading of its military network systems and improving the management of cyber and information security through legislation and other means; moreover, it is vigorously pushing ahead with multilateral talks on information security and stepping up its efforts to guard against America's actions. Regarding the outer space, the US has made a national space policy, publicized a "new space plan", issued the first National Security Space Strategy report, and stepped up its efforts to enhance its space military capabilities in order to expand its superiority in space military technology. Russia has conducted a simulation test for the Mars-500 manned Mars probe and refined the construction of the GLONASS global navigation system. The continuous intensification of the two countries' strategic strife on the "new frontiers" has added new complicating factors to the development of their relations. In addition, the fact that both countries have entered the general election cycle has also added new uncertainties to their relations.


  1. The Obama administration: National Security Strategy , May 2010.
  2. As reported by the Russian website for commentaries on current affairs on February 17, 2011, Anton Demidov, leader of the Young Russia movement, the US State Department attempts to effectuate a coup d'état in Russia by financing oppositions.

(Translated by Jin Bao)

На Растку објављено: 2012-02-06
Датум последње измене: 2012-02-07 21:27:21

Пројекат Растко / Философија / Философија рата и мира