Washington – Kremlin: Why Be Nice?

Posted February 4th, 2013 at 8:35 am (UTC+0)

At least they are talking: Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden (R) meet for bilateral talks during the Conference on Security Policy in Munich, on February 2 Photo: AP

At a round table discussion in Moscow the other evening, two of my American reporter colleagues argued that the United States needs Russia more than Russia needs United States.
At the risk of sounding rude, I am afraid my friends may be suffering from a mild case of…err…localitis.
Here is a reality check:
— Population: Over the next 25 years, the American advantage is to go from two-to-one today, to three-to-one in 2038. That would be 400 million Americans versus 133 million Russians.
— Economy: The U.S. economy is eight times bigger than Russia’s.
— Military: The U.S. outspends Russia 10-to-one.

Barring wild card factors – like worldwide weather chaos – there is no foreseeable reason why these fundamental disparities should change significantly in the medium term.

Indeed, the biggest game changer of our time — the shale gas revolution — benefits the US. With energy self-sufficiency looming and low gas prices a reality, the United States is re-industrializing. In contrast, Russia faces falling gas export revenues.

To compensate for its reduced clout on the world stage, the Kremlin glues Russia to China. It is like the medium size kid who gets protection by bonding with the biggest boy in the playground. The Kremlin works overtime to massage Russia’s relationship with China. The Chinese clear cut Siberian forests, pollute international rivers, and refuse to build manufacturing plants in Russia – and that is OK with Russia’s rulers.

In contrast, the Kremlin goes out of its way to pick fights with Washington.
After January’s infamous ban on Americans adopting Russian children, last week saw Russia slap a ban beef and pork imports from the United States, and a delay in certifying the latest model Boeing 777 passenger jet for use by Aeroflot. Given the already large US trade deficit with Russia, new restrictions on American exports will only further alienate the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress.

But, protest a few remaining voices in Washington, we have to be nice to the Putin Administration because we really need Russian support on key world issues.

Oh, really?
Let’s run down the checklist:

– North Korea — The Kim dynasty is a political Frankenstein that long, long ago escaped control of its Kremlin creators — probably half a century ago. On the subject of nuclear bombs, Pyongyang simply ignores Moscow. A Russian ambassador once told me that the North Koreans play a shell game, hiding their nuclear bombs in caves – and North Korea’s military has dug thousands of caves. With North Korea apparently preparing a nuclear bomb test this month, the only concrete reaction by Russia has been to turn on radiation detectors around Vladivostok. Only China has real leverage over North Korea.

Syrian woman holding “Freedom” poster protests against Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo: Reuter

– Syria – Saturday’s meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and a Syria opposition leader was encouraging, but not a first. Outsiders long hoped that a political deal could be brokered if the Russians delivered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the Americans delivered the Syrian opposition. Now, it seems clear that the Kremlin will not – and probably can not – persuade Syria’s president to step aside for a political solution. With 60,000 already dead, there is no harm in trying to enlist Russian diplomatic support for a political solution. But after 18 months of failed diplomacy, Washington has little illusions.

– Iran – Whoever is in the Kremlin has to step carefully here. Russian caution is tempered by a 500-year history of dealing with Persia. Russia does not want a nuclear-armed Iran on its southern border. Nor does it want to take a step today that Persians will hold against Russians for decades to come. That said, Russia’s cancellation of the sale of its S-300 air defense system to Iran put pressure on Tehran to negotiate its nuclear weapons program. Talks resume later this month in Kazakhstan.

Soon Russia’s problem? U.S. Army soldiers from12th Infantry Regiment pass through a village while on a patrol in 2011 near Forward Operating Base Blessing, Afghanistan. Photo: International Security Assistance Force

– Afghanistan – During the Falklands War, Henry Kissinger once described Argentina as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.” For many Americans, Afghanistan has a similar strategic importance. President Obama recently said in his inaugural address: “A decade of war is ending.” For Russia, that means that, after a decade of criticizing from the sidelines, the Kremlin will soon have the privilege of spending Russian taxpayer money to stabilize Afghanistan and prevent the spread of Islamic extremism into Central Asia – a genuine security concern for Russia. At the same time, Russian companies and the Russian government will lose revenues from ferrying NATO war material in and out of the Northern Distribution Network. Billed by the Kremlin as a favor to the West, Russia’s participation in this supply route was highly lucrative and in its own strategic interest.

– Missile Defense – Russian cooperation would be nice in building a picket line against a lone Iranian missile flying West. But Russia’s loud opposition has not slowed the program. For stopping missiles from Iran, today’s sea-based U.S. Navy Aegis interceptors are better positioned than yesterday’s land missiles in Central Europe. The Patriot missiles installed in Turkey in January could also play a role. Last month, Minister Lavrov accurately complained of Washington’s position: “They sort of offer to continue the dialogue, but do what they have decided to do.”

– Nuclear Arms Reduction – This is an issue dear to the heart of President Obama, but not terribly high on the worry lists of American voters. A North Korean nuclear test could change that. Obama Administration envoys are to come to Moscow in coming weeks to start talks. Some mutual cuts can be achieved by executive orders. But given the American congressional skepticism of the Putin government, a new bilateral treaty would be a hard sell. If Russia’s unilateral trade bans expand beyond beef and Boeings, forget it.

– United Nations Security Council Veto – UN Security Council approval gives solid international legitimacy to diplomatic or military actions. In the post-Soviet era, one of the Kremlin’s most cherished powers is Russia’s veto. But after the Bush era invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama Administration is wrapping up American involvement in these wars and limiting engagement in new ones. Libya was an example of Washington “leading from behind.” Mali was handed off to the French. Syria is largely under observation. With American voters wary of getting dragged into faraway civil wars, one can predict fewer American appeals to the Security Council for its seals of approval. If there is a direct threat to the security of the United States, the American President, Republican or Democrat, will act – with Security Council approval, or without it.

And what does Russia need from the United States?

Here is a short checklist:

– Industrial investment to diversify from dependency on natural resource exports;
– A boycott-free 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics;
– Support in countering the spread of Islamic radicalism from Afghanistan into Central Asia;
– Continued access for Russian exporters to the world’s largest economy;
– Continued easy access for Russian tourists to the United States
– Continuation of the pax americana where the US Navy has guaranteed freedom of world shipping since World War II.

Last week, then-Senator John Kerry briefly touched on Russia during his confirmation hearings for the post of Secretary of State. His caution — and limited expectations — were clear. He said of Russia: “I would like to see if we can find some way to cooperate.”
PS This just in: Russia bans imports of American turkey meat, effective Feb. 11. That wipes out 10s of millions of dollars of US sales to Russia this year. On the upside, Aeroflot just won permit to fly its new Boeing 777-300ER jet. Good news because they have 16 on order.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

10 responses to “Washington – Kremlin: Why Be Nice?”

  1. Al Bundy says:

    Checklists seem superb. Although some points like …continuation of the pax americana where… seem like a slight exaggeration – but acceptable in a neocon environment. In any case lists like these should be translated into Russian and produced all over the country to help people understand what US is and will be when political correctness is gone and Blackwater is in place. Unfortunately, too many Russians (not to mention Smerdyakov’s spermatozoids – please consult Condoleezza R.) still think that US is actually the two colleagues of the blogger cited in the beginning (my respect to them anyway). Which is misleading.

  2. Mark says:

    I doubt the risk of being rude ever had much deterrent value in this instance. Where Russia is concerned, rudeness is pretty much a prerequisite in the James Brooke playbook. If I were in charge in Russia, I would have kicked you out long ago.

    Oh, God save us, another true believer who thinks the western world can just thumb its nose at Russia because of – wait for it – shale gas.

    That’s what Poland thought, too, but the excitement over there appears to have died down a little of late.


    Shale gas and what the trendy like to refer to as “tight oil” are subject to rapid fall-offs in production, as a relatively high rate of return at first is common. However, all the oil that is easy to extract is customarily gone quite quickly, and costs of extraction mount rapidly after that. Returns from the legendary Bakken Shale, which is supposed to make America the world’s largest oil exporter in a generation, are already in the neighbourhood of $80.00 – $90.00 per barrel. That is just not economically viable.


    The United States will become a big oil producer only if it can figure out how to do it cheaply. Hey, I know a way!! Don’t take any profit!! Ha, ha… I was just kidding.


    Most people would already have noted the effects of deliberate rudeness and ignorance after the Magnitsky Act was passed – there was no need for it; plenty of legal elbow room was already in existence for the USA to ban the entry of anyone it chose and to seize in-country assets. But America chose to go for the thumb in the eye…and the systematic severing of ties that took decades to build is the result. So laugh it up, Brooke, and crow about how shale gas makes it possible to be an international boor and get away with it. A great deal of evidence would appear to contradict that assessment, but don’t let that stop you.

  3. Ivanoff says:

    Very flamboyant article with misguided logic, superficial conclusions and a stale attitude. Not an entertaining read and does not deserve a discussion.

  4. […] an excellent example of Anglospheric detente, drawn to my attention by Mike Averko a couple of days ago. The Voice of […]

  5. Alex says:

    – Industrial investment to diversify from dependency on natural resource exports; Germany has more to offer…
    – A boycott-free 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics; Remember Moscow 1980 – did boycot any good?
    – Support in countering the spread of Islamic radicalism from Afghanistan into Central Asia; USA is the major force facilitating the same Islamic radicals they prononce to be their main foe. As soon as there is enemy of US – Al-Queda is there fighting for US (Chechnya, Lybia, Syria, Yemen…)
    – Continued access for Russian exporters to the world’s largest economy; Russian export to States is pennies comparing to trade with Europe and Asia
    – Continued easy access for Russian tourists to the United States – It’s not that easy anyway…
    – Continuation of the pax americana where the US Navy has guaranteed freedom of world shipping since World War II. No shipping at all would greatly benefit Russia as a landbridge between Europe and Asia

    Boy, you are living in a fantasy land!

  6. John Ochsner says:

    Russia is a worldwide superpower with greater resources then ever before. Considering the lack of capitol, Russia has made astonishing technological advances.

  7. Sakharov says:

    Russians are losers. Historically Russian regimes have killed and exiled more of their own people than any effort on the part of their many enemies, – real and imagined. Molodtsi!! Thats why there’s hardly more than 80 million left and not the 133 million as stated in the article. With this self-destruction continuing unabated into the 21st century there is little point in worrying about policy differences and political relations on the world stage. In terms of world importance, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was correct when he dismissed Russia as being nothing more than an Upper Volta with missiles. What can you say when their ultimate inferiority complex is still manifest on this commentary page 20 years after the collapse of the USSR. Can you imagine any normal American giving a care what the Russians write about them in Pravda or Russia Today???

  8. So outspending the Ruskies ten to one is a positive…, Don`t think so…I remember watching an old movie of the 19th Century Brit ships of the line,i suspect these huge costs was one of the reasons they went broke,
    I also remember Last time the west boycotted the Olympic games the excuse was that the Ruskies invaded Afghanistan,NOT SO the Russians were asked to help the the legally elected socialist Gov to put down the mad Mullahs and their Pakistan Mates but our hatred of anything socialist or Russian,.. led us to arm these nuts with Stinger missiles hence the mess we are in there now .

    • Al Bundy says:

      As it appears from the link Swedish military can tell the difference between a nuclear attack simulation and a routine training flight but would not tell the world about this difference



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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