Neither of the two major American presidential candidates has seriously addressed, or even seems fully aware of, what should be our greatest foreign policy concern–Russia’s singular capacity to endanger or enhance our national security. Overshadowed by the US disaster in Iraq, Moscow’s importance will continue long after that war ends.
Despite its diminished status following the Soviet breakup in 1991, Russia alone possesses weapons that can destroy the United States, a military-industrial complex nearly America’s equal in exporting arms, vast quantities of questionably secured nuclear materials sought by terrorists and the planet’s largest oil and natural gas reserves. It also remains the world’s largest territorial country, pivotally situated in the West and the East, at the crossroads of colliding civilizations, with strategic capabilities from Europe, Iran and other Middle East nations to North Korea, China, India, Afghanistan and even Latin America. All things considered, our national security may depend more on Russia than Russia’s does on us.
And yet US-Russian relations are worse today than they have been in twenty years. The relationship includes almost as many serious conflicts as it did during the cold war–among them, Kosovo, Iran, the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia, Venezuela, NATO expansion, missile defense, access to oil and the Kremlin’s internal politics–and less actual cooperation, particularly in essential matters involving nuclear weapons. Indeed, a growing number of observers on both sides think the relationship is verging on a new cold war, including another arms race.
Even the current cold peace could be more dangerous than its predecessor, for three reasons: First, its front line is not in Berlin or the Third World but on Russia’s own borders, where US and NATO military power is increasingly ensconced. Second, lethal dangers inherent in Moscow’s impaired controls over its vast stockpiles of materials of mass destruction and thousands of missiles on hair-trigger alert, a legacy of the state’s disintegration in the 1990s, exceed any such threats in the past. And third, also unlike before, there is no effective domestic opposition to hawkish policies in Washington or Moscow, only influential proponents and cheerleaders.
How did it come to this? Less than twenty years ago, in 1989-90, the Soviet Russian and American leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush, completing a process begun by Gorbachev and President Reagan, agreed to end the cold war, with “no winners and no losers,” as even Condoleezza Rice once wrote, and begin a new era of “genuine cooperation.” In the US policy elite and media, the nearly unanimous answer is that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s antidemocratic domestic policies and “neo-imperialism” destroyed that historic opportunity.
You don’t have to be a Putin apologist to understand that this is not an adequate explanation. During the last eight years, Putin’s foreign policies have been largely a reaction to Washington’s winner-take-all approach to Moscow since the early 1990s, which resulted from a revised US view of how the cold war ended [see Cohen, “The New American Cold War,” July 10, 2006]. In that new triumphalist narrative, America “won” the forty-year conflict and post-Soviet Russia was a defeated nation analogous to post-World War II Germany and Japan–a nation without full sovereignty at home or autonomous national interests abroad.