Wednesday, March 30, 2016

President Of Kremlin-Funded Think Tank Calls For A 'Reset' Of Russia–U.S. Relations - MEMRI


The Kremlin-funded think tank Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) recently published on its website an article by Igor Ivanov, the think tank's president of and former minister of foreign affairs of the Russian Federation (1998–2004). In the article, titled "Russia-U.S. relations: The Limits of the Possible" on the RIAC's website. In the article Ivanov explains that the main goal of Russia-U.S. relations today is to create conditions to end the crisis between the two countries.

Ivanov presents an analysis of the recent crisis in Russia-U.S. relations and points out that the relations are now very different from what they were during the Cold War. He also admits that today's Russia cannot compete with the U.S. in the same way the USSR could.[1] However, Ivanov warns that the risk of "the political confrontation turning into a military one continues to grow."

It should be noted that U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, speaking at a U.S. Senate hearing devoted to the U.S. military budget on March 17, 2016, listed Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and terrorism as the five evolving strategic challenges that are driving the U.S. Department of Defense's planning and budgeting.[2] In 2015, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that Russia represents the "greatest threat to the [U.S.] national security." He then added: "If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I'd have to point to Russia."[3]
On March 23-24, 2016, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. According to reports, the meeting, which focused on Syria and the Ukrainian crisis, was "relaxed", "friendly" and characterized by a "touch of humor, "and "John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov moved from reciprocal accusations to dialogue."[4] However, Kerry told his hosts that President Barack Obama would lift sanctions off Russia only if the Minsk agreements concerning Ukraine were implemented.[5]
According to Ivanov, in order to avoid worst-case scenarios between Russia and the U.S., specific steps must be taken immediately, without waiting for new American and Russian administrations to take office in 2017 and 2018, respectively. He stresses that it is necessary to address those areas of international relations where, in the absence of cooperation, the two sides will face growing problems, especially because neither side is interested in the collapse of the current international system. Hence, the damage control channels of U.S.-Russia dialogue should be restored, the hostile rhetoric should be muted and positive aspects of bilateral relations should be protected and strengthened. Tension may also be reduced if both countries participate in multilateral mechanisms and forums, in which they can demonstrate flexibility without appearing to make unilateral concessions. Ivanov also recommends developing connections between Russian and American civil society, and strengthening Russian studies departments in the U.S. and American studies departments in Russia as a means to promote constructive dialogue.

It is worth noting that the Russian pro-Kremlin media are masters of doublespeak when it comes to the U.S. On the one hand, the threat of an imminent U.S.-Russia confrontation is a constant leitmotif;[6] on the other hand, editorialists and the Kremlin itself declare Russia's interest in cooperating closely with the West.[7]
The Following are excerpts from the English version of Ivanov's article, published on the RIAC website on March 16: [8]

Igor Ivanov (Source:

The Risk Of The Russia-U.S. Political Confrontation Becoming A Military Confrontation Continues To Grow
"...It has become fashionable lately to speak of a new chapter in the Cold War in global politics, and draw parallels between the current standoff between Moscow and Washington and the Soviet–U.S. confrontation that dominated the second half of the 20th century. But it seems like a bit of a stretch: relations between Moscow and the White House were the main axis of world politics during the Cold War, whereas now they are still important, but they do not determine the global system. We no longer live in a bipolar world, and returning to the rigid bipolarity of the Cold War is impossible.

"Moreover, ideology is not at the core of the current standoff between Russia and the United States, as it was during the Cold War (Soviet communism versus Western democracy). The antagonistic conflict of civilizations dominant today is not between the United States and Russia, of course, but between Western liberalism and Islamic fundamentalism.

"Finally, while Russia may remain a great power in terms of its potential, it is unable to compete with the United States in a number of fields in the same way that the Soviet Union did, particularly in terms of economy and high technology...

"Does all this mean that the current crisis in Russia–U.S. relations is any less dangerous than the situation during the Cold War? Quite the opposite. At that time [during the Cold War], Moscow and Washington were able to set certain rules that served to reduce the risks of an uncontrolled confrontation breaking out. By combining efforts, we created a dense infrastructure of communication channels, consultation mechanisms, and bilateral and multilateral agreements designed to increase the predictability and manageability of international situations. The unique architecture of bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington that existed during the Cold War was mostly stable, and this enabled it to remain almost completely unchanged for quite a long time.

"The current state of Russia–U.S. relations can hardly be called stable. Practically all channels of communication between the two countries have been disrupted, the legal and contractual basis of relations is being eroded in front of our very eyes, and the concept of 'rules of the game' with regard to global politics is not even on the agenda. The risk of conflicts breaking out by accident, because of technical glitches or misinterpreted actions, is objectively on the rise...

"Recent events have sparked hopes that Moscow and Washington are beginning to realize the scale of the growing risks and threats to international security: consultations on the Ukrainian issue are underway; efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis are ongoing; cooperation on the Iranian nuclear dossier continues; and the parties hold similar positions with regard to the nuclear situation on the Korean Peninsula. All this is true, but it is too early to talk about any stabilization of U.S.–Russia relations.

"The risk of a political confrontation turning into a military one continues to grow, and there have been no breakthroughs in terms of agreeing to new rules of the game in bilateral relations. The negative dynamics in relations between Moscow and Washington are becoming a serious problem not only for the two countries in question, but for the entire international system..."

Is A New "Reset" Possible?

"Everything indicates that both parties will find it extremely difficult to achieve the most important goal – to restore trust in bilateral relations. No high-level meetings or summits are taking place. Track II diplomacy [i.e. informal contacts] is non-existent. Agreements on local, however important, issues do nothing to help solve the problem of deep mutual suspicion that exists on both sides, and these agreements do not mean that the numerous mutual disagreements and grievances have been removed. Trust has been completely eroded between Moscow and Washington, and it will take a long time, great effort and considerable political will on both sides to restore it.

"Russia and the United States do not have a unified vision of the main trends of global development, the driving forces behind such development, the future world order, the fate of leading international organizations, the reform of international law, etc. And it is unlikely that they will see eye to eye on these matters anytime soon. The White House and the Kremlin have wildly differing views on what they consider to be 'legal,' 'correct,' 'ethical,' and 'responsible' in global politics. In this sense, we observe a 'values gap' between the Russian and American political elites, which, however, does not necessarily mean an equally wide gap in the fundamental values of the Russian and American people.

"This lack of trust and a unified vision for the development of international relations in the near future means that a new 'reset' of U.S.–Russia relations is practically impossible, no matter who comes to the White House in January 2017 and who is elected President of the Russian Federation in 2018.The 'reset' that did happen was made possible by a unique confluence of historical circumstances. And even then it ran its course fairly quickly. It did not lead to any kind of breakthrough in relations between the countries, did not give them a new quality... 

"So what can we consider as 'possible' in U.S.–Russia relations? To answer this question, it is necessary to address those areas of international relations where the roles of Russia and the United States in the near future will continue to have significance and where, without their active cooperation, the two sides will face growing problems.

"First of all, despite their differing views about the future world order, Russia and the United States have no interest in seeing the complete collapse of the current system. Both countries are predominantly conservative players, and on the whole are oriented towards maintaining the global status quo... Despite the nuclear arsenals of a number of countries, there are still only two nuclear superpowers in the world, just as there were during the Cold War. And it will remain this way for a long time.

"It is also clear that Russia and the United States are united, and will continue to be united, by the common desire to avoid a nuclear conflict. Russian and American interests also coincide in terms of combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and fighting international terrorism. We should not forget that efforts to resolve the nuclear issue in Iran and eliminate chemical weapons in Syria continued even during the most critical moments of the Ukrainian crisis...

"Many people believe that no progress is possible in U.S.–Russia relations until the new administration comes into power in the United States in January 2017. In fact, considering the time it will take to form a new presidential team, we should not expect any important initiatives from the American side before summer, or even autumn, of next year."

The U.S. Administration May Differ From Its Predecessors In Terms Of Style, But Not In Terms Of Understanding Its Basic National Interests

"How justified is this 'wait-and-see' approach? First of all, we should not exaggerate the significance of partisan differences in U.S. foreign policy. The new U.S. administration may differ from its predecessors in terms of style and the tactical decisions it might make, but not in terms of understanding and interpreting the country's basic national interests. In any case, there is no chance of turning a page and starting a new chapter in relations between Moscow and Washington. On the contrary, the more significant the backlog inherited by Barack Obama's successor, the easier it will be for him or her to move forward.

"What is more, the rapidly changing international situation means that any pause in the U.S.–Russia dialogue is a luxury we cannot afford. Experience shows that such pauses only exacerbate crises in various regions of the world, increasing the risk of a direct military confrontation between Russia and the United States, and bolstering the positions of hawkish actors on both sides.

"In order to avoid worst-case scenarios for U.S.–Russia relations, we should not wait for the right moment, which may never present itself. Rather, we should start working on specific issues immediately.

"First, the damaged channels of U.S.–Russia dialogue need to be restored – at various levels and with various participants, from military leaders to members of parliament, from government officials to representatives of security services. Dialogue has never been seen as merely one side making concessions to the other... But the lack of dialogue inevitably breeds mistrust and fear, creating additional risks.

"Second, it is vitally important to mute hostile rhetoric, primarily at the official level. This kind of rhetoric filters down to the general public, appeals to long-standing stereotypes and the darker instincts of national consciousness, and builds a momentum of its own, until it is incredibly difficult to stop.

"Third, we must make every effort to protect the positive aspects of U.S.–Russia relations from the negative impact of the current crisis... It is almost impossible, of course, to completely isolate these aspects from the overall negative political atmosphere, but we need to work towards this.

"Fourth, the intensity of the U.S.–Russia confrontation can be reduced by the participation of both countries in the work of multilateral mechanisms... It is no coincidence that it was through multilateral efforts that progress was made on the Iranian nuclear issue, and it is in the multilateral format that issues like the Syrian settlement and the North Korean nuclear program are being discussed. This format allows the parties to demonstrate great flexibility, and at the same time to avoid appearing to be making unilateral concessions.

"Fifth, an extremely important, although difficult, task is to revive and develop the dialogue between Russian and American civil societies.

"Sixth, it is becoming increasingly important to strengthen and develop Russian studies [departments] in the United States and American studies [departments] in Russia. Professionals in both countries have long been suffering financial woes, and the worsening political situation does not help. The lines between expert, propagandist, academic and pseudo-scientific journalism are being blurred almost beyond recognition. The waning quality of independent expert analysis, or the lack of demand for such analysis, objectively reduces the chances of turning U.S.–Russia dialogue into something constructive.

"It will take some time before the United States and Russia find a way out of the current crisis in their relations. The immediate goal should be to change the dynamics of the crisis from negative to positive. This would create the necessary prerequisites for setting more ambitious targets."


[1] For a broader presentation of U.S.-Russia relations in historic perspective see MEMRI report Understanding Russian Political Ideology And Vision: A Call For Eurasia, From Lisbon To Vladivostok, March 23, 2016.
[2], March 17, 2016.
[3] YouTube video of Gen. Joseph Dunford's speech:
[4]  See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6363, Kerry's Visit to Moscow: Much 'Humor' About Nothing, March 28, 2016.
[5], March 25, 2016.
[8], March 14, 2016. The Russian version of the article was published in the website on March 14.



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