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Beyond Snowden and Summits: Expanding the U.S.-Russia Discourse

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By Deana Arsenian, Vice President, International Program and Program Director, Russia and Eurasia, Carnegie Corporation of New York

For the first time in a long time, the American airwaves are filled with talk about Russia and its relations with the United States. Opinions are many and varied, ranging from endorsement of President Obama's cancellation of the summit with President Putin, to concerns about Obama's decision; from attempts to rationalize Putin's move to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden to outright outrage about him snubbing the U.S. But whatever the view or the tone, experts, analysts, and officials are talking about Russia, and that is a good thing. That's the silver lining in the summit's cancellation.

But, it would be even better if more and louder voices in the United States would use this latest chapter in the U.S.-Russia saga to talk about the importance and the potential of this relationship.

The prevailing media discourse highlights the negatives. The Snowden affair is the final straw, many say, in a relationship that is going nowhere... at a zero, bankrupt, with nothing to talk about. Underpinning these views is a list of disagreements that are identified, explained, and deemed insurmountable.

By now, the American people have heard loud and clear what divides the two countries. But what about what unites them? What about mutual interests and concerns? Shouldn't those be the focus of some discussions?

Let us stretch our imaginations, for the sake of expanding the current conversations.

Nuclear arms reductions are considered at a standstill after the pivotal New START Treaty that was negotiated and confirmed during Obama's first term. Perhaps this is the case. But both sides are eager to further reduce their Cold War nuclear legacy arsenals as neither country has the finances or the appetite to maintain weapons that cannot be used at their present numbers. If the stumbling block is the U.S. plan to develop a limited missile defense against a nuclear attack from Iran, or another foe, reaching a negotiated agreement on further nuclear cuts and a mutually acceptable defense system is not unimaginable. What is missing is not a common objective, but trust, confidence, and political will.

Regarding Iran, the two countries again share a goal in not seeing Iran acquire nuclear weapons. The Russians have strong economic interests in Iran, including in its civilian nuclear industry, and no desire for a nuclear-armed state in their neighborhood. Russia has put aside significant reservations to support the UN-led sanctions against Iran. The U.S. and Russia agree on the desired outcome. They differ on how to get to it. So, here too, if there is political will, trust, and confidence, finding a mutually acceptable approach to stifling Iran's nuclear weaponization program is not unattainable.

Syria is highlighted as the latest and deepest source of frustration and division. And clearly, it is. Russia's support for Bashar al Assad, along with U.S. insistence that the regime's stepping down must be part of any negotiated settlement, have contributed to the human fiasco facing the Syrian people. Perhaps the situation is now beyond repair, given the spread and the depth of sectarian conflict in the country. But, again, the U.S. and Russia share ultimate goals -- to contain the conflict, restore stability, and prevent Syria from falling into the hands of extremists. What's missing is not a common vision, but again, trust, confidence, and political will to move toward it.

In each of these, and other cases that are mentioned as divisive, including terrorism, post-NATO Afghanistan, North Korea's nuclear program, cyber security, energy security, and others, common ground can be found if the search is driven by understanding of mutual positions, respect for national concerns, objective assessments of reality, and, yes, trust, confidence, and political will.

So what is stopping this relationship from moving off an old and flawed pattern of two steps backward for each step forward?

Partly it is due to different worldviews, expectations, and aspirations. But, these are based more on perceptions than reality, and can be overcome through negotiations and engagements, as suggested above. A bigger obstacle is divergent political systems and values. And here, both countries need to alter their respective views of each other.

The United States must accept that Russia is not likely to become a Western-style liberal democracy in the immediate future. It is a socially conservative country, molded through a long history of authoritarian rule -- a sentiment that the present Russian leadership is taking advantage of by introducing policies deemed regressive by the world's democracies. Many of President Putin's policies are supported by the majority of the Russian population, including his decision concerning Snowden. For the U.S. to wish that shared values are the basis of a relationship with Russia is as unrealistic as it is impractical. And in this respect, Russia is treated as a special case, as few other countries are held to the same standards.

On the other hand, for Russia to dismiss the impact of domestic policies that are shrinking civil liberties and narrowing the space of political activism in the country is as inaccurate as it is risky. As demonstrated by the global reaction to the anti-gay legislation, the world is watching Russia's trends with deep concern. For Russia to aspire to great power status, particularly given the modest size of its population and unpredictable economy, it should be moving toward universal progressive values, not away from them. It should recognize that the United States is a guidepost for civil liberties that Russia should embrace rather than negate.

Narrowing the gaps and developing trust, confidence, and political will has to come from the top.

President Obama was initially right not to make Edward Snowden a pawn on a chessboard that advances to a queen. Yet, he did exactly that by canceling the summit. President Putin was initially right to ignore Snowden and deny him a chance to drive a wedge between the two countries. Yet, he did exactly that by granting Snowden temporary asylum. The actions of both presidents suggest exasperation with each other. Both have put effort and political capital into the relationship and neither got what he hoped for.

Starting from the presidents and going down to their advisers, the media, and the public, each country needs to accept certain realities about the other, move to narrow the gaps, and focus on what unites them rather than on what divides them. Only then can there be the kind of a paradigm shift that will enable this pivotal relationship to advance global stability rather than deepen insecurity. It is time to get this relationship right before global problems become really insurmountable.