Unstable Foundations: Prospects are Dim for Any Renewal of US–Russia Security Cooperation

17 Feb 2021 10:13 PM

The new Biden administration is off to a rocky start with Russia, the understandable result of a series of turbulent events. A lack of effective support structures to facilitate dialogue or cooperation has created a dangerous environment with few opportunities for common ground.

The new administration of President Joe Biden already has a difficult relationship with Russia. Biden’s campaign ran in part on a human rights-focused foreign policy platform, and now that he is in office, that position has already pushed US–Russia relations to the forefront. The US is highly critical of Russia’s arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny and the repression of the associated protests, and, although Navalny’s eventual fate and the US response remain uncertain, the overall trajectory of these events indicate that further damage will be done to US–Russia relations unless the Russian government performs a radical change of course – an unlikely prospect.

Kernels of Cooperation

On the surface, there are hopeful signs. Biden’s administration includes many officials known for their deftness in leadership of foreign affairs. As for Russia, after a phone call between Biden and President Vladimir Putin, both sides agreed to the scheduled renewal the New Start (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement. The bilateral agreement limits the nuclear arsenals of both signatories to 1,550 warheads, 700 missiles or bombers, and 800 launchers, and would otherwise have expired on 5 February. As the Russian Duma have ratified this extension, further renegotiations can be considered as completed, and official statements by both sides have used more restrained language than the adversarial tone that has characterised Biden’s other statements on Russia. This may indicate that, when presented with a choice between no safety mechanisms at all or at least preserving those remaining, both sides are willing to reach an agreement.

However, the extension was a minor step requiring little discussion beyond an agreement to continue as before. Although it is a positive step, the fact that the New Start agreement is one of the few surviving treaties between the nuclear powers also highlights how almost all of the mechanisms to foster US–Russia dialogue are badly damaged. Even if the Biden administration is able to convince other states that the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ approach has been conclusively relegated to history, the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement still stands, and, despite speculation about US and Russian intentions, both countries also continue to adhere to their prior withdrawal from the multilateral Open Skies Treaty. Meanwhile, the State Department, responsible for much of the US’s international diplomacy and bilateral relationship management, will require substantial rebuilding after Trump pushed out large numbers of experienced personnel.

Institutional Pillars?

A selection of institutional mechanisms, such as treaties and confidence-building organisations, are essential for good relations, as they allow the US, Russia, and other states to address a host of minor issues that combine to shape the international security environment. Through the provision of forums where members can explore issues at lower institutional levels, they also allow focused top-level decision-making. The major forum remains the UN, but its wide remit and Security Council structure make it difficult to come to agreements or foster meaningful change, and it devolves responsibility for a great deal of mediation to smaller organisations. The major alternatives, NATO and the EU, are not suited to this role, for NATO explicitly treats Russia as an adversary, and the EU as an independent entity usually has its own agenda.

The US still remains engaged in smaller organisations, the most important of which is the OSCE. In the run-up to the US presidential elections, the Biden campaign team expressed interest in the OSCE’s potential monitoring role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has since committed to re-engaging with the OSCE Minsk Group tasked with mediating between the belligerents. US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs  Bureau, Philip Reeker, has made optimistic calls in favour of reducing tensions from ‘grey zone competition’ and for updating the Vienna Document, which ensures that military exercises in Europe are conducted with a degree of transparency. However, although a valuable surviving component of the liberal, rules-based international order, the OSCE is hamstrung by crippling internal problems that were allowed to develop unchecked over the last few years.

The OSCE was most recently struck by a leadership crisis last summer. Internal disputes of this kind are common, but what changed was that crisis negotiations failed when even the smaller member states, who stand to gain the most from the platform that the OSCE provides them, joined the larger powers in grandstanding and obstructionism. While Sweden has finally assumed the OSCE chair, and the US is now chairing the OSCE Forum for Security Cooperation, the underlying instability remains unresolved. Furthermore, unlike peer organisations such as the UN or the EU, the OSCE lacks legal jurisdiction to demand accountability, a problem exacerbated by its actions needing to be decided by unanimous consensus.

With regard to the Vienna Document, Russia has long been the primary opponent to its update. The agreement dates back to 1999 and might be best described as a throwback to the Yeltsin era. The current Putin administration likely only upholds the agreement because of the high political costs of being seen to withdraw from international treaties without reasonable cause. There is little to indicate there has been any change of heart which might make the Kremlin amenable to revisions.

There are also signs that the Biden administration is leaning towards hard power to address political instability in Europe, most notably with Ukraine. US support to Ukraine, which Biden worked on under President Barack Obama, will include increasing amounts of lethal aid in the form of weaponry. While it was the Trump administration which abandoned Obama-era red lines and approved the sale of anti-tank missiles, Biden has long been a supporter of robust military assistance. This will be a source of contention with Russia and will erode what little incentive there is for it to cooperate with the US on updating the Vienna Document or other confidence-building measures.

Despite the recent problems, reinvigorating surviving mechanisms, particularly the OSCE, is still worthwhile. With 57 participating states, conversations not only occur between individual countries but also organisations that otherwise may not regularly communicate, such as NATO and its Russian-led counterpart, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. In the past, the OSCE’s indefinite structure and expertise in conflict mediation has allowed for significant flexibility and agility when responding to other crises, such as in the Balkans and Georgia, and more recently between Russia and Ukraine. As an election monitoring body, it also remains uniquely trusted – the US has even allowed the OSCE to monitor its own elections. Its ongoing internal issues occur against the backdrop of exactly the type of international crises it was intended to prevent or alleviate.

Ultimately, much will depend on the Biden White House. With an experienced and internationally respected leadership strata, and plenty of likeminded international partners keen to cooperate with the new administration’s plans, the US has a clear opportunity to restore some level of stability to Europe’s security environment. As few useful mechanisms exist and there is unlikely to be the international will to establish new ones, it is critical for the US to provide robust encouragement to other countries to take surviving security cooperation forums and treaties seriously again. Whether the deeper structural problems that have developed will undermine these efforts remains to be seen.

Nick Reynolds is the Research Analyst for Land Warfare at RUSI.

Sarah Martin works on human rights in Eurasia in Washington, DC, and was formerly a Research Assistant at the Secretariat of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.