It’s been 30 years since Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan met in Reykjavik to agree on a nuclear drawdown, an event that helped bring about the end of the Cold War. Given the current conflict between Russia and the United States, the lessons of the past seem as relevant as ever, Mr. Gorbachev suggested in a recent speech.
Addressing participants in the international conference marking the 1986 US-Soviet Summit, the former Soviet premier expressed his concern about the current state of US-Russian relations, which he blamed on a “collapse of mutual trust.” He cautioned against the use of force, in particular nuclear force, saying that military methods had not helped to resolve conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria or the former Yugoslavia. Instead, he called for a resumption of dialogue between Russia and the United States, which he says has been lacking over the past two years.
Both sides have incentives to find a mutually acceptable solution to the Syrian conflict. Gorbachev’s comments imply that a cooperation that goes deeper than crisis response could help make these solutions a reality, by starting to address the often-cited “trust deficit” between the two countries. Citizen groups from the US and Russia have proposed a similar approach.
“We need to renew dialogue. Stopping it was the biggest mistake. Now we must return to the main priorities, such as nuclear disarmament, fighting terrorism and prevention of global environmental disasters,” Gorbachev said, calling for a discussion of the range of challenges that Russia and the US face. By working together on these issues, the countries’ leaders may be able to create the expectation of cooperation – and solutions – when they face crises, he implied.
Relations have been difficult lately for all kinds of reasons. Most recently, the US accused Russia of interfering in the US elections, and called for Russia to be investigated for war crimes over the assault on Aleppo.
But the two powers are essentially locked into cooperation in Syria because of their military involvement, Frederic Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington, told The Christian Science Monitor in September. The two have “lethal and very high speed aircraft operating in constricted air space,” so they have to work together, he explained.
Another incentive for cooperation: the humanitarian crisis. “There’s such a huge moral and strategic imperative to address the humanitarian challenge,” Melissa Dalton, who served as the Pentagon’s country director for Syria in 2012 and is now chief of staff for the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told the Monitor last month. Russia is also increasingly concerned about the spread of extremism in the Caucasus and Europe, which may spur joint effort to address the challenges, she added.
Gorbachev’s remarks indicate that dialogue – and not just incentives – is critical to achieving workable solutions. That’s a point brought out by participants in the Dartmouth Conference, a roundtable discussion that brings together Russian and American “citizen diplomats” in search of foreign policy solutions. The Christian Science Monitor’s Linda Feldmann summarized one major conclusion:
US-Russian relations would benefit from a revival of routine topic-specific dialogue under the Bilateral Presidential Commission, without which “loudspeaker diplomacy prevails.”
Bilateral interest in diplomacy may not exist, however, says Matthew Evangelista, a professor of history and political science at Cornell University, and director of the university’s Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. That sets the current situation apart from the last years of the Cold War, when Soviet leadership actively sought to improve relations with Europe and the US, he writes in an email to the Monitor.
“Vladimir Putin is pursuing a different course, and seems to favor maintaining a certain level of tension,” he explains. As such, while the United States should certainly work with Russia, Professor Evangelista is uncertain of “Putin’s willingness to pursue mutually beneficial solutions.”
Ivan Kurilla, a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg, in Russia, who focuses on the history of Russian-American relations, tells the Monitor he is most concerned by the rhetoric he hears from politicians from both countries. The context of the US election has led American politicians and journalists to inflate “Putin’s bullying,” as he puts it, to the level of a Cold War threat.
Professor Kurilla points out that a similar dynamic existed between the US and Russia during the 2008 US election campaign, soon after the Russia-Georgia war. Bilateral relations were almost frozen, but when Obama took office, he and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced a “reset.”
“I cannot hope for [a] real 'reset'" now,” Kurilla concludes, “but I do hope that the dangerous 'Cold War style' rhetoric will give place to realistic exchanges.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet Saturday in Lausanne, Switzerland to discuss next steps toward peace in Syria.