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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

Last week the Moscow Times published an open letter by Robert Berls, senior adviser for Russia and Eurasia at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). In his letter to the Russian colleagues, Mr.Berls expressed his concern over deteriorating relations between Russia and the West. RIAC Program Director Ivan Timofeev responded to his letter and wrote his own one that we publish on the Russia Direct and RIAC website.

Last week the Moscow Times published an open letter by Robert Berls, senior adviser for Russia and Eurasia at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). In his letter to the Russian colleagues, Mr.Berls expressed his concern over deteriorating relations between Russia and the West. RIAC Program Director Ivan Timofeev responded to his letter and wrote his own one that we publish on the Russia Direct and RIAC website.

Dear Bob,

Thank you for your honest and candid letter. My colleagues and I have always valued your opinion as an experienced officer, academic and diplomat. Besides, I know full well that you never bandy words and do not venture opinions or make pronouncements lightly. If someone of your professional standing issues a statement, it demands considered attention. I agree that the tangle of problems requires open and thorough discussion. This letter is my response to your proposal for dialogue.

I understand your pessimism about the state of U.S.-Russia relations. Believe me, the situation is no less alarming to Moscow than it is to Washington. What’s more, the unease would unlikely be so acute were the matter confined to Ukraine. I fear that the problem is broader in scope. The events in Ukraine and the sharp deterioration in our relations are just a symptom of a deeper malaise. Nor is it the first or the only. The reasons are more profound, and their consequences could be catastrophic.

At the end of the Cold War, the United States was presented with a unique opportunity to lead the international community. Ideally, it was about America’s role as first among equals in the new multipolar world. Leading by example, not force. Such leadership implied great responsibility, of course. The world was becoming more complex and less amenable to “one size fits all” solutions.

Leadership in this multipolar space required huge resources, expert diplomacy and innovative maneuvering. And let’s not forget the most important thing of all: such leadership required joint actions and effective cooperation. Responsibility needed sharing with other centers of power, including Russia.

Regrettably, the chance to lead slipped through the fingers, and we soundly flunked the cooperation test. The seats of instability are now multiplying by the day. No sooner did Eastern Ukraine see a timid hope for peace than the Middle East was engulfed by another inferno. International terrorism has not gone away. The global imbalances are becoming more entrenched. And against this backdrop we flex our muscles, carry on intrigues, threaten each other with war, and eagerly fan the rising flames.

Atlantic Council, RIAC, European Leadership Network:
Managing Differences on European Security in 2015

Great danger lies in irrevocably undermining strategic stability. I am gravely concerned about linking our local conflicts to global agreements on nuclear missiles. That issue has always remained on the table no matter how numerous or complex our other problems. The Russian and American people understand that on this matter rests the fate of all humanity.

But now the situation is changing. The Ukraine Freedom Support Act devotes a separate section to compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Sure, we do not see eye to eye on intermediate and smaller-range missiles. Such divergence of opinion is nothing new. But we have always maintained a calm and reasonable dialogue. Why tie the issue to Ukraine?

Yes, the Ukraine crisis is horrific. Our positions differ in principle, and the subject is one for a separate discussion. But in the context of our relationship, the topic of nuclear missiles lies in a quite different plane. By linking the two issues we will only undermine the INF Treaty, capsizing strategic stability in the process. It is already dead on its feet. Will the security of the United States, Russia and Europe improve as a result? Does Ukraine stand to benefit? No. Neither can we hope to conclude a new INF Treaty in the foreseeable future.

Nuclear missiles are just one of the many areas in which our mutually beneficial cooperation is either coagulated or frozen. Does that make the world more stable? Will it halt the slide into anarchy and chaos? Again, the answer is no.

In my view, a priority task is to minimize the damage inflicted by the Ukraine crisis on those areas of cooperation vital to the preservation of global stability. Through partnership in these areas we may be able to restore at least a modicum of trust. Without it, an unbridgeable chasm will lie between us on the most difficult issues, including Ukraine.

One option is to break up our dialogue into manageable chunks, each labeled with a specific issue. Clearly there will be some overlap, but that is not the point. At least it will guard against overly politicizing the issues, which is harming our countries and the world.

Another important point: I believe that it is vital to separate  the discourse about Russia's political agenda with the problems of international relations. Such discourse is needed. Likewise a consultation on the changes that have taken place in U.S. domestic politics is needed. A tasty appetizer was served recently by Mikhail Gorbachev, who called for perestroika in the United States.

I understand, of course, that in matters of policy, linking the domestic with the foreign is part of the American liberal tradition. But here too, excessive politicization is hindering the search for compromise in international affairs. In our deliberations of international problems, we must remain realists.

That said, familiar as I am with your erudition on our country and given the attention you pay in your letter to the situation in Russia, I wish to touch upon an intrinsically Russian thread.

Americans have always imparted essential meaning to the issue of democracy. Democracy in itself is perceived as a value in the United States.

In Russia we respect the values ​​that Americans hold dear. Moreover, you are unlikely to find in Russia an assured and stable majority that would oppose the idea of ​​democracy and advocate strict authoritarian rule.

Democracy, in my opinion, should be handled like a practical tool. It is a means of insuring the state against political crises. Every country needs talented and visionary leaders. But even more in demand are effective institutions. Therein lies the instrumental value of democracy.

However, a sober analysis requires that several key points be considered. By all appearances, the Russian political system is undergoing a protracted transformation. In France, for instance, such transformation took more than 150 years. And it was not a smooth process. In the United States, too, democracy took a while to find its feet. The country went through a bloody civil war. And that was at a time of favorable external conditions!

Russia, it seems, still has some historical crossroads to navigate. And God help us avoid similar historical upheavals. Russians will need to arm themselves with wisdom, restraint and presence of mind to carry out consistent and cautious reform. Any revolutions or attempts to build a “brave new world” overnight are doomed to fail.

It should also be kept in mind that Russia endured a crisis of statehood not that long ago. Having acquired formal freedom after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian people witnessed the disintegration of institutions, morality, law and order, the shelling of parliament by tanks, and mass electoral manipulation in 1996. The breakup itself of the Soviet Union (unequivocally backed by the West) essentially resembled a coup d’état. Is it any wonder that the political structures that arose in its place were so ephemeral and insecure?

Both Russia and the West initially approached the post-Soviet space as a blank slate. But history leaves an indelible mark from which we cannot hide. To a large extent, the crisis in Ukraine is the result of “programming” errors in the past. These errors are compounded by the growing chaos of international relations. They still have the capacity to make themselves felt.

Our common task, as professionals, is to abstract away from the information and propaganda war as much as possible. Anarchy, chaos, prejudice and stereotypes must be countered with reason, common sense, sober judgment and awareness of common interests. The situation is more complex than ever. But that very fact will show the ability of the United States and Russia to remain key players and resolve specific issues.



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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
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