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NCAFP Presents- Far From Reset: Navigating U.S.-Russia Relations and the Future of New START

Presidents Trump and Putin in 2018 | Credit: Anatoly Maltsev/EPA-EFE/REX

The National Committee on American Foreign Policy organized a webinar panel discussion open to members and the public on relations between the United States and Russia. The panel featured experts Dr. Thomas E. Graham, distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations and Senior Advisor, Kissinger Associates and Ambassador (ret.) Laura Kennedy, Director, Foreign Policy for America Director, Arms Control Association.

Both Dr. Graham, author of "Let Russia Be Russia", and Ambassador Kennedy, who also specializes in Eurasian relations, agree that U.S.-Russia relations are at the low level it was at during the Cold War in the 1980's since President Trump took office. Due to different views and the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, their interference in domestic affairs in the Presidential election in 2016, and now the pandemic, it will be very difficult for the two countries to improve relations. Dr. Graham noted how essential face-to-face diplomacy is to build trust between Russia and the US; but with the current crises it will be very difficult to have any diplomatic meetings. There is now the possible second term of President Trump or a new administration to look to in restabilizing the relationship between US and Russia.

As U.S.-Russia relations continue to coast at a low point shaped by the ongoing sanctions regime, accusations of spreading disinformation, and already-elevated global tensions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, there are few cooperative areas to point out. In the near term, however, the U.S. and Russia will consider whether to extend the New START treaty, originally signed in 2010 under Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. This was a distinct opportunity to highlight cooperation on a particularly tense issue in their relations: arms control. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty last year, there has been much speculation on New START's future, and what it will mean for the U.S.-Russia relationship.

New START is a nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation with the formal name of Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. It was signed on 8 April 2010 in Prague, and, after ratification, entered into force on 5 February 2011. Russia according to Dr. Graham wished to extend the treaty as they value the strategic stability with the United States and does not wish to engage in a nuclear arms race. Due to its' internal problems and budgeting, the country prefers not to spend on defense.

When asked about China's role in this bilateral relationship, the experts brought up the topic of a Chinese trilateral agreement. Russia never wanted to inject itself into China and U.S. relations even though it would be building on a new start with the three countries. Putin believes it "not his job force China into negotiation" but he does not oppose the trilateral relations either. European and Asian allies all desire a new start between the three countries as it would offer more predictability and transparency and would tackle broader challenges such as the issue of tactical nuclears.

The relationship between China and Russia however, remains strong in stratefic alignment. Both Beijing and Moscow want to play an equal role to the U.S. and both are each other's major trade partners. China is already overtaking Russia technologically as well as economically. U.S., Dr. Graham believes, could erod this strategic alignment of the two countries, by normalising relations with Russia so that they do not have to rely economically on China. Both panelists unanimously agreed on the importance of trilateral negotiation of the countries and wish for more strategic security dialogue to explore issues such as the North Korea nuclear program.

Dr. Graham gave insight into perhaps why Russia has always had an authoritarian regime historically. He gave cause to the geography of the country- a very large and harsh environment- as well as historically. Russia stems from a conservative society which is opposed to individualism. Due to the large geography of the country, a more collectivist society formed with a strong central power to protect itself from external enemies.

The upcoming November elections is extremely important in the direction of this relationship between U.S. and Russia as it will determine who will be the promoter of the improvement of the relations. Dr. Graham believes Joe Biden will extent the New Start Treaty to 5 years and engage in stability talks as he is not bound by the suspicion of Russia which Trump possesses.

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