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Better US-Russian cooperation in Eurasia is a win-win game

The national interests of the US and Russia in Eurasia converge rather than collide concludes a new report by top scholars from both countries. But to end the zero-sum game, the countries need to overcome key obstacles.

US and Russian flags

Closer US-Russia ties in Eurasia are in everyone's interest

In its first joint report, the Working Group on the Future of US-Russia Relations, a bilateral body of 20 leading academics from both countries, argues that contrary to a commonly accepted notion, Washington and Moscow have shared rather than conflicting interests in post-Soviet Eurasia.

"If you look at most areas of interests for both Russia and the US separately, we really came to the very rapid conclusion that there are very few instances where our interests diverge," Keith Darden, an American member of the group and associate professor of political science at Yale University in New Haven, told Deutsche Welle.

Moscow and Washington both want stability in the area comprising the 11 former Soviet republics that are not members of NATO or the EU and both want to resolve ethnic conflicts in the region, adds Darden. While he concedes that there are discrepancies, for instance a greater American emphasis on democracy and regime change, he argues that doesn't blur the larger picture.

"When it comes down to some of the fundamental interests of state we found that there was a lot of convergence in what Russia and the United States wanted," says Darden.

The bilateral group recognizes President Barack Obama's so-called reset policy aimed at reconstituting US-Russian relations, but believes the effort needs to reach further and deeper.

"We accept that the Obama administration in the United States has made significant steps away from this tug-of-war and these were for us signs that demonstrate that doing away with the zero-sum game is possible," Mikhail Troitskiy, one of the co-authors of the study and an adjunct professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told Deutsche Welle.

"We just believe that much more can be done if there is continued political will in both countries."

Kyrgyzstan as positive example

Asked for examples of better US-Russian cooperation on the ground in the region, Troitskiy cites their recent rapprochement in Kyrgyzstan.

Mock 'reset' button that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed over to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva in 2009

Obama's reset policy was a good start, but not enough

After Obama's reset policy, Moscow and Washington are now working together to ensure the country remains a launching pad for NATO's war in Afghanistan. Both countries also coordinated their approach to last year's violent protests in the country and thus contributed to security there, notes Troitskiy.

His American colleague cites Georgia and Ukraine as examples. According to Darden, the war in Georgia serves as a test case to what can happen when Washington and Moscow are at loggerheads over an issue.

"Georgia has largely been dismembered because of its conflictual relationship with Russia and the US role in that hasn't necessarily helped them to preserve their territorial integrity," he argues. "Whereas had there been a closer US-Russian relationship and a closer triadic relationship between the US, Russia and Georgia, Georgia might be a whole country right now."

As for Ukraine, Darden says, it's clear that tense US-Russian relations are not in the interest of that country: "It may serve one branch of the political spectrum that feeds on the notion of a conflict between Russia and the West, but for the most part it's hard to make a strong case that it's in the national interest of any of the countries."

Win-win-win scenario

Instead Kyev will only benefit from improved ties between its government, the US, Russia and the EU via stronger trade and a better security environment, argues Darden who says that all sides have actually hurt the country by making too many concessions and not reforming it.

"I think the term win-win-win scenario (used in the report - the ed.) is absolutely right."

It all begs the question that if the case for better US-Russian ties is that crystal clear why have Moscow and Washington not realized this a long time ago?

That's because three hurdles are still standing in the way of improved cooperation between both countries, according to the report.

The first one could be described as a Cold War mentality. Essentially Russia still has problems with accepting the sovereignty of the former Soviet republics while the US still views Moscow's behavior in the region as a threat to their independence.

The second hurdle is overcoming the influence of special interests like business lobbies and government agencies which only pursue narrow economic or ideological interests inconsistent with the national interests of either the US or Russia.

Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, left, and US President John F. Kennedy during historic talks in 1961

Washington and Moscow have still not overcome their Cold War mentalities

The third obstacle is a misperception of the other country by government officials and the broader policy community in both nations. As Darden puts it: "In both countries there are a lot of people who made their careers and continue to make a profit out of a conflictual relationship."

Grand bargain

However, Troitskiy acknowledges that any hint of closer cooperation between Washington and Moscow immediately "resuscitates the specter of Yalta, the spirit of great power bargaining behind the backs of smaller countries."

But, argue both scholars, this is not at all what better US-Russian ties are all about in the 21st century. For the bilateral research group it's not about carving out spheres of influence anymore. "It isn't that kind of 19th century realpolitik group," says Darden.

As if to prove that point the group is open to the idea of expanding beyond its current US-Russian composition in the future and to include experts from Germany and other countries with a large stake in the US-Russian relationship, notes Darden.

"But for the moment because of the cold war legacy the US-Russia relationship is the one with the most overhang and the most debris to clear out before we can make progress," says Darden.

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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