Treaties do not make relations but only serve to codify them. The European security treaty proposed by President Dmitry Medvedev in June would probably have to repeat most things contained in a plethora of international documents, from the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the 1990 Paris Charter for a New Europe to the 1999 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe charter.
Medvedev's preference for a document that is signed and duly ratified is understandable. He is a trained lawyer, after all. Medvedev's goal, however, is not to add another piece of paper to the pile. What the Kremlin actually wants from Washington are formal assurances that NATO will not cross further into former Soviet republics. It also wants U.S. plans to deploy elements of a missile defense system in Central Europe to be either scrapped altogether or redesigned as part of a fully transparent, joint endeavor shared by Russia, the United States and Europe. Is this a realistic goal?
As the global economic crisis intensifies, the issues underlying the 2008 near-collision between the United States and Russia -- NATO membership prospects for Ukraine and Georgia and the "frozen conflicts" in the Caucasus -- have moved off center stage. Thus, for all intents and purposes U.S.-Russian detente has already occurred, seemingly without a major effort by either side.
The problem with detentes, of course, is that they are transient conditions as long as the fundamentals of relationships remain unchanged. It is fully conceivable that Georgia and Ukraine -- both the dog that bit and the one that only barked -- can make a comeback with a vengeance, producing another crisis in the future.
To forestall that, Moscow blows hot and cold. On the one hand, Medvedev, by offering help on Afghanistan and expressing concerns over Iran, suggests he is ready for a deal with U.S. President Barack Obama.
On the other hand, others in Moscow make it clear that failure to accept the Kremlin overtures would result in Russia's strategic bombers becoming frequent flyers to the Caribbean and Ukraine degenerating into a latter-day version of Yugoslavia. But this is mostly bluff. Although it cannot realistically hope to force Washington into a shotgun marriage, Russia bolsters its enticements with warnings about placing Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad or sending strategic bombers and warships to Latin America. But the Pentagon is neither impressed nor intimidated by Russia's saber rattling.
At the same time, the White House and the State Department genuinely aspire to "reset" the troubled relationship, but they have yet to set down priorities, develop a strategy and think through the tactics. It was good that top U.S. officials addressed Russia in the first weeks of Obama's presidency, but it is not clear how much staying power they have on that track.
Moscow's one problem is that it can neither beat the West nor join it. An additional issue is that it both seeks to be part of Europe and stay apart from it. Another sign of its schizophrenia is that Russia tries to imitate the United States even as it publicly reviles the very things it imitates.
Therein lies Russia's fundamental difference with China. Russia is not as self-assured as its great neighbor, nor is it as clearly defined as a nation. Since Russia is not a distinct civilization or a world unto itself, it cannot seriously expect to be a power center on par with China -- or the United States for that matter. Thus, Russia's noninclusion into the European security architecture is a problem, while China's absence from the U.S.-led system of security arrangements in Asia is not.
Indeed, Russia has many thorny issues it needs to work out -- not only in terms of its own self-identity but with its neighbors and the United States as well. As far as European security at the start of the 21st century is concerned, this is a problem of the same importance as the Germany problem of the first half of the 20th century, or the Soviet and Communist problems in the second half of the 20th century.
Solutions to such problems require vision. Russia's goal is to live peacefully alongside its neighbors -- including Ukraine and Georgia-- embedded within a new European security compact that allows for complete demilitarization of relations among its participants. This model implies stable, peaceful relations with both Ukraine and Georgia -- ideally, the kind of relations that Russia enjoys with Finland. For the Kremlin, the key to achieving this is to remove the political and military threats -- perceived or otherwise -- that cause so many problems for Moscow, while at the same time creating a new pan-European alliance that would be capable of jointly tackling 21st-century security problems. A parallel vision is Russia and its neighbors forming a common economic space with the EU, complete with a political cooperation mechanism -- a de facto European confederation. Taken together, this calls for no less than 21st-century equivalents of the NATO and the European Economic Community.
Vision is vital for strategy. Its key objective is mutual confidence building through practical problem solving. Letting the EU, rather than NATO, assume the leading role in the former Soviet borderlands would help establish a degree of political confidence. Taking a fresh look at the potential for serious U.S.-Russian cooperation on ballistic missile defense systems would expand confidence to difficult security issues. Implementing the bilateral agreement on nuclear energy cooperation, helping finalize Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization and conferring a normal trading status for Russia would seriously expand the economic basis of the relationship.
Bilateral relations will continue to focus on Iran, the salient foreign policy issue for the Obama administration. Washington does not need Moscow to strike at Iran, but to negotiate with it, Russian cooperation is essential. The next 10 to 12 months could be crucial not only with respect to what happens between Iran and the United States, but also to what might be expected of the U.S.-Russian relationship. Serious diplomacy requires tradeoffs, but diplomatic trading makes no sense if it is divorced from a long-term vision and strategy.
This comment first appeared in The Moscow Times