The Russia File

How to Move Toward a Strategic Partnership

Courtesy Reuters

Reversing the collapse of U.S.-Russian relations is one of the great tests facing the Obama administration. Among the major powers, Russia is the hard case. And the stakes involved in getting U.S.-Russian relations right are high -- much higher than the leadership of either country has acknowledged or perhaps even realized so far. If the Obama administration can guide the relationship onto a more productive path, as it is trying to do, it will not only open the way for progress on the day's critical issues -- from nuclear security and energy security to climate change and peaceful change in the post-Soviet area -- but also be taking on a truly historic task. One of the blessings of the post-Cold War era has been the absence of strategic rivalry among great powers, a core dynamic of the previous 300 years in the history of international relations. Should it return, some combination of tensions between the United States, Russia, and China would likely be at its core. Ensuring that this does not happen constitutes the less noticed but more fateful foreign policy challenge facing this U.S. president and the next.

Washington has scant chance of mustering the will or the energy to face this challenge, however, without a clearer sense of the scale of the stakes involved. Every tally of the ways in which Russia matters begins, and rightly so, with nuclear weapons. Because the United States and Russia possess 95 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal, they bear the responsibility for making their stocks safer by repairing the now-shattered strategic nuclear arms control regime. Their cooperation is also crucial if the gravely imperiled nuclear nonproliferation regime is to be saved. Then comes energy. Russia has 30 percent of the world's gas reserves and sits astride the transport grid by which energy flows from the entire post-Soviet zone to the rest of the world. More recently, tensions have arisen over the Arctic's hydrocarbon reserves -- which are said to amount

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