In the Thick of ItA blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
From Polar Bears to Nuclear Weapons, US and Russia Still Talk (Even If It’s Past Each Other)
A popular talking point for many watchers of U.S.-Russian relations is to warn that reduced communication between the two countries, caused by the enduring animosities between Moscow and Washington, are increasing risks of a misunderstanding that could cause the world’s two nuclear superpowers to stumble into war. The experts, such as Sam Nunn and Ernest Moniz, certainly have a point. The less Washington and Moscow communicate, the greater the risk of misinterpreting each other’s actions in a way that could lead to a conflict, which could ultimately escalate into a nuclear war. You would be surprised, however, how much the U.S. and Russia still communicate both on government and non-government levels in spite of the animosities. At least that’s the impression I got when I looked into it, compiling a list of such communications1. From checking on each other’s strategic nukes to co-managing polar bear populations, the U.S. and Russia are still talking to each other, even though they might be talking past each other.
Ongoing Track 1 communication includes:
- Communication during regular meetings of the United Nations Security Council, the G20, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Arctic Council, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and other multilateral organizations and fora that the U.S. and Russia participate in on a regular basis as full-fledged members.
- U.S.-Russian consultations on strategic stability (the most recent round of consultations was reportedly held in July 2019, but Andrea Thompson left her post as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security after that, leaving her Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov waiting for a new counterpart).
- Communication during regular meetings between the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and chief of the Russian General Staff (primarily focused on deconflicting, as U.S. laws bar military-to-military cooperation with Russia).
- Communication during regular meetings between NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the chief of the Russian General Staff.
- Consultations through channels of communication open in the NATO-Russia Council and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council at the ambassadorial level.
- Consultations and/or exchanges of information per the following bilateral and multilateral agreements:
- Bilateral Consultative Commission of the New START Treaty,
- U.S.-Soviet Agreement on the Establishment of Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers of 1987 (a dedicated hotline is used),
- U.S.-Soviet Agreement on Notifications of Launches of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (BML) of 1988,
- U.S.-Russia Memorandum on safety of flights in Syria of 2015,
- Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures of 2011 (OSCE)2 and
- Open Skies Treaty of 1992.
- Intelligence sharing between U.S. and Russian special services on terrorist plots.
- Communication during meetings of the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission.
- Communication during sittings of the U.S.-Russian Business Council3 (first meeting planned for June 2020).
Ongoing Track 2 communication includes:
- A U.S.-Russia expert group4,
- The Elbe Group,
- The Working Group on the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations,
- Cultural, academic/educational and people-to-people exchanges, including:
However, many U.S.-Russian communications channels have been impeded/suspended, including:
- The U.S.–Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission established in 2009 and suspended in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, including:
- The U.S.-Russian Arms Control and International Security Working Group established in 2009 and suspended in the wake of the Ukraine crisis;
- The U.S.-Russian Working Group on Cooperation on Information and Communications Technology Security established in 2013 and suspended in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, although the FSB’s Bortnikov claimed in November 2019 that the U.S. and Russia were resuming cooperation in the sphere of cybersecurity;
- The U.S.-Russian Military Technical Cooperation Working Group; and
- See this chart for more working groups that made up this commission:
- U.S-Russian military cooperation was suspended by Congress in the wake of the Ukraine crisis;
- All practical cooperation between NATO and Russia, including that which took place in the framework of the NATO-Russia Council, was suspended in the wake of the Ukraine crisis;
- Nuclear energy and security cooperation was suspended by the U.S. in 2014, and then:
- Communication per the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, which Russia suspended in 2016;
- Communication per the U.S.-Russia Reactor Conversion Agreement, which Russia terminated in 2016; and
- Communication per the U.S.-Russia Agreement on Cooperation in Nuclear- and Energy-Related Scientific Research and Development, which Russia suspended in 2016.
- The G-8.
As the list above demonstrates, the U.S. and Russia are still talking to each other, though not as extensively as they used to during U.S. President Barack Obama’s short-lived reset policy. Would expanding and intensifying lines of communication help reduce risks of a deadly conflict and normalize relations between the two countries in general? Yes, of course. However, unless the sides manage to reconcile their differences over such thorny issues as election meddling and the Ukraine conflict, I would not bet on it in the near future, regardless of who occupies the White House next January.
- This is an evolving list, which is by no means complete, so any suggestions, updates and/or corrections are welcome in the comments.
- See list of U.S.-Russian agreements to prevent military incidents here: https://russiamatters.org/blog/what-stops-us-and-russia-stumbling-war.
- On the Russian side, President of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Alexander Shokhin will deal with the issue, and on the American side, the head of the American-Russian Business Council, Daniel Russell.
- Thomas Graham will probably co-chair the U.S. side, according to Kommersant.
Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of Russia Matters. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Photo in the public domain.