A year and a half after Barack Obama hit the "reset" button with Russia, the reconciliation is still fragile, incomplete, and politically divisive. Sure, Russia is no easy ally for the United States. Authoritarian yet insecure, economically mighty yet technologically backward, the country has proven a challenge for U.S. presidents since the end of the Cold War. Recent news hasn't helped: The arrest in July of a former deputy prime minister and leader of the Solidarity opposition movement, Boris Nemtsov, provoked some of the harshest criticism of Russia yet from the Obama administration. Then last Wednesday, Russia announced that it had moved anti-aircraft missiles into Abkhazia, the region that broke off from Georgia during the August 2008 war. The announcement was hardly welcome news for the United States, which has tried to defuse tensions there for the last 24 months.
Yet however challenging this partnership may be, Washington can't afford not to work with Moscow. Ronald Reagan popularized the phrase, "Trust, but verify" -- a good guiding principle for Cold War arms negotiators, and still apt for today. Engagement is the only way forward. Here are 10 reasons why:
1. Russia's nukes are still an existential threat. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons in stockpile and hundreds still on hair-trigger alert aimed at U.S. cities. This threat will not go away on its own; cutting down the arsenal will require direct, bilateral arms control talks between Russia and the United States. New START, the strategic nuclear weapons treaty now up for debate in the Senate, is the latest in a long line of bilateral arms control agreements between the countries dating back to the height of the Cold War. To this day, it remains the only mechanism granting U.S. inspectors access to secret Russian nuclear sites. The original START agreement was essential for reining in the runaway Cold War nuclear buildup, and New START promises to cut deployed strategic arsenals by a further 30 percent from a current limit of 2,200 to 1,550 on each side. Even more, President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, have agreed to a long-term goal of eliminating nuclear weapons entirely. But they can only do that by working together.
2. Russia is a swing vote on the international stage. As one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Moscow holds veto power over any resolution that the body might seek to pass -- including recent efforts to levy tougher sanctions on Iran or, in 2009, against North Korea following that country's second nuclear test. Russian support for such resolutions can also help persuade China and others not to block them. The post-reset relationship between Moscow and Washington works like a force multiplier for U.S. diplomacy. Russia plays an equally crucial role in the G-8 and G-20 economic groups, helping to formulate a coordinated approach in response to economic threats. In 2008, for example, Russia supported a G-20 resolution promising to refrain from protectionism and avoid new barriers to investment or trade.
3. Russia is big. The country's borders span across Europe, Central and East Asia, and the Arctic -- all regions where the United States has important interests and where it cannot afford destructive competition. With an ongoing counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, the United States has a strong interest in Central Asian stability and relies on Russia not only for direct assistance with logistics and information sharing, but to help manage threats like the recent political upheaval and sectarian violence in Kyrgyzstan. In the former Soviet space, Moscow's historical ties to newly independent states are still fresh and powerful. Moscow is the linchpin to resolving "frozen conflicts" that prevent countries like Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan from prospering economically and moving toward European Union membership. Recently, for example, Moscow signaled renewed interest in resolving frozen conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. And despite recent troop movements into Abkhazia, a negotiated settlement is still very possible, one that returns some territory to Georgia but preserves its autonomous status, along with that of its fellow breakaway republic, South Ossetia.