The two documents signed during Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov's visit to the United States - a memorandum on cooperation between the military departments and a joint statement on the establishment of the U.S.-Russian Defense Relations Working Group - could drastically change military relations between the two countries.
The American and Russian military have had close relations for years, despite the Cold War the two sides shared information and created working groups to deal with issues ranging from safe warship and airplane maneuvers to the drafting of new START treaties and discussing potential space exploration projects. One of the many benefits of this ongoing information exchange was its significant contribution towards keeping the peace between those two powers, each of which had nuclear arsenals large enough to destroy human civilization several times over.
The end of the Cold War seemed to open up a genuine opportunity for effective cooperation between the two military superpowers. However, the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union and later U.S. policies comprising a unilateral approach to security, through attaining an overwhelming military superiority over all other nations jeopardized those prospects.
NATO's eastward expansion and America's global missile defense plans combined with the tendency to use force to attain set goals practiced by the United States over the past 20 years, left no hope that the two countries would reach agreement in the foreseeable future. U.S.-Russian relations steadily deteriorated until they reached a point (at the end of George W. Bush's second term as president) where many even started talking about a new cold war.
Relations hit rock bottom in the second half of the 2000s, with increased tension between Russia and the United States over missile-defense plans, America's active support for anti-Russian (often frankly Russophobic) governments in former Soviet republics, and the five-day war between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia.
This trend was not reversed until Barack Obama's Administration took office and announced a policy "reset".
That "reset" and reconfiguration of relations was very well timed indeed, to say the least. The deepening global recession combined with a broader crisis in the existing system of global political and economic relations, had brought both Russia and the United States face to face with the dangerous prospect of sliding back into cold war at a time when both countries had to deal with a host of other threats. On top of everything else the two powers also had to deal with an interaction crisis. Their habitual behavior, standards and stereotypes all dated back to the Cold War and were a heavy burden on the two countries' military and political officials, who treated their overseas partners with suspicion, which hampered their efforts to find common ground and mutually acceptable solutions.
The background to the newly signed START-3 agreement is the best example of that approach. The document, extremely useful and beneficial for both sides, initially came under fire from both countries. Radical politicians in Russia and the United States hurled similar accusations at their respective governments, accusing them of betraying their national interests and ceding positions to their "arch-enemy." Comical though these accusations might sound, they are very telling.
Both countries began almost simultaneous reviews of their respective "inventories" of enemies; both quickly discovered that they were not on each other's lists. Both countries spotted that their main military threat lay in the epidemic of destabilization spreading across regions that were key to their vital interests. Local conflicts, terrorist attacks, riots, protests, famine, drug trade, piracy and other new realities which had nothing to do with the old global confrontation of the two superpowers and their satellite states, have made both sides review the structure of their armies and new weapons development programs.
It was more difficult for Russia because its military reform coincided with a psychological crisis in the army and society, as well as economic problems, and came under a landslide of criticism, which was only partly justified. On the other hand, America, which had to cancel a host of defense programs and now faces the need to cut its armed forces for economic reasons, must be experiencing similar difficulties.
All these circumstances are powerful incentives for both nations to embrace cooperation. They are compelled to seek common ground and common approaches to problems where agreement is possible, and to compromise on issues where they have so far failed to agree.
The best way forward would be through an ongoing exchange of information and the shaping of a common context in the defense sphere, which would enable the two nations to talk the same language. It is quite possible to reach a compromise even on the U.S. missile defense issue, if the two countries do eventually finalize their long-discussed plans to build a common system over which they will have shared control.