U.S. Foreign Policy
In October 2014, the Council posted an article titled “Needs Work: A Troubled U.S.-Russia Relationship,” in which we noted somberly that “if there is one point of agreement between pundits in Moscow and Washington these days, it is that U.S.-Russia relations are at a post-Cold War nadir.”
Although some countries are more important on specific issues, none, not even China or any ally, plays on a greater range of U.S. foreign and security interests than Russia. Russia is indispensable to our interests in strategic stability and nonproliferation; it is important to our goals in Europe, the broader Middle East, Northeast Asia, and the Arctic, in energy security and climate change. Along with other powers, it has a central role to play in combating international terrorism, transnational crime, and similar threats. We can cooperate, or we can work at cross-purposes, but we cannot ignore one another. As a general rule, we will be better off if we can find a way to cooperate with Russia at an acceptable cost.
Construct the Missing Framework
U.S.-Russian relations are now a laundry list of issues and grievances outside a strategic framework that places both countries in the broader flow of global developments, identifies common opportunities and threats, relates issues to one another, and sets priorities. Any effort to create sustainable constructive relations must begin with the construction of that missing framework. That task cannot be left to the bureaucracies in both countries. They cannot think boldly, creatively, or holistically about relations as each agency or department pursues goals on a narrow set of issues within its purview. It is the task for a group of senior officials or former officials, working directly under the auspices of the two presidents, charged to move beyond day-to-day and tactical considerations to a broader vision of how each country could advance its own long-term interests by helping the other advance its strategic goals.
Thomas E. Graham is a Senior Director at Kissinger Associates.
This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Russia is essential to completing our mission in Afghanistan. Given sharp increases in the pace, number, and intensity of global challenges requiring collective action, Russia and the United States have the unique ability to act around the globe. Without our cooperation, organizations tasked with addressing these issues do not function effectively.
We have shared aspirations to address global challenges such as nonproliferation and terrorism. China, India, and Brazil hold no such aspirations. Europe seems uncertain.
Russia and the United States alone occupy Euro-Atlantic and Asia-Pacific security spaces and are central players in the Arctic, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Russia has a voice in organizations where the United States is not represented—the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).
We have solid experience upon which to build to a new stage.
It is a cardinal principle of dialogue that it is most important to talk when a relationship is threatened. We need to talk about the relationship at ALL levels.
This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York.
The U.S.–Russia relationship matters for many reasons, both immediately and over the long term. Most pressing, the United States has a very important national security interest in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon—and Russia’s cooperation is key in maintaining united international pressure on Iran to negotiate as well as limiting or shutting off the supply of advanced conventional weapons to Tehran. Moscow’s assistance is also valuable in conducting the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Strategically, America’s relationship with Russia can play a significant role in defining the twenty-first century international system and in sustaining U.S. global leadership. As China has grown in influence, it has increasingly challenged some aspects of the U.S.-led international system. However, Beijing is unlikely to be in a position to rewrite international rules without considerable backing. As the second-largest world power dissatisfied with elements of the current system, Russia can either support this effort or not. For Americans who see China as America’s principal foreign policy priority, effectively managing U.S.-Russia relations is a critical building block in dealing successfully with Beijing in the decades to come.
The first priority for Washington and Moscow in repairing their fraying relations must be to stop and reverse the sharp deterioration in tone. Improving the tone of the U.S.–Russia relationship was the first step in the Obama administration’s reset policy and—until 2011—was in some ways its most significant accomplishment. President Obama’s recent comments about Mr. Putin’s body language are not helpful; nor is officially encouraged anti-American sentiment in Russia.
To improve relations significantly, however, both sides will need to do much better than avoiding gratuitous mutual criticism. To succeed, the two governments must define a shared vision for their relationship that advances each nation’s individual national interests, they must make achieving that vision a priority in a manner that shapes decisions on some other issues, including on issues that may be politically painful for each, and they must explain their policy approaches convincingly to their citizens and to skeptical elites. Thus far, the U.S. and Russian governments have failed at the first of these tasks and have applied limited effort at best to the last two. Most damaging has been the mutual failure to make clear why the U.S.-Russia relationship matters to both countries.
This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York.
It should be intuitively obvious to any observer of international affairs that the U.S.-Russia relationship matters for both countries, and for the world. The fact that such a question even gets asked is revealing, however. It seems to result from an implicit comparison with the centrality of the U.S.-Soviet relationship, which of course, in relative terms, was far more important for both countries, and for the world. But that comparison is misleading; Russia is not the Soviet Union and bipolarity has been over for almost twenty-five years. So compared to any other bilateral relationship that exists in the world today, the U.S.–Russia dyad is remarkably important: there isn’t a single global issue that isn’t affected by it. But the fact that the question is being asked demonstrates the extent to which the Cold War legacy haunts this bilateral relationship.
To “fix” the relationship, both sides need to recognize that it is broken, and that some serious effort needs to be made in order to repair it. The two governments have yet to undertake such an effort. For all its myriad successes, the “reset” of 2009 to 2011 was fundamentally about the “deliverables” produced by the relationship, and not about addressing the long-standing problems within the relationship. There are three primary problems or pathologies that plague bilateral ties. The most corrosive of these problems remains the fact that elements within both countries’ national security establishments continue to view each other as adversaries, almost twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War. These attitudes are most overtly manifest in the persistence of mutually assured destruction as the paradigm that defines the nuclear relationship. A second pathology is the yawning gap between Washington’s expectations about Russia’s post-Soviet political development and Russian realities, which have refused to conform to those expectations. Finally, U.S.–Russia rivalry in post-Soviet Eurasia also represents a continuing handicap on bilateral ties. Addressing these pathologies would involve good-faith engagement to find common ground, overcome misperceptions, and rethink assumptions. It would not produce “deliverables” fit for presidential summits. But without such an effort, the two governments will end up, once again, taking steps that force them to cancel summits, as President Obama did earlier this month.
The U.S.–Russia relationship matters at this time because in the contemporary international constellation it always matters. For Russia it matters because the United States is the world’s leading power. For the United States it matters less but it matters nonetheless, because Russia is too big to dominate, too proud to ignore, and too dangerous to fight.
Now that “the reset” has yielded to “the pause,” both governments should take advantage of the time-out to inquire into and share the lessons of this latest pendulum swing in the relationship. A key problem that must be addressed this time around is the domestic political environment in each country. Not only do entrenched mindsets and powerful players work against enduring cooperation. More fundamentally, they keep policymakers in Moscow and Washington from making realistic allowances for political realities in the other place.
The U.S.–Russia relationship matters for two reasons. First, the United States can more successfully address many global challenges if it has Russia at its side. The potential payoff is worth the continued effort to bridge the differences between the two states. Second, Russia is undergoing considerable social change that has the potential to affect its role in the international system. The United States has an interest in being engaged with Russia at this time of change, to better understand its domestic dynamics and to capably respond to them in ways that increase the odds of deepening and sustaining the relationship.
The United States should engage with Russia in the same way it engages with other partners that do not fully share Americans’ international outlook or domestic practices—no more, no less. The U.S. administration should keep expectations modest while continuing to demonstrate an interest in cooperation even on the most challenging of issues. We certainly should not treat every one of Moscow’s disagreements with Washington as evidence of some kind of uniquely Russian opposition to the existing world order. But for the United States to continue extending a hand, the Russian government ought to dispense with its use of anti-Americanism (and anti-Westernism) for domestic purposes. It also should accept that what happens inside Russia unavoidably affects its standing internationally—the same way it does the United States or any other country.
Cory Welt is Associate Director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.
The “pause” in U.S.–Russia relations at the highest level, following President Obama’s decision to cancel his meeting with President Putin in the margins of the G20 summit, raised serious questions far beyond the U.S.–Russia relationship. Bypassing each other goes against global trends—demographic patterns, the food/water/energy nexus, the diffusion of state-centric power, and emergence of individual empowerment. The U.S.–Russia relationship will really matter when it becomes less about each other and more about working together toward addressing common challenges.
The inability in Moscow and Washington to make progress on arms control and missile defense, on trade and human rights, or even on Syria, adds to a long list of vexing issues between the United States and Russia, including periodic crises like the Magnitsky case or the Snowden affair. Because, however, there is a larger strategic context, the two nations should not allow the relationship to drift or become irrelevant. The key question remains whether the United States and Russia will approach the future together or separately.
It has never been beneficial to isolate or marginalize Russia. Ignoring Moscow has had limited and short-lived benefits. Similarly, Russia may turn toward Eurasia or the Asia-Pacific for alternatives, but it will not escape the importance of Euro-Atlantic relations for its own long-term modernization plans.
For the past 20 years, the Washington–Moscow relationship has been cyclical, but currently it seems to be in a downward spiral. No one seems to have learned from one cycle to the next and one may wonder how many times the relationship will have to “reset.” The relationship has become essentially asymmetrical, hostage of a narrowly defined security agenda dominated by nuclear weapons and arms control negotiations, which makes it impossible to develop a strategic partnership befitting today’s global trends.
What can and should both countries do to “fix” the relationship?
At this particular juncture, an honest diagnosis of the U.S.–Russia pathologies would point to a limited ability to address common concerns jointly. In the short term, the dynamic between Washington and Moscow may become purely transactional, without much trust and with little hope of closing the value gap. This should not be seen as negative.
The prognosis for a cooperative way forward is unclear at best. What is very clear, however, is that if engagement between the United States and Russia leads to one side prevailing over the other, the two sides will disengage. This type of partnership with Russia is unsustainable.
The prescription is not a matter of quick fixes. First, the two sides need a long-term strategy, in an attempt to remain engaged without prejudging the outcome. A long-term strategy would serve as a guidepost in managing expectations, hedging against political improvisation and unhelpful decisions, and mitigating the risks of disengagement. A long-term strategy could also help identify compromises between the requirements of expedient solutions typical in a transactional relationship, without losing sight of the ultimate search for a normative framework to be ushered in due course by potential transformational leadership. Moreover, in managing time, a strategy could offer short-term goals and long-term objectives, and thus allow for pragmatic decisions based on interests, while retaining a value-based, long-term perspective.
Second, for the relationship to develop in the long run, there would have to be a conscious political choice by the top leadership on both sides toward engagement, and a readiness to address disagreements within national constituencies. The biggest challenge will not be the lack of common interests or the absence of an inspiring vision. The biggest challenge has been and will remain the lack of mutual intentions, mutual respect, and shared political will on the part of respective leadership to work with their own internal opposition towards genuine cooperation.
It is unclear at this stage whether the United States and Russia can develop a relationship of mutual respect without an expectation on either side to win over the other on the merit of its own position.
Many Americans, and some Russians living in the United States, say that the root cause of current problems in U.S.–Russian relations is that anti-U.S. rhetoric and actions that displease the United States play well in Russian domestic politics, so there is nothing that the United States can do to improve the relationship until President Putin decides that he has more to lose than gain by such tactics. Saying that the problem is all internal to Russia lets the United States off the hook too easily. Domestic politics also push U.S. policies on key issues, including missile defense, human rights, and Iran’s nuclear program, in directions that impede U.S.-Russian cooperation. Some U.S. politicians score points with their constituents by exaggerating problems in the relationship and inflaming anti-Russian sentiments. Some domestic policy issues on which Russia is being criticized by the West, such as intolerance toward homosexuals, are equally controversial in the United States, although the forms of legal discrimination are different.
Even the opposing positions taken by Russia and the United States on the Snowden case are really the extreme ends of a policy dilemma that both countries face between empowering governments to collect private information and keep secrets in the name of national security versus empowering citizens to know what their governments are doing and to keep personal information private. Americans cannot agree about how to balance these two objectives, and Russians probably cannot either, so staking out extreme positions and demonizing the other side is not an appropriate response. Acknowledging the ways in which domestic politics shape U.S. relations with Russia will not make the policy disagreements go away, but it is a step toward managing them in a more constructive fashion.
Nancy W. Gallagher is Associate Director for Research at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.
Politicians on both sides have convinced themselves the relationship doesn’t matter all that much. For years, the expert community has been drawing up lists of reasons why a productive and cooperative U.S.-Russia relationship matters to both countries’ security and prosperity—but these arguments don’t seem to have fallen on fertile ground.
Politicians should stop trying to “fix” the U.S.-Russia relationship. The current climate, plus the personalities of the two presidents, do not bode well for pursuing new “resets.” What’s more important right now is to ring-fence those areas where things are working to create habits of cooperation or to build a foundation for a better relationship at a future date. We don’t need U.S. congressmen or Russian bureaucrats throwing monkey wrenches that mess up productive technical cooperation or promising economic relationships.
With thousands of nuclear warheads, some of the world’s largest oil and natural gas reserves, territory spanning one-seventh of the globe’s land mass, nearly 150 million people, and a UN Security Council veto, Russia is surely one of the countries in which developments could most directly affect the lives and liberties of Americans, citizens of other countries, and U.S. interests abroad. Research and history show Russia is not incorrigibly anti-American, nor is its population antidemocratic. Much of its international behavior is driven by domestic politics and efforts by its leadership to retain power. In this context, engagement is much more promising than isolation, even under Putin. We share joint interests in many key spheres, including trade and security, and should not let our differences (which we should express frankly) interfere. For the longer run, trade and exchanges of officials, scholars, and students are vital to shaping a positive U.S.-Russia relationship.
Almost 60 years ago, President Eisenhower called on scientists “to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma” by launching Atoms for Peace. Albeit reluctantly, the Soviets followed suit with their own Peaceful Atom program. American and Soviet scientists helped bring the benefits of the atom to millions of people around the world. But the fearful dilemma has only changed; it has not been solved. It can only be solved by close cooperation between Moscow and Washington.
Twenty-five years ago President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev directed their nuclear scientists to work together at each other’s nuclear test sites to develop verification techniques for the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. As much of a shock as it was for me (director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory at the time) to host Soviet scientists at the Nevada test site, this presidential directive not only facilitated ratification of the treaty, but it also allowed us to develop professional and personal relations that resulted in remarkable cooperation to reduce the nuclear dangers brought about by the chaos of the Soviet Union’s breakup.
At a recent Moscow conference, scientists from both countries reviewed the stunning accomplishments of that cooperation and lamented its dramatic decline during the past decade. Yet, our job is not done—we must focus more intensely on the common threats of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation, deal with strategic stability issues in a new multipolar world, and, if nuclear power is to expand globally, cooperate on how it can be done safely and securely. We need presidential leadership in Moscow and Washington to overcome the political and bureaucratic obstacles that keep us from getting on with the job.
There is no time when the U.S.-Russia relationship does not matter. Now is particularly important because negative attitudes on both sides, amplified by the media, are hardening. It can then be difficult to “soften” them again—and to get the dialogue, or, more precisely, the many dialogues, at many levels involving many different people and national institutions, moving in directions and developing patterns of behavior and interaction that have a chance to be mutually productive. This is particularly so when the United States and Russia are impacting on one another’s “turf” and “concerns” more than they have for a number of years; as each seeks to define a set of roles consonant both with its ambitions and with radical shifts in global politics, economics, and culture; and where each needs to understand what is possible and what not possible in matching their national interests to one another—and how to tell the difference and to seek areas of accommodation.
What can/should be done by both sides to get it “fixed”?
“Fixed” begs the question, implying an ideal and unchanging state of being. Like history’s other major powers, the U.S. and Russia will be rivals, while, one hopes, also partnering (or at least tolerating) where possible; and seeking in their mutual self-interest to reduce risks of unbridled tensions and to build the “global commons.” Step one is a mutual “time out” in hostile rhetoric and caviling at each other’s domestic politics, followed by again showing respect for one another; depersonalizing the relationship (actually, the relationships)—no more “Putin this” or “Obama that,” media shorthand without meaning in interactions between modern states. “Time out,” as well, on summits that have little productive value, and more interactions at more levels and with new faces and a younger generation; disaggregating aspects of relations (geographically and functionally)—no search for an unneeded and not possible “grand bargain”—while making room for third parties and consigning “zero sum” to the “ash heap of history;” and finally getting over the long-dead Cold War and its mental and psychological strictures.
Robert Hunter is a former Ambassador to NATO and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
February 6, 2014
My inclination in 2007 was, for both political and security reasons, to think it was a mistake for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to award the 2014 Winter Games to Russia. However, the political reasons were undermined by the earlier decision to award the 2008 summer games to China, which is a much more repressive country than Russia. The security concerns were still relevant, but they were not insurmountable. One can certainly argue that Sochi was not the best Russian city for the games because of its temperate climate, but in Russia decisions about which city to put forth are made at the center under Vladimir Putin, with scant input from localities. If the IOC bought into it, so be it.
Putin has given extraordinarily high priority to the Olympics and depicted the IOC’s decision to hold the games in Sochi as a triumph for Russia and, implicitly, for himself. Far more than other national leaders in host countries in the post-1945 era, Putin has used the Sochi games as a vehicle to cement a lofty position for himself on the international scene. This dynamic can be seen in the way Putin greeted the arrival of the Olympic flame in Moscow in early November 2013, as recorded by the BBC: ”When the Olympic flame first arrived in Moscow, [Putin] was at the centre of an elaborate ceremony on Red Square. With rousing music playing, he strode out of the Kremlin gates on live television and marched up a long red carpet to receive the flame personally. He then stood there, torch in hand as the national anthem played.”
All the symbolic measures surrounding the Olympics—sending an Olympic torch into space for a spacewalk and sending another torch to a Russian icebreaker moving through to the North Pole—have been linked to the glorification of Russia as a world power and, implicitly, to the exaltation of Putin as the supreme leader of this great power. This sort of gloss is distasteful, yet it is important to remember that the Chinese authorities engaged in their own disingenuous manipulations when hosting the games in 2008, depicting them as a tribute to the Communist system in China.
Abhorrent though the Russian government’s campaign against gays and lesbians has been, calls for a boycott of the Olympics over the vicious homophobia in Russia never seemed persuasive. The Summer Games were held in China in 2008 despite much worse human rights problems there than in Russia, and it would have seemed hypocritical to have boycotted the Sochi games. Moreover, despite the IOC’s strictures, some athletes are bound to use the games to criticize the anti-gay campaign—or at least I hope they do. But even if a boycott would have been inappropriate, it is good that numerous Western leaders are staying away from the opening ceremony on February 7th. That will send a message to the Russian authorities—and to other undemocratic regimes—without penalizing athletes who have trained hard for many years.
On U.S.-Russia Relations:
“Why does the U.S.–Russia relationship matter at this time?” This would be a good question to ask Vladimir Putin. From his perspective, it was more important to engage in grandstanding than to seek a constructive relationship with the United States. Putin was evidently hoping that a trade could be arranged for Viktor Bout (a notorious criminal who has caused mayhem and misery in large parts of the world, apparently in collusion with the Russian security services), and when the Obama administration turned down any such exchange, Putin responded with pique. Obama’s decision to cancel his September 2013 meeting with Putin was justified under the circumstances.
For the time being, U.S.–Russia relations will be at their lowest point since the spring of 1999 (during the war with Kosovo). The much-ballyhooed “reset” may have achieved a few modest results early on, but it has turned out to be a colossal failure. Nonetheless, over time the United States and Russia do have important reasons to try to establish a better relationship. The two sides share an interest in preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for Islamic terrorists. They also share an interest in preserving stability in South Asia and East Asia. Both countries stand to benefit from cooperation on environmental issues, questions of public health, efforts to combat human trafficking and illegal arms dealing, and counterterrorism.
At the same time it would be wrong to gloss over the major issues that divide the two sides. The internal clampdown in Russia over the past year-and-a-half is bound to cause friction and to inhibit cooperation. The Russian government has been unwilling to take a firm stance on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and seems perfectly willing to accept a nuclear-armed Iran (even if, on balance, the Russian authorities would prefer that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons). The Russian authorities have done all they can to prop up the Assad regime in Syria and to prevent any effective international action regarding the civil war in that country. Russia continues to behave in a domineering manner toward its neighbors, such as Georgia and the Baltic countries. On all of these issues, if the United States can obtain concrete favorable action by Russia, it will certainly bolster U.S. interests and put relations back on a sounder footing.
After the dismal experience with the reset, the best step will be to avoid such gimmicks in the future. Far too much of the reset was public relations rather than substance. The two sides should candidly acknowledge the many issues on which they disagree as well as those on which they agree.
The steady emergence of the United States as one of the world’s largest energy producers (and eventually one of the largest energy exporters) will give U.S. officials a valuable source of leverage they have not had in the past. Because the Russian economy remains so heavily dependent on extractive industries, especially oil and natural gas, the United States should begin as soon as possible (which probably will not be before 2017) to export energy to European countries that currently import almost all of their needs from Russia. By edging in on these markets, U.S. officials over the longer term will have greater leeway to push for Russian concessions on a range of issues.
So long as Putin is president of Russia, it is hard to see how the bilateral relationship can change fundamentally. Both sides deserve blame for this dismal situation, but it is too late now to undo past mistakes and to foster amity and close cooperation, at least while Putin is around. Instead, the United States should use what leverage it can wield to seek Russian concessions on issues of importance to U.S. interests. Over the longer term, there may be an opportunity to forge a genuine partnership and genuine friendship with Russia—something the United States failed to do in the 1990s—but at this point the best that can be done is to minimize damage and preserve the significant areas of cooperation that still exist.
February 6, 2014
Russia Depends on the Russians
The relationship between the U.S. and Russia lacks a secure mooring and is therefore subject to upheaval and uncertainty. Both sides are to blame for this.
The Obama administration’s “reset” policy is strategically vacuous. For their part, not a few in Congress seem to be focused on reacting to authoritarian trends in Russia and on fostering democracy as an antidote. The reality, however, is that we can affect Russia’s political future at the margins at best. What happens in Russia depends on the Russians. What we should do, instead, is to define concrete foreign policy issues on which there is a convergence of interests and try to foster bilateral cooperation on them, to the extent possible, with realistic expectations, and in a manner consistent with American interests.
As for the Putin government, on the one hand, it wants Russia to be treated as a great power but, on the other, ascribes many of its difficulties to Western (especially American) machinations. (In fact, the real problem facing Moscow is that Russia seems to matter less and less to the United States.) The result has been the rise within Russia of an anti-Western nationalism.
Until Washington and Moscow stop this destructive, ideologically-driven pattern of behavior, the bilateral relationship will continue to be characterized by instability, unpredictability, polemics, and blame-games. That, in turn, will limit the achievements possible, even in areas where there is some (though in truth very little) cooperation, Syria being a case in point.
But if the two sides can find a few specific areas of cooperation that are modest to start with but on which cooperation would produce demonstrable mutual benefits, the relationship can (slowly) become more predictable and productive. Grand gestures such as summits and catchwords won’t make a difference. Any improvement that occurs in US-Russia relations will require quiet, persistent, and prolonged diplomacy.
Three Questions Should Guide Our Russia Policy
Scholars and policymakers are inclined to believe that the countries or regions or problems that preoccupy them professionally are of supreme, even urgent, importance. American experts on Russia are no exception in this regard. The reality, though, is that U.S.-Russian relations will never have, for Americans or Russians, the salience that the U.S.-Soviet relationship did. To refuse to accept this fact is to invite delusion or wishful thinking. It’s also true that a positive transformation of what is today a rocky U.S.–Russian relationship will not occur during what remains of Barack Obama’s presidency: domestic politics in Russia and the United States and the divergent worldviews of the two governments conspire to rule that out. What is feasible, however, is an improvement over the current state of affairs.
The United States should attempt to stabilize its relationship with Russia and to place it on a better footing because neither the Russians nor we stand to gain from its continued deterioration. But unless efforts are made to prevent that outcome, it is all but assured to occur. To allow that would be foolish.
Whatever one may think of Vladimir Putin, his policies and pronouncements have more support in Russian society than is often assumed or asserted in American discourse about Russia. Yes, he is less popular in Russia than he was in his first term as president, and it is true that some of his antics are becoming tiresome to many Russians. But he remains the most prominent, powerful, and popular leader in Russia; and there is no sign that his position is in jeopardy. We either deal with him or we make the choice to write Russia off until someone more to our liking takes the helm.
But Russia can’t be written off given that it: i) is a nuclear power, still retains substantial and powerful conventional forces, and trails only the United States as an exporter of weaponry; ii) is a major energy producer, one that supplies many countries in whose future the United States has a stake; iii) still wields significant, even if diminished, influence in many “post-Soviet states” (Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Armenia, and the Central Asian five) in which the United States has interests of various sorts; iv) has formed a multifaceted “strategic partnership” with China, the state that is considered most likely to become America’s peer competitor; v) can either help or hinder progress in hotspots such as Iran, the Korean peninsula, Syria, and Afghanistan; vi) is too important to ignore simply by virtue of its massive size and its strategic Eurasian location.
What Can Be Done to Improve the Relationship?
While this will be hard for any American president to sell to Congress and to the various interest groups engaged with matters Russian, we have to learn to delink our larger relationship with Russia from our views about the nature of the political order that Putin has built. The latter is not to most Americans’ liking; but it would be foolish to insist, in effect, that a change of regime in Moscow is necessary before we can develop a relationship with Russia that advances our interests. That amounts to putting our Russia policy on indefinite hold and is irresponsible.
The United States has dealt extensively with many countries whose politics and values we find distasteful (consider China under Mao, or even China today; or think of Saudi Arabia)—and will continue to do so. Nothing is to be gained by making Russia an exception to this pragmatic practice or by insisting on standards on human rights and democracy that the current Russian leadership will never meet. Reconfiguring the internal order of countries should not be a priority for our foreign policy. Instead, we should focus on finding areas of cooperation (to the extent that they exist) with important states and on reducing the chances of confrontation on issues where we have divergent interests.
Three questions should guide our Russia policy: What are America’s important national interests? In what ways, and to what extent, does (or could) Russia affect them? What, realistically, can be done to find common ground or to avoid conflict with Russia once we have reasoned, sober answers to the first two questions?
When it comes to U.S.–Russian relations, there are several issues that we should focus on, using these three questions as a frame of reference: arms control, nuclear proliferation, climate change, terrorism, stability—i.e., the absence of war—on the Korean peninsula, violent conflicts in countries that matter to us and to Russia, and the trajectory of post-American Afghanistan. Each will be easier to manage if we can work cooperatively with Russia; each will be harder to manage if we cannot.
The point is not that a Russian–U.S. partnership will ensure that the problems related to these issues are resolved; it’s that they can be addressed more effectively if our relationship with Russia is less volatile and more predictable.
A starting point for getting to a better place with Russia’s current government would be to convene a midlevel U.S.–Russian working group on the bilateral relationship. It should be charged with setting aside differences over human rights and democracy and trying, despite the disagreements over such matters, to identify areas where American and Russian interests do (or might) overlap and developing an agenda for cooperative action, with modest steps to start the process. The group should not include senior policymakers at the initial stage: they should be involved only after progress is made in the dialogue and concrete areas of convergence are identified.
This enterprise should not commence with fanfare and highfalutin proclamations heralding a new beginning. That risks arousing expectations that cannot be met under current conditions and breeding cynicism or despair when setbacks occur. Catchy monikers—such as “reset”—should also be avoided; they, too, generate unrealistic hopes and reduce something that is complex to marketing clichés. Quiet, realistic pragmatism is what’s needed. The president should be candid with the American public about the differences that still divide Russia and the United States and explain why the U.S.–Russia relationship is nevertheless important and worth improving.
Rajan Menon is Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York.
Cancellation of the Moscow summit does not mean a U.S.–Russia crisis. Although the dynamics of the bilateral relationship have changed over the past four years, there are issues—including nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism, regional challenges, and trade and investment links—where cooperation serves the interests of both countries. At the same time, in a relationship as varied and complex as that between the United States and Russia, there will be differences on some questions. The trick is to not let differences on issues such as Syria dominate the relationship but to manage those differences so that cooperation is possible where U.S. and Russian interests coincide. Washington and Moscow should move on the areas where cooperation makes sense, such as reducing their overly large nuclear weapons levels and strengthening commercial links, to add some more positives to the relationship.
The U.S.-Russia relationship will always be a critical component of U.S. foreign relations. Unfortunately, neither the United States nor the European Union has been particularly effective over the past decade in recalibrating its views of Russia from a net consumer of foreign assistance to an economic and geopolitical co-equal among G8 nations. The relationship going forward must be based on principles of parity and mutual interest, without an assumption that Russia, which increasingly sees itself as neither western nor Asian, will emulate a U.S. or EU political model.
Current textbook accounts of U.S.-Soviet relations in the 20th century are notably limited and largely unchanged since the time of the Cold War, which contributes to a persistent perception of the relationship in both countries in “zero-sum” terms. As was the case in Germany and Japan, new and increasingly nuanced historical narratives are required to enable younger generations in both countries to comprehend past sacrifices and contributions of Russians and Americans in order to envision a common, cooperative future.
The U.S.-Russia dialogue is still defined by the symbolism of high-level meetings, rather than the substance of a rich exchange of entrepreneurial, scientific, cultural, social ideas across regions and municipalities. Educational and research exchanges have decreased significantly over the past eight years, as have joint research projects with American universities.
A recently inaugurated university-based U.S.-Russia Innovation (Biomedical) Corridor between Maryland and Nizhnij Novogorod provides an example of the untapped potential for scientific, educational, and entrepreneurial cooperation at the region-to-region level, in this case genome-based cancer treatments. Three more university-based economic clusters in the areas of new materials, “clean” engineering, and climate change research are proposed for 2013 to 2014.
Region-to-region collaboration is of clear benefit to U.S. and Russian partners. It tends to draw on younger-generation researchers and entrepreneurs for implementation, stimulates local economic development (including small and medium enterprises), and is relatively protected from the vicissitudes in relations among central authorities in either country.
The U.S.–Russia relationship matters greatly now, for a multitude of reasons. A growing number of the most pressing problems facing the world today can only be addressed effectively through multilateral channels, and solutions to these problems will be more robust and lasting if both the United States and Russia cooperate to help craft them. Solutions to critical global challenges such as developing new technologies (and safeguards) for expanded nuclear power generation and addressing the threat of climate change are prominent examples. Achieving a lasting peace in Syria, and the Middle East more generally, will require U.S.–Russia cooperation of a different sort, but the need is just as urgent. Leaving Russia “out of the equation” will hinder progress toward addressing much of the international agenda, as well as weaken the international interface of Russia with the West, to the detriment of Russia’s internal development. In an era when the forces of globalization have transformed information flows and international interactions, Russia’s integration into the world economy and polity cannot be reversed.
Both the United States and Russia need to get past the Cold War mentality that persists in some quarters in both countries. That mentality, supported by outdated ideological bias and further advanced, on occasion, by commercial interests, is itself a continuing threat to world peace.
Focus on problems both sides want to solve
The U.S.–Russia dialogue needs to broaden and change fundamentally in tone. Participants should include representatives from official institutions, the private/commercial sectors, and civil society on both sides. The more “demand driven” this dialogue is, the better. Discussions should focus on addressing challenges and problems that both sides want to solve, including problems of a global nature where U.S.–Russian cooperation could make a positive difference. In a narrow but practical sense, academic exchanges would fit this agenda, as would “sister city” and other twinning arrangements involving civil society. Work to strengthen the Russian and international financial systems is another area where past cooperation, undertaken quietly and away from the inhibiting glare of publicity, has produced extraordinarily positive results, helping to build mutual trust and respect that has carried over into other areas of dialogue. Efforts to promote Russian and international economic growth, to help diversify the raw-materials-centered Russian economy, and to address common problems that are too complex for either country to address alone, would also be beneficial. Development of critically needed alternative sources of energy and long-term solutions to climate change are examples of global challenges from this last category.
Efforts reflecting ideological agendas, or one country’s attempts to tackle problems and shortcomings it perceives in the other, are unlikely to advance mutual understanding and deepen mutual respect. Such efforts are more likely to be perceived as meddling. In this context, cooperation to promote broad-based economic growth is more likely to produce positive results than efforts aimed head-on at “democracy building.”
Blaming Cold War thinking for the frictions in U.S.-Russia relations unfortunately distracts us from honestly facing and fixing the reasons why we seem unable to cooperate on truly important global security challenges.
A fundamental source of the friction is something only Russia itself can solve: its insecurity and resentment in the face of a rapidly changing world. Russian insecurity is rooted primarily in its underperforming economy, long-suffering but restive society, and increasingly clumsy political system. As long as Russia’s political leadership rejects political and real economic modernization in order to cling to power, Russia will remain less prosperous and secure than it can and should be.
While the United States can do little about Russia’s internal political drama, it can do much to create opportunities for Russian social and economic integration through trade, investment, and education. And to the extent that uncertainty and mistrust about America’s global security presence and policies feed Russia’s (misguided) fears that it is the target of U.S. schemes, focused diplomacy on even the toughest issues—most notably change in the Middle East and security in post-2014 Afghanistan—has to build a cooperative modus vivendi for the challenges ahead. Mutual reaffirmation to follow international law and utilize international institutions—even when doing so means compromise and policy adjustment—is in America’s interests because an insecure and destructive Russia is not.
The Cold War is not coming back, but that is no reason to pat ourselves on the back and ignore the need to invest in the American-Russian relationship. Looking backward risks tripping on the obstacles before us: it’s time to see those obstacles more clearly and adjust our path.
Celeste A. Wallanderis Associate Professor at the School of International Service, American University and Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Objectively, more so than ever, U.S. and Russian interests converge on the most pressing global challenges, including weapons proliferation, terrorism, environmental degradation, pandemics, regional instability, failing and failed states. Absent active collaboration, it is impractical to fashion effective responses to these challenges. Although more cooperation is ongoing in a number of these areas than is widely appreciated, domestic political considerations are having an unfortunate chilling effect, which could lead both states to assume very counterproductive positions.
Perhaps the two greatest dangers are that (1) the Russian leadership will conclude there is little reason to engage with the United States as it cannot deliver on issues that are of importance to Russia, a perception undoubtedly reinforced by the cancellation of the summit and an interpretation of this as evidence of President Obama’s weakened political position; and (2) the temptation on the part of the United States to attempt to punish Russia for perceived transgressions. The most disconcerting aspect of the situation is that leading voices in government in both countries today appear to be essentially content with the status quo stalemate, albeit for different reasons, and are disinclined to invest the political capital needed to promote greater cooperation.
Convene an “agenda-free” summit
In charting a course forward, it is useful to recall that even during the bleakest moments of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to set aside their ideological and political differences to cooperate meaningfully and in a sustained fashion in a number of areas, most notably nuclear nonproliferation. It would be tragic—and very dangerous—were such cooperation to diminish in the post-Cold War period. As such, it is worth considering the value added of reviving the high-level biannual nonproliferation meetings that covered the entire range of proliferation concerns held by either party. More generally, it would be desirable to expand the number of bilateral and multilateral working groups at the Track 1, Track 1.5, and Track 2 levels that conduct business largely below the radar screen of politicians and the media. It also is highly desirable to facilitate more exchanges among different groups of students and professionals in both countries, including educators, military personnel, agricultural experts, etc., and to promote collaborative educational activities such as joint graduate degree programs.
To the extent that one sought to return to the summit process, it might make more sense to convene an “agenda-free” summit at which the U.S. and Russian leadership could discuss global affairs in a broad and largely unstructured way (perhaps the closest model is the December 1989 Bush-Gorbachev summit at Malta). Such a discussion of shared and divergent threat perceptions should lead to the recognition that on many, if not most, issues the two parties desire similar outcomes but differ mainly on the means to obtain them.
A major obstacle to improved relations that must be recognized if it is to be overcome is the persistence of very different perceptions the two countries have of one another. Both talk about the need for collaboration, but the U.S. tends to view Russia as a potential ally only when it is prepared to promote U.S. priorities, and typically is disparaging of Russian power, is insensitive to the legitimacy of Russian interests, and discounts the domestic support Putin enjoys for pursuing precisely those policies that are anathema to the United States. For its part, while Russia may see the U.S. as in decline, it is hypersensitive to its own vulnerabilities and takes umbrage at the various “slights” that it incurs, although these are invisible to most U.S. policymakers.
One possible way to minimize the negative influence of domestic politics on U.S.–Russian cooperation is to embed collaboration whenever possible in more multilateral fora. Examples where this already is ongoing, but could be expanded and intensified, are in areas such as nonproliferation and disarmament (P-5 consultations on disarmament are a good example, although they are not without a downside); counter-terrorism, nuclear security, nonproliferation education, environmental remediation, etc.
Very importantly, civil society must make the case loudly and clearly, that both sides need one another and acceptance of the status quo is unacceptable.
Russia is among a handful of influential global actors on almost every issue of vital national interest to the United States, from strategic nuclear stability and nonproliferation, to countering terrorism, responding to pandemic threats, and sustaining global economic growth based on free trade and energy security. Russia may seem to be a difficult partner at times, yet it is far from America’s adversary or enemy today. Tough talk and tit-for-tat posturing of the kind both sides have demonstrated in recent months are nothing compared to the potentially catastrophic results of real confrontation, which veterans of the Cold War worked tirelessly to avoid.
On the contrary, a broad range of mutual interests shared by Moscow and Washington has underpinned decades of successful joint initiatives in space, scientific research, cultural exchange, and conflict resolution, while the potential for U.S.-Russia cooperation in the future should be even greater.
Recognize Russia’s distinct national interests
Managing U.S.-Russia ties will never be easy or intuitive for either side. Although many vital interests are shared, there are important areas of divergence, and the current imbalance of political, diplomatic, and economic power, favoring the United States, inclines Russians toward particular sensitivity over any perception of bullying, undue meddling, or disrespect from Washington.
Successful engagement with Russia demands recognition of Russia’s distinct and legitimate national interests, even when they do not appear compatible with those of the United States. While Americans may hope for accelerated progress toward liberal democracy and the rule of law in Russia, only the Russian people can decide the priorities and pace of their domestic development. Respect for Russia’s independent interests and developmental course, with sustained attention and patience for official engagement, plus investment in the building blocks of the relationship such as trade promotion, ease of travel, and cultural exchange, offer the best chance to produce big bilateral accomplishments over time.
February 6, 2014
It is truly unfortunate that there are a number of American commentators who seem to be almost hoping that Sochi will fail. It is our responsibility as common members of the international community, and as nations who all want our Olympic athletes to succeed, to work together to make the Sochi Olympics a success.
Because the Games are so important to both President Putin and the Russian state, I believe that all possible precautions will be taken to try to ensure that the Olympics are a safe experience for everyone, and that disasters are avoided.
While there are a number of human rights, environmental, and corruption-related problems in Russia right now that are associated with the Games, we need to realize that these are ongoing issues to be resolved over the long run, and that they are not specific only to the Games themselves—nor are they specific only to Russia.
On the U.S.-Russia Relationship:
The U.S.–Russia relationship matters because the interests of the two nations intersect:
- Both will interact for the foreseeable future in the north as the Arctic ice cap recedes, and in Central Asia as the aftereffects of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan unfold.
- Both retain veto power in the UN Security Council.
- Both contend with immense nuclear stockpiles, and the difficulties of crafting sensible plans for nuclear security.
- Both face economic challenges through the G-20 and the WTO.
Two steps by the United States could help further the achievement of common interests:
- First, relations with Russia should be depoliticized at home. Exaggerating the importance of problems in the relationship for domestic political gain hinders their resolution.
- Second, Washington should recognize that the economic interests of competing domestic political factions drive much of Russia’s foreign policy, including in the security sphere. Finding ways to satisfy those export and foreign investment interests may lead to creative problem solving.
Any realistic hope of managing a negotiated peaceful end to the Syrian civil war, or preventing Iran getting a nuclear bomb, or maximizing the chance for relative stability in Afghanistan, or keeping global energy markets stable, will require successful cooperation with Putin’s Russia. Beyond those issues, there are in addition counterterrorism and moving toward a more stable global nuclear order. In sum, Russia matters only if one is seriously concerned about protecting and advancing America’s national interests.
The easiest course for leaders of both countries is to blame the other; certainly that sells best in the domestic politics of each. And about Putin’s Russia, there is certainly lots not to like.
But if American and Russian leaders will focus first on their own national interests, they will conclude that poking each other in the eye or insisting on unrealistic demands are unhelpful. Finding a path to the limited cooperation essential for dealing with the challenges that matter most will require both to think more clearly about how the world looks through the other’s eyes, and to compromise in ways that will be uncomfortable, especially in the domestic politics in each country.
On U.S.-Russia Relations and Sochi:
Finding ways to mend the U.S.–Russia relationship requires a clear understanding of the benefits it can bring to both sides. Moscow and Washington need to rethink their expectations about potential gains from mutual engagement. Unmet expectations have repeatedly led to crises in relations between the United States and Russia. And yet trimming expectations down does not necessarily mean preparing for confrontation.
Significant reassessment of the prospective gains has to occur on the Russian side. Understood as bargaining, pragmatism has repeatedly failed Russia as the foundation for its relationship with the United States. History has shown that, short of a formal alliance, engagement with the United States can only bring two long-term benefits. First, trade with and investment from the United States can foster economic growth and social development in the counterpart country. In order to fully profit from this opportunity, the counterpart country needs to put in place a system that guarantees the safety of U.S. investment and reasonable predictability of legal changes. In the absence of robust institutions and the rule of law, American businesses would seek to minimize payback periods while most of their investments would remain short-term and/or speculative.
The second long-term benefit can be derived from reducing the danger of a direct military confrontation with the United States. As a result, the counterpart country would be able to economize on defense expenditures and often also expand economic ties with the United States. In the U.S.-Russia case, nuclear weapons reductions hold out the promise of substantial budget savings for both sides, should the two governments exercise the necessary political will. (To put this argument on its head, the United States, as the most powerful nation, can also be conveniently cast as an enemy, helping to justify increases in defense spending.)
These opportunities are not hard to identify. What is more difficult to realize is that neither economic interdependence nor mutual security arrangements are likely to give the counterpart country (with the possible exception of China) additional strategic leverage over Washington. The United States is reluctant to engage in great-power bargaining to reward its partner for an agreement on other issues. This largely results from the constraints placed on the executive branch by the Congress in foreign policy. Washington is unlikely to sacrifice its interests in one area for gains in another—this is why Russia’s calls for “respecting mutual interests” (for example, in post-Soviet Eurasia) usually do not go down well among the U.S. policymaking community.
What Russia seeks to achieve through “pragmatic bargaining,” that is, uncritical acceptance by Washington and Moscow of each other’s statements of interests, can often be obtained by showing to the United States why conflict over a certain issue does not serve U.S. interests. It is much easier for both sides to assert their interests and ask for respect than to rationally identify the losses that they (and usually other actors as well) incur from confrontation by default. The U.S.-Russia dialogue needs to be disentangled from unproductive debates on whether the world is better off unipolar or multipolar and focus on what is lost in concrete cases by the sides opposing each other for no good reason.
In a similar vein, the United States should acknowledge that its own interpretation of what actually constitutes Russian interests does not always correspond to the view popular among the Russian public and policymaking community. For example, on many international and global issues Russian diplomacy is by default much more committed to the existing status quo than may seem reasonable to Washington. However, the Russian posture is largely defined by deep-seated fears of “destabilization” and “unpredictability” that are rooted both in recent Russian history and widespread convictions among the country’s political community. Making the benefits of change clear to the Russian side through persuasive arguments can work better than attempts to isolate Moscow or paint it into a corner. The U.S. could also factor in Russia’s concern with maintaining the status quo as a way of gauging how a number of influential players could react to Washington’s proposals for dealing with international issues.
Among other implications, diverging views of the benefits of change translate into a gap between Russian and U.S. policymaking cultures. While Russian policymakers often assume that the mere existence of a shared problem (e.g. transnational terrorist networks or the uncertainty about the future of Afghanistan) creates a firm enough basis for cooperation, their U.S. counterparts usually focus on policy, that is, concrete actions that are required to address the problem. For the U.S. side, a mere statement of commonality of challenges is not enough—cooperation is only possible when it is rooted in shared policy approaches.
With its potential security threats affecting all participating countries, the upcoming Sochi Games present a good opportunity for Russia and the United States to learn more about each other’s policymaking cultures and possibly bridge the gap between them.
The U.S.-Russia relationship remains important to both sides because of its significant unused potential. It would not be difficult to turn it into a positive-sum game in many cases if the bargaining paradigm is dropped and impartial analysis is undertaken of the unnecessary losses from conflict. At the end of the day, the U.S.-Russia relationship is not about status, but about addressing a concrete, even if limited, number of international issues to mutual benefit.
This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York, in partnership with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The “reset” now, to many people in Russia, sounds like a curse due to the perpetual decline in Russia-U.S. relations. However, Russia was able to pull relations out of the deadlock that occurred in 2008. Since then, the process of transformation of our relationship has been witnessing ups and downs. Inspiring, though limited, progress in managing the Syrian crisis in recent months opens doors for cautious optimism. Why do both countries need to develop it into success?
There are many reasons for that. The world, which is now a unified political space, is clearly in a state of disorder and is full of uncertainties. I’ll confine my analysis to only one example. The swift and always thrilling turns of the “Arab spring,” with serious global consequences, leave no doubt that our common house needs to be made up. The overstretched America, with all its might, cannot govern it alone. The attractiveness of the Western model has been severely shaken due to the weakening of its economy along with the rise of China and the partial loss of its moral credibility after two wars in the Middle East. Interventionism proved to be disastrous for the situation in the region and global order. The Iraqi and Afghan traumas of America make it no longer fit for managing the world system. The forthcoming American withdrawal from Afghanistan is a meaningful achievement, but nobody can be sure that the mission has been completed.
Russia and the United States face common threats coming from this region, such as international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, religious extremism, illegal drugs production and trafficking, illegal migration, and destabilization of the oil market. So far, we are natural partners in confronting them. Both our countries have a comprehensive global outlook, have international weight, and possess adequate capabilities. Needless to say this partnership can be provided through relying upon collective leadership—with other partners—and universal international norms. Unilateral use of force and violation of sovereignty of independent states (unless it is approved by the UN Security Council) have to be excluded.
Should the outdated reset in our bilateral relationship be replaced by a restart or repair?
It depends on how we identify the existing difficulties and obstacles. I believe that the main issue rests in already deep mistrust, exacerbated by adversarial rhetoric. Meanwhile, as my co-chairman in the Dartmouth Task Force, Hal Saunders, likes to say, leaders sign agreements but citizens fulfill them. Many of the agreements remained on paper by virtue of the lack of support at the grassroots level. That’s why building trust among citizens, in my view, is the main condition for restarting a comprehensive partnership or repairing our relations. By the way, there is no personal friendly relationship between our leaders.
That’s why, first of all, it is necessary to enhance exchanges between citizens—students, youth, intellectuals, women, civil society in general, to conduct joint sports and cultural activities. More second-track workshops, seminars, and roundtables should be organized to contribute to better understanding of each other.
The United States has also to support Russia in opening its market for Russian trade and economy and to provide free access to modern technologies. In turn, Russia should substantially improve its climate for U.S. and other foreign investors.
Our countries have to prepare—through consultations—to cooperatively confront possible threats emerging from Afghanistan under the worst-case scenarios in the aftermath of the withdrawal of American troops.
Given the opening in the P5+1–Iran talks on Iran’s nuclear program, our countries have to bridge differences in their positions and combine their efforts in order to solve this problem peacefully. Syria is another case where the emerging new understanding should be further developed on the two nations’ common interest in stopping violence and restoring peace there.
I stop here, though I could suggest a lot of other things in the realm of the above-mentioned “restart” or “repair.” For implementing them, only one thing is needed—political will.
This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York in partnership with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Syria and its chemical weapons have emerged as a temporary opportunity for cooperation between the United States and Russia. The problem of Afghanistan drug trafficking may be another, a more lasting one. There are more issues where cooperation is problematic to say the least. Most importantly there’s no basis—such as trust or solid mutual interest—for sustainable relations between Russia and America. When trust is missing in a relationship, one way to avoid tensions is to reduce relations to a minimum. But even if the two parties try to pass over difficult and divisive issues, unexpected developments—another Snowden or another Magnitsky—can undermine the seeming calm. There may be no return to the confrontation of the Cold War—the world is just too different today and the disparity of power between the United States and Russia too broad—but the inability of the two nations to come to terms and a reluctance to understand each other is at times reminiscent of the Cold War period.
Almost half of the Russians share a negative perception of the United States, up from 27 percent just two years ago. This sharp decline is the result of the anti-American line pursued by the national television networks, which persistently portray the United States as a force for evil: Russian nongovernment “agents” recruited by Americans undertake to weaken Russian statehood; Russian orphans are maimed by their adoptive American families; alien American culture is imposed on Russia in order to undermine its traditional values.
In the course of post-Soviet development, tides of anti-Americanism rose several times, but then a more reconciled tone would set in. This time there’s more to the current trend than merely an anti-American slant on TV. After all, the coverage of Russia in the American media can hardly be described as a model of objectivity. But in Russia, the intense anti-American rhetoric has not subsided for over two years now. And this rhetoric is accompanied by anti-American moves and policies, such as the harassment of the American ambassador, the eviction of USAID, or a ban on American adoption of Russian orphans, to mention just a few. Most importantly, anti-Americanism has become a major element of Russia’s quest for a national identity.
Although two decades have passed since the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union, up until recently Russia remained uncertain over the nature of her new statehood. The Kremlin, and Putin in particular, were evasive on what post-communist Russia stood for. Russia was no longer communist or totalitarian, but she failed to produce a reasonably consensual narrative of what the Soviet past was about. She did not fully embrace the principles of a market economy or liberal democracy, but neither did she reject them. Nor did she decide whether or not she was essentially “European.”
Uncertainty and evasiveness were convenient because they helped muffle societal divisions. But in late 2011, public acquiescence was broken by the Moscow protests, and the Kremlin felt the urge to consolidate the majority against the Moscow troublemakers. This called for more clarity on values and principles, and a new identity. Over the past two years, this identity has gained explicitly anti-Western and antiliberal shape. The Pussy Riot trial, the “anti-gay” legislation, the overt and self-righteous xenophobia, or the detention of Greenpeace members are but a few examples of overt rejection of Western values. These and other antiliberal, antisecular, antimodern developments are driven by the political shifts inside Russia, but today Russia’s foreign policy stance, and relations with the United States in particular, are largely shaped by her domestic policy agenda.
The identity currently in the making may be not too solid—there’s too much “against” about it and too little “for”—but for the moment it resonates well with the broad public mindset. As long as Russia’s quest for identity takes the anti-Western and anti-American path, this will preclude constructive or reliable relations with the United States. America can hardly make a difference in this process, especially since the United States itself is currently facing soul-searching questions regarding its own role in the world.
This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationshipproject produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York in partnership with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
To answer the first question we should first understand why these relations matter for 1) the United States; 2) Russia; 3) the world.
My American colleagues have already given an exhaustive answer to the initial part of the question: the very existence of Russia critically affects the provision of national interests and national security of the United States. As for the significance of the United States to Russia, in my personal opinion, it is not the politics and economy, although these areas are also very important, but above all social psychology that defines the attitude of Russians to America. During the last century, people in Russia (then the USSR) perceived the United States as a kind of landmark for the state upsurge and entity for their self-identification.American dynamism, initiative, and thirst for freedom have always attracted the Russians. The slogan “catch up and overtake America” was not just an ideological stamp, but one of the driving forces for the country’s development (and not only in the military field). America has always been a role model to compare against, a worthy opponent to compete with, as well as an honored object to criticize. Perhaps the strong words produced energy…
The same is true today. Americans should not overreact to the current anti-Americanism in Russia: it is rather a force of habit than the actual state of mind.On the other hand, are there many reasons for a typical Russian to love America today? Only for the fact that it is rich and democratic? Because it teaches him or her how to live? For Yugoslavia, Iraq, and the support of Chechen separatists? For the sad results of reforms in the 1990s, which many in Russia identify with the recipes made by the U.S. advisors? The image of the country, its reputation, is dependent on many factors. Not only Russia, but the United States must recollect this fact constantly. Unfortunately, the inertia of thinking greatly influences the policies of both countries toward each other. Moreover, their political elites and leaders are mired in the routine of the present and seldom look to the future, unlike the leaders of China, who see decades ahead.
A couple of words about the importance of Russian-American relations to the rest of the world. I am not going to repeat the well-known truths about our countries’ responsibility for the world’s future. Both have enough resources either to ruin mankind or to ensure its stable development. The important thing is that as long as Moscow and Washington are busy debating each others’ merits, other countries and violence-prone nongovernmental groups are increasing their hazardous potentials. I consider another factor equally important: the competition between Russia and the United States. In the 20th century, their race, though not always peaceful, was one of the major driving forces of technological progress and our civilization’s development. The current situation in Russia means speaking with a certain irony of its ability to compete with the United States. However, as we used to say, “it is not over yet!”
What do both countries have to do to fix the relationship, change it from the customary “aggravation–warming” duality to steady, constructive, and cooperative relations?
First. Each side must perceive the world as it is and not as they would like to have it, must stop blaming the other side for the emergence of problems, and not avoid looking in the mirror for sources of friction. They should not “look into the neighbor’s garden” and teach the other side how to live. Russians are much better at seeing their problems, and hate them much more than the Americans do, but these evils need a long time to overcome.
Second. The time has come to shift the focus of U.S.-Russian relations from Europe and the Atlantic, where they are weighed down by the burden of age-old mistrust and unresolved frictions, to the Pacific Ocean. There are a lot of prospects as well as many common problems that require bilateral and multilateral cooperation to solve in this region. Thus it is very important to shift the emphasis in bilateral dialogue from the issues that divide the parties to those that unite them.
Third. Both the United States and Russian civilizations are pioneering cultures, predisposed to great achievements and usually impatient of the routine. To build the relationships for the long term we need major breakthrough projects, like the Soyuz-Apollo mission from the 1970s. It is only in such ventures that both nations are able to show their best qualities, patience and wisdom.
Victor Larin is director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History, Archeology, and Ethnology of the Peoples of the Far East
This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York in partnership with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Improved perceptions of one another can alter the predominant ways in which U.S.-Russian relations are now perceived, and through this help change the relations themselves. There are two opposing approaches to this. Proponents of the first approach heavily rely on propaganda campaigns, believing that massive advertising will eventually work. Their opponents insist that the image of their country will change only when the country itself becomes different: “Change yourself, and your image will follow suit.”
Both ideas hold some truth, but do not embrace the entire reality. Propaganda and advertising do work, but there are strict limits as to their efficiency. There are also limits to how much individuals can change themselves and their country, while history, moreover, demonstrates that even a cardinal change of a country may be insufficient for its image to improve. Are there any other ways to solve the problem of improving the existing negative perceptions?
The well-known fact that U.S.-Russian relations knew periods of ups and downs, that we were close friends and “probable enemies” in various historical eras, must be considered alongside another, less obvious idea. One may challenge the common sense notion that the “Other’s” behavior predetermines our attitude to it. Indeed, those periods of enmity or friendship did not coincide with a change in the foreign policy of the other country or even in its internal development but instead rather closely followed the twists and turns of the domestic politics and public debates at home. One may cite the Vietnam War (which the United States was waging against the Soviet Union’s ally), which did not preclude détente, as contrasted with the Iraqi war (against a regime which evoked no sympathy in Russia), which seemingly boosted Russia’s anti-American policies. A constructivist explanation of the difference between these two periods points to the fact that the Iraqi war was started at a moment when Russia was searching for its new identity, and such a search shaped its attitude toward the United States. Conversely, America’s attitude to the Russian empire in the last third of the 19th century changed for the worse not so much because of a change of Russian policies, but as a result of a deep self-reevaluation undertaken by the United States after the Civil War.
When we look at the current U.S.-Russian relations through the same prism, we see that the problems in bilateral relations have at least two sources belonging to the realms of internal agendas rather than to foreign policy.
Linking the elimination of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Magnitsky Act in the same piece of legislation (however justifiable or not both decisions were) contained a message to that part of the American public that believes in an unchangeable Russia. The Dima Yakovlev Law, besides its goal to “punish” the United States, was also a part of the policy of portraying Russian opposition as puppets of the U.S. State Department and alienating it by targeting it with anti-American propaganda. The Snowden affair was another interplay of home and international concerns for both sides.
How would such a change of perspective influence policymaking? Those politicians genuinely interested in improving bilateral relations should pay more attention to their home agenda and engage those sides of the Other’s image that will be both relevant to the internal discussions and positive toward the partner. The image of the other country is used and is amended in the course of the discussions on the home fronts (as a part of political and cultural adjustments of the society to new challenges). We need to know each other much better than we do now, and the most important knowledge is about the long-term agenda and mechanisms for setting the agenda in the other country.
Can Russia, for example, contribute anything important to the discussions on health care or gun control? Can the U.S. image be instrumental in solving problems of corruption or reforming Russian science and education? Certainly, any image of this kind is ambiguous; the proponents of health reform in the United States may say that “even in Russia there is mandatory medical insurance,” while the critics of the reform would cite cases of the low quality of Russian medicine. Still the major argument for the positive image of Russia is its ability to change itself and overcome even the hardest challenges it faces.
There are certainly powerful actors interested in maintaining the image of the other side as an adversary, and using that image to demonize the other country. However, I dare to say that the spectrum of negative images is relatively narrow, and the repetition of the old ones does not provide an image of the changing country. A positive image will be the image of a dynamic and changing nation that may face problems, make retreats, but nevertheless keeps moving forward. To create better relations, it is essential to improve the image of one country in the eyes of the other’s public.
This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The U.S.-Russia relationship still matters in today’s world, but in a way that is very different from historical patterns. The importance of the bilateral relationship does not look the same from the perspective of Washington and Moscow. America remains a significant “other” for Russia, though Russia has ceased to be one for the United States.
Vladimir Putin’s return to office and concerns over maintaining stability in the country in the spring of 2012 brought about a situation where domestic political considerations began to increasingly affect Russia’s foreign policy course. Today, that course is characterized by a combination of several conflicting narratives, which coexist in a general space of rhetoric on national identity, domestic and international security, and civilizational divisions. A relatively new and ascending narrative includes a mystical belief in Russia’s destiny to be a bulwark of traditional conservative values and moral principles rooted in Christianity. It is accompanied by anti-Western rhetoric and continuing securitization of the relationship with the United States. The Kremlin strives to preserve Russia’s constructed identity with the help of its great power status in light of what the Kremlin perceives to be attempts to establish American domination behind the rhetoric of universal values. Russia’s leaders are obsessed with preserving the great power image and with resisting the liberal West led by the United States at any cost. The United States is portrayed as a power attempting to meddle into Russia’s domestic affairs. In sum, for the Kremlin, the United States is an imagined important actor in both cumbersome domestic politics and international system that is increasingly viewed in “civilizational” terms.
The current American vision of Russia is much more down-to-earth. It emphasizes concrete security issues, where the two countries’ interests overlap, in spite of the differences in political systems. When the Obama administration made strategic stability the centerpiece of its Russia policy, it effectively reduced the bilateral relationship to the Cold War-era issue. The rest of the agenda is about securing Russia’s assistance in solving the problems that are important from Washington’s point of view.
Making U.S.-Russia relations hostage of Russia’s domestic politics and reducing them to the old-fashioned interactions in the fields of arms control and selected regional flashpoints are equally counterproductive. This should be fixed.
Russia’s national interest demands a de-ideologization of the Kremlin’s view of the world. Political realism must be freed from the chains of outdated dogmas and from Russia’s ambitions to oppose the imaginary and abstract “West” led by the United States.
U.S. national interests demand strategic vision and long-term foreign policy planning. Limiting cooperation with Russia to addressing a “crisis of the day” is short-sighted. The role of Russia in U.S.-China relations in the 21st century must be seriously discussed. Under certain circumstances, the Kremlin may try to position Russia as a “swing state” in relations between the U.S. and China, a role that neither India nor any other great power can effectively claim. Russia may either choose to expand common ground with the United States, or try to balance its global leadership by cooperating with China. This range of choices is important for the United States on many policy levels. The United States is watching China closely and cautiously; part of this caution will be keeping an eye on Chinese relations with the rest of the world. Not losing sight of Russia will be a priority for the United States.
The U.S.-Russia relationship matters at this time because both countries face, in very different ways, the unprecedented challenge of adjusting their policies to a rapidly changing environment, which is increasingly shaped by other actors and where global governance is in shambles. “Fixing” this relationship requires creating a moment that will set the tone for the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship, as was done at the Obama-Xi summit in June 2013. An informal summit creating a positive, mutually agreed public narrative of a new type of relationship would help to overcome many difficulties arising from strikingly different visions of each other and the world. The expert community, not the bureaucracies, should prepare the “philosophical side” of the summit, such as the two countries’ relative power positions in the international system and their visions of global affairs.
Igor Zevelev is Director, Moscow Office, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. All views expressed are his own and may not necessarily reflect those of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York in partnership with the Carnegie Moscow Center.