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.

Samuel Charap is Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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.

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