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.

Isabelle François is Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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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