U.S.-Russia Relations: Under Stress, and in Need of Care

U.S.-Russia Relations

The NATO summit in Bucharest yielded two results that impact on U.S.-Russia relations: deferral of a decision on membership application plans for Ukraine and Georgia, and approval of the proposed U.S. missile shield in Europe. While Russia will take some solace in the first of these outcomes, it will not fail to note that in both instances the United States was pressing hard for a policy that Russia would see as inimical to its interests. All of which means that President-elect Dmitri Medvedev and his future American counterpart, whoever that may be, have work aplenty to do in bilateral relations.

There are two essential truths concerning the current state of the relationship: it is bad, as bad as at any time since the Cold War's end; and it is getting worse. The deterioration is fueled by mutual accusation. The United States decries an alarming reversal of civil rights in Putin's Russia—including persecution of dissidents and both domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations, suppressing the public space for independent media, and quashing political opposition despite the inevitability of Medvedev election.

In Moscow, there is the acute neuralgia over the proposed deployment by the United States of missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, and over what Russia sees as the illegal declaration of independence by Kosovo from its Serbian ally. All in all, the downward spiral has been dramatic since the day when President George W. Bush famously pronounced that he had looked into his Russian counterpart's eyes and "seen his soul'.

But the roots of what has been called a "cold peace" between Russia and the United States go back virtually to the very first days of the post-Soviet era, which saw a series of missteps and missed opportunities on the part of the United States and the West. Instead of a strategic plan for dealing with the new Russia, President Bill Clinton's one-dimensional policy approach was based on the personal relationship with Boris Yeltsin who, cloaked in the garb of democratic reformer, presided over a catastrophic kleptocracy of annexation of state assets and capital flight.

Those policy initiatives that were enacted only served to stoke the fires of Russia's sense of humiliation and sidelining: NATO expansion eastward [now with the proposed further extension to Ukraine and Georgia]; unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; the bombing of Belgrade. The question of whether these policies were justified or not is not the point here; the point is that Russia felt either lied to—as in the case of NATO expansion—or marginalized. Indeed, it is fair to say that the combination of disastrous economic stewardship and Western neglect of Russia's interest in no small measure laid the ground work for Putin's ascension and lasting popularity as having "restored" Russia.

But there is a third essential truth; the relationship is not irredeemable. This is so for three reasons.

  • First, there has been a pattern of setbacks and reconciliation over the last two decades, after the first tranches of NATO expansion, after the 1999 Yugoslav war.
  • Second, there is a general sense in Western capitals that Medvedev, while Putin's man, is nonetheless a man that one can do business with. This may be borne out in a quote from the new President one week before his election, in the context of the U.S. recognition of Kosovo independence: "It is necessary that the United States and Russian Federation cooperate…..it is inevitable".
  • And third, there are areas of cooperation where long-term bilateral interests clearly overlap. These would include: international terrorism, with Russia's concern for its 'soft underbelly" on its southern front; energy supply, with Russia as Europe's principal gas supplier, and reliant on Europe for the geography of its gas pipelines; nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly to terrorists and other nonstate actors, and secure command and control of existing nuclear arsenals; and stability in states that are of importance to Russia and the West—Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, and Armenia, where violence flared after the recent elections.


In all this, there remains the sour taste of dealing with a darkly authoritarian Russia. Putin is, as a wise friend once put it, no Scandinavian democrat. Nor, most likely, will be his successor. But consider three of Hans Morgenthau's "Nine Rules of Diplomacy" [from Politics Among Nations]:

  • "Diplomacy must be rescued from the crusading spirit."
  • "Diplomacy must look at the political scene from the point of view of other nations."
  • "The objectives of foreign policy must be defined in terms of the national interest [and must be supported by adequate power].


Each of these applies as we contemplate the state of a critical bilateral relationship in danger of derailment.

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