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Sat. September 23, 2023
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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

The Future of Russia-U.S. Relations

By Jerrod Vaughan

In a famous political campaign commercial, Ronald Reagan once asked the American people whether the “Russian bear” was an aggressive and potentially confrontational adversary, or a potential cooperative partner in world affairs. Reagan’s response, a product of the confines of the Cold War mentality, was that we could not answer this question with 100% certainty. His conclusion, therefore, was that America should prepare itself in the case that the bear was vicious and dormant. This question has permeated the relations between the two countries throughout their history. Today, almost twenty years after the end of the Cold War, an event which some scholars labeled the “end of history” , many international relations scholars are beginning to ask the same question concerning the Russian bear.

Some hypothesize that the recent South Ossetia conflict has dealt the final blow to the already deteriorating relations between Russia and the U.S. The euphoria and high expectations that followed the end of the Cold War have been replaced with frustration and disillusionment both within Russia and the U.S. While very few international relation scholars are today predicting a new Cold War, there can be little doubt that the relations between the two countries are in dire need of a rescue mission. Some approaches, such as the realist approach, suggests a return to the Cold War diplomacy – negotiating a number of “quid pro quos” in return for Russian cooperation in a number of areas that are in America’s interests: Iran, energy, North Korea, etc. Still others talk of a “values gap” and the possible return to isolationism.

An unlikely opportunity for improved relations and a different approach toward Russia presented itself through the unlikely election of President Barak Obama. His recent election and inauguration was a watershed in American history, and presents America and Russia with a “window of opportunity” to improve relations. Many foreign policy experts see the relationship as being one of the most important foreign policy issues facing America today and the key in dealing with such important issues as Iran, climate change, and nuclear proliferation. As a result, the Obama Administration should signal a new diplomatic initiative to improve this important relationship. In doing so, it will require a paradigm shift in the way America views Russia and, in particular, the U.S.-Russian relationship.

The intent of this paper is to persuade the reader that improved relations between the two countries is not a matter of specific issues or strategic areas of cooperation; while no doubt important, there is agreement in the policy world as to a multitude of shared interests that could serve as a starting point in improving relations between the two countries. Rather, as this paper hopes to show, improved relations will be the direct result of a paradigm shift in the way each side views one another. Unfortunately, this essay does not have the space for a detailed analysis of developments within the Russian-U.S. relationship since the end of the Cold War. However, a short discussion of some of these issues is important in order to extrapolate areas of cooperation and to justify a paradigm shift in one’s thinking. The paper will explore some of the more salient contentions that are obstacles to Russian-U.S. relations and areas that the Obama Administration should, for the time being, avoid. Finally, the paper will outline a few of the areas of cooperation that the current Administration would be prudent to focus their energies.

Inside Russia

Russia’s attempt to adopt a free market economy and move closer to a liberal democracy during the post-Cold War period of the 1990’s brought about several years of optimism, followed by frustration and turmoil as economic prosperity failed to materialize and expectations were not realized. The following graph displays the volatility that took place in Russia during the 1990’s.

Percent Change in GDP
1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999
-5.0 -14.5 -8.7 -12.7 -4.2 -3.6 1.4 -5.3 6.3

Table 1: Russian GDP Growth 1991-1999

The tumultuous nineties, combined with the growth experienced in the past eight years under now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has altered the Russian mindset toward cooperation with the U.S. and the West. The Russian bear, in a sense, has experienced an awakening under Mr. Putin after a long period of hibernation. As a result, the Russia of today is not the Russia of yesterday. The struggle that Russia perceives today is not the ideological battle of the Cold War, but rather one more closely linked to domestic influences, international power distribution, and economics.

As most research into Russia will illustrate, it seems clear that the Russian leaders are pursuing a strategy in which they can reclaim what they see as their “rightful place” in the world arena. The Cold War, which by most accounts was seen as a “victory” for the West, was damaging to both the Russian psyche and its image throughout the world. As Robert Kagan of the Washington Post pointed out, “It is true that many Russians were humiliated by the way the Cold War ended, and Putin has persuaded many to blame Boris Yeltsin and Russian democrats for this surrender to the West.” Furthermore, there is a tangible sense within Russia that the international community views Russia as a subordinate country.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the Russian leadership have set out to change the current situation and perception of Russia in the world, but they seek to do so under their terms. During 2002, when relations between the two countries were perhaps at their highest level, there was much optimism within the U.S. and Russia. However, as a result of the Iraq War, the U.S. recognition of Kosovo’s independence, and the various “Colour Revolutions” within the Russian sphere of influence, Russia has decided to follow its own course. The strategy itself consists of a number of post-Cold War goals, including stability through controlled economic growth via centralized planning and the subversion of dissent within Russia. In addition, Russia has begun to assert itself within its region (e.g. –the South Ossetian conflict) with the ultimate goal of re-establishing itself as a major pole within the international system. Finally, the leadership has pursued a strategy that will resolve the national identity crisis that is a result of the post-Cold War realities. All of these initiatives have led to a more aggressive Russian foreign policy.

Areas of Contention

The areas of contention between the two countries are well known. Three of the most contentious areas in the relationship are the subversion of democracy in Russia, the expansion of NATO into the Russian sphere of influence, and the so called “missile defense system.” Through the lens of Western observers, the subjugation of dissent and other anti-democratic actions are indicative of a country who has decided against liberal democracy. Yet, to many inside of Russia, this is seen as a small price to pay for stability and continued growth. The purpose of this paper is not argue for or against liberal democracy, but to point out the fact that through the eyes of most Russians, economic growth and stability is seen as the more prominent concern. Once the nation has achieved a functional level of national capability on par with its capabilities during the Cold War, political freedom might then be seen as a viable option.

The issue of NATO and its expansion to the border is also a major concern for Russia. The expansion of NATO has been an evolving process that increased in relevance for Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union. As opposed to EU economic expansion into former Soviet states, which Russia seems to welcome, the expansion of NATO into the Russian sphere of influence is regarded as an affront, if not an outright threat. The move of NATO into the Caucuses is seen as an effort on the Western powers to lock Russia in. Russia, as well as many international theorists, views these actions as a modern instantiation of the tactic first described by H. Mackinder for containing Russia through encirclement.

Finally, the imposition of the so-called “missile defense system” is a major area of contention. President Putin has stated publicly that Russia would respond militarily if the US plan were implemented. As recently as November 2008 Putin reiterated a threat that started more than a year prior, “No matter what our U.S. partners say, this project is aimed against Russia's strategic potential, and we have no choice but to respond to it appropriately.” While these defensive assets do not pose an immediate threat to Russian citizens, they do carry several disquieting messages for Russian leaders and can have negative domestic political consequences. The first is that the West still views Russia as a potential regional security threat. The second message is that Western powers assume Russia is not a legitimate international player. Actions by the US and NATO have been conducted in a manner that is not so much confrontational as it is dismissive of Russian interests in the region. For a nation that is trying to position itself as a legitimate international power player, the perception of being treated as a second-class citizen in the international system is unacceptable.

Areas for Cooperation

The underlying problem facing the relationship is not the complexity of the issues or the lack of common interests; instead the relationship has become rather one-sided and increasingly confrontational and neglected. In response to balance of power theory, Russia can be seen as an emerging power redefining its position in the global community, which they believe should be an important one. As evidenced by their actions, there is little doubt that Russia plans on changing its current aggressive course of action. If there is to be any improvement in the relationship and increased cooperation, it must come from a shift in policy on the side of the U.S. for it to happen.

This being the case, the Obama Administration must seize the diplomatic initiative, but at the same time, proceed with both caution and prudence. It is a delicate balancing act between showing a firm commitment to states that desire to be part of the West, and nurturing an already deteriorating relationship with Russia. As such, the U.S. should begin to treat the Russia Federation not as an unequal side note, but a cooperative partner. This includes, first of all, refraining from pushing democracy in Russia and halting, or at least the delaying, of NATO expansion and the installment of the missile defense in Europe. Each of these issues, while not only being counter-productive, only sets the tone for a relationship of distrust and confrontation. As the above paragraphs have tried to show, Russia sees these actions within their sphere of influence as Western aggression. Areas of cooperation which should be identified are those that not only improve Russia-U.S. ties, but help in re-establishing Russian influence in a way that is mutually supportive to both parties and the international community.

Among the issues that could be advanced for cooperation is economic development, which should include greater business ties, increased trade between the two countries, and energy cooperation. Furthermore, the U.S. should encourage further economic integration between Russia and the EU. Not only is economic integration needed, but it is mutually beneficial. In order to ensure both social and political stability in the future, Russia will need to proactively expand its economy through infrastructure investment and modernization of the country’s economy, which relies on energy for approximately 30% of its GDP. In addition, as an emerging economy, Russia is very aware that they do not have the culture or institutions to support an entirely free-market economy. By engaging Russia both commercially and financially, a dialogue of cooperation and trust can begin to develop and a dose of respectability and confidence may begin to expand into more difficult areas, such as terrorism, security cooperation, nuclear proliferation, and arms control. Most importantly, there should be a concerted effort to rebuild several stalled security initiatives, renew two treaties on U.S. – Russian strategic arms reductions, and a recommitment to the ABM treaty.


As a global player, Russia wants to be an accepted power within the international system and as a leader within the international system, the imputeus of cooperation lies with the U.S. Most any theory in international relations will point to the fact that isolating and marginalizing a country such as Russia in the new world order will only frustrate and distance that country from the West, but eliminate any possibility of needed cooperation. Alternatively, the United States needs to embrace Russia and through active diplomacy, offer a less aggressive path to international influence.

This paper has tried to demonstrate that the question of developing relations between the two countries is not a question of shared interests or strategic areas of cooperation. Instead it will take a concerted and aggressive diplomatic effort on the part of both countries to view the other, not as a confrontational adversary reminiscent of the Cold War, but as cooperative partners. The advent of a new administration in Washington has brought with it an unprecedented opportunity for this change in policy toward Russia. The Obama Administration must seize this “window of opportunity,” take the diplomatic high-ground, and put collaborative action in front of rhetoric. Once this paradigm shift takes place, then the “soft issues” of trade, energy, and economic development should be areas to which the two countries focus their energies. These smaller issues must be seen as stepping stones to greater cooperation in the areas of terrorism, security, nuclear proliferation, and arms control. As the relationship begins to develop inertia of its own and builds a sense of confidence between the two countries, then the more contentious issues, such as NATO, missile defense, and democracy may be addressed. Until then, the Obama administration should focus all of its efforts in rebuilding the trust and opportunities missed in the past 20 years. A renewed partnership of these two great countries could go a long way in solving many of the international issues of the 21st Century.

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