The history of Russia-U.S. relations is long and complex, with many observers suggesting they are now at the lowest level they have reached in many decades and are poised to worsen further. I may agree with the first estimate but believe that these relations may be repaired and doubt they can significantly deteriorate.
Officially, neither power considers the two to be friends, to put it modestly. The United States recognizes Russia as either a “threat” or a “challenge,” while Russia labels America as a “geopolitical contender.” In Washington, politicians depict Russia as a threat to global stability and as a “revisionist power”; in Moscow, America is blamed for many, if not most, of Russia’s current difficulties just because it is the leader of “the West,” which for centuries has been Russia’s adversary. The political elite of both nations have their own reasons: In Russia, the “present danger” embodied in the United States helps the government to unify the public; in America, Russia looks like a long-time foe and is often presented as the world’s “bad guy” whom the U.S. should contain. Considering how Washington may profit just a little from reestablishing good relations with Russia, and Moscow may do even worse if the relations took a turn for the better, in general the current situation suits all and therefore can endure.
Moscow Wishes To Restore Relations With Washington Rather Than To Destroy Them
Of course, Russia’s accusations that America is an anti-Russian force are mostly wrong. The two powers’ foreign policies differ a lot since the United States assumes the world is a theater for its own actions, while Russia believes its mission consists of confronting Washington’s “aggressive plans.” The major difference in Russia-U.S. relations that makes them incomparable with Soviet-U.S. relations is this absence of any universal agenda that characterizes Russian policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However bad Russia-U.S. relations may seem, they should not be compared to Soviet-U.S. relations, since the Soviet Union was an expansionist power that tried to reconfigure the entire world according to its ideological doctrine, while Russia is an uneasy partner but represents nothing more than the remains of an old and ineffective empire. As it lost its Soviet ideological component, Russia became one of Europe’s two “offshoots,” being culturally and historically part of the same European civilization of which the United States is also a part, and therefore is not as alien to America as China or the Muslim world and should be treated accordingly. Russia these days is a conservative and a revisionist power willing to reestablish, at least in some sense, the earlier geopolitical reality, while the U.S. tries to change the world in the same way it has done for close to 250 years.
Even if Russia’s long-term plans and interests seem debatable, Moscow is deeply disappointed with the current situation and wishes to restore relations rather than to destroy them. There are several reasons for this.
First, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personality causes some of these reasons. In Russia, the sense of grandeur he has promised to restore to his subjects is strongly tied to the foreign policy agenda, as Russia for centuries has been an imperial power and its leaders derived their rationale from outside recognition. The Russian leadership wants to be taken seriously by its “partners,” and to be allowed into the major political groupings created by the leading powers. The expulsion from the G8 in 2014, for example, was a huge blow to Putin’s self-esteem. Moreover, as Putin believes his most crucial ability lies in “understanding people” and in bringing them to his side, he deeply believes in personal relations and face-to-face communication – as was the case in his relationships with George Bush Jr., Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, and Gerhard Schroeder – and becomes confused when denied it. I would say that U.S. President Joe Biden’s remarks on dealing with Russia only because of interests and having nothing personal with Putin hurt him more than calling him “a killer.” The Kremlin believes that if Putin can do “business as usual” with the American leaders, many problems will be resolved.
Second, Russia got into a very complicated situation in recent days for various reasons. Russia was trapped by its aggression against Ukraine, which the Kremlin was sure the West would neglect as it had neglected Russia’s war against Georgia: Moscow now cannot withdraw from Crimea due to domestic policies, and is unable to repair relations with the rest of the world till the situation has changed. Russia’s reliance on energy exports is now a risk due to ongoing global technological shifts toward decarbonization. To invite Putin to the global leaders’ Climate Summit was, I would say, a very provocative, if not counter-productive, idea. Moscow fears these changes and is becoming more and more hostile to the Western technological agenda while being unable to change it. The Kremlin also feels a rising threat coming from the creation of a global information space as it has finally realized that the freedom of information endangers its power. Ten years ago it was different, and I have written elsewhere that near-complete immunity from openness to the world was Putin’s decisive difference from the Soviet leaders. The Kremlin sees the development of a global communication network as a clear challenge but is deeply dependent on it in many spheres. Finally, as the Russian people become richer – and many of them are already mega-rich – they want to emerge as a part of the “golden billion,” and the pressure on the Kremlin for more openness is growing, which also disturbs Putin.
Russia wants relations with the United States to be repaired to both allow Putin to regain his global stance and to clarify the country’s perspectives in the turbulent world of the 21st century. If one looks through last week’s interview with Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev in the Kommersant daily, she or he may realize that Moscow, constantly accusing America of unfriendly behavior, nevertheless keeps the doors open for any kind of negotiations and regrets that Washington does not realize how huge the cooperation potential might be. The same notes can be found in recent comments by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and even in the speeches of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. There is still a lot of intrigue around Vladimir Putin’s own remarks on the issue expected to be unveiled during his Address to the Federal Assembly scheduled for April 21.
The Best Way For The West Is To Use A “Wait And See” Approach
The Russian worldview has been deeply distorted by the decades of the Cold War and the Soviet collapse. For the Russian political elite, the crash of the U.S.S.R. was caused by American actions, and therefore it still does not recognize any other world power as its “on par” adversary. The Putin team believes all major global decisions are made in Washington and sees all the other Western nations as America’s puppets. In Patrushev’s interview, he depicts NATO as a kind of a feudal polity and insists its members are U.S. “vassals” deprived of any chance for conducting “pragmatic policies aimed at sovereign development.” Even with the European Union being Russia’s most important economic partner, Moscow believes all major deals should be made with America, not Europe – also because people like Putin think that economic issues are less important than political and military ones. This is why Russia can be turned to America’s side, but only if Washington acts first, which no one can imagine.
What the Kremlin wants is a kind of a “reset” like what happened in 2009-2011: Moscow would readily reestablish economic, political, and technological ties with the United States if the latter “forgets” about Russia’s adventures in Ukraine, recognizes Moscow’s “rights” to advance in Syria and some other sensitive regions, and softens its rhetoric on human rights issues. Such a course might benefit the United States in the long run, as it seems Russia’s leaders are becoming more vulnerable, and they seek better relations with the West as they are “under pressure” from outside (one should remember both Gorbachev’s and Medvedev’s cases) – and President Biden made a perfect move calling Vladimir Putin on April 14 and later announcing that the time has come for rethinking Russia policy (“Now it’s the time to de-escalate; the way forward is through thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process”). We in Russia know that as the danger decreases, the questions, about why the government performs so poorly domestically, increase. Of course, the United States cannot afford another “reset” these days as Russia’s leadership becomes more aggressive abroad and oppressive domestically and as Putin prepares to become president for life and diminish all the remaining elements of democracy in his country. Therefore, I cannot see any chance for change in the coming years – mostly since Russia looks like a good candidate for becoming an eternal U.S. enemy while representing no immediate challenge to it. Russia is rightly considered a declining power, and its decline will continue, so the United States does not need to act first in seeking any progress on this “front.”
However, I want to conclude with some remarks that might be considered optimistic. On the one hand, it seems that in Russia, anti-American sentiment is becoming less visible. The history of the opinion polls suggests that for the entire post-Soviet period, more than half of Russians have had a positive attitude toward the United States, and the figure dropped sharply only in times of political showdowns, as in 1999 because of the Yugoslavia conflict, in 2004 due to the U.S. intervention in Iraq, and in 2008 after Putin’s speeches in Munich and Bucharest and the Georgia war. After 2014, it had reached its lowest level of around 20 percent but has been steadily rising since then, rebounding to around 40 percent overall these days with around 65 percent among younger people. This reflects the weaknesses of Russian propaganda and people’s doubts about the causes of the current domestic problems. The effort to depict America as an existential enemy faces rising challenges in Russia, and this trend looks irreversible.
On the other hand, U.S. policymakers have found themselves in a difficult position since the confrontation with Russia has become a point of consensus in Washington, but it is also becoming obvious that not much can be done to retaliate for Russia’s moves. As was seen during the Trump administration, the Biden administration still refrains from introducing radical sanctions against Russia, preferring individual restrictions as compared to complex economic sanctions. Recently some leaks suggested that nothing like banning U.S. companies from dealing with Russia’s sovereign debt is in sight in connection with the poisoning of Alexey Navalny or Russian cyberattacks on American institutions. Such a position has a huge chance of prevailing in the coming years – it does not seem that the Russia threat looms significantly for the United States and a defensive approach should be valued over an offensive one.
The last important issue I would like to address is the decision-making strategy used by U.S. officials. In recent months, the debate about whether Russia policy should be “pragmatically” or “ideologically” driven, has reached new highs – a fierce discussion that erupted at the Atlantic Council after the publication of an op-ed by Emma Ashford and Mathew Kroenig is just one example – and it is perfectly natural that American political scholars would present different views. What truly disturbs me is that the policy debate becomes largely influenced by the people who are deeply involved in the current politics, predominantly on one side. I mean that, after 2014, the Russia debate has been challenged by many Russian activists and intellectuals who moved out of Russia and built up many NGOs and think tanks in both Europe and the U.S. Most of these people have been engaged in political life or high-profile research activity in Russia and feel themselves disenfranchised as they are squeezed out of the country. However, decent and knowledgeable though they might be, the Russian émigrés appear to be extremely biased, and therefore I would suggest that their influence on American policymaking be limited.
The difference between the United States and Russia lies in the fact that the first still secures its top position as the world’s leading technological, military, and economic power, while the latter is constantly declining economically, socially, and demographically. The United States can wait as long as is needed while Russia is running out of time, incapable of modernizing its economy or making use of the talents and aspirations of its people. Therefore, I would reiterate my earlier message: The best way for the West is to use a “wait and see” approach, refraining from any attempts to transform Russia faster than it changes itself. I also would add that a well-known argument about a need to cooperate with Russia since there are many issues in global politics that cannot be resolved without its participation seems to be completely false: During the last 30 years, Russia has not been instrumental in setting any issues – even those it created itself, like many conflicts in the post-Soviet realm. Democratic and ever-changing America is definitely able to outlive the personalistic Putinist regime and welcome a new Russia as it did in the 1980s. History cannot be stopped, but I believe it should not be accelerated either.