Russia–U.S. Relations: The Limits of Possible
President of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC),
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (1998–2004)
Despite varying assessments of the current state of U.S.-Russia relations, few would deny that they are now in a state of crisis, perhaps one of the worst in a long time. Not to say that U.S.-Russia relations were exactly rosy in the past, but the current crisis is deeper and more profound than the occasional downs we have seen over the decades. This iteration of the crisis is likely to be the longest as well, as an obvious near-term solution is nowhere to be seen.
A Second Cold War?
It has become fashionable lately speak of a new chapter in the Cold War in global politics and draw parallels between the current standoff between Moscow and Washington and the Soviet–U.S. confrontation that dominated the second half of the 20th century. But it seems like a bit of a stretch: relations between Moscow and the White House were the main axis of world politics during the Cold War, whereas now they are still important, but they do not determine the global system anymore. We no longer live in a bipolar world, and returning to the rigid bipolarity of the Cold War is impossible.
Moreover, ideology is not at the core of the current standoff between Russia and the United States, as it was during the Cold War (Soviet communism versus Western democracy). The antagonistic conflict of civilizations dominant today is not between the United States and Russia, of course, but between Western liberalism and Islamic fundamentalism.
Finally, while Russia may remain a great power in terms of its potential, it is unable to compete with the United States in a number of fields in same way that the Soviet Union did, particularly in terms of economy and high technology. The closest state to the Soviet Union in terms of economic opposition to the United States is China. But there is an important difference here – there is a great deal of interdependence between the latter, something that never existed between the USSR and the United States, and something that prevents all-out competition.
Does all this mean that the current crisis in Russia–U.S. relations is any less dangerous than the situation during the Cold War? Quite the opposite. At that time, Moscow and Washington were able to install certain rules that served to reduce the risks of an uncontrolled confrontation breaking out. By joining efforts, we created a dense infrastructure of communication channels, consultation mechanisms and bilateral and multilateral agreements designed to increase the predictability and manageability of international situations. The unique architecture of bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington that existed during the Cold War was mostly stable, and this enabled it to remain almost completely unchanged for quite a long time.
The current state of Russia–U.S. relations can hardly be called stable. Practically all channels of communication between the two countries have been disrupted, the legal and contractual basis of relations is being eroded in front our very eyes, and the concept of “rules of the game” with regard to global politics is not even on the agenda. The risk of conflicts breaking out by accident, because of technical glitches or misinterpreted actions is objectively on the rise.
The overall international situation is not in the best shape either: there is growing instability in the international system, terrorism is turning into a global phenomenon, regional conflicts are springing up with increasing regularity, the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is growing, etc.
An additional complicating factor is the U.S. presidential election campaign, which makes long-term policy planning for the White House almost non-existent and increases uncertainty for the United States’ partners on the global arena.
Recent events have sparked hopes that Moscow and Washington are beginning to realize the scale of the growing risks and threats to international security: consultations on the Ukrainian issue are underway; efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis are ongoing; cooperation on the Iranian nuclear dossier continues; and the parties hold similar positions with regard to the nuclear situation on the Korean Peninsula. All this is true, but it is too early to talk about any stabilization of U.S.–Russia relations.
The risk of political confrontation turning into a military one continues to grow, and there have been no breakthroughs in terms of agreeing on new rules of the game in bilateral relations. The negative dynamics in relations between Moscow and Washington are becoming a serious problem not only for the two countries in question, but also for the entire international system.
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