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Pavel Sharikov

PhD in Political Science, Director of the Applied Research Center, RAS Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies

A lot has already been said and written about the current crisis in Russia-U.S. relations. The tensions have been escalating for two years, both countries imposed economic sanctions, disseminated propaganda, and exchanged mutual accusations. Evidently, the expectations for Donald Trump’s new approach to Russia have never been met. It is today when we must think what condition of re-lations between Russia and the United States could be considered as good one.

A lot has already been said and written about the current crisis in Russia-U.S. relations. The tensions have been escalating for two years, both countries imposed economic sanctions, disseminated propaganda, and exchanged mutual accusations. Evidently, the expectations for Donald Trump’s new approach to Russia have never been met. It is today when we must think what condition of re-lations between Russia and the United States could be considered as good one.

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
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Is the worst part over?

The necessity to improve Russian-U.S. relations is not questioned on ei-ther side of the Atlantic, as well as the fact that further deterioration is does not make any sense, has no chance for success and is even dangerous. Howev-er, apparently, Donald Trump seems to lack a vision of how to improve rela-tions with Moscow. During the two months in office he has taken decisive ac-tions falling in line with a number of his most important campaign promises - a wall on the border with Mexico, travel ban and Obamacare repeal. However, nothing has been done in regard to Russia. Evidently, the White House is working on whatever a Russia strategy must look like, but this work is not go-ing too well. National Security Advisor shuffle does not help either, and the fact of McMaster being appointed instead of Michael Flynn is unlikely to meet the expectations of the Kremlin.

Before the U.S. bombings in Syria it seemed as though the worst part of crisis in Russia-U.S. relations is over. Still, the escalation continued.

It is today when we must think what condition of relations between Russia and the United States could be considered as good one. If hypothetically Trump administration does defeat IS with a joint effort, resolves the Donbas crisis, acknowledges Crimea and lifts all the sanctions, which seems to be an unbelievable scenario, Russia and the United States would find themselves in a state of relations close to late 2013 - early 2014, when the current crisis burst out in the first place. So, those relations proved to be unstable and thus can not be considered as good ones. Something else should be on the agenda, but what?

It is very important to discuss these issues. Only through understanding a state of good relations, we can define the problems and discuss the ways to re-solve them.

Trend for improvement

There is a number on opinions of what good relations comprise, each of them could theoretically be applied to Russia-U.S. pattern. It must be noted, that it would wrong to compare it with the good relations pattern between the countries with common culture and history, like the U.S.A. and United King-dom or Russia and Belorussia.

Some experts say that intensification of economic interdependence can override political contradictions and guarantee stability in the relations. None-theless, in case of Russia, larger trade volume and economic interdependence with the CIS countries didn't prevent recent problems with Belorussia, not to mention with Georgia and Ukraine in the recent years.

On the other hand, bilateral economic relations between the United States and China are extremely interdependent. Chinese goods make 22% of all American imports (1;2). China holds USD 1 of 6 trillion of American foreign debt. What is more, China could have been America’s global antagonistic competitor, given communist ideology and nearly equal GDP. Sino-American relations could hardly be characterized as good, at least it is not what Russia should wish for in its relations with the United States. Along with that, Rus-sia’s and American economic potentials are so different that deeper interde-pendence would be very asymmetrical. Russia would depend on the economic relations much more while the United States may not be dependent at all.

There is another opinion - the existence of a common enemy, like terror-ism, would intensify security cooperation and provide stability in relations.

There is a big difference between waging the war and winning the war against terrorism. The fight may last long without any significant success. If one compares IS to the fascist Germany, Russia’s relations with Western allies now are much more distant, then those during the World War II. Military alli-ance is the ultimate level of mutual trust and confidence, and in some sense - the perfect pattern of good bilateral relations. Along with that, less then two years after defeating Hitler, Soviet Union and the West have found themselves in a state of the Cold War, and recent military alliance did not prevent it from happening.

If Russia and the United States defeat IS, we will lose the common enemy, and another wave of political contradictions will arise. In fact, defeating IS wouldn't eliminate all other problems on current agenda.

Another counterargument - the U.S. relations with Turkey. The U.S.A. and Turkey are bound by North Atlantic Treaty as military allies, however this fact didn't prevent recent cooling of their relations, which started before Donald Trump took office.

Another opinion consists in the fact that decent personal relations between the leaders would contribute to improvement of bilateral relations. However, every pair of Soviet/Russian-American leaders proved this point wrong. Dur-ing different historic periods, friendly personal relations were established be-tween Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, and nonetheless bilateral relations re-mained low.

Another idea is based on the fact that public diplomacy interaction can provide stable political relations. Moreover, current selection of public and dig-ital diplomacy instruments reveals unprecedented opportunities for civil socie-ties to cooperate globally despite the will of the leaders.

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It’s hard to measure civil society cooperation in comparable indicators. Some comparisons could be made based on foreign broadcasting. The State Department’s documents contain numbers on foreign broadcasting spending. The first place was taken by Afghanistan, where the Department of State have spent USD 65 billion in 2015. The U.S.-Afghani model is unacceptable for Russia though.

The U.S. expenditures on Russian language broadcasting are ten times smaller. Russia holds 11th place before Indonesia and Mexico. Russia’s ex-penditures on similar purposes are much more difficult to find, but it is evident that Russia Today provokes similar reaction in Washington as Voice of Amer-ica does in Moscow. By no means public diplomacy is not limited to foreign broadcasting, but even this example proves that information standoff of two different positions has emerged.

Public diplomacy also includes educational exchanges, research coopera-tion, cultural interaction and other contacts that exist beyond politics. It is im-possible to measure those and to compare them in regard to different patterns of bilateral relations.

Focus on the positive

Opinions mentioned above do not include all the possible elements of a bi-lateral relations pattern. Evidently, there is no such thing as a “pattern of good bilateral relations”. The United States builds the relations with every country in its own unique way, which includes different engagement in economic, polit-ical and other cooperation. Since no pattern could be relevant, improvement of Russia-U.S. relations becomes a more unclear task.

All these reflections create other questions: which period of Russia-U.S. relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union was good? The most difficult question - what is the reason of the current crisis? The answer to this question is a key to the problem’s resolution.

Let me suggest one of the reasons for the crisis between Russia and the West and a number of Russian domestic problems. This reason is not the main one, but it definitely complements many others, formulated by international experts.

The problem consists in the fact that in the minds of Russian people and Russian leaders laws are equal to rights. Idealization of legislative activities creates an illusion that legal documents can fix all problems. In fact, due to un-precedented recent domestic and international legislative activity in Russia, formal compliance with the adopted norms deepens the gap with the reality.

Most of recent developments in Russia’s domestic policy prove this point. However, in a globalized world, Russia’s legalistic understanding of interna-tional norms faced Western idea of the rule of law has resulted in crisis along with other contradictions.

There are hardly any formal grounds for accusing Russia of any violations. Along with that, imbalance between the texts of legal documents and reality ir-ritates the West. Of course, the United States and Europe have made mistakes and have been subject to reasonable criticism. Nontheless, Western global lead-ership is unquestionable by any country in the civilized world except for radi-cal forces, such as terrorist organizations or DPRK government. Neither ideol-ogy, nor Russia’s foreign strategy are radical. The times of global confronta-tion between to incompatible socio-economic systems ended along with the col-lapse of the Soviet Union. Russia does not challenge West in any field. Ideolog-ically Russia seems to be closer to the West compared to 15 or 20 years ago. And despite all these facts, the crisis did occur. It took place rather in violation of the traditions of bipolar and post bipolar order, and thus symbolizes the be-ginning of a new international system.

A detailed analysis of the reasons of current crisis and formulation of Rus-sia’s national interests in globalized multipolar environment are a unique task, critical for Russian-American relations in general. Reflections mentioned above are not intended to reduce the importance of cooperation on Ukraine, fight against terrorism, economic cooperation, public and digital diplomacy efforts and good personal relations between the leaders. Along with that, both sides of the Atlantic should realize that such work can not be done unilaterally. Despite the fact that should all these measures be taken, good bilateral relations are not guaranteed, Russia and the United States do not have any reasons to be ene-mies.

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