Marco Rumignani's blog

United States-Russia relations through the eyes of the American Congress (in Summer 2013)

October 30, 2013

Today, relations between the United States and Russia are seen as cold relations through the Medias. For instance, the Snowden case, which has been raised since June 2013, is seen as the use of American intelligence defectors for Russia’s security purposes. Both former superpowers seem to restart the reminiscences of the Cold War.[1]


On the one hand, the United States are concerned by their security, by fighting terrorism, while concerned with reestablishing ties with the rest of the world (after the 8 years unilateral policies of the previous administration). Bridging the gap and ensuring its safety are currently the two main goals of the Obama administration.


On the other hand, Russia denounces the support given by the United States to “terrorists” in Syria.[2] According to Russia’s Minister of Foreign affairs Sergei Lavrov, it seems contradictory that a country wishing to fight terrorism is actually creating them.


The American policy should thus be consistent. As a reaction to the Magnitsky list, the Russian government issued a decree forbidding the adoption of Russian orphans by American citizens.


In October 2012, the USA[3] removed their delegation from the working group on civil society among the Bilateral Commission.


The American-Russian summit that should have taken part in September 2012 in Moscow has been canceled at the beginning of August.[4]


 Yet, visions of American-Russian relations are subjective, and rely on each character’s own position and interests. One may say that there is no “new Cold War”, another may say bilateral relations will be able to be reset only if both agree on disarmament, or that forbidding NGO’s weakens one side and prevent the other from entering any kind of partnership.[5]


The purpose of this paper is to present and analyze the works and statements made by the American Congress on the issue of American-Russian relations.


1)                 Congress


As the equivalent to a parliament, the American Congress is divided into two Houses: the upper House (or Senate), and the lower House (House of Representatives).


Why choose the legislative institution’s statements to analyze Russian-American relations? Deputies are elected according to the population size of their state (House) or on an established number per state (Senate). Most deputies are professionals, holding diplomas from graduating schools, and with experiences within the institutions.


Apart from preparing and voting legislative acts, the Senate and the House of Representatives hold sessions in subcommittees and commissions, which regroup senators, representatives and specialists on certain topics.

These are what we call parliamentary committees. Their hearings and works are taken into account for the legislative and executive processes. During theses committees’ sessions, many experts (whether American or foreign) are invited to give reports on the topic. As such, these committees bridge the American institutions and independent elements from civil society (and sometimes from other Countries’ government).

This is why we took the case of Congress: for its influence on American foreign policy; and we chose the hearing for the fact that they gather different opinions and serve as formal debates.


2)                 Senate

Since we focus on Russia-USA relations, our research brought us to analyze the hearings from the Committee of Foreign Affairs (presided by Senators Boxer and Murphy): the State of Human Rights and Rule of Law in Russia.[6] (held  December 14th 2011)


What appeared is that Russia is indeed a partner in security and strategic matters, but it appeared that the current government has been targeting since the 2012 reelection of Putin many elements of civil society, non-governmental organizations (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and LGBT advocates). Senator Boxer didn’t hesitate to compare the trial of the band “Pussy Riot” to Stalin’s Great Purges.


Indeed, the representative of Amnesty International, Franck Januzi denounced the crackdown on freedom of expression (especially after the Saint-Petersburg’s city ban on LGBT). The fight against terrorism and state security are perceived as excuses to justify the denial of rule of law.


According to Boris Mentsov, Human Rights are not part of the political agenda.

It was also that these movements were looking for a “Russian true domestic citizenship”, and could be compared to the American Civil Rights movements of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Russian government was pointed out as mixing search for funds and search for foreign agents, when it denounced the “foreign intrusion” into Russian society.


Ariel Cohen, a representative from the Heritage Foundation, stated Russia missed great opportunities after the fall of the Soviet Union, by not lustrating its political leaders. Instead of single party apparatchiks, the same people are deputies of the Douma and of the Council of the Federation. The inexistence of rule of law and corruption deteriorates any real popular support to the Russian institutions; three pillars appeared after 1991: orthodoxy, autocracy, populism.


As a result, what are the prioritized issues? Pursuit of arms control cannot justify everything. The American policy has been since the 1970’s to promote and support Human Rights in Russia. Putin’s government should be aware that helping people getting energy from alternative resources (cleantech for instance), and developing local prosperity would create a better governance. Putin’s grip on power has so far been fueled by the good results of his economic policies (development of a middle class, positive balance of exports-imports); would these results be altered he would be ousted.


Yet, the opposition and the civil society are more and more led by the elite of the country (businessmen, graduated from universities, politicians), this is why Putin’s influence I shifting to smaller and more conservative regions and villages. Thus, Putin’s internal policies are pulling back Russia to the past. This is populism.[7]


The use of the Snowden case by the Kremlin is perceived as blackmailing from the Russian Government.[8]

As a result, the Committee’s president concluded that Putin’s governance was a mixture of Stalin’s authoritarianism and Abramovich’s tycoon attitude.

This shows that the Senate Committees on foreign affairs are very critical to the Russian current policies, and bring to the administration recommendations in favor of change in Russia.[9]


3)                 House of Representative


The House committee on foreign affairs holds a sub-committee on Europe, Eurasia and emerging threats. This sub-committee held hearings on Islamist threats to Eurasia (February 27th 2013)[10], presided by the chairmen Representatives Dana Rohrabacher and William Keating.


According to the chairman Rohrabacher, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kirgizstan have well cooperated in the fight against terrorism. The perspective is to cut funds to Pakistan, showing that Central Asia is a pivotal geopolitical center. The need for allies is crucial, and Central Asia is facing Islamic violence. The 2014 pull out from Afghanistan has become thus imperative for the American in finding new partners.


Since the borders of the Central Asian Republics were drawn arbitrarily by Stalin, and led to the impossibility for these state to run autonomously, creating a vacuum of power filled by religious fundamentalists.

Since its pivotal status and its harboring situation for terrorists, this region has been under vigilance by the USA.  For instance, the American Department of State insist on the security initiative created in order to strengthen the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, to share security objectives with Russia, and to keep Iranian influence as far away as possible.


While leaving Afghanistan, infrastructures will have to be rebuilt (roads, medical facilities, schools) in order to give the country a chance for development.

Thus, there is a need to prevent Saudi Arabia and Qatar to keep funding the construction of Islamic schools and new Islamic organizations in Central Asia (and therefore gaining political influence).

Russia’s weight helps maintaining authoritarian regimes, which are enemies to Islamic fundamentalism. The Russian influence is overwhelming: 40% of the Republics’ GDP comes from their citizens living abroad, and 90% of their fuel is imported from Russia.


This creates a far too big dependence on Russia and a heavy leverage. This is why Central Asian Republics welcome US aid and assistance programs, and yet, this non-Russian help is not jeopardizing Russian interests. Far from it.

Indeed, Russia is seeking good relations with its neighbors: greater ties for a better trade.

According to the committee, Eurasia forms a front against jihadist movements (e.g.: insurgencies in the Northern Caucasus hold strong religious overtones, the assassination of the appointed Mufti of Tartarstan, the active involvement of the Islamic Jihad Union, or IJU). Those same movements are operating in Eurasia, and also in the Middle East.


As such, given their common threats, Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have the most significant means to help the USA defend their interests in the region, improve transatlantic relations (which definitely need so, since the Magnetsky list and Snowden cases). A strong Eurasia could be an asset to rebuild Afghanistan and diversify US energy policies.

The real issue is that islamist movements feed on the growing discontent of the population living under corrupted authoritarian regimes backed by Russia, and which keep energy profits for the ruling elite.


Not only that, but also terrorism finds its funds in the Islamic tradition of Zakat (Islamic solidarity) from the Persian Gulf, and funds in drug trafficking (Afghanistan holds a monopoly in production of opium poppy).

It is thus important to attack the roots of jihadist movements. Democratization and free market must be brought to prevent the spread of Islamic jihadist movements and the risk of seeing them fill the vacuum of power.


It is clear that after the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 of US troops. Without the help of great powers like the USA and Russia, none of the Republics can stand for their security needs.

There recently signs of a strong will from Russia to coordinate its military presence with the Americans. Also, the existence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (a confederacy of states tied for economic and security purposes) will push Republics to cooperate with each other even more.

As a conclusion: the USA must stick to their allies, while realizing that other partners are needed to secure their interests (countries like Russia, or the rising regional power of India).


On the other hand, another session of the same sub-committee (held on April 26th 2013, a few days after the Boston terror attacks that occurred on April 15th 2013)[11] was set to discuss about the topic of Islamist Extremism in Chechnya, presided by Chairman Representative Dana Rohrabacher.

To the chairman, it seems that the Caucasus must not become a cradle for radical terrorism. Indeed, many mosques were built to influence the youngest, and a Russian cooperation would be needed.


With the Boston bombings and the arrest of Chechens on American soil, any terrorist activity occurring in Russia has its effects on Western countries: targets from the West are replacing Russian targets for religious fanatics. As such, asking for help and sharing information with Russian counterparts is securing American interests.[12]

To the invited Professor Goble (from the Institute of World Politics), being a Muslim in the Caucasus is related to ethnicity, not religion; it takes its roots from the status an nationalities given to people in the USSR. 1200 people from this region are currently studying in Islamic schools, the Madras of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, while only four were doing so in the Soviet times.


Assistant Professor Albert (from Georgia Regents University) states that jihad is a matter deploying consequences all over the world. For instance, many Chechens volunteer to die as martyrs in Syria.

According to Dr. Migranyan (from the MGIMO Institute), Russia didn’t receive many help, nor any support from the West in its fight against terrorism. Yet, it is only after the attacks in Boston that the USA care about security policies in the Northern Caucasus. The USA granted asylum to the future perpetrators of the terrorist attack, while ignoring Moscow’s warnings on the hazard from these people. As a result, the USA finds itself with a common enemy with Russia.


According to Dr. Freizer (Europe Program International Crisis Group), there is a “Caucasus Emirates” network that stands as the biggest insurgency network today. Its purpose is to establish a Califate in the region, and to implement Islamic radicalism from the Gulf States (wahabism).

As a conclusion to this hearing, it was found necessary to improve cooperation between the USA and Russia. Yet, distrust prevents law enforcement for both nations. A sort of Cold War restarted between both countries.

Thus, it is the duty of the current administration to set new ties with Russia, in order to reach certain goals, such as the safety of its citizens.


4)                 Analysis and conclusion


Ambiguity is what comes out of these hearings: one the one hand, politicians openly criticize Russia’s internal issues (Human Rights, governance), but on the other hand they are looking for stronger ties in the fight against terrorism and in defending their interests.

It is a set/de-set/re-set kind of relations that the USA have with Russia.[13]


For instance, while the Magnetsky Act case was taking place, Russia joined the World Trade Organization, thanks to the American mediation in the Russia-Georgia settlement. Also, Russia gives a well welcomed hand in the fight in Afghanistan against the Taliban, by securing the borders of the its former Republics.

While Russia is looking for a reduction of American non-nuclear presence in continental Europe, the USA is concerned by a modernization of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.[14]


Both administrations saw their governments elected on an anti-“big enemy from the other side of the Atlantic” program, yet a conjunction of interests seems to appease both countries.

Thus, on strategic issues the trend is to “re-set”: a Mutual assisted Stability and the New START[15] treaty (2009-2010). Yet the mutual fear (from ABMs[16] on one side, of ICBMs[17] on the other) should push for reducing the reasons of these fears: a limit of strategic ballistic missile defenses, and a limit of number of intercontinental ballistic missiles.[18]


In addition to the already existing agreements, new models should be proposed to make sure that both parts would cooperate on disarmament issues (which are their biggest mutual fear), and furthermore develop ties.

Both have the same interests and assets in the same regions (Caucasus and Central Asia), while fighting against the same enemy to these interests (terrorism, organized crime).


By analyzing hearings from the American Congress, we could see that both nations need each other, not just to defend their interests, but also to defend their values (civil rights from the USA, sovereign democracy from Russia).

As years will pass, more politicians will express their views on strengthening ties for both countries, and the Congress is no exception. The USA is (often falsely so) regarded as hegemonic.[19] By debating the way they are, and by listening to these hearings, we can see that a non-hegemonic policy will be shaped, giving maybe a Multi-polar world order, which is what Russia has been striving for.[20]


The same way France and the United States were unable to agree on the transfer of nuclear technology during De Gaulle’s presidency, it seems that the trans-Atlantic relation has developed a mutual lack of comprehension, more than mutual fear.

As former Lt. Col. Gavin (who served as Ambassador of the USA in Paris) stated (almost two decades before “Détente”), there is only one space and only West-East cooperation can improve space exploration beyond strict military aspects.[21] In the perspective of congressmen, the same thing applies here with energy, strategic and security policies in post-soviet space.


[3] United States of America

[12] It is important to note that for American politicians, Caucasus is linked to Central Asia, that Azerbaijan is neighboring Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea serves only to transit oil and gaz.

[13] Falcon, Isabelle, Russie-États-Unis: tension perpétuelle, Fondation pour la recherche stratégique, note n°15/13, June 2013

[14] Russian International Affairs Council, Working Paper: Qualitative transformation of Russian-American relations on strategic issues, n°7, Moscow 2013

[15] Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty

[16] Anti-Ballistic Missiles

[17] Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles

[18] Cimbala, Stephen J., Russia and European missile defense. Reflexive reset?, Joint Force Quarterly, Issue 68, 1st Quarter 2013

[19] Slaten, Kevin, Decline of hegemony: regaining international consent, Journal of Politics and International Affairs, vol 3, issue 1, Winter 2009, The Undergraduate Political Science Organization, The Ohio State University, p 1-32

[20] Tatiana Shakleina and Andrei Melville, Russian foreign policy in transition: concepts and realities, Central European University Press, Budapest and New York, 2005

[21]Gavin, James Maurice, War and Peace in the Space Age, Harper, 1958              


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