The Confusing State of U.S.-Russia Relations

Behind Putin's latest move, and our on-again, off-again alliance

  • Share
  • Read Later
Grigory Dukor / Reuters

From left: Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes U.S. President Barack Obama before the first working session of the G20 Summit in Constantine Palace in Strelna near St. Petersburg, on Sept. 5, 2013.

It is hard to imagine a more interesting—and confusing—time to take stock of modern U.S.-Russian relations. My Twitter feed is currently ablaze with reports of the possibility that the #US will adopt the #Russia plan for solving the current #Syria crisis. At the same time, Vladimir Putin has just critiqued President Obama on the op-ed page of The New York Times.  These seemingly unexpected and contradictory developments reflect the fact that there are two fundamental realities shaping the bilateral relationship today today: Russian domestic politics and a series of shared and conflicting international interests of both nations.

(MOREPutin Calls for Diplomacy on Syria in New York Times Op-Ed)

First, the recent direction of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin in terms of the domestic political sphere is anathema to most of the values that the United States professes to support in its friends and allies: a free press, fair and competitive elections, civil rights for minorities, an independent judiciary, and so on.  It seems that hardly more than a few weeks can go by without something happening in Russia that reminds American policymakers of how different the two regimes can be.  The recent flight from the country of the distinguished economist Sergei Guriev and the trial, conviction, and release of recent Moscow mayoral candidate and opposition leader Alexander Navalny are but two examples, as are recent laws against “homosexual propaganda.”  This is not to say that the United States does not cooperate with foreign regimes that have less than stellar democratic records.  At the same time, though, the post-Cold War history of U.S.-Russian relations has been filled repeatedly with the promise of Russia becoming “more democratic” and of potential “resets.” To the extent that this promise isn’t fulfilled, the relationship (rightly or wrongly) suffers.

Then there is Vladimir Putin’s standing in his own country. Putin has enjoyed periods of time, especially in the first decade of his presidency, when he was a genuinely popular leader. He gave Russians a flourishing economy, rising oil prices that helped the country escape from Western loans and IMF bailouts, and much needed stability after the Yeltsin years. Today, however, Putin is less popular.  Economic growth has slowed, and the Kremlin has done little to diversify their economy beyond extractive industries. The perception of corruption among the ruling elite is widespread.  The growing middle class in Russia has become disillusioned with the impunity of its self-enriching leaders, and the newest generation lacks the memory of why Putin was embraced in the first place.

All of these factors have added up to a situation where Putin II needs to reach farther to affirm his legitimacy than Putin I ever did. And one way Putin has been doing this, borrowing from a familiar theme in Russian political rhetoric that reached its height during the Cold War years, is by casting himself as a defender of Russian values against Western—particularly American—encroachment. It’s a rational strategy, but Putin also seems to take a certain glee in needling his U.S. “partners,” as evidenced most recently by his reactions to the Edward Snowden affair and his NY Times op-ed.  Scapegoating the West is an easy way out in difficult times, as evidenced by Putin’s rush to denounce protesters who took to the streets of Moscow following claims of fraud in the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections as being instruments of “foreign agents”. And as long as Putin and his surrounding ruling elite are running the show in Russia, U.S.-Russian relations are going to face an uphill struggle.

At the same time, though, it is important to note that the United States and Russia share several common goals in the international sphere, chief among them the containment of radical and fundamentalist Islamic movements as well as failed states where they thrive, which both nations perceive as representing national security threats.  While the countries may not agree on the correct course of action (read: supporting different sides in the Syrian conflict), it doesn’t mean that they don’t see where it could be beneficial to work in tandem (read: trying to avoid Syria turning into a failed state).

(MORERussia’s Syria Calculus: Behind Russia’s Plan to Avert U.S. Missile Strike on Syria)

But here, too, the United States and Russia run into fundamental differences in the way they view the global arena that prevent them from becoming true partners.  On the one hand, Washington – especially the current administration’s foreign policy team – has a strong belief in the legitimacy of intervention in order to prevent humanitarian crises.  The Kremlin, on the other hand, is much more invested in protecting traditional notions of sovereignty, where domestic rulers are to be given deference within their own borders.  Moreover, as Daniel Treisman recently pointed out at The Monkey Cage blog, Putin “sees past episodes of U.S.-sponsored regime change—in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya—as having replaced stable, albeit sometimes unattractive, dictatorships with dangerous chaos.”

So where does this leave the state of U.S.-Russian relations?  At least for the duration of the Putin years (which could be a while), it’s probably prudent to expect more of the same: repeated attempts by Putin to vilify the United States in the international arena for the purpose of domestic consumption without dramatically changing its actual behavior towards the United States, and a reluctance on the part of the United States to trust Russia in most matters with occasional “surprising” moments of agreement in the international sphere when the interests of both countries manage to align.

So, we’re neither heading back to the Cold War, nor to some “reset” feel-good era of partnership. Instead, the recent back and forth on Syria will likely be an example of what will be at best wary, opportunistic collaboration in the years to come.

Joshua A. Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University, a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a co-author of the The Monkey Cage, a politics and policy blog. This piece was written for The Weekly Wonk.

14 comments
AbdirahmanMohamedFarahSharmake
AbdirahmanMohamedFarahSharmake

The King of Somalia and All Arab league member countries The King Abdirahman Mohamed Farah Mohamoud Says to Russia and USA I knew what Christian doctrination says that all those who believe a common Ideology can easily unite.but those who have a different Ideology can never be united. So that , before the global economy interest the democratic System of putin Russia and the sophisticated democratic system of USA can work together if they look at the course in humanity side.Since 1945 the formation of UN organization with the ratification of USA the world had got a steady peace and stability in general. the communists who were against capitalists and aristocratic families of Europe emerged in the world the world is become a two block eastern block and western block. then the cold world war ended because all religious people in the world fight with the Sofiat socialist. now the war is between a religious groups and western capitalists and their aristocratic families because this Ideology extends into Muslim world as that they derived from Christian and Juwish religion. in muslims we believe an equality of people as that they are a rich and poor but they are equal in terms taking the power and in term of all human values, dignity privilege, honor, nobility and etc. so that when I become a Somali king and all the people in the current socio-economy- structures expecting another politicians and Abshir muse told me I relinquished you the power in 2007. when I try to fellow with my brother Yassin as I was a King of Riyad as Ethiopian Army captured the Somali soil. As Apshir muse was our role model who has a high respect with the people of Somalia and especially puntland , then I took Jama Yassin  as he is the next King and reserve King of the country as he was living in Melbourne ,Australia then Jama is become the position of Abshir musse. a protocol of the Somali republic Kingdom living exile like a great abshir musse. the first King of the Somali republic kingdom who has all the charactristics of country's political summation.then all Europe and Christian world have been outrighted the challenge of my Kingdom for the last 6 years then one day I can blow up by disclosing all what I internally  felt. that the King can't be deterred and can't be ignored. Because he will never afraid of his people  of Somalia and others. the rhetoric man is the one who say what other people think to say. if a many Somali politician believe what I believe for my kingdom of Somali republic and holy mecca they will agree with me. As that all western people retains the Riyad and alla'Saudian who fallen down on 9/12/11. the remarkable change takes place in the world of islam and Christians say why before alla'Saudians and I say what is fifteen for you. and still they ignore my kingdom that come to my own I must replace the position of Abdullahi Yusuf who must bring me to the Villa Somalia besides UN they must be all the main sheikhs of Somalia. why Other interanational communities are intervene to my Kingdom  while I have these two bodies because I was a UNDP candidate who went to holy mecca to perform his pilgrimage duties. then become a King of Somalia and holy mecca as holy mecca is the centre of all Muslims who promotes where the muslim leader emerges in the world because we are a parallel to it. unless I became a king of all Muslims then I must take holy mecca and holy Madina and holy Qudus.

                                                          Sincerely.

RaymondMoser
RaymondMoser

Check out the massive Russian campaign to "support" President Putin's glorious contribution to world peace and Christian understanding. Right out of the cold war.

aboutbebout
aboutbebout

If Putin does no more than make Obama look severely inept, that's fine with me.

JimStarowicz
JimStarowicz

What's so confusing, oh wait many live in the not reality world that's been built especially over the past decade plus! Russia is in that neighborhood and already has it's own problems with extremists from it's own past failed policies, europe and others are also in that neighborhood, some close some not but in easy travel. Assad took Syria to a tinderbox that could, thanks to the bush and tepub congresses policies which caused the growth and spread of the al Qaeda type ideology, explode with the extremist fighting him doing so for their own agenda, control of much of Syria. As for us moving with extreme caution in who to arm against Assad's military is a lesson learned from our arming the Mujahideen against the Soviets, bin Laden a CIA operative and middleman in that arms dealing, then walking away from our promises to the Afghans, like we once again did so quickly after 9/11 and with cheers from the american public. If we had kept our promises way back the al Qaeda ideology probably would never have been born, one of the main reasons it was, and the extremist now even in Iraq and crossing over into Syria probably wouldn't be a possible worry to the Russian people and the rest including us!!

Edit
Edit

They should take away the Nobel Peace Prize that was given to Obama and give it to Putin for using dialogue and diplomacy over threats of violence. I love America, but this country has been at war for as long as I've been alive (born in 1982) and way before then too. Let's choose peace for once.

Thabiti
Thabiti

@aboutbebout 

It is regrettable that your hatred for Obama allows you to climb in bed with a murderous thug like Putin.  What has Putin done for the good of the world that makes you love him so much?  Putin is only looking out for his arms buyer.  Do you actually think he gives a dam about peace.  Where do think Assad gets his wepons from to kill his people? 

IanBortner
IanBortner

@JimStarowicz Your post makes no sense.  Assad is the one fighting al-qaeda, while the US allows our monarchist dictatorship proxies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm al-qaeda with American oil money.  

IanBortner
IanBortner

@Edit The entire planet is rallying around Putin against American aggression.  

Thabiti
Thabiti

@Edit You are ignorant if you don't know the history of Putin

aboutbebout
aboutbebout

@Thabiti @aboutbebout  I have no love affair with Putin, but Obama has to go.  He is no Commander-In-Chief.  He can't make a decision.  Be glad when they paint his White House portrait and he's out.  

RaymondMoser
RaymondMoser

@IanBortner @JimStarowicz  

Is this another pseudonym for the disinformation campaign being run out of the former KGB (FSN) headquarters? Putin may hire the Ketchum PR firm, but the work still smells of Cold War propaganda.

IanBortner
IanBortner

@aboutbebout @Thabiti Were it not for Putin the Alawites, Druzes, and Christians in Syria would all be slaughtered by now.  If Obama had his way al-qaeda would be the victor against the legitimate government of Syria.