The Confusing State of U.S.-Russia Relations

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

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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.