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Reset Button Broken – The Breakdown of US-Russian Relations

Tensions between the United States and Russia have escalated in recent months due to the continued disagreement over the handling of the Syrian conflict, US criticism of Russian human rights policy and most recently, Russia’s unwillingness to cooperate over the extradition of Edward Snowden. However, rebuilding the Russian-American relationship cannot be achieved by merely resolving these issues. The breakdown in relations is a product of a fundamental Russian distrust of US foreign policy, and of Putin’s view that the Russian national interest is best served by displaying disagreement in reaction to American foreign policy decisions.

Russia’s views of American foreign policy : duplicitous and riddled with double standards

The Iraq War has often been viewed as the start of the breakdown of trust between the United States and Russia.  In 2003, Putin disagreed ostensibly with the Bush administration’s application of the great power caveat, the belief that unilateral action can be justified by an imminent threat to national security or egregious human rights violations. However, Putin’s use of military force without UN approval in Chechnya and South Ossetia indicates that he was not opposed to the Bush Doctrine of pre-emption.

Putin’s distaste for the American occupation of Iraq rests not on the invasion itself but on the double standards inherent to it: Putin claimed that the Iraq War was an extractive war motivated by Bush’s desire to take control of Iraq’s oil fields, and thus vehemently opposed what he perceived to be a US violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Despite the American propensity to selectively intervene in other countries’ internal politics without a UN mandate, as displayed by wars in Kosovo and Iraq, the US response to a similar intervention by Russia in Georgia in 2008 was derisive. The United States expressed solidarity with Saakashvili and sent military aircraft to provide humanitarian supplies for the Georgian people.

Putin’s perception of duplicity in US foreign policy was further entrenched by the US handling of the Libyan uprising in 2011. Obama highlighted his commitment to multilateralism by gaining a UN mandate for civilian protection prior to his intervention in Libya. Despite the lack of obstructionism from Putin, Obama broadened the Libya mission from a human security mission to a regime change. Putin viewed this expansion as a breach of the UN mandate and has used the US actions in Libya to justify his refusal to support a no-fly zone in Syria.

Russia still holds a grudge

Russia resents the US encroachment into the traditional Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the CIS. The 1999 US air campaign against Kosovo was opposed by Russia in part due to the traditional alliance between Russia and Yugoslavia. The extension of NATO membership to former satellite states like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic further increased discord. NATO’s desire to build a missile shield system in Eastern Europe is viewed as a provocative act by Putin and an act of American imperialism that threatens to undercut Russia’s regional pre-eminence.

While Putin’s foreign policy undoubtedly reflects his nostalgia for the Soviet Union (he once described the Soviet collapse as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century) Putin is a realist statesman in the Bismarckian mold. He has rationally concluded that cooperation with the US is not a viable foreign policy strategy and that acting in a confrontational manner towards the US is beneficial for Russian global influence. However, Putin’s non-ideological approach means that the US can convince Putin of the benefits of cooperation by radically changing their foreign policy towards Russia.

How Russia and the US can bury the hatchet

In the past four decades, US attempts to strengthen relations with Russia have consisted of nuclear disarmament treaties and token concessions. Obama’s call for mutual reductions in nuclear arms stockpiles in Berlin and the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik trade amendment represent a continuation of these failed policies. Nuclear arms reductions were most effective during the 1980s when Gorbachev, sensing an impending Soviet decline, agreed to arms reductions to curb the rapid escalation in US defense spending; these token concessions underestimated the magnitude of current tensions between the US and Russia.

To create a viable strategic partnership between the US and Russia, the US must create mutual economic dependence – a crucial element in normalizing US – China relations. Mutual dependence can be created through joint investment in the energy sector (US investment in Siberian oil fields combined with Russian investment in US offshore deposits), student-exchange programs and bilateral trade deals. Mutual economic dependence is an integral component of a US constructive engagement policy towards Russia, as it would increase the costs associated with retaliatory actions, such as Russia’s suspension of US adoptions following the passage of the Magnitsky Law.

Achieving Obama’s goal of resetting relations with Russia can only be achieved through the fusion of mutual economic dependence with coordinated counter-terrorism efforts. Ultimately, both sides’ willingness to implement such a strategy will determine if Russia will be a strategic partner or adversary of the United States in the 21st century.

 – Samuel Ramani


(Featured Image: PaternitéPas d'utilisation commercialePartage selon les Conditions InitialesponiblogCreative Commons, Flickr)


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