Russia–U.S. Relations: The Limits of Possible

Despite varying assessments of the current state of U.S.-Russia relations, few would deny that they are now in a state of crisis, perhaps one of the worst in a long time. Not to say that U.S.-Russia relations were exactly rosy in the past, but the current crisis is deeper and more profound than the occasional downs we have seen over the decades. This iteration of the crisis is likely to be the longest as well, as an obvious near-term solution is nowhere to be seen.

A Second Cold War?

It has become fashionable lately speak of a new chapter in the Cold War in global politics and draw parallels between the current standoff between Moscow and Washington and the Soviet–U.S. confrontation that dominated the second half of the 20th century. But it seems like a bit of a stretch: relations between Moscow and the White House were the main axis of world politics during the Cold War, whereas now they are still important, but they do not determine the global system anymore. We no longer live in a bipolar world, and returning to the rigid bipolarity of the Cold War is impossible.

Moreover, ideology is not at the core of the current standoff between Russia and the United States, as it was during the Cold War (Soviet communism versus Western democracy). The antagonistic conflict of civilizations dominant today is not between the United States and Russia, of course, but between Western liberalism and Islamic fundamentalism.

Finally, while Russia may remain a great power in terms of its potential, it is unable to compete with the United States in a number of fields in same way that the Soviet Union did, particularly in terms of economy and high technology. The closest state to the Soviet Union in terms of economic opposition to the United States is China. But there is an important difference here – there is a great deal of interdependence between the latter, something that never existed between the USSR and the United States, and something that prevents all-out competition.

Does all this mean that the current crisis in Russia–U.S. relations is any less dangerous than the situation during the Cold War? Quite the opposite. At that time, Moscow and Washington were able to install certain rules that served to reduce the risks of an uncontrolled confrontation breaking out. By joining efforts, we created a dense infrastructure of communication channels, consultation mechanisms and bilateral and multilateral agreements designed to increase the predictability and manageability of international situations. The unique architecture of bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington that existed during the Cold War was mostly stable, and this enabled it to remain almost completely unchanged for quite a long time.

The current state of Russia–U.S. relations can hardly be called stable. Practically all channels of communication between the two countries have been disrupted, the legal and contractual basis of relations is being eroded in front our very eyes, and the concept of “rules of the game” with regard to global politics is not even on the agenda. The risk of conflicts breaking out by accident, because of technical glitches or misinterpreted actions is objectively on the rise.

The overall international situation is not in the best shape either: there is growing instability in the international system, terrorism is turning into a global phenomenon, regional conflicts are springing up with increasing regularity, the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is growing, etc.

An additional complicating factor is the U.S. presidential election campaign, which makes long-term policy planning for the White House almost non-existent and increases uncertainty for the United States’ partners on the global arena.

Recent events have sparked hopes that Moscow and Washington are beginning to realize the scale of the growing risks and threats to international security: consultations on the Ukrainian issue are underway; efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis are ongoing; cooperation on the Iranian nuclear dossier continues; and the parties hold similar positions with regard to the nuclear situation on the Korean Peninsula. All this is true, but it is too early to talk about any stabilization of U.S.–Russia relations.

The risk of political confrontation turning into a military one continues to grow, and there have been no breakthroughs in terms of agreeing on new rules of the game in bilateral relations. The negative dynamics in relations between Moscow and Washington are becoming a serious problem not only for the two countries in question, but also for the entire international system.

Is a New “Reset” Possible?

Working from Otto von Bismarck’s famous quote that “politics is the art of the possible” (“die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen”), let us try and determine what is possible and what is impossible in U.S.–Russia relations in the foreseeable future.

Everything indicates that the parties will find it extremely difficult to achieve the most important goal – to restore trust in bilateral relations. No high-level meetings or summits are taking place. Track II diplomacy is non-existent. Agreements on local, however important, issues do nothing to help solve the problem of deep mutual suspicion that exists on both sides, and these agreements do not mean that the numerous mutual disagreements and grievances have been removed. Trust is completely eroded between Moscow and Washington, and it will take a long time, great effort and a lot of political will on both sides to restore it.

Russia and the United States do not have a unified vision of the main trends of global development, the driving forces behind such development, the future world order, the fate of leading international organizations, the reform of international law, etc. And it is unlikely that they will see eye to eye on these matters any time soon. The White House and the Kremlin have wildly differing views on what they consider to be “legal”, “correct”, “ethical” and “responsible” in global politics. In this sense, we can observe a “values gap” between the Russian and American political elites, which, in turn, does not necessarily mean an equally wide gap in the fundamental values of the Russian and American people.

This lack of trust and a unified vision for the development of international relations in the near future means that a new “reset” of U.S.–Russia relations is practically impossible, no matter who comes to the White House in January 2017 and who is elected President of the Russian Federation in 2018.

The “reset” that did happen was made possible by a unique confluence of historical circumstances. And even then it ran its course fairly quickly. It did not lead to any kind of breakthrough in relations between the countries, did not give them a new quality. Despite all its positive significance, the New START Agreement did not go beyond the old strategic culture of the Cold War.

So what can we consider as “possible” in U.S.–Russia relations?

To answer this question, it is necessary to address those areas of international relations, where the role of Russia and the United States in the near future will continue to have significance and where, without their active cooperation, the two sides will face growing problems.

First of all, despite their differing views about the future world order, Russia and the United States have no interest in seeing the complete collapse of the current system. Both countries are predominantly conservative players, and on the whole they are oriented towards keeping the global status quo. Whatever the new world order turns out to be, the role that Moscow and Washington play in it will be less important than it is now.

It is also clear that Russia and the United States are united, and will continue to be united, by the common desire to avoid a nuclear conflict. Despite the nuclear arsenals of a number of countries, there are still only two nuclear superpowers in the world, just like during the Cold War. And it will remain this way for a long time.

Russian and American interests also coincide in terms of combatting proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and fighting international terrorism. We should not forget that efforts to resolve the nuclear issue in Iran and eliminate chemical weapons in Syria continued even during the most critical moments of the Ukrainian crisis. Of course, the lack of trust will limit the scale and depth of cooperation, but cooperation in these areas will develop – when and wherever the basic national security interests of the sides are at stake.

Where Do We Begin?

Many people believe that no progress is possible in U.S.–Russia relations until the new administration comes into power in the United States in January 2017. In fact, with the time it will take to form a new presidential team, we should not expect any important initiatives from the American side before summer, or even autumn, of next year.

How justified is this “wait-and-see” approach? First of all, we should not exaggerate the significance of partisan differences in U.S. foreign policy. The new U.S. administration may differ from its predecessors in terms of style and the tactical decisions it might make, but not in terms of understanding and interpreting the country’s basic national interests. In any case, there is no chance of turning a page and starting a new chapter in relations between Moscow and Washington. On the contrary, the more significant the backlog inherited by Barack Obama’s successor, the easier it will be for him or her to move forward.

What is more, the rapidly changing international situation means that any pause in the U.S.–Russia dialogue is a luxury we cannot afford. Experience shows that such pauses only exacerbate crises in various regions of the world, increasing the risk of a direct military confrontation between Russia and the United States, and bolstering the positions of hawkish actors on both sides.

In order to avoid worst-case scenarios for U.S.–Russia relations, we should not be waiting for the right moment, which may even never present itself. Rather, we should start working on specific issues immediately.

First, the damaged channels of U.S.–Russia dialogue need to be restored – at various levels and with various participants, from military leaders to members of parliament, from government officials to representatives of security services. Dialogue has never been seen as merely one side making concessions to the other, let alone approving its policies. But the lack of dialogue inevitably breeds mistrust and fear and creates additional risks.

Second, it is vitally important to mute hostile rhetoric, primarily at the official level. This kind of rhetoric filters down to the general public, appealing to long-standing stereotypes and the darker instincts of national consciousness, building up momentum of its own until it is incredibly difficult to stop.

Third, we must make every effort to protect the positive aspects of U.S.–Russia relations from the negative impact of the current crisis. This applies, for example, to bilateral cooperation on Arctic issues, a range of priority research projects for both countries, university partnerships and cooperation among municipal governments. It is almost impossible, of course, to completely isolate these aspects from the overall negative political atmosphere, but we need to work towards this.

Fourth, the intensity of the U.S.–Russia confrontation can be reduced by the participation of both countries in the work of multilateral mechanisms: the Middle Eastern Quartet, the G20, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), international economic and financial institutions, etc. It is no coincidence that is was through multilateral efforts that progress was made on the Iranian nuclear issue, and it is in the multilateral format that issues like the Syrian settlement and the North Korean nuclear programme are being discussed. This format allows the parties to demonstrate great flexibility, and at the same time to avoid looking like they are making unilateral concessions.

Fifth, an extremely important, although difficult task is to revive and develop the dialogue between Russian and American civil societies.

Sixth, it is becoming increasingly important to strengthen and develop Russian Studies in the United States and American Studies in Russia. Professionals in both countries have long been suffering financial woes, and the worsening political situation does not help. The lines between expert, propagandist, academic and pseudo-scientific journalism are being blurred almost beyond recognition. The waning quality of independent expert analysis, or the lack of demand for such analysis, objectively reduces the chances of turning U.S.–Russia dialogue into something constructive.

It will take some time before the United States and Russia find a way out of the current crisis in their relations. The immediate goal should be to change the dynamics of the crisis from negative to positive. This creates the necessary prerequisites for setting more ambitious targets.