President Obama’s failed attempt to “reset” US-Russia relations raises the question whether or not engaging Russia in the fullest sense is still possible. I think not, at least for the immediate future and so long as Vladimir Putin is in power. Every cooperative venture between Russia and the United States has been more than offset by competition, if not outright confrontation. Their relations have been marred by human rights issues—Russia’s repression (including assassination) of journalists, ethnic groups, and critics of the regime—as well as by cyber hacking and cat-and-mouse testing of each other’s defenses. These issues are also on the US-China agenda, yet US engagement of China, while inconsistent and periodically upset by indirect US involvement in Chinese territorial disputes, is a much higher priority in Washington than improving relations with Russia.
Among the reasons is that US-Russia policy differences are intensified by the personal animus between US and Russian leaders and by lack of strong investment and trade ties. Vladimir Putin does not have the kind of backing that Xi Jinping enjoys from the US business community and other opinion leaders. Nor does Russia have the wealth of unofficial interactions that exist between Chinese and Americans via nongovernmental organizations, academic exchanges, and Confucius Institutes. In a word, US-Russia engagement rests on a very narrow base.
As many commentators have said, Putin seems determined to restore Russia to a great-power role in world affairs. Lacking the economic resources that China possesses to be a country whose interests must consistently be taken into account by the US and others, Russia has deployed its military might to make the point that it must be treated as a power of equivalent rank and with special interests in its “near abroad.” Putin has sent special forces into Ukraine in support of pro-Russia separatists, annexed Crimea in March 2014, intervened in Georgia in 2008 to secure the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, carried out air strikes in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad, and conducted large-scale military exercises that seem aimed at a future conflict with NATO.
Putin has also overseen a major rebuilding of his armed forces, with emphasis on the nuclear component and large-scale exercises evidently geared to a potential confrontation with NATO. And he has closed ranks with China, forging a partnership built on opposition to US hegemony. But not a military partnership, for while Chinese leaders evidently welcome Russian participation in certain multilateral organizations—such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS (Brazil/Russia/India/China/South Africa)—they are quite unlikely to risk a collision with the US by going along with Putin’s brinkmanship.
US-Russia relations are not all about conflict, however. They have together signed arms control treaties and joined in crafting a nuclear deal with Iran. That deal most recently led to Russia’s taking control of nearly all of Iran’s low-enriched uranium, paving the way for an end to sanctions on Iran. US-Russia cooperation facilitated Assad’s removal of chemical weapons in 2013. Both countries see the rise of ISIS as a national-security threat. And in late 2015, US-Russia negotiations kick-started an effort to bring about a cease-fire in Syria and formation of a transitional Syrian government.
The United States and its allies are hardly innocents in the deterioration of relations with Russia. Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel forcefully argue that “coalition” with Russia is essential to defeating ISIS. They deplore the demonization of Putin in the Western media and insist that US national security interests should mean putting the threat posed by ISIS ahead of collision with Russia. Their analysis also, and correctly, emphasizes the West’s own responsibility for the new Cold War with Russia. Typical of the action-reaction pattern of great-power politics, some of Putin’s thrusts have been in response to the West’s, notably the westward expansion of NATO and the overturning of a pro-Russian government in Ukraine. Most recently, the Pentagon has successfully lobbied for investing in “smaller,” more precise nuclear weapons and a quadrupling of weapons and equipment transfers to NATO. NATO’s defense ministers voted on February 10 to expand the troop presence and military exercises near Russia’s borders, specifically with an eye to protecting Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, and the Baltic states against Russian “aggression.”
What kind of message do those moves send to Putin? Is he entirely to blame for taking steps aimed at showing toughness in defending Russian interests on their doorstep?
Though I think Cohen is sometimes myopic in his treatment of Putin, I do think cooperation with Russia on Syria is essential, specifically to obtain an agreement that creates a transitional government, to include Assad as well as the opposition, in order to focus on fighting ISIS. Russian air attacks on US- and EU-supported rebel groups in Syria are making such cooperation extremely difficult if not (as the unfolding situation in Aleppo shows) impossible. But here again, would the Russians have entered the Syria mess had the US, France, Britain, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia not sought the overthrow of Assad, whom Putin seems to regard as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism and generalized instability nearby?
The mixture of conflictive and cooperative elements in US-Russia relations is clearly weighted on the side of conflict and deepening mistrust. The US-Russia conflict map is much larger than for the US and China—Central Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia as compared with East Asia. Hostile rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War, tension over military movements, and the continuing modernization of nuclear weapons dominate the US-Russia relationship. The US has imposed extensive sanctions on prominent members of the Russian elite and on various institutions, leading Putin to sign off on a strategic assessment that sees Russia’s national security threatened by US efforts to retain global domination. (US sanctions on China, unlike those against Russia, target specific companies, not individuals or an entire economic sector, and thus have far more modest objectives. And while China’s official defense strategy document refers to the need to oppose “hegemonism,” it does not label the US a national security threat.)
Sustained engagement such as we see in US-China relations at the official and nonofficial levels, with numerous opportunities for trust building, seems improbable between the US and Russia given the high level of mutual suspicion, points of policy conflict, and rising US public perception (fed by media bias as well as the recent comments of Hillary Clinton) of Russia as a threat. The best that can be hoped for is limited collaboration where interests intersect on specific international issues. Syria is now the crucial test case. But I have to say that power-sharing arrangements rarely last, and in Syria it will be quite a diplomatic feat to broker one. As matters stand, the horrific fighting has left little of the country to preside over, much less negotiate.