Originally appeared at A-specto, translated by Desi Tzoneva exclusively for SouthFront
The deep crisis in Russian-American relations of today has now become a serious problem for global security. The Russian-American relations are unique and vital to the fate of humanity. Therefore, every albeit marginal, deterioration in their relations can increase the risk of military conflict and cause reasonable concern. During the last term of Obama, these relations plunged to a freezing point. Perhaps this is not due solely to the US president. The elites of the United States, carried away by their democracy games in the Middle East, failed to notice the change that occurred in the Russian Federation under Putin.
In recent years, Russia is barely mentioned in US foreign policy documents, except for the fiercest criticism, hysterical Russophobia and threats directed at Moscow. Russia has come under diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions, but completely successfully counteracts the American expansionist interests, for example, against the strategic plans of the USA in Ukraine and Syria, in arms or in cyberspace. In the last decade, US foreign policy was followed by a series of failures and wrong decisions.
Russia changed its attitude towards the United States for several reasons, but the main one is that after the Cold War, the Russians saw in America an example of a successful and prosperous society that they could follow. The disappointment came when Bush started wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, which led to thousands of casualties, chaos and waves of refugees and also, when the whole world had to pay the consequences of the outbreak of the global financial crisis in 2008-2009, as well as many other crises, born of American foreign policy. These “black” series of events destroyed the faith of Kremlin in the fairness of US foreign policy and the neoliberal economic model.
The US, however, was not disturbed by the disappointment of the Kremlin but the fact that suddenly the shadow of China had happened to threaten their world hegemony. America was urgently forced to look for a scapegoat on which to vent its anger and serve as an example for the edification of China. This is how the US is trying to restore its fading image. The most convenient culprit for the failures of Washington, as might be expected, turned out to be Vladimir Putin. And the punishing action against him began.
In recent months, the hysteria and the threats to Russia, including a military crackdown, reached its peak. Washington plays an explosive game for the reconfiguration of the balance in the world. Therefore, the priority task of the new American president will be to solve the complicated puzzle of changing the course in relations with Russia and China respectively. Regretfully, so far, none of the two candidates offers a concept for these relations outside the framework of proven meaningless stereotypes of the past. Over the past 30 years, the political reaction of Republicans and Democrats to Russia has been the same. It is defined either by their enthusiasm to make it a friendly democratic country, or erase it from the face of the earth. It goes like in the novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, where the protagonist speaks about aliens: “If they do not understand that we give them mathematically-infallible happiness, it is our duty to force them to be happy. But before the gun, we’ll try the word.”
Regretfully, Russia cannot be a democracy in the cut of America. Moreover, Moscow has never had a desire for democracy as set out in Washington’s cast. But even without the US license for democracy, Russia is destined to be the leading country in the world. All American governments since 1991, following their own notions of democracy and market economy, have attempted to integrate Russia into the community of Western democracies. A quarter of a century later, Russia showed no interest in such integration, but the intention to be an equal player on the field of international politics.
The problems in relations between America and Russia are not since yesterday and not solely due to Putin. Their catalyst is geopolitical rivalry. And neither the withdrawal of Putin from power, nor a regime change in Russia can solve these problems. There won’t be a significant change whether Putin will be president of the country or someone else. And the next president will continue to adhere to centuries-old traditions of Russian strategic thinking. Judging by the rating of the Russian president, such a foreign policy approach undoubtedly gets unanimous support of the Russian elite and enjoys public approval.
But Russia itself demonstrates such a lack of understanding on the strategic thinking of the United States. If we look at which countries have an important place in US foreign policy, or at least in the discussions on the topic of foreign policy, we see that for years Washington has followed certain criteria in their selection. The first group includes countries that have deep historical and partnerships links with America. Second are neighbours of the United States which are of deep interest both for the leaders and the citizens of America. Thirdly, of political interest are the countries with which the US maintains longstanding, multilateral and economic relations. Fourth, America can develop relations with certain countries because of the lobbying of a large and influential diaspora residing in the United States. Judging by these criteria, the number of countries that have permanent relations with the United States could be counted on the fingers of one hand. One of these countries is Britain. The relationship between the two countries is historically conditioned and the kingdom has traditionally been Washington’s closest for years. The US’ relations with neighboring Canada and Mexico are so important that one can even say that they are an integral part of American domestic policy. Economically, for example, the cooperation between America and China is vital for both sides, so it is a standing point on the agenda of the State Department. The US also maintains close relations with Israel and India, but it is because of the efforts of the diaspora of American Jews and Indians in the US.
There are some other countries on this list, but it is hard to find a reason except for geopolitical rivalry, and this is why Russia is especially interesting for the United States. Economically, both sides were not significant partners, neither in trade nor in the investment field. In internal affairs, they have no such issues where either party plays an important role for a resolution. In other words, outside the sphere of geopolitics, the relations between the two countries are largely devoid of content and of mutual interest. Geopolitics is the leading motive for the diligence of the governments of both countries to unite their elites and citizens about anti-Russian and anti-American rhetoric. This approach naturally cannot give content to the bilateral relations.
But against the background of the extremely hostile environment today, there is a moment that can mark the beginning of change to the current negative dynamics. We are talking about the concept of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation. This concept is essentially the doctrine on which Russia’s foreign policy is built. It says that Russia is ready to develop bilateral partnership relations with the US. But this willingness could become a reality only if the relations have content. And so, it is necessary for the presidents of the two countries to make concrete steps towards each other rather than in opposite directions. The next US president will have to swallow the fact that America is not so strong to destroy Russia or as powerful to control it. For this reason, the new US policy should not seek solutions aimed at defeating or changing Russia, but to discover ways to interact with it.
The world is quite different from what it was in the 90s. And in the fragmentation problems and geopolitical interests of today, it is not a general global interaction between the two great powers that is needed, but the creation of a network of specific interactions on individual issues to build balance that is most acceptable for their national interests. It is possible that the next US president will continue spinning in the same rut of relations with Russia as his predecessors, if the two axioms which, for the past 25 years, have been a disaster for relations between the two countries are not abandoned. The first one is that Moscow is in conflict with the United States because of the undemocratic policy of the Kremlin. The second is that the spheres of partnership and the spheres of confrontation between the two countries can be separated.
Experience suggests otherwise. George Bush’s administration unsuccessfully tried to separate the partnership with Moscow after September 11 in the fight against terrorism by opposing the post-Soviet space. Obama became the victim of the same stereotype. On the one side, he hoped to continue cooperation with Russia in the field of nuclear safety and on the other his administration supported the coup in Ukraine and began to place AMS and military units of NATO in European countries bordering Russia. In contrast, Russia refused to participate in the April meeting on nuclear safety organised by the US and terminated the agreement for neutralisation of polonium.
But without a doubt, to date, the most serious blow to US-Russian relations was the coup in Ukraine and the subsequent accession of Crimea to Russia. This issue rose to an explosive level of distrust and tensions between the two countries. Washington immediately rushed to apply punitive measures to force the Russians to leave Ukraine, which were inadequate for the situation. Initially, these were international sanctions and then the diplomatic isolation of Moscow. Naturally, Russia did not delay its response to the US and its allies. Thus, the matter quickly came to the exchange of warlike rhetoric that reduced the level of diplomatic contacts to zero. In this case, the reason for the deterioration of relations was Washington’s inadequate reaction again. Russia’s actions did not threaten vital US interests in Ukraine and the situation did not require the extremely high degree of retaliatory threat applied by Washington.
Similarly, the confrontation between the US and Russia on “Syria” developed. There were more chances for a successful outcome if Washington manifested a readiness to expand relations with Moscow, especially in Europe. It is known that the Kremlin connected the situation in Syria with the Ukrainian crisis and with a broader range of issues of European security. But the Obama administration refused to recognise this connection and walked in the footsteps of his predecessors, refusing stubbornly to separate the problems.
Diplomatic progress of relations with Moscow in the future will depend on how the new US president will interpret the reasons for the Kremlin’s actions in the Ukrainian conflict. The options here are not many. Two reasons could be attributed to Russia’s actions. The first is countering the deployment of NATO troops on the Russian border and the transformation of Ukraine into an enemy state. The second may be due to the geopolitical strategy of the Kremlin aimed at expanding the boundaries of Russia and strengthening the positions of power to Putin.
The second motive is unlikely because at the moment, the situation has developed on the plane of the first of those reasons. But if subsequently the conflict is decided in favour of Russia, then even without Moscow taking any other targeted actions, this will automatically strengthen the authority and power positions of Putin. In the present situation, the conflict in Ukraine could be resolved only through a positive interpretation by those involved in it. But to make this possible, as a start, the military de-escalation of the warring parties must begin and the expansion of NATO to Russian borders must stop. Then, a move to a sustainable political process under the agreement from Minsk must take place ending with finding an acceptable solution; otherwise, eastern Ukraine will become another frozen conflict that will lead to the final disintegration of the country. Although Washington did not participate in the agreement signed in Minsk, it could offer certain incentives to get the warring parties to bring their positions closer.
Another step that Washington could take to limit the existing conflicts in the world is to strengthen the international forums in which Russia and the West participate jointly. These are the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the NATO-Russia Council. The OSCE has a very important role here. This is the only security organisation that unites North America, Europe and the countries from the former Soviet Union. Washington can make the first step in restarting talks with Russia and its place in the architecture of European security, even if it requires a starting point at the level of experts. This will reduce the tension and will enable Russia to bring forward its legitimate interests in security.
Today, however, the majority of American political experts are in rather contradictory positions. They offer the future US president the option of isolating the US’s European allies from contact with Russia and to increase the amount of military expenditure for NATO and for the countries of the alliance. The aim is for the West to strengthen its collective defenses so it can actively counteract Russia on a global scale. Such action is unlikely to reduce differences with Russia, but it certainly will seriously increase the revenue of the military-industrial complex of the United States. And the efforts of Moscow will naturally focus on creating new military alliances to counter NATO threats.
Despite the reduction of nuclear weapons based on various agreements to control them, Russia is still the only country that can destroy the United States as a functioning state within half an hour. Both the US and Russia are on full alert with their nuclear arsenals. Theoretically, the chance for the crisis of today to develop into a nuclear exchange is not probable, but is very real. Moreover, Russia and the US have scientific and industrial potential opportunities to use high-tech development to produce new types of destructive weapons.
This, at some point, could alter the global balance of power. Possessing great speed, accuracy and destructive power, the Russian weapons may have a negative influence on regional or global stability. For example, the supply of Russian weapons to Iran is a serious concern for Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The sale of new models in China greatly worries the United States, Japan and South Korea. Here, new cyber weapons may be included that can incapacitate extremely important infrastructure facilities in the United States. From this point of view, it is very important for both sides, along with the existing agreements, to apply maximum transparency in each of their strategic objectives and doctrines, which will determine the order of use of nuclear weapons.
For the new US president and Vladimir Putin, it will be extremely important to ensure the national security of their countries and maintain stability internationally. If Washington continues to give the appearance that America is the only superpower capable of solving a wide range of global problems, it will soon have to part with this delusion because interaction with Russia is inevitable. Syria is a good example of this dynamic. However, this example is not unique. With confidence, it can be predicted that the number of such cases will increase, not just in the Middle East but in many other regions of the world where many problems will have to be solved jointly. The closest example is the proliferation of nuclear weapons and functioning of world energy markets. The need for interaction between Washington and Moscow to resolve important questions will determine the future and the character of Russian-American relations. Even in the present state of confrontation, neither side will go against their interests. This means that there is room for compromise and a way for normalisation of relations between the US and Russia.