U.S.-Russia Relations: It Could Be Worse

Matthew Rojansky on the present and future of U.S.-Russia relations.
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July 30, 2013

It's been a rough few months for U.S.-Russia relations. The tension between Obama and Putin is impossible to ignore, and seems unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. But is talk of a "new Cold War" justified? How do U.S.-Russia relations stack up today when compared to the past, and are they likely to deteriorate further? We took our questions to Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center and an expert on U.S. and Russian national security and nuclear-weapon policies.

How would you describe the state of  U.S.-Russia relations today?

The relationship today isn’t good, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it could be. As difficult as things can sometimes be with Moscow – and they have been very difficult lately – and as diametrically opposed President Putin and President Obama and their teams seem to be, fundamentally, Russia and America are not out to get one another. You could imagine a world in which they were, and it would be a very different and far, far worse world.

It’s important to remember that Russia is not our enemy. Only a few years ago, at the time of the 2009 “re-set” there were opportunities for cooperation on everything from security – something which we actually started to see with Russian logistical support for NATO forces in Afghanistan, and which was critical at a time when relations with Pakistan were not good ­– to Iran to counter-terrorism, anti-narcotics, anti-trafficking, and anti-piracy. And of course, there was the new nuclear treaty. That’s a huge amount of progress on the security side. On the economic side, we brought Russia into the WTO, another huge step forward.

So should both parties be content with the current state of the relationship?

The strength of the relationship today is still nowhere near where it could or should be. U.S. trade with Russia is about forty billion dollars a year, which, for perspective, is less than half of one percent of total U.S. trade. It’s less than two percent of Russia’s total trade. So the trade relationship is not a major factor in either country’s economic success. But at the same time, there’s a lot of potential – these are two very big economies. Russia, depending on how you measure, is around the tenth largest economy in the world. It has an increasingly wealthy middle class that’s interested in consuming more American goods. Ford automobiles, American heavy equipment, American consumer products generally... they certainly like American intellectual property, from television shows to computer software. So Russia is a huge and growing market and a lot of American companies are doing very well because of that. But the economic relationship could be much stronger.

What’s holding it back?

The relationship has been really held hostage to one political crisis after another, whether it’s Snowden in the Moscow airport, the Boston bombers, or Georgia in 2008.

Why are these crises so problematic? Do they actually weaken what is a reasonably sound relationship as you've described it, or do they just make further cooperation more difficult?

Unfortunately, they do both. Bad news stories about Russia – and we’re not just talking bad news stories about things Russia is doing to the United States, or that the United States is doing to Russia, but also stories about bad developments in Russia, undermine the relationship – make cooperation harder. When Russia appears to be going in the wrong direction on issues related to human rights and democracy, Americans, especially American politicians, get really upset. So they speak out, they label Putin as a dictator or human rights abuser, or they pass things like the Magnitsky Act. Blunt statements and actions don't elicit positive reactions from Russia.

The reason political crises more than just undermine progress, they actually jeopardize the foundation of the relationship, is because the foundation is made up of various forms of engagement – bilateral commissions, visa agreements to ensure Americans and Russians can travel back and forth, adoption agreements, trade and economic deals, and so on. Cultural exchanges have been extremely important. When a crisis happens like the Georgia war in 2008, the response is to essentially freeze all bilateral engagement and all bilateral cooperation. This weakens all the dimensions of the relationship, and the foundation itself.

Isn't cutting off engagement when the goal is to induce a change in Russia's behaviour a bit counter-intuitive?

The rationale is basically that the U.S. can't be seen talking to the people featured in the bad stories about Russia, nor should it, because to do so would be to reward bad behaviour. But when we stop talking, we tear at the foundation of the relationship. And that means that when the important issues we want to address do emerge, we don't start negotiating with the momentum that we should have from having successfully cooperated in the past. Instead we start from a standstill, at best.

So if the political crises were less frequent, we’d have a much stronger relationship?

No, because invariably if a crisis doesn’t happen, a new administration comes in on the American side. The members of the new administration usually decide that everything the last president did was wrong. The result is that they throw the baby out with the bath water. We’ve had this problem for twenty years now: a crisis emerges, or the administration changes, and the foundation for a healthy, functional relationship with the Russian government, whomever is leading it, is jeopardized, because engagement becomes the thing no one wants to be seen doing, or no one thinks is worth doing.

So if refusing to engage with Russia isn’t a good idea because doing so jeopardizes the fundamentals of the relationship, which could be costly later on, how then should politicians try to encourage progress on human rights and the rule of law in Russia?

There are essentially two traditional models on how to take a stance on moral issues and not surprisingly, they’re both limited in their effectiveness and rather extreme.

One of them is what’s called linkage, and it’s the extreme version of what we’ve just been discussing. This model says we should hold the entire relationship hostage to progress on human rights and democracy. This is something that many senators have advocated over the past several years. Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, has said that because of the Boston bombing trial and because of Snowden, we should boycott the Sochi Olympics. That is the ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ approach, which leaves us trying to restart relations from a dead stop.

The other approach is a kind of ‘see-no-evil’ attitude. The Obama administration has tried to finesse this by calling it ‘dual track’ but the basic idea is that we work with the Russians on all the stuff we agree on and we leave the stuff we don't agree on alone. The theory is that the president separately engages with Russian civil society, and with the Russian authorities. I think that's a well-meaning approach but fundamentally, the Russian authorities are running the show. So if you’re not dealing with the authorities and actually seeking to exercise some kind of leverage on human rights and democracy issues, nothing’s going to change. Opposition from Russian civil society is not going to change the situation.

Neither model sounds like one George Kennan would approve of!

That's right, because Kennan’s whole premise for dealing with the Soviet Union was to understand the roots of what Russia is, and to engage with Russians across the board, but to be quite sophisticated and subtle in all your interactions. There’s really nothing sophisticated or subtle in how we're engaging today.

And so is there a better option?

I think the right approach is probably a little more delicate than either model. My tagline for it would be ‘talk to the Russian leadership about human rights and democracy’. Don’t close your eyes to it, don’t ‘dual track’ it. Make it a central part of the conversation, but speak to them in a language they understand. Do not speak to the Russians as we traditionally have, in abstractions about how democracy is good, and therefore it is good for them. This kind of approach provokes a totally unproductive reaction from the Russians. Lecturing provokes a classic Cold War tit-for-tat exchange. Instead, we should engage directly with the Russians on these issues but in a different way, by talking to them about the issues in a way that resonates with them.

What would that sound like?

There are ten thousand-plus Americans living and doing business in Russia today. These people need access to courts to protect themselves, to protect their property and their businesses. So we advocate for regulatory transparency, for effective judicial mechanisms to protect the rule of law and people’s rights and so on, for American citizens. Protecting the rights of foreign nationals in your country is both an international legal obligation that’s universally recognized, and it's something that the Russians understand because they do it for their own citizens all the time. So, as opposed to coming in and saying, ‘For your own good, for your citizens, we think it’s better if you do ‘x’ or we will punish you’, we say 'you have a legal responsibility which if you fail to fulfill, your own economic interests will suffer.'

So reminding Russia that Americans won’t invest and won’t do business where the rule of law is not upheld will get a sympathetic hearing?

Exactly. It doesn’t sit well with those who want to take a dramatic public stand, but it tracks with our national interests, so it has the virtue of being true and real in that sense. It is a language that Russians understand, and a kind of conditionality that makes sense, as opposed to one that doesn’t, like, ‘You guys won’t turn over Snowden so we won’t play sports with you.’ That’s just stubbornness.

But given how tense relations are now, do you think American concerns – over the Navalny trial, for example – would be heard, even if they were framed in this pragmatic way?

There would have to be political will backing up this more delicate approach. Indicating political will on the part of the U.S. always takes very high-level outreach. So it would take the president deciding to engage in that way and right now, it isn’t clear whether the president even considers Russia a priority. Obama was interested in Russia with regard to nuclear disarmament, but if that agenda item goes away, his attention span for Russia is going to be even narrower. He’s now saying that he may not even go to the G20 summit in St. Petersburg in September.

So the obstacles to improve the U.S.-Russia relationship, and make headway on human rights, include limited attention from President Obama and multiple, highly politicized crises…are there any other obstacles?

The other significant difficulty is that since late 2011, when Putin announced he was going to return to the presidency, there’s been a growing protest movement and a crackdown on NGOs. American reactions to these developments are compounding an emerging feeling, both within the Kremlin and among the broader Russian elite, that this a critical moment for the regime's survival, and that United States would be fine if Putin's government crumbled. As long as that’s the perception of the Russian government, I don’t think we’re going to get much done, much less see improvements on difficult, sensitive issues like human rights and democracy.

What happens now then? Is it just a waiting game?

Right now, the U.S.-Russia relationship is caught in a trap of mutual distrust. Both sides are relatively convinced that they’re talking to the wrong person. The United States thinks that if they just wait out Putin, or fund some people that might be able to replace him, then maybe in a couple of years there will be a much better Russian government with which they can negotiate. On the other side, you have Putin thinking, ‘I’m tougher than these guys, I’ve been around longer than these guys, I’m just going to embarrass them on one issue after another and then soon enough I won’t have to deal with them’.

But even during the Cold War, when we had two political systems that unequivocally defined the other as a failure, we still managed to work together in several areas, and we have many more bilateral ties now.

Would you include the Arctic among the areas where the prospects for cooperation look good?

Yes, I would. But I think there are two big questions the answers to which will determine if it continues. One of them is, do the Russians see the future in basically the same way that the rest of the Arctic Council sees it, which is a future where managing the environmental issues are critical? For a long time, Russia didn't have to worry about climate change because around the time that the world got serious about environmental issues was around the same time that Russia’s economy collapsed. The result of this is that they haven't really had to worry about being seen as part of the problem, because they can just point to their emissions as being way less than they were in the 1990s.

So the question is whether or not they will get serious about the climate change and environmental issues in the Arctic and  acknowledge that it's going to have huge impacts, some of which may be very negative. Right now, all the positive impacts – opening of northern sea lanes, rising mean January temperatures in Siberia which could make it suitable to agriculture – have their attention. Will they cooperate in preparing for the massive public health and infrastructure impacts, and who knows what else?

My second concern is that the Arctic Council doesn’t include what is soon to be the world’s largest economy, China, in a serious way, and also some of the other countries that will be using potential northern shipping lanes in the future, so its format will need to be adjusted, which could challenge cooperation.

Relations with China seem to be of increasing importance to Russia. Do you view closer Russia-China relations as a threat to the United States? Or are concerns that they will bandwagon against America exaggerated?

I think that the notion of Russia and China bandwagoning against an American bogeyman is vastly overstated. First because there really isn’t an American bogeyman. Second because the U.S.-China dynamic is so different from the U.S.-Russia dynamic. We talk to the Chinese about everything now.

Now that may become harder to do if the American attitude towards China doesn’t shift and China’s attitude about itself does shift – China has been relatively complacent about letting the United States run the table on Asian security, which might change, and it also has strong economic interests, which it now asserts quite powerfully. But as far as Russia being some kind of ally waiting with open arms, I’m very skeptical.

Consider the two countries’ shared history. They have fought each other and come near to fighting each other a number of times. Their nuclear deterrents are in some ways more important vis a vis one another than vis a vis the United States. Although they have a considerable trading relationship, both countries constantly look for routes around one another. The Chinese are always looking for ways to get to Europe that don’t depend on Russia and the Russians in turn have done a lot of exploration in the last couple of years toward building trade and security side ties with other Asian countries, not only Korea and Japan, which you’d expect, but South East Asian countries. The Chinese are not comfortable with any of that. There is simply a huge amount of distrust and there always has been. It would take, quite frankly, an unimaginable America to scare Russia and China enough to forget their differences and form a united front.