Bilateral relations between the United States and Russia suffer from irreconcilable differences


American foreign policy has tried to avoid confrontation with Russia. Even now, with the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine, US policymakers are primarily concerned about the damage to Europe.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met in Kyiv on April 24, 2022 with a US delegation that included Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (left). It was the first visit by senior US government officials to Ukraine since the start of the war with Russia.
©Getty Images
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In a word

  • America sees Russia as a waning but menacing power that threatens Europe
  • The adversarial relationship is likely to persist, although the United States has other priorities
  • Many U.S. policymakers view China and Russia as part of an integrated global threat

The views of Moscow and Washington could not be more opposite. There is no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the United States as the source of the global challenges facing Russia. On the other hand, the constant consensus in Washington is that Russia represents a regional threat to the stability of Europe. Without this pressure on Europe, the United States would be largely indifferent to the fate of the Putin regime. Differing opinions on both sides are a factor that will likely contribute to the continuing stalemate in US-Russian relations, regardless of the outcome of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Strategic disinterest

The American view of Russia after the Cold War has always been ambivalent. When he proposed his “new world order”, President George HW Bush (1989-1993) argued for continuity rather than change in the post-Soviet space. Most notably, in his August 1, 1991 “Kyiv Chicken Speech” he was skeptical of Ukrainian independence and warned of “suicidal nationalism” among former Soviet states. There was really very little “new” in President Bush’s perception of the world.

American interest in post-Soviet Russia quickly evaporated as prospects for reforms leading to a more liberal Russia collapsed in the 1990s and some of its former republics, such as the Baltic nations and former Central European allies, followed a pro-European path. independent of Moscow.

While many Russians considered the US-led intervention in the Balkans (1994), the war against Serbia (1994) and the enlargement of NATO with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999 ) as an explicitly anti-Moscow policy, the United States viewed these events as consolidating stability in Western Europe.

The American approach was genuinely bipartisan, seeing only slight differences in Republican or Democratic administrations. This was reflected in the fact that US military forces continued to steadily decline over 30 years due to the diminishing perceived threat from Russia.

When President George W. Bush (2001-2009) withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 and offered to deploy missile defense systems in Europe, the initiative was aimed at an Iranian missile threat, and not Russia.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was widely mocked during the 2012 presidential debate for suggesting that Russia was America’s biggest threat. Indeed, President Barack Obama (2009-2017) made resetting relations with Russia a centerpiece of his administration.

In many areas outside of Europe, the United States seemed inclined to accept or only casually deal with Russian interests.

President Donald J. Trump has emphasized improving collective security and energy security, including opposing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the transatlantic relationship. The Trump administration has focused more on China and transnational terrorism than on Russia. Even the United States’ withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 2019 was described as a move to counter Beijing by punishing Russia for cheating on the treaty.

Indeed, the United States seemed inclined to accept or only nonchalantly deal with Russian interests in many areas outside of Europe. The United States, for example, never seriously questioned Russian claims in Syria and even coordinated regional activities with Moscow. The United States has been largely indifferent to Russian interference in Libya and Venezuela. The United States has never raised serious objections to India, an increasingly close American partner, regarding its relations with Russia.

United States, Russia, foreign policy
Photos of the aftermath of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine are similar to those taken during the Syrian civil war. A photo dated March 9, 2022 (right) shows civilians who fled Ukraine to the Polish border because of the Russian invasion. A photo dated February 11, 2020 (left) shows the arrival of Syrian civilians who fled attacks on the Turkish border by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who the Kremlin supports. ©Getty Images

From Russia without love

From the American perspective, the “threat of encirclement” and “encroachment” narratives are Russian creations and not a reflection of American strategy. This opinion is largely bipartisan.

There has always been a faction in the United States that has sided with the Russian narrative, but it remains small and stagnant. A clear example is the audience of RT America (Russia Today), which carries a strong pro-Kremlin narrative. Still widely available in the United States, RT does not attract large audiences or have an influential social media presence. On the contrary, its popularity as an international news source has been declining for the past two decades. The prevailing perspective in America is that Russia’s warmongering is a conscious choice of Mr. Putin’s foreign and security policy and not a reaction to Western provocation.

The most likely US strategy is to keep trying to weaken Russia so that it is a less valuable partner for China.

The prevailing opinion in the United States is that current Russian policy has been reflected in changes since 2014, the start of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. The American view is that President Putin felt that America was retreating from Europe and that Europe was politically, economically and culturally fractured with a declining capacity for self-defense. These circumstances, the Kremlin believed, created a historic opportunity for Russia to reassert its traditional dominance in post-Soviet states and central Europe. Washington shared that conclusion in a largely bipartisan fashion, though there was widespread disagreement over the appropriate response. Options ranged from calls for further disengagement in Europe to reasserting the primacy of NATO to accommodating Russia as a hedge against China’s growing influence.

The asymmetry of interests and outlook between Washington and Moscow is unlikely to change any time soon, so a contentious relationship between the two is likely to persist. Indeed, growing European concerns about the Russian threat will only reaffirm the American view that Russia is a persistent threat to the stability of the transatlantic community.

Henry Kissinger’s recent proposal that the United States would strike a deal with Russia has been widely decried in the United States by a wide range of political leaders. This reflects the reality that the United States, in the short term, is not going to adapt to Russia’s worldview.

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Scenarios

The most likely scenario is that the United States and Russia will remain at odds on all critical regional issues, including energy security, arms control, Ukraine, sanctions, NATO expansion and conventional forces.

The only wild card in relations is the US assessment of Russian-Chinese relations. There are persistent calls for the United States to look to Asia and leave Russia as Europe’s problem. Others suggest a deal with Moscow to undermine Russia-China relations. None of these approaches is likely to be suitable in the short term. The United States could instead define Russia and China as an integrated global threat, although there is some disagreement on this approach.

Nevertheless, the most likely US strategy is to keep trying to weaken Russia, which is therefore a less valuable partner for China. However, this remains a secondary objective for Washington. The consensus in Washington is that the United States needs a strong and stable Europe as the best partner to offset China.

In this spirit, American policies seem to be much more aimed at protecting Europe from the destabilizing actions of Moscow than at weakening the military, economic and political power of Russia. In this respect, US policy toward Russia reflects more continuity with America’s long-term approach to Moscow in the post-Cold War world than the changes wrought by the war in Ukraine.

The war on Ukraine seems more a reminder of the importance of long-standing US policy than a new approach. This reflects the US view of Russia as a declining power with limited relevance in global competition, which remains unchanged.

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