Winter 2016

Russia, the U.S., and the backstory behind the breakdown

– Vladislav Zubok

In 2009, the Obama administration attempted to “reset” the United States– Russia relationship. Today, it’s in ruins. How did things get this bad?

Seven years ago, the Obama administration started with an attempt to “reset” U.S. relations with the Russian Federation, yet today, U.S.-Russian relations are in ruins. In fact, they are the worst on record. Obama-bashers amazingly attribute this outcome to his alleged lack of leadership, and a few even grumble that he “lost Russia” — either by being too lenient on Putin or by not engaging him enough. In reality, the United States never “captured” Russia, in the sense of anchoring it as a stable partner within the clearly defined international order.

It is hard to argue with those who say that Russia has always been too big, troubled, and difficult to begin with. The checkered nature of Russia’s post-Soviet transformation, its endemic corruption, the demise of its fragile liberalism, the rise of authoritarianism and anti-Americanism, put Russia on a wrong foot long before the crisis in Ukraine. Yet I would like to dwell on another aspect of the problem that does not get the same widespread recognition.

This aspect deals with the fundamental problem: The United States has never made Russia’s integration into Western structures of security and cooperation a policy priority, and never offered a fair deal to the Russian people who rejected communism and the empire. This problem goes beyond the discussion about NATO’s enlargement — in fact, NATO enlargement reflects the fundamentally unresolved problem of Russia’s place in European political and security structures. In early 1990s, the administration of George H. W. Bush helped Russia with food, medicine, and free economic advice. The U.S. Congress showed leadership in creating the Nunn-Lugar program to ensure safety of Soviet nuclear weapons and reduce the danger of proliferation. Yet more intrusive, large-scale assistance and government involvement were rejected. Russia’s struggling leader was invited to join the G7, yet in American political imagination, Russia always remained a second priority to something else: the new democracies of Eastern Europe, the Persian Gulf, then the Yugoslavian crisis, China, and so on. The narrow American priorities contrasted with outsized Russian expectations of a new friendship and generous assistance. In 1992, American “soft power” among Russian elites was fantastic; American advice was welcome, and American wishes almost became Russian commands.

The United States has never made Russia’s integration into Western structures a priority, and never offered a fair deal to the Russian people who rejected communism and empire.

Gradually, a schizophrenic approach to Russia prevailed in Washington: a mixture of narrow pragmatism and groundless ideological expectations. Washington expected “market reforms,” largely a blueprint of International Monetary Fund–style macroeconomics, to generate support for Russian “freedom.” When the opposite took place, with the destruction of the Russian middle class and the emergence of oligarchs, Washington sided with “our guys” in the Kremlin as long as they remained cooperative, respected American interests, and did not throw their weight about in the post-Soviet space. As Eastern European states and the Baltic countries joined NATO, the prospect of Russia’s deeper integration into a “greater Europe” was sidelined and dimmed. In fact, it was declared an unrealistic illusion, shrugged off by American and Russian policymakers alike.

With the big vision not realized (or, better say, revealed as a myth), U.S.-Russia relations were bound to fall through the cracks between Russian expectations on the one hand and U.S. commitments and pragmatism on the other. To simplify the story, the Russian leaders, Boris Yeltsin and early Vladimir Putin, tended to regard Russia as the legal successor of the Soviet Union and as one of the pillars in the international system formed after World War II. From Yeltsin’s viewpoint, Russia “freed” the West from the specter of communism and totalitarianism, and thus deserved to be in the club of great powers. In contrast, American government and public opinion regarded Russia as a regional power at best, with declining population and economic clout, struggling between the integrated West and growing China, and chronically deficient on major “club requirements” such as free market, democracy, rule of law, and human rights.

Putin and many of his countrymen began to see Russia not as the country that “liberated itself” from the Soviet empire, but as a defeated country that had been duped by the West.

Increasingly, Russia’s response became driven by frustration. Not only Putin, but many of his countrymen began to see Russia not as the country that “liberated itself” from the Soviet empire, but as a defeated country that had been duped by the West and needed to stand from its knees. This revisionism had geopolitical connotations. Although Russian leaders and elites from 1991 on expected to have a primary say in the post-Soviet region and had special interests there, the United States played the role of a regional arbiter, balancing Russia’s interests against the interests of other post-Soviet republics. Russia, even under Yeltsin, appeared to its neighbors as a dominant power, with historical legacy of imperialism and the capacity to threaten the sovereignty of smaller post-Soviet states. To Russia’s smaller and weaker neighbors, the United States — with its historic legacy as a benign guarantor of western Europe’s security — appeared as a welcome guarantor of freedom and independence.

A new transnational coalition emerged, with Russia in the prescribed role of empire, and the United States as a nominal protector. At some point, a clash between two regional hegemons became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The battleground for Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008 and against Ukraine in 2014–15 was mapped.

Vladimir Putin is now taken in the West for a thuggish strongman, yet he tried to build a special partnership with the United States after 9/11. Only gradually, as his biographers document, did he decide that a defiance of and resistance to the superior American power was inevitable. Putin came to regard American economic interests in Russia and neighboring countries as a danger. He gave up on the Russian liberal dream of deeper integration with the West and began to build an authoritarian crony-state capitalism — the only system that he believed could give him control over Russia’s “sovereignty” and resources, and make him a “free actor” autonomous from Washington’s pressures. In regional affairs, Putin began to build an “Eurasian” integration project to balance off the advancing Western institutions, NATO and the EU, where Russia was not likely to become a member and could not have a say.

When the Obama administration entered office, there was already too little political room to stop the downward trend in U.S.-Russian relations. The administration worked in some areas of common interests, such as the reduction of nuclear weapons and the struggle against terrorism. Yet the “reset” was doomed, both by Putin’s shifting view of the United States and, in the United States, by growing criticism of Putin’s corrupt authoritarianism.

The Obama administration was either unwilling or unable to revise the main pattern of U.S.–Russian relations as set by his predecessors.

The Obama administration, unwilling or unable to revise the main pattern of American-Russian relations set by its predecessors, reacted to growing conflict by officially removing the relations from its priority agenda. It was a bitter irony that the rescinding of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, the goal of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin for many years, happened just as the U.S. Senate passed (and Obama signed) the Magnitsky Act aimed at Putin’s minions. After Putin, in defiance, gave asylum to Snowden, Obama decided to stop talking to Putin and offended the Russians by skipping the Sochi Olympics. In 2013, as the crisis loomed over Ukraine’s participation in the European Union’s eastern neighborhood, Obama passed the buck, leaving the EU leadership with responsibility for managing the “Russian Bear.” From Moscow’s perspective, however, the United States merely led the revolution in Ukraine from behind. Putin assumed that the EU bureaucrats acted as American agents, when they (as well as the Maidan protesters) shattered Putin’s scheme of integrating Ukraine into the Eurasian project.

Obama and other Western leaders were stunned by ferocity of Putin’s response to the Maidan “revolution of dignity”: takeover of Crimea and a hybrid war against the Ukrainian “anti-terrorist operation” forces. Much of the American response was visceral, reminiscent of the Cold War and dictated by their disgust for Russian “imperialism.” Indeed, Russia’s actions violated the informal and formal rules of post–World War II Europe, as well as a host of post-Soviet agreements and settlements. But understanding Russia’s road toward the explosion of violence in Ukraine does not mean justifying it or, even less, condoning Russian actions. Unfortunately, in American debates, the former is completely confused with the latter.

Understanding what led to Russia’s violence in Ukraine does not mean justifying or condoning it. In American debates, the former is completely confused with the latter.

If the policy of excluding Russia from the G-7 club of great powers and imposing sanctions on its leadership was meant to correct Russia’s behavior, it was a half-policy at best. After what happened in Ukraine in early 2014, the return to status quo in U.S.-Russian and EU-Russian relations became impossible. But what, realistically, is the future of America’s policy toward the country that Obama defined in March 2014 as “a declining regional power”? Should Obama’s successor merely inherit the policy of Russia’s marginalization and soft containment?

The problem of Putin’s regime can be checked. After several years, it may even go away. The fundamental problem of Russia’s place in the global order, however, remains unaddressed. Recent rhetoric by some American analysts that the United States is still interested in a strong, democratic, prosperous Russia is a poor substitute for substantive discussion. This discussion should not be about distributing blame, but rather about addressing the ambiguity of Russia’s place in the international system.

Should Obama’s successor inherit his Russia policy of marginalization and soft containment?

To paraphrase an old axiom, Russia is not as strong as some fear, but not as weak as some hope. Even though it is marginalized and excluded from the club of Western powers, Russia remains — de facto and de jure — a great power and a nuclear superpower. American leadership and observers suffer from a huge gap between American political perceptions of what Russia can — and dares to — do in the global regions around it, and what Russia is capable of doing. Putin has no strength to challenge the international order. At the same time, the Kremlin is resourceful enough to act as a free actor, often spoiling American calculations.

It is clear that in the short term, Russia will present a problem for the United States. The best long-term solution, however, would be to anchor Russia in the framework of deep integration and common security of Europe and Eurasia. And for all current concern about new containment of Russia, it is important not to burn the bridges, however fragile, that lead into this distant future.

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Vladislav Zubok is a professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is a specialist in Cold War and Soviet-Russian history and was a fellow with the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in 2015.

Cover photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons