U.S.-Russia ties stuck in the past
December 14th, 2012
06:54 PM ET

U.S.-Russia ties stuck in the past

By William Pomeranz, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: William Pomeranz is the acting director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. The views expressed are his own.

U.S. President Barack Obama famously told then-President Dmitry Medvedev in March that he would have more “flexibility” to deal with Russia once he got through his re-election campaign. Well, Obama has now emerged victorious, but U.S.-Russian relations have taken on a static, even retrograde look.  Indeed, as the United States formulates a foreign policy for the 21st century, the United States and Russia appear stuck in the 20th century, re-hashing old disputes and consistently missing opportunities to change the terms of engagement.

One of the most prominent legacy issues between the two countries is arms control. No one underestimates the importance of nuclear weapons reduction, and clearly, both countries would benefit from a further decrease. Yet the broader impact of such discussions appears limited. The 2010 START treaty did not serve as a catalyst to greater mutual trust and understanding, and it is unlikely that further arms control negotiations will be able to jump-start the U.S.-Russian relationship.

That leaves Iran, Syria, and the missile defense shield at the top of the U.S.-Russian agenda – three disputes deeply mired in Cold War mentalities. The U.S. will seek some flexibility from Russia on Iran, but is unlikely to receive it. For historical (and self-interested) reasons, Russia remains a strong defender of the principle of national sovereignty and therefore opposes what it perceives as any sort of outside interference into another country’s internal affairs. The same argument holds true for Syria, although as the al-Assad regime teeters, Russia may choose to take a more pragmatic approach.

Russia in turn expects some flexibility from the United States on the proposed European missile defense system, especially after Russia just reluctantly accepted NATO’s deployment of defensive missiles in Turkey against Syria. Obama’s vision of missile defense includes significant cooperation with Russia, but at the same time, offers no legal guarantees that might limit the program. Obama has little room to maneuver from this position, since any compromise invariably would produce howls of protest from Republicans.

More from GPS: What Obama needs to do about Russia

Russia and the United States have been able to work together in some hot spots, most notably Afghanistan. The great hope for U.S.-Russian relations going forward, however, is trade, and on this front, there have been some developments that bode well. The two countries have just completed 19 tortuous years of negotiations to finally allow Russia to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO), with significant trade benefits for both countries. But in what should have been a genuine moment of mutual benefit and good will, the U.S. Congress initially delayed approving Russia’s accession to the WTO and then attached human rights provisions (the Magnitsky Act) to the final WTO legislation. It is ironic that only Russia could produce such a rare moment of bi-partisanship in Congress. The consequence, however, was a lost opportunity to mark a true breakthrough in U.S.-Russian relations.

Even under the best conditions, however, it will take years – if not decades – for trade to transform the U.S.-Russian relationship. Russia currently stands as the 20th largest trading partner of the United States, and in order to move up the ranks, Russia has much work to do to improve the investment climate within the country. The U.S. government maintains programs that can increase exports to Russia on the margins, but in order for trade to transform the bilateral relationship, Russia still faces the difficult task of convincing U.S. business to invest more in the country.

More from GPS: Time catching up with Putin

There are other sustained contacts between the United States and Russia that collectively exert a positive influence on U.S.-Russian relations, although much of this work occurs below the radar screen. Indeed the United States and Russians have been talking on numerous subjects – health, space cooperation, energy, counter-terrorism, the environment – for the past four years as part of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, with some notable successes.  Whether such dialogue eventually can overcome the hardened positions at the top remains unknown, but nevertheless  such discussions need to be encouraged if only to create alternative channels of communication between the two countries.

In reality, the 2012 election cycle has not been kind to U.S.-Russian relations. Putin used his presidential campaign in 2012 to heat-up the anti-U.S. rhetoric, and his words have been followed by legislation cracking down on civil society. Putin not only sees the United States as a source of validation – confirming Russia’s status as a major power – but also as a handy target of vilification, the alleged instigator of domestic unrest and main obstacle to Russia’s international ambitions. Human rights have moved to the top of the U.S-Russian agenda, and Putin has done much over the past six months to put them there.

By contrast, during the U.S. presidential election, Obama generally pushed Russia to the sidelines, indirectly admitting that the vaunted “reset” represented more of a political liability than a major foreign policy success. Instead, Obama looked to developments in the Middle East and the pivot to Asia as the most pressing issues for his next administration. Of course, Russia theoretically should be an important part of the latter discussion, since approximately two-thirds of its territory is located in Asia.  Yet the Russian Far East and Siberia are so economically under-developed – and sparsely populated – that Russia rarely enters the discussion of U.S. policy in the region.

A generational shift will eventually occur in Russia, one that should bring forward people with less historical baggage and more direct knowledge of the West. At the same time, Putin just turned 60, and no one should expect the last Soviet generation to leave the stage quietly.  Obama is unlikely to invest the same amount of political capital in the U.S.-Russian relationship during his second term as president as he did during his first.  Therefore, the immediate challenge for the next administration is to manage the uneven status quo – and to encourage multiple dialogues with Russian society – while watching to see if the political winds inside Russia begin to change.


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Topics: Russia

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soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Joseph McCarthy

    Let's all hope that the Russians don't revert to it's policy of appeasement which was formulated by that wimp Boris Yeltsin back in the 1990's. The U.S., Great Britain and France all need to be held in check as they went too far already and had things their way for too long!

    December 14, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Reply
    • Amit-Atlanta-USA

      You nailed it good, Joseph. Thank you.

      December 15, 2012 at 10:15 am | Reply
  2. James Chen

    Actually, U.S.-Russian relation holds the key to solve all the major issues we are facing, mainly, the imperialsim of the new Chinese Empire and the neo-Ottoman Empire. With a simple diplomatic manouver, we can move forward the strategic frontline from Polish-Belarussian border to the Mongolian-Chinese border.

    December 14, 2012 at 11:21 pm | Reply
  3. Andrey

    There is no future for US-Russian relations: Americans are brainwashed, manipulated buy their Military-Industrial Complex and are stuck in Cold War ideology. America treats Russia as an enemy and only looks to break it apart: Russia does not need US as a trade partner or a political ally: it should rather focus on China both as a market for energy resource and as rising economical and political power.
    So all this crap in the article is just much ado about nothing!

    December 15, 2012 at 12:17 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed the Magnitsky Act, a legislation that Obama will sign into law has infuriated Russia. Its Duma responded with the "Dima Yakovlev bill", which targets Americans involved in "unfounded or unjust" sentences against Russians.
    Although no specific name was mentioned, the Kremlin had unmistakingly Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trader in mind, who is serving a 25-year prison term in the US. Moscow said the trial was unfair and politically motiovated.
    Moreover Russia views US judges and authorities have been too lenient with Americans accused of abusing Russian-born adopted children.

    December 16, 2012 at 6:49 am | Reply
  5. Hate Wins

    Almost every U.S. military person killed since WW2 were killed by Made in the USSR, WARSAW PACK or CHINA. Russia sells it weapons to who ever has the price whitch is normally 1/3rd. the cost of western made weapons.

    December 17, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
    • observer

      right back at ya , you do need an enemy , don't ya ? there you go – Russia , now you have a reason for having the biggest army in the world, and sticking your nose in any hole there is (russian proverb lol ) around the world.i can go on forever.we all have blood on our hands, don't play Jesus cos you are not and you know it.peace

      January 31, 2013 at 11:06 am | Reply
  6. Dmitriy

    The point is, that no priopoganda is admissible in the 21st century. Politicans can do, whatever they want, even put thumbtacks on each other's chairs. But they have no right to manipulate people's minds, to intimedate people, to tell them, who is a good guy and who is a bad guy. Like five years ago, when the situation was just loathsome.

    February 7, 2013 at 4:17 am | Reply

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