America’s Russia policy makes sense
July 22nd, 2013
11:29 AM ET

America’s Russia policy makes sense

By Olga Oliker, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Olga Oliker is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

What’s going on with the U.S.-Russia relationship? It often seems that the United States government takes pains to laud bilateral cooperation, while the Russians seek out every new opportunity to needle the U.S. The United States says it wants further nuclear reductions? The Russians need to think about it. Edward Snowden is sought by U.S. authorities? The Russians may or may not grant him asylum. And then there are the usual disagreements over Iran, the continuing standoff on the question of Syria, and consistent tension regarding U.S. relationships with Russia’s neighbors.

Are U.S. officials deluded about the prospects for cooperation with a country that is fundamentally determined to undermine its goals? No, they are not. In fact, they are pursuing a rational approach towards a state that shares U.S. interests in some key areas, even as it fundamentally disagrees in others.

Russia’s reasons for its policies are rooted in genuine security concerns and views. The fact is that the United States has a more activist foreign policy agenda than does Russia. Washington seeks to affect politics abroad. It wants regime change in Syria and it critiques other states’ domestic policies. Moscow has doubts about this agenda, and no interest in promoting it. Thus, for example, Russia is not supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria to oppose the U.S. Instead, Russia is supporting the al-Assad regime because its foreign policy approach places a high premium on sovereignty and non-intervention – and because it has long and consistently been concerned about what might take al-Assad’s place.

Putin and his government also see benefits from demonstrating a foreign policy divergent from that of the United States. Moscow is not alone in its nervousness about Washington’s proactive policies. And, as Russia seeks a stronger global role, it knows its credibility is enhanced when it shows independence on matters of importance. Moreover, mistrust of the United States remains substantial at home, and the Kremlin gains when the public sees it pursuing Russian interests, and not anyone else’s.

More from GPS: U.S.-Russia ties better than you think

This does not mean that Russia is diametrically opposed to the United States in all areas. Indeed, some of Russia’s interests align well with those of the United States. Continuing cooperation on moving people and supplies to and from Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network is an excellent example. The quiet cooperation between law enforcement organizations brought to light in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings is another sort of collaboration that suits everyone’s needs. The two countries share a strong interest in countering al Qaeda and other extremist terror groups. Similarly, Russia and the United States should be able to find a way forward on arms control, because both stand to gain from more stability in this realm.

The Snowden case is instructive. When Russian pundits and political figures speak of Snowden as a hero, they view him in a purely zero-sum context: “What’s bad for the United States is good for Russia.” This, as I have noted, plays well to certain audiences and will be played to advantage by the Kremlin. At the same time, however, Putin and his advisors know that Russia has little to gain and much to lose from shielding a man who has admitted to leaking classified information about government surveillance programs. In Russia, criticizing the government without any access to such information can lead to arrest and prosecution, as protesters and opposition leaders have been reminded over the last year. And in Russia, government surveillance is far-ranging and longstanding.

Hypocrisy aside, global public awareness of the intelligence approaches and methods surely hurts Russia, just as it does the United States.  So when Putin said that Snowden might be granted asylum if he promised to cease activity harmful to the United States, he was not doing so because of U.S. pressure or lobbying. Putin also does not want Snowden raising the questions and revealing the information that Snowden seeks to raise and reveal.

All this means that the current effort to maintain cooperation with Russia when it is possible and keep an open dialogue when the two disagree actually makes good sense. The United States will not change Russia’s mind through browbeating, and it will only hurt both states if it cuts existing cooperation. Indeed, cutting cooperation may eliminate avenues for discussion that could reveal common interests and approaches thus far unexplored. Insofar as the United States can convince Russia of its positions or help shift Moscow’s incentives, it may be possible to influence its policy.

We have seen that there is little room to maneuver in many cases, meaning a continued dialogue is critical for any progress. The fact is that Russia, like all countries, has its own interests and goals – and the role of U.S. diplomacy must be to accept and navigate them.

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Topics: Russia • United States

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soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. George patton

    Let's all hope that Russia never caves in to our obnoxious bullying as most other nations do these days. The reason I post what I do is the simple fact that I have a very strong dislike for bullies both on a personal level as well as an international one. Bullying should and must not be considered acceptable behavior in any case!!!

    July 22, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Reply
    • Alan S

      Mr. Patton: Your dislike of bullies is admirable, but your post is nonetheless a bit, well, silly. The U.S. doesn't "bully" other countries, unless you think that using cautious force to oppose tyrants in Libya and Syria is bullying, or sending U.S. military personnel to Afghanistan in 2001 to depose a Taliban government that supported the Al Quaeda forces that had just attacked the U.S. homeland was bullying, or sending troops into Europe in 1944-45 was "bullying" the Germans, or maintaining military force in South Korea is bullying the North Koreans. Nor is it bullying to use diplomacy to discourage the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. seeks, like all countries do, to protect its own interests. That being said, the U.S. should always be actively analyzing what its real issues are, and should not allow itself to become committed to counter-productive policies overseas. (The Viet Nam War comes to mind.) But it's not as simple as "bullying".

      July 24, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Reply
      • George patton

        Of course we're trying to bully the rest of the world, Alan S. Look at the 2003 invasion of Iraq where Bush publicly claimed that Saddam Hussein had all those WMD's when he well knew that they did not exist just so we can steal their oil. The same is true of Afghanistan which has over $1T worth of underground mineral resources. Then again, why are we still trying to starve Cuba into submission and please don't come with the same right-wing drivel about us wanting "to help the people" either. Any moron knows better than that!!!

        July 24, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • Trooper

      Patton, please show me proof that the US is actively taking or purchasing minerals from Afghanistan. I would love to see it, having been there multiple times I have never heard of any mining or trading of minerals there by US. Don't spew your ignorance!

      July 29, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Reply
  2. JAL

    STEM knowledge is a common thread. Both countries have an avid scientific community.

    July 22, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Reply
    • JAL

      When it comes to science and politics, all that is truly needed is time to get things right. Only symbiotic acts can afford that time.

      July 22, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Russia and the United States have shared a multi-faceted diplomatic relationship for 200 years. Russia had a settlement at Fort Ross, California once. Russia's sale of Alaska to the mid-19th century marked an active period that included commercial joint ventures and Russian support for the US during the American Civil War.

    July 23, 2013 at 8:14 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Since the Russian Revolution both countries saw sometimes tense relations, but they continued to talk and, at times, cooperate. Although the US didn't recognize the Soviet Union until 1933, it provided humanitarian assistance to the victims of the 1921-1923 famine.

      July 23, 2013 at 8:17 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        So it's only since World War II that the two become rivals, that led to the bipolar power struggle during the Cold War.

        July 23, 2013 at 8:25 am |
      • Alex279

        To be fair, United States was the first major Western power who diplomatically recognised Soviet Union. This lead to somewtat priviledged position of US diplomats in Moscow in terms of their real estate location and size in comparison with others (British, French, etc..) which they enjoyed since as early as the late 192x: No other country occupies such greate piece of territory so close to the center of Moscow, or has such quarters for living of their diplomatic personnel.

        July 23, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • Alex279

      200 years is a bot too mucjh. As a matter of fact, US did not exist 200 years ago as an influential international player.

      What you can say, however, is Russia has 150+ years of Cold War experience known in those days as "The Great Game". The United States of that era was called The British Empire, but the instruments were pretty much the same - support enemies of Russia and feed the regional wars on Russia's border in order to weaken Russia. Just look at the history of British - Turkey relationship in X|X century. Sometimes Britain fought Ottoman Empire, sometimes supported it, but the common denominator was always been the same: whatever played against Russia is good.

      What you can also say is Russia has 800+ years of resisting enlightment of Western values, spread of democracy, and Catolic religion. All these Barrabarossas, various cruseiders, Poles, Napoleons, and democratically elected Fuhrers of Gernamy come and go with always the same result: they were beaten.

      July 23, 2013 at 10:54 am | Reply
  4. Recon

    What ever history or past relationships we have had with Russia/USSR are irrelevant. the current leadership in both shperes are what influences the situation now. Fact is we do not have it right with russia – Obama is adrift in his foriegn policy – he simply has no clue and has surrounded himslef with people who were rewarded for campaign efforts and/ or support, not knowledge or experience. Our foreign policy is non-existant – Obama simply reacts to what he feels serves his purposes best – nothing more. Putin has reshaped, and continues to reshape Russia and his position in it to best serve him. Anyone who feels Putin has anyone's best interests at heart. including his own people is a fool. Russia is an enemy, pure and simple, and we would be best served dealing with them as such – its called reality.

    July 23, 2013 at 9:16 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Who are you to say that Russia is our "enemy", Recon? We're far more of an enemy to them than they are to us. Back in the days of the Russian Civil War(1918-1922), we along with 11 other countries jumped in in order to help their Fascist Rebels headed by Adm. Alexander Kolchak in order to oust the Bolsheviks headed by Nikolai Lenin which claimed the lives of over 14 million Russians. Moreover, if it hadn't been for them, neither the defeat of Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps nor the 1944 D-Day invasion of France would have succeeded! Please ponder what I said, Recon.

      July 23, 2013 at 10:39 am | Reply
      • Alex279

        Who are you to say that Russia is our "enemy"? - Mitt Romney.

        July 23, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • Andrey

      Thank you: the sooner all the Russians understand that Americans see them as an enemy no matter what they do or what they do not do, the better! I only wish more Russians could read FOX and CNN: so they would realize what all that democracy crap is about!
      Putin obviously is the best thing that happened to Russia for a long time: he will go in history unlike your President puppets!

      July 23, 2013 at 10:50 am | Reply
      • 1726

        Well, i don't know about CNN but FOX is definetely full of crap and dumb propaganda.
        And yes i am Russian.

        July 23, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • Alex279

      Thank you, for making it very clear. This is actually why George W. Bush was so easy to deal with: he is a straight talker. He talks exactly what he things at the very same moment. There are not tricks, no second thoughts, and even no thoughts at all.

      The only thing which, perhaps, needs clarification is the definition of words "American National Interest". Interest of whom? Of american people as the whole, or of some individuals, or some weighted average of the individuals? Or some group of people? Or some stockholders? Or whom?

      I am certain that a 21 year old marine who fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan has his personal interest to get the best training and after that the coolest adrenaline expetience Hollywood stars never dreamed about. Then what? Perhaps it is also in his own interest to commit suicide after suffering from adrenaline overdose (a.k.a. PTSD)?

      July 23, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Reply
  5. Andrey

    I think that photo tells it all: Putin has nothing to discuss with Obama!

    July 23, 2013 at 10:44 am | Reply
  6. Really?

    LOL, still trying to blanket America's hypocrisy.... Looks like the quote "Americans will only do the right thing after exhausting all other options" Is the truth.

    July 23, 2013 at 10:46 am | Reply
  7. DLG

    It's clear to me that the Cold War is over in name only. I like Obama, and think he's a nice guy, but we need a President that's going to be a little tougher on Russia. We need to recognize that they are no more our friend than the old USSR was. They are not going to negotiate without pressure on them to do so..... Reagan winning the Cold War is a myth......... the old USSR in many ways is alive and well.... it's just under the name" Russia" now.

    July 23, 2013 at 9:09 pm | Reply
    • Alex279

      "Reagan winning the Cold War is a myth....." - or actually, the entire Cold War was a myth. Just a sequence of lies to deceive US taxpayers to turn their taxes into somebody's profits. At first it was an alleged "bomber gap". An armada of B-36s built and junked out. Then an armada of B-47s built and junked out. Then armada of B-52s built. Then a "missile gap" was alleged. It turns out that USSR had only 1 warhead for each 10 warheads US had during Cuban Missile crisis. Then it was cruise missile gap and Reigan's star wars during 1980. Nor mentioning domino theories and wars starting with false pre-text, from Gulf of Tonkin incident to alleged "weapons of mass destruction".

      July 23, 2013 at 9:41 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      So it is as dumb as it gets: on one hand you recognize that the Cold War is on, at least as long as US is concerned, on another hand you suggest your president to be tougher on Russia. How you suggest he does that? There is no trade between US and Russia, there is absolute minimum of diplomatic interaction, there is no military, no cultural, no scientific co-operation: nothing! Russia and US could be existing on different planets, except for continuous propaganda, undercover and proxy wars that US wages against Russia already! There is no leverage you could have on Russia: it would not even take your money! So just wisen up a bit and be careful with the amount of brainwashing you take: you may get blind if you have it too much – I thought your parents would tell you that!

      July 24, 2013 at 10:26 am | Reply
  8. Phelix Unger

    Truman should have listened to Patton and finished the job at the end of WW2, dropped a couple of atomic bombs on Stalingrad and a couple on Moscow, sign their surrender papers and a lot less people would have died in these last 60 years. No proxy wars, just domination. Every one could hope for a little humility from the American government, but you play with the bull you get the horns.

    July 23, 2013 at 11:08 pm | Reply
    • Alex279

      What kind of controlled substance you have been smocking? Keep smoking...

      July 24, 2013 at 12:27 am | Reply
      • Andrey

        Many Americans (not all) sure think the same: they are brainwashed drones! US is the only country in the whole world that used nuclear weapons against civil population, and they are still proud of it: no apologies, no nothing! Their only regrets are that they did not kill more: they did not use it against other countries at the time (because they were not at war with them or simply did not have enough bombs ready), so they did not get their world domination sooner!
        So who is the Evil Empire now?

        P.S. Of course Phelix Unger could be just another Israeli troll. They work hard to stay the best friend that Americans have: mostly by making sure they are the ONLY friend – so they pose as Americans making that kind of hateful statements. But it dos not change anything I have said above: he only said that many Americans think!

        July 24, 2013 at 10:18 am |
    • Gary Southworth

      More Rooskies on this chat than can be found on Pravda. Two facts to remember about Russians: The recurring feature of their history has been expansion by making war on their neighbors; They are still capable of the most barbaric acts including everything from the gulag and the vicious punishment of German civilians at the end of WW I I to their campaign, led by Putin and the Orthodox Church, to harass and torture LGBT people trapped in their midst. This strutting little KGB apparatchnik reminds one of Hitler, waving his swagger stick, dancing a jig, as he surveys Paris as it lies helpless beneath the boots of the Gestapo. These are not a stupid people, but they are often led by monsters who task them to perform evil deeds. Let us never lose the means nor the will to destroy them, utterly. They find themselves atop a pool of oil and it has reignited dreams of hegemony. But they face a demographic collapse-their natives shun reproduction, and the nastiness of the place plus their xenophobia discourages immigration. Remember the old saw, we must build walls to keep people out while they need walls to keep them in.

      July 29, 2013 at 10:41 pm | Reply
  9. ape-masked man

    I agree. Russia and US have much more in common than it may seem from behind the remnants of iron curtain

    July 24, 2013 at 11:28 am | Reply
  10. Brian

    This analysist needs, well, analysis. What a completely erroneous view on the current policy. Putin is a dictator rapidly trying to build up an overwhelming conventional military force and building six, possibly eight, new SSBN's with a total capacity of some 768 warheads each. Russia has NO need of rebuilding their SSBN fleet. No country on earth has any designs on attacking Russia or anyone else with thermonuclear weapons – suicide is not an option. No – he and his supporters are crazy nationalists trying to rebuild the USSR in all but name and must be treated as such.

    July 24, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      With US going ahead placing its new rocket defence system in Europe, directed against Russia (nobody with half-brain believes that anti-Iran crap), Russia sure has to take some "asymmetric" steps to ensure its security. Nobody is safe when US is running rampant starting wars and supporting international terrorism!

      July 26, 2013 at 12:35 am | Reply
  11. Brian

    I meant to say 768 warheads TOTAL if they build eight new Borei class SSBN's – type-o.

    July 24, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  12. Rick McDaniel

    Obama will do all he can to make relations with Russia impossible.

    July 25, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Reply
  13. aurelius

    The plain truth about Snowden is that the Russian set us up when they led us and some European countries to believe that Snowden might have been on that plane, which led to a hugely embarrassing moment. The US should be absolutely Machiavellian in its foreign policy toward Russia because that's how Putin is.

    July 28, 2013 at 2:52 am | Reply

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