Russia and the U.S.: The Way Forward

26 december 2017

Assessing Prospects for Bilateral Relations

Konstantin Khudoley is a professor at the Department of European Studies, School of International Relations, St. Petersburg State University; he holds a Doctorate in History.

Resume: Overcoming the legacy of the Cold War, during which several generations grew up, proved much more difficult than was expected. That Russian-U.S. relations have been thrown far back does not meet anyone’s interests, but finding a way out of this impasse will take time, goodwill and breakthrough ideas.

Problems and conflicts between Russia and the United States have been growing for years. Russian-American relations have been declining since the Iraqi crisis of 2003, seeing only occasional brief periods of improvement. The events of 2014-2017 have catalyzed the negative processes that started earlier. This article seeks to analyze new aspects of relations between Moscow and Washington, which have emerged after the adoption of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in August 2017, and possible steps that may reduce tensions and improve the bilateral relations.


The adoption of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in August 2017 is undoubtedly a landmark. In it, the U.S. formulates, at the highest level and in the most concentrated way, its policy towards Russia, most likely for a long period of time. The law features new, fundamentally important points.

Firstly, it officially names Russia as an adversary of the United States—for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Actually, this means a departure from the Soviet-American accords (Malta, 1989) and the Camp David Declaration of February 1, 1992, which explicitly said that “Russia and the United States do not regard each other as potential adversaries.” The new law also devalues some other documents, among them the NATO-Russia Founding Act (1997), which contains a similar provision. Moreover, the law names three countries as U.S. adversaries, two of which—Iran and North Korea—have long been in a state of confrontation with Washington, as well as terrorism, which is to be countered by additional measures. It is noteworthy that the law does not mention, directly or indirectly, China, which Washington views as a rival rather than an adversary. The overwhelming passage of the law in Congress shows that the U.S. political class has reached an almost complete consensus on this issue, which will surely tell on the general tenor and content of Washington’s Russia policy.

Secondly, the law clearly defines the U.S. position on security issues in Europe and Eurasia. Washington has reaffirmed its commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty which requires all parties to the treaty to come to the aid of any member state subject to an armed attack. Moreover, the law expresses the United States’ readiness to assist not only members of NATO or the European Union in protecting them against cyberattacks but also countries wishing to join them: Western Balkan countries, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Although the law does not say it directly, it is clear that in the future the U.S. may extend its commitments to these countries even without their formal membership in NATO. The U.S. Congress has reiterated that the United States will never recognize Crimea’s accession to Russia, and demanded that Moscow withdraw its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, change its policy towards Eastern Ukraine and Transnistria, and stop military intervention in Syria. This list is much longer than the earlier demand that Russia implement the Minsk agreements as a condition for normalizing relations and lifting the sanctions. Importantly, Russia’s actions are assessed in the context of the Stimson Doctrine of 1932, that is, they are equated to the seizure of Chinese territory by Japan and the creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo. This is the first time a U.S. official document characterizes Russia’s policy in such harsh terms.

Thirdly, the law reflects significant changes in U.S. economic policy with respect to Europe and Eurasia in general and Russia in particular. This concerns, above all, energy. Until recently, the West expected that sooner or later the Russian energy sector would open up to foreign, primarily U.S., capital, and therefore viewed it as a partner, rather than a competitor. Disputes mainly focused on Russian gas supply terms and prices, but the desirability of Russian gas imports was never questioned. Now the situation is changing fundamentally—the U.S. has begun to export its own energy resources (liquefied natural gas). Russian energy corporations are becoming its direct competitors. It is now not a matter of prices (Russian gas is currently cheaper than U.S. gas) but gradual replacement of Russian fuel as such—not only for economic reasons (the creation of new jobs) but also for the reasons of security.

Naturally, this will be one more factor complicating Russian-American relations. The law also provides for restrictive measures against virtually all sectors of the Russian economy that have access to the international market. Whereas earlier Americans sought, more or less consistently, to integrate the Russian economy into globalization processes and make it part of the world economy, now they have adopted the opposite policy—a policy of maximum restrictions against Russia and its isolation on international markets.

Fourthly, the law creates a basically new situation as regards sanctions. First of all, sanctions imposed by the executive branch now have the force of law, that is, they become a norm with minimum exceptions. Of course, even without this, there was little chance that the sanctions could be softened, let alone lifted, but now this chance has vanished completely. Moreover, the law contains a mechanism for extending sanctions, which now can be imposed against legal entities and individuals of third countries, whose relations with Russia do not comply with U.S. law. Not later than 180 days after the date of the law’s enactment and annually thereafter, U.S. government departments and agencies are to submit to Congress reports providing grounds for imposing personal sanctions against prominent Russian politicians, officials, businessmen and, in some cases, their family members. The law does not say that all persons mentioned in these reports will automatically be sanctioned, but the mechanism for introducing sanctions is obvious. Undoubtedly, there will emerge certain difficulties for international activities of all persons mentioned in the reports, while sanctions imposed against them may be very long or even lifelong. In other words, whereas earlier the United States sought to integrate the upper echelons of Russian society into the transnational elite, now it seeks to restrict and isolate them to the maximum extent possible.

The law says nothing about when or how the sanctions can be lifted. Meanwhile, the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment showed that this process in Congress may depend on many factors, including those that are not related in any way to what caused legislators to adopt it. It is noteworthy that the new law is more specific in formulating demands against Iran and North Korea. This suggests that the U.S. policy is aimed at preserving and even tightening and broadening the anti-Russian sanctions.

It is already argued that the new law is an act of revenge by the American elites against President Donald Trump, whom they view as alien. From Russia’s point of view, we are witnessing much deeper processes which affect the mechanism of making foreign-policy decisions in the United States.

First of all, this concerns the role of the Congress in shaping U.S. foreign policy. During the first 150 years of the country’s existence, this role was very significant. In 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson convinced almost all countries of the world to accept the plan for creating the League of Nations, but he failed to have it ratified by the Senate. Only during World War II and, especially, the Cold War did a U.S. president, as the commander-in-chief, receive and really use new powers in the spheres of foreign policy and defense. For example, during the Cold War, 85 to 90 percent of international agreements concluded by U.S. presidents were ratified by the Senate. Jimmy Carter was the only president to get less congressional support. Later the situation changed—Barack Obama had only 25 percent of agreements ratified by the Senate. It is unlikely that Trump will fare better.

The pendulum, which in the second half of the 20th century moved towards broader presidential powers, now has begun to move in the opposite direction. The Congress has taken full advantage of the foreign policy failures of George W. Bush, Obama’s caution which many people both in the U.S. and abroad viewed as weakness, and Trump’s political vulnerability in order to intercept the initiative in shaping foreign policy. As it always happens in such processes, radicals have come to the forefront, which explains the harsh tone of the Congressional resolutions. Naturally, the balance between the executive and legislative branches is unlikely to return to the situation of almost 100 years ago, but the role of the Congress in foreign affairs will certainly grow.

The attitude towards Russia on Capitol Hill has always been very critical. Even under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, when relations between the U.S. and Russian governments saw positive tendencies (Unbelievable, isn’t it?), the Congress remained very skeptical about them and did not hurry to repeal some of the Cold War-era laws. Since the second half of the 1990s and, especially, in the 21st century, the criticism of the Russian leadership has been steadily growing. For example, the Congress first proposed assessing Russia’s actions in the post-Soviet space from the point of view of the Stimson Doctrine after the conflict in the Caucasus (2008), and in 2016 this proposal was included in a resolution of the House of Representatives. So, we see a stable and long-term trend of a negative attitude towards Moscow’s policy, and it will take much time to overcome it.

After the end of the Cold War, the role of civil society in the U.S. has grown significantly. It is becoming an increasingly powerful force in the country and is actively entering the international arena, having a great influence on the formation of global civil society. American non-governmental organizations have a huge financial base formed mainly from private donations. According to tax returns, NGOs earned $2.4 trillion in 2016, which is by far greater than Russia’s federal budget. Naturally, a social force with great financial resources and extensive networks plays its own game. The bulk of the funds are used inside the United States, and NGOs differ in goals, tasks and practices. Judging by their expenditure data, they do not view Russia as a priority, but Moscow’s recent legislative measures to limit and regulate NGO activities in Russia have caused a negative reaction among U.S. NGOs. It is hard to say whether American NGOs will step up their activity in Russia, but they will certainly form a certain public opinion in the United States. Both the president and the Congress will certainly bear in mind this negative atmosphere about Russia.

The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act sets the most stringent policy towards Russia throughout the post-Soviet years. However, its comparison with the Captive Nations Week Resolution (1959) and other Cold War-era documents shows that this is not a resumption of the Cold War. There are no signs of a return to the policy of brinkmanship, or a new crisis like the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), or many other phenomena typical of Soviet-American relations in the second half of the 1940s–mid-1980s. Unlike the Cold War which centered around an arms race, the present confrontation is centered around economy. The measures provided for by the law are aimed at pushing Russia out of global economic and political processes as much as possible and sidelining it to the periphery of the world economy and politics.


The situation calls for a reassessment of some approaches. The Ukrainian and Syrian crises have become a shock for modern international relations. However, there have been no major changes in the international arena: the trends of recent decades continue to determine the mainstream of world development. The chance for a bilateral (Russia-U.S.) or trilateral (Russia-U.S.-China) “big deal,” a kind of “Yalta 2,” small as it was, is now almost disappearing. It is not only because the 21st century is a century of geo-economics, rather than geopolitics. The designation of Russia as an adversary makes any “big deal” with it impossible for American politicians.

In 1945, a “big deal” was possible, because the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain, for all the differences between them, were allies in the anti-Hitler coalition. The new U.S. sanctions law provides for measures to counter Russia in Georgia, Moldova, Syria, and Ukraine. It is obvious that the United States does not recognize, either formally or practically, any part of the post-Soviet space or any other territory as Russia’s sphere of influence.

In recent years, even after the sanctions were introduced, there was hope that Russian-U.S. cooperation on global issues could lead to a fundamental improvement in their relations. This cooperation focused primarily on the struggle against terrorism, especially as Russia and the U.S. already had some positive experience in this field in the framework of an anti-terror coalition in the fall of 2001. However, cooperation between the two countries has clear limits. Moscow and Washington apparently can cooperate in specific anti-terrorist operations, but they will never agree on the struggle against international terrorism as a phenomenon due to differences in their approaches and assessments. This is also true of other global problems—the U.S. and Russia can cooperate in outer space and on some other issues, but the potential of their cooperation is not so great as to bring about major changes.

The tendency towards aggravation of tension and confrontation is likely to continue, which will negatively affect Russia’s international positions. Most countries are basically satisfied with the existing world order, although some of them may express dissatisfaction with one or another aspect of it from time to time. They hardly plan to get involved in a conflict between the great powers. It is no accident that most countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have in recent years sought to evade taking sides in the Russia-West confrontation. However, if the situation worsens, they may have to make a choice. They will unlikely become open adversaries of Russia, but they will try to distance themselves from it. The U.S. sanctions have a negative impact on the economies of the members of the Eurasian Economic Union, which are closely linked with Russia. If the sanctions are tightened, Central Asian countries may cautiously drift towards China. Armenia is in a particularly difficult position, as its two major partners, Russia and Iran, are among sanctions targets. BRICS countries do not support the practice of unilateral sanctions, since India and China themselves used to be targets of Western sanctions. Yet, none of them would want to reduce ties with the U.S. Moreover, these countries, especially India, assign a key role to cooperation with the United States. The tensions between Moscow and Washington objectively strengthen the position of China, which will certainly act on the basis of its own interests. Finally, the sanctions will inevitably affect Russia’s relations with the European Union, its main foreign trade partner. It would be unrealistic to think that the EU may weaken or even annul the anti-Russian sanctions if they are tightened by the United States. Of course, there may emerge differences in opinion and even disagreements between Washington and European capitals. They usually increase when the Republicans are in power. But for all the desire of the European Union to make its foreign policy more autonomous, there are no signs that EU-U.S. relations may break up or even be affected by a major conflict in the foreseeable future, as there are far more factors that unite the two parties than those that divide them.


The presidential election scheduled for March 2018 is going to be the main event in Russia’s social and political life. The logic of the election campaign and that of the current foreign policy do not fully coincide. Yet it is important to take steps in the future to normalize relations with America.

Despite numerous problems, Russia needs to look for ways to reach agreement with Washington. The United States is the most influential country in the modern world and will likely remain so in the foreseeable future. Russia can claim parity with it only in strategic weapons. A prolonged confrontation with Washington will complicate Moscow’s international position and the political situation in the country.

The political system of modern Russia is quite stable. According to all public opinion polls, most people in the country support President Vladimir Putin. However, Russian society becomes increasingly tired of international tensions. The “Trumpomania” of the first few months after the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. and its second, albeit weaker, upsurge after the G20 summit and the personal meeting between Putin and Trump in Hamburg in July 2017, reflected hopes for improved relations between Russia and the United States, but were not based on sober realism.

In the near future, Moscow’s conservative domestic political, social and economic policy will hardly change much. A mobilization or modernization scenario requires activity of the population or, at least, its most dynamic groups, but this activity is absent and unlikely to appear. The conservative policy inside the country may succeed if it is supplemented by a similar foreign policy. International stability and a predictable foreign policy meet Russia’s long-term interests to a much greater extent. Upheavals and crises abroad will create additional difficulties inside the country and may exacerbate internal conflicts. The slogan of combating external danger can rally the population only briefly.

A more promising policy approach would be firm protection of Russia’s interests combined with the utmost discretion and caution. We should not expect quick results, as there are too many negatives in bilateral relations. Naturally, this process will take a long time and will go through several stages, even under favorable circumstances. First of all, it is important to change the dynamics of the development of bilateral relations, stop their deterioration and try to reach agreement on at least some issues where the interests of the two countries are close or coincide. After that, the countries could develop some confidence-building measures. Without at least some mutual trust, it is impossible to move forward and reach agreements and compromises. At the next stage, the countries could discuss their mutual criticisms. Of course, Russia should express its concerns, but it will also have to accept that sooner or later it will have to discuss all problems mentioned in the U.S. sanctions law. It is hard to tell how they will be solved, but they will not disappear on their own.

Direct bilateral negotiations with the United States would be more preferable for Russia and would have more chance of success. If there is a need for an intermediary (as Britain in the 1950s, France in the 1960s, and Germany in the 1970s were to a certain extent), then the European Union and, to a lesser extent, India or China could play this role.

Arms limitation is an area where Moscow and Washington have some chance to reach agreement. The system of treaties established during the Cold War is falling apart. In 2001, the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty, and there is little chance that the treaty of 2010—the last of a series of treaties on the reduction of strategic offensive weapons—will be extended or replaced by a new one in 2021. The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty has been criticized for several years and will likely be abrogated. If the international community fails to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear missile program, the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty can be terminated, and the world should prepare for the emergence of a group of new nuclear states in a few years. In 2011, Russia withdrew from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which had not been ratified by most of the countries that signed it. Of course, this system of treaties was not free of shortcomings, yet it objectively met Russia’s interests because it was based on the idea of ??a bipolar world. If this system is not preserved, at least partially, or replaced by new agreements, we will face a new arms race. Trump has never concealed the fact that building up U.S. military power is one of his main goals. Other countries, too, are building up their military potentials. They do not have serious disagreements or conflicts with Russia now, but there is no guarantee that these will not emerge in the future. The question of whether Russia can successfully engage in a new arms race is still open, given the current state of its economy. Therefore, arms limitation talks with the United States are important from the point of view of Russian interests. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, arms negotiations between the two countries were interrupted only in 1982-1984, and it is hardly normal that they have been mothballed for almost seven years. If these negotiations make headway, at the next stage arms control issues could be discussed in the broader context of Russia-NATO relations.

For the relations between Moscow and Washington to improve, it is very important that the sphere of confrontation between them narrow or, at least, not expand. There is no fertile ground for the settlement of local conflicts yet. It will have to be created. However, new conflicts where Russia and the United States would support conflicting parties can be avoided.

Another issue of special importance is cyberspace security. One of the reasons behind the harsh sanctions law was the American elite’s belief that Russia tried to interfere in the U.S. presidential election. This factor cannot be underestimated, and it is absolutely necessary to seek to discuss it with the U.S., even if the latter is not inclined to do this.

In building relations with the U.S., Russia should borrow from China’s experience. Beijing, while firmly defending its interests, including in negotiations with the U.S., makes no attempts to create anti-American coalitions. Russia should also avoid taking such steps, especially with Iran and North Korea. The reason is not only that, according to our assessment, Pyongyang and Tehran gained more than Moscow from their treaties with Russia, concluded in 2000 and 2001, respectively. Both countries have negative images in the world, so if Russia is associated with them (which is already partially happening), this will impair Russia’s image for the larger part of the modern world. Finally, Iran and especially North Korea can involve Russia into new international conflicts against its interests.

Another important aspect of China’s experience in relations with the U.S. is that they are void of ideological components. While criticizing U.S. policy, China avoids anti-Americanism. It builds its identity on opposition to Japan, rather than the United States. Russia should give up trying to present its relations with the U.S. as an ideological confrontation. In recent years, Russia has achieved more progress in relations with Asia-Pacific countries than with the Euro-Atlantic region, partly because politics in the Asia-Pacific is more pragmatic and almost non-ideological.

Finally, of much interest is China’s experience in developing ties with the U.S. after 1989 when Washington imposed sanctions against it. China not only did not reduce these ties but, on the contrary, broadened them in all areas to the maximum extent—in trade, economy, and the humanitarian sphere. Thousands of Chinese students went to study at American universities, although Beijing understood perfectly well that many of them would not return. For Russia, this aspect is also important, as it is greatly interested in cooperation with other countries in science, technology, and education. According to UNESCO (2013), the United States accounts for 28 percent of world spending on science, whereas Russia accounts for only 1.7 percent, and the situation will not change much any time soon. The opinion that Russia can develop its science in isolation, as the Soviet Union did, is not well-founded. Soviet science made great advances above all in industries and areas where it relied on a solid foundation of scientific achievements of the Russian Empire which maintained close ties with many countries in science and education. But even in those areas the pace of development slowed down after scientists who started their careers in the Russian Empire and their first disciples had retired from science. In the 1990s, due to a number of factors, the situation in Russian science continued to deteriorate.

Naturally, the new conditions call for new methods of negotiations and discussion. As dialogue with the American political class, Congress and civil society will be of great importance, the role of public diplomacy and debates will increase significantly since Russia will need to explicitly explain its position to the other party and try to find common ground with it. It is difficult to begin such discussions because prominent American politicians will avoid contacts with Russia. Of course, there are various groups within the American elite, which have different attitudes to Russia. Russia should bear these differences in mind but not try to play on them or take steps that may be interpreted as an attempt to set one group against another. The result may turn out to be opposite to what Moscow expected. In general, it will be very difficult to establish a dialogue with the American elite and these efforts will most likely take much time, but without it diplomatic negotiations will hardly make any progress.

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Russian-U.S. relations are more than 200 years old, and most of the time they have developed positively. The two countries have never been at war with each other and were allies during the First and Second World Wars. They are not archenemies. However, overcoming the legacy of the Cold War, during which several generations grew up, proved much more difficult than was expected. The fact that Russian-U.S. relations have been thrown far back objectively does not meet anyone’s interests, but finding a way out of this impasse will take time, goodwill and breakthrough ideas.

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