“If you leave the Chelyabinsk Disco late in the evening, throw your head back and stare silently into the boundless starry sky—your nose will stop bleeding.»
This old Soviet joke perhaps best describes the atmosphere in which the discussion of U.S.–Russia relations is taking place today. Any kind of rational approach to the issue is almost impossible. It is the same as discussing the nuances of teenage psychology during a drunken fight between adolescents at a nightclub. What kind of logic or rational thought can we find here? The age-old cry of “they’re beating our guys” pushes questions about how the fight began in the first place, who is to blame, and what will happen afterward into the background.
And then everyone who took part in the scuffle starts to assess the fallout — a bloody nose here, a black eye there, a lost tooth here, a torn suit there… But while it was happening, those involved were completely engulfed in the chaos of battle, the desire to stand their ground, show their machismo, prove their loyalty to their friends and honour the code of conduct of their social group. To hell with the consequences. The powerful rush of adrenaline is stronger than any kind of rational thinking.
My entire professional career has centred on the problems of U.S.–Russia relations, but never before have I seen such strength of feeling, such an explosion of emotions, such mutual intolerance and such unwavering conviction in the correctness of one’s actions. This atmosphere of unhealthy exaltation is, of course, present in Moscow. But nowhere is it more pervasive than in Washington, where an uncompromising attitude towards Russia, and towards Vladimir Putin personally, is perhaps the main test of American patriotism. What is more, it has become a litmus test of American identity in and of itself. The timid voices of those calling for dialogue and a search for compromise with Moscow are drowning in the discordant and deafening, yet somehow harmonious chorus of those who favour confrontation, thrive on doling out sanctions and call for harsh and steady pressure on the Kremlin.
You don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict that this policy confrontation, sanctions and pressure will inevitably come up against almost insurmountable obstacles, both inside the United States itself and beyond its borders. Donald Trump is not a fan of this approach towards Russia, and he is still the President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. On the whole, U.S. society is not prepared for another Cold War and all the risks and costs associated with it. Washington’s allies in Europe and Asia do not share the maximalist aspirations of the American political elite.
However, let us assume for a moment that by some miracle the hawks in Washington manage to achieve all their goals with regard to Russia. Not in the sense that Moscow will experience another collapse similar to the one that took place in 1991, as not even the most quixotic crusaders against the “Russian threat” expect such a scenario to unfold. But rather in the sense that Washington will somehow manage to push Moscow into a corner — by introducing more and more economic sanctions and a financial blockade, resuming the arms race, strengthening NATO, imposing its will on undecided allies and supporting anti-Russian forces around the world, or by some other means that we cannot even envisage right now, but which will no doubt be painful for the enemy.
What opportunities will remain for the Russian side in this hypothetical scenario? In what direction would the vector of Russian foreign policy start to move? And to what extent would this “victory” be in line with the United States’ long-term interests?
Common sense suggests that the Russian leadership will have two main options for responding to the U.S. challenge. The first would be to further strengthen cooperation with China in all dimensions. This means economic cooperation, political cooperation, and military and technical cooperation. It is not very important whether such cooperation would lead to a formal military and political union between the two countries. What is important is that Russia’s immense and diverse resources — from the strategic potential of nuclear weapons to raw materials and energy reserves — will increasingly serve Chinese interests. The second option is to embrace isolation and even increase it, gradually turning Russia into a “besieged fortress” — a kind of very large North Korea, but with its global capabilities and its permanent seat on the UN Security Council intact.
Either of these scenarios would be a nightmare for U.S. foreign and military policy. And it is difficult to say which one would be more dangerous for Washington. A consolidation of the Russia–China alliance would lead to precisely the geopolitical configuration that the United States has been trying to prevent at all costs since at least the beginning of the 20th century, namely, the emergence of a unified centre of power in Eurasia that is opposed to the United States and which has a superior resource, demographic and (eventually) economic base. The fact that Moscow would likely be the junior partner in such a configuration is little consolation for the strategists in Washington.
The evolution of Russia along the lines of the North Korean model would have wholly unpredictable consequences for the United States. After all, it has been unable to cope with Pyongyang for several decades now, and this situation is not likely to change in the near future. And it would fair much worse with a country that is far superior to North Korea in terms of its military and geopolitical potential!
Thus, the current attitudes of the American political establishment towards Russia are no more rational than the motivations of a drunk teenager at a Chelyabinsk disco (we should add in parentheses here that Russian attitudes towards the United States are often far from well-thought-out and rational themselves). And if this is the case, then the current state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely — sooner or later, U.S. foreign policy will undergo a correction towards pragmatism and will take the existing realities of today’s world into account.
Nobody knows how and when these corrections will take place. Nor do we know the form they will take, nor indeed what they will lead to. It is entirely possible that the current status quo could last for several months, or even several years. The upcoming congressional midterm elections in November or possible failures in U.S. foreign policy could act as catalysts for such a change in attitudes.
Whatever happens, Russia will not be a passive observer of the impending transformation. Russian policy, if it falters, pushes short-sighted actions or even does nothing, could slow down this transformation. Conversely, carefully devised initiatives, well-thought-out preventative measures and, where necessary, unilateral steps on Moscow’s part could help accelerate it. Russia is just as interested as the United States in putting an end to this ridiculous and senseless dispute over who is the coolest cat in the global Chelyabinsk disco.
Two points are particularly important in this respect. The first is the aforementioned midterm elections in the United States. We all know that the Americans will accuse Russia of meddling in the elections (they already are!) regardless of the actual state of affairs at the polls. There is little we can do about that. But we can, and must, eliminate the grounds for making such accusations possible. Moscow would have done itself a huge favour if it had not only resolutely and unequivocally disassociated itself from the irresponsible actions of so-called “patriotic hacker” groups, but also done everything in its power to suppress such actions. This opens a wide space for the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media to carry out socially beneficial work.
Second, in order to reverse the negative dynamics currently in Washington, it is vital to reverse the negative dynamics in eastern Ukraine as well. Of course, we are not talking about a “full and final” resolution of the Ukrainian crisis, as this will take several years, if not decades, to accomplish. However, the matter would be helped greatly by a demonstration on Moscow’s part of its flexibility regarding the deployment of international peacekeepers in the Donbass region. This would be another concrete and understandable step forward, compared to the proposals put forward by Vladimir Putin last year.
Finally, and most importantly, in the heat of the fight with a cocky and sometimes evasive American teen, we should not forget that the world is much more than a noisy, stuffy and strobe-lit disco hall. There are plenty of things beyond this space that are far more worthy of our attention. Including the boundless starry sky. And you do not need to have had your nose busted open to look up and take in the majestic view.