In recent years, relations between Russia and America have been rocky. Coverage in the media has been dominated by fractious events such as the failed reset, the Magnitsky Act and Russia’s reaction with the Dima Yakovlev Law, the Snowden affair, reciprocal disregard for international summits by Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, and extremely harsh criticism of Russia for its approach to Syria. As a result, some pundits have raised the issue of a return of the Cold War, while others suggest a possible military clash, as was the case with the article «Is War against America Possible?» of October 22 posted on the RIAC website.
In this piece, the author states that due to growing disagreements, «over the next 10-15 years, we are more than likely to see a Russian-American military conflict.» However, given current conditions, this alarmist analysis of Russian and U.S. defense capabilities and pre-Obama doctrines, which de facto form the basis of Mr. Alekseev’s article, appears hollow. And the point is not even that war is the least efficient tool for settling differences between Russia and the U.S. (Mr. Alekseev’s claim that such a conflict might involve the limited use of nuclear weapons appears unconvincing since it conflicts with the logic of nuclear containment and the subsequent prisoners’ dilemma, where each side is assured of its destruction if its opponent presses the nuclear button first). As a matter of fact, serious differences between Moscow and Washington, let alone casus belli, are nonexistent. Today, bilateral disagreements are predominantly caused by two factors, i.e. an absence of trust and limitations, primarily on the domestic front, on the construction of a solid agenda for cooperation. At the same time, such an agenda is potentially feasible, and in 10-15 years, Russia and the U.S.A. will most likely become partners in the cooperative construction of a mutually beneficial system of international relations.
From Force to Maneuvering
Several years ago the world entered the multipolar era, with the United States no longer the global leader. Without a doubt, the American military budget still exceeds the aggregate defense spending of all key powers, but the U.S.A. definitely lacks the political, economic and image-related clout to settle regional crises on its own, even relatively minor ones in Somalia or Libya. The U.S.’s informal leadership is fading into the past, a claim made not only by Russia but also by Europe, who is more or less successfully attempting to become independent from the foreign policy of Washington; Israel and Saudi Arabia, who are both unhappy about Washington’s desire to conduct foreign relations with Iran; Egypt, China, Pakistan, Japan and other countries.
The United States also recognizes this changing reality. Having ousted the Bush doctrine of American omnipresence, Mr. Obama’s approach implies the de facto rejection of a globalized foreign policy, a minimizing of U.S. political commitments in most regions of the world (first of all in the Middle East), and a concentration of assets along the important Asia-Pacific track. This position has even obtained support from the hostile Republican Party, for example during the Syrian crisis. According to the Washington Post, the majority of Republicans in Congress were ready to vote against a U.S. intervention in Syria . Their inherent desire for an indirect conflict with Iran in Syria (in the bipolar world, such wars are referred to as peripheral conflicts) and even the opportunity to entangle Mr. Obama in an unpopular war were not enough to prevent Republican neo-isolationism and statements that «the war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States.»  The American electorate fully shares the pragmatic and essentially isolationist attitudes of the White House and Congress. According to an ABC News/Washington Post survey, in spite of the massive campaign to demonize Bashar Assad, only 36 percent of Americans supported intervention in the Syrian conflict, whereas 59 per cent were against it .
As a result, U.S. policies under Mr. Obama are effectively switching over from the Roman to the British-style paradigm. The appetite for global dominance and a readiness to solve all international problems have been ousted in favor of strengthening regional systems of checks and balances, as well as establishing local sheriffs, i.e. states charged with stabilizing and managing their regions taking into account U.S. interests. With these steps, Washington would like to appoint several managing states in each region so that they could contain each other’s aspirations, determine the frontiers for mutual expansion, and maintain the regional balance of power. This has been exactly the case with the American policy change towards Iran. If the American strategy of engagement succeeds, Tehran, along with Ankara, will become local sheriffs for handling crises in the Middle East. A similar role is in store for Russia, although in another part of the world.
The New Course
The U.S. strategy is also changing in substance, with Mr. Obama’s approach to Moscow fundamentally different from that of George W. Bush. Moscow and Washington have dropped the state of a mutual conflict and moved over to the recognition and pursuit of shared interests.
Keen on strengthening American dominance, President Bush regarded Russia, which had resisted U.S. hegemony actively and everywhere (in the Middle East, Kosovo, Eastern Europe, and the post-Soviet space), beyond a doubt as the key hurdle. He was quite aggressive toward Moscow, as seen from the American withdrawal from significant bilateral treaties, attempts to drive Russia out of its sphere of influence, and attempted color revolutions intended as a harbinger of regime change in Moscow. Mr. Obama has dropped the domineering approach and effectively altered the relationship by launching the reset.
Russian experts regard the reset as a failure primarily due to a misunderstanding of its nature. The reset did not mean changes to the Russian-American strategic relationship, a mutual recognition of spheres of influence and the development of a shared approach to key global issues; it only suggested the removal of the burdensome heritage left over from the Bush administration from the working memory of the bilateral relationship. In actuality, the latter has mostly happened, as seen from U.S. policy changes towards the post-Soviet space. Moscow is clashing on the issues of Ukraine and the Vilnius Summit not so much with Washington as with ambitious Brussels.
Following the reset, President Obama has not raised deep conflicts with the Kremlin, despite his sometimes incisive criticism of Russian leaders. He was compelled to accept the Magnitsky List as part of an overall deal with the Republican-dominated House of Representatives (in contrast to Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama places domestic politics on the top of the agenda, especially in comparison with the Russian track, a low-key foreign policy area). The open list of Russian figures subject to the entry ban and freezing of assets does not include any important elites, for example, the Head of the Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin or Head of Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov. These top men are probably on the confidential list, but they are unlikely to have their U.S. assets frozen. It is the loss of funds and property located in the United States, not the ban on visiting the country, that has been of greatest concern for the Russian elite.
Mr. Obama’s predilection towards peace comes not from his Russophilia (the White House holds no illusions about Russian leaders) but exclusively from pragmatism. His doctrine regards Russia as a balancing element and a sheriff for several regions simultaneously.
To the U.S., Russia appears to be a convenient partner in Central Asia, in particular for combatting Sunni terrorism (the events in Syria have shown that the American electorate harshly disapproves of any policies that would have Washington work alongside al-Qaeda). Since Russia is apprehensive of terrorism to the same degree as the U.S.A., Moscow could contribute to the pacification of Afghanistan and later the stabilization of neighboring territories in Pakistan. Pakistan is ripe for an extended but inevitable split, because its fundamental concepts of Islamism and anti-Hinduism are reaching the peak of radicalization and tearing the country apart. Neither Pakistani elites nor foreign countries are offering alternative ideas. The disintegration of Pakistan would cause numerous major regional challenges (for example, nuclear proliferation or humanitarian disasters in a country with a population of 180 million) that could be handled only through joint efforts by the United States, India, Iran, China and Russia.
Russia’s area of responsibility lies in Central Asia, which is expected to undergo a series of painful regime changes fraught with internal disturbances (primarily, in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan). Moreover, Washington needs not just a regional sheriff to ensure stable succession in leaders in order to prevent the rise of an Islamic opposition, but also act as a powerful counterbalance to China. Beijing is buying up Central Asian assets, viewing the region as its resource base in a future battle with the Americans and Japanese for Southeast Asia. The steadfast presence of a friendly nation should help Americans in weakening the Chinese positions. At that, only Russia is able to fill the niche, since Turkey’s stand is wavering after Recep Erdogan had supplanted his “zero problem policy with neighbors” with a more aggressive and less effective approach.
The Non-Alternative Russia
However, most of American expectations about Russia lie in East Asia, the U.S. priority, because Moscow’s attitude will be decisive for preventing a major China-Japan conflict (with or without the U.S.A.) as well as for assisting one side or the other in prevailing if a conflict breaks out. In his article, Mr. Sergeev insists that Russia and America are most likely to clash in a two-stage pattern when Russia first confronts Japan and then Washington arrives to help Tokyo out.
Meanwhile, the chances of a Russia-Japan conflict are slim. Russia, the only country in the region free of anti-Japanese sentiments, is too important to Tokyo. Distrustful of the United States after its casting adrift of Egypt, a truly reliable ally, and unwilling to face China one on one, Japan sees its only chance in a partnership with Russia and in building a regional security system on the Russia-Japan-U.S.A. partnership in order to contain Chinese expansion. The scenario is also beneficial for Russia, which is apprehensive of its powerful southern neighbor’s aspirations toward its Far Eastern territories. Of course, the Japanese will not publicly renounce their claims for the Kuril Islands, but their stance is pretty weak and can be overwhelmed. Today Japan needs Russia more than Russia needs Japan. The point is not just regional strategic stability. Energy also matters. After the Fukushima accident, Japan decided to shut down all 55 of its nuclear reactors, which provided for 30 percent of the country’s energy consumption, and freeze the construction of new reactors. Hence, Tokyo must search for untapped hydrocarbon sources, preferably with no routes through the Malacca Strait which could be blocked by the emerging Chinese navy. In this regard, Russia emerges as the sole supplier.
The rationality of an improved Russian-American agenda by no means implies its guaranteed implementation, the key momentous hurdle being the mutual distrust nurtured by the decades-long Cold War. The only way out seems to cooperation in tackling current problems and bypassing the knowingly dead-end negotiations on issues disconnected from reality, such as the reduction of strategic weapons. The first solid step for overcoming the mutual mistrust has definitely been cooperation on the Syrian crisis, as Russia and the U.S.A. have not just saved the Middle East from a major war, but also made opponents of the agreement, i.e. France and Saudi Arabia, tolerate the situation.
The settlement of the Iranian problem could eliminate one more source of reciprocal criticism that would help promote a substantive strategic partnership that promises Russia recognition of its areas of interests and possible economic and technological cooperation with the United States.
1. Blake Aaron, Sullivan Sean. The “no’s” keep piling up on Syria resolution in the House. The Washington Post, September 05, 2013 http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2013/09/05/prospects-for-syria-resolution-dimming-in-house/
2. Munos Carlo. Inhofe: US cannot afford military action in Syria. August 28, 2013 http://thehill.com/blogs/defcon-hill/policy-and-strategy/319237-inhofe-us-cannot-afford-military-action-in-syria-/
3. Rothkopf David. Obama, ignore the polls on Syria. September 04, 2013 http://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/04/opinion/rothkopf-obama-syria-polls/index.html