After a period of political cooling in relations between Moscow
and Washington, there is again hope for their improvement. However,
resumption of the dialogue poses the question that the parties have
failed to answer since the end of the Cold War: What are the
strategic objectives of Russian-U.S. relations in the 21st
Presumably, Russia and the U.S. should work towards concluding a
comprehensive alliance treaty. The prospects for such an agreement
were discussed by Sergei Dubinin in his article “A New Entente”
(Russia in Global Affairs, 4/2008), which largely anticipated my
arguments. Yet this issue remains extremely topical and thereby
deserves a detailed analysis.
RECORD OF DEVELOPMENT
There have been several periods in the history of Russian-U.S.
The first period spans the years of the American Revolutionary
War that the North American colonists fought against the British
Empire. At that time Russia provided tremendous assistance to the
establishment of the young North American states. Empress Catherine
the Great turned down London’s request to recruit 20,000 Cossacks
to fight against the colonists, which might have been a decisive
factor in turning the tide of the war. Some time later, Catherine
the Great’s “Armed Neutrality Act” foiled Britain’s attempts to
strangle the young North American state by a sea blockade. Add to
this the colonization by Russia of the Pacific coast (Russian
America) and a considerable inflow of immigrants to Russia, and you
get a picture of good-neighborly, even if not intensive, relations
between the two large countries until the 1870s.
Occasional frictions were caused by competition between Russian
and U.S. farmers (although the European market was large enough for
all) and Russian frigates and corvettes that would sometimes
intercept slave ships (but this only soured the mood of southern
plantation owners). Also, the reprisals practiced by Nicholas I’s
regime against democratic revolts in Eastern and Central Europe
spoiled Russia’s image in the U.S. But in general, Russia-U.S.
relations were free of conflicts – until oil flowed into the
business life of both countries.
Almost 150 years ago, the rapid increase in oil production on
the Apsheron Peninsula near Baku fueled a drop in world prices,
first inflicting heavy losses on individual, poorly organized oil
producers, and then damaging the strategic interests of
Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. There is a widespread belief that the
company was complicit in masterminding and funding the strikes and
sabotage (murders of engineering personnel, theft at financial
organizations and the burning of wells and derricks), which swept
across the Baku oil fields at the turn of the 20th century and
helped make the carriers of Bolshevik, Menshevik and
Socialist-Revolutionary leaders, including Joseph Stalin.
These events marked the beginning of the second period of
relations between the Russian Empire and the U.S. The struggle for
markets caused rivalry in two crucial spheres – oil and Eastern
Asia (above all, China and Japan). The cooling in relations was
also rooted in the sharply contrasting political systems of the two
countries: the archaic absolute monarchy of the Romanov dynasty was
increasingly viewed in the U.S. as barbaric, inadequate and
profoundly anti-Semitic (the latter being particularly significant
for the political climate).
By and large, there were no major conflicts between the two
states, while their strategic interests still had much in common.
It was not accidental that the U.S. provided the venue for and
brokered the least humiliating peace treaty Russia could hope for
when it lost its war with Japan. Later apprehensions about the
growing hegemony of Germany made Russia and the U.S. allies in
World War I, and then again in a brief and unsuccessful clash with
Strange as it may seem, this period ended not in 1917 when the
Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, but in the middle of the 1940s.
Despite a short period of U.S. participation in the Entente’s
anti-Bolshevik activities and the Soviet Union’s anti-capitalist
rhetoric, the two countries maintained pragmatic relations until
1942. A letter written in 1921 by Mikhail Kalinin, Chairman of the
All-Union Central Executive Committee, illustrates the state of
relations in those years: “From the very beginning of its
existence, Soviet Russia hoped for the possible rapid establishment
of friendly relations with the great North American Republic and
expected that both republics would create close and stable ties to
their mutual benefit…. The Soviet Republic… does not intend in any
way to interfere in America’s internal affairs.”
The Americans made a large contribution to Soviet
industrialization that was second only to that of Germany.
Curiously, the American contribution was personified by an
enterprising and unscrupulous Armand Hammer.
Pavel Sudoplatov, a famous representative of the Soviet
intelligence service, wrote about the Soviet Union’s approach
towards the U.S: “Before that time [October 1941] work on
collecting political intelligence information in America was
minimal as we had no conflicting interests in the geopolitical
sphere.” (This does not mean of course that the United States was
beyond the scope of Soviet intelligence activities – the Milshtein
espionage ring was formed in the prewar years. Yet the U.S. was not
on the list of priorities then.)
The “conflicting interests” emerged in 1943 (the start of
discussions on the division of post-war Europe), which marked the
beginning of the third period of Russian-U.S. relations, although
formally the starting point is attributed to 1946, the year of
mounting confrontation between the two countries. Importantly, it
was not a confrontation between the peoples, but between the
countries that eventually turned into the merciless opposition on
the principle of a zero sum game. This period culminated in the
conventional and nuclear arms race, the fanning of local conflicts
and notorious phrases like “We will bury you” (Nikita Khrushchev)
and “the Evil Empire” (Ronald Reagan).
The fourth period began with the collapse of the Communist
dictatorship and the breakup of the Soviet Union, and it still
continues. It may be called “a transitional period” as both
countries, first of all Russia, are trying to find – by trial and
error – a proper mode of relations.
TOWARDS A “CIVILIZATION OF TECHNOLOGY”
Over the last two decades Russia has failed to find an answer to
the key question of its identity: What is the country’s
geopolitical legacy? There seems to be two possible options.
First option: we will return to the community
of countries to which Russia belonged until 1918. These are
countries with a democratic political system, respect for human
rights and free enterprise. Let us call this community of states a
“civilization of technology” because it is characterized by
technological progress and a minimal impact of abstract doctrines.
Russia developed along the same vector in the first half of its
Second option: we will keep the Soviet
political legacy, when the countries mentioned above are viewed as
natural opponents and a source of threat. In line with this logic,
Russia should look for allies among the “enemies of my enemy;” that
is, countries with authoritarian or totalitarian political systems,
an overblown influence of doctrines (both religious and secular), a
lack of civil rights and freedoms, and depletion of internal
political and information fields.
This category includes two types of countries which can be
divided into a “civilization of doctrines” (China, North Korea,
Cuba, many Islamic countries, and adherents to the “Bolivarian
Revolution” ideology) and a “civilization of survival” (the
majority of African countries and some countries in Central and
Historical experience shows that no other option is possible.
The example of China as a counter-argument, where the economic
system of the first type coexists with the political system of the
second, can hardly apply. China has been walking along a “special
path” for a mere 30 years, rising from what can be described as the
bottom even by socialist standards, to which it fell due to the
“Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution” launched by Mao
Zedong. Even today its per capita income is more than twice as low
as that of Russia and the level of corruption is much higher, while
the regional and individual property differentiation is
exceptionally high. Presumably, China is approaching a point where
it will either move onto the track of one of the two aforementioned
options or will face serious destabilization.
A compromise between the two options is only possible within a
very limited timeframe. The ongoing economic crisis, the need to
revise the “consumer society” model (to which four billion people
aspire today instead of 400 million) and the risks related to
resources and environment – all these factors generate new
benchmarks of global division.
Humanity is increasingly moving from the East-West to the
North-South pattern. This division rests on a gap in technology:
the producers of the 19th century (raw materials and, partially,
foodstuffs) and the first half of the 20th century (unsophisticated
industrial goods) versus producers of the second half of the 20th
century (hi-tech industrial goods) and the 21st century (computer
and information products and services, and biotech products). The
first of these groups includes countries of the South, and the
second – countries of the North.
The second option, in essence, is inertial, and hence its
implementation is easier – countries simply do not have to do
anything. They automatically enter the ranks of autocratic regimes
resting upon free hydrocarbon resources or a very cheap work force.
This scenario preserves technological backwardness. The time when
the role of hydrocarbon fuels in the world will begin to diminish
rapidly is not far off (experts estimate in 25-35 years). This
implies that Russia has little time to spare. If it is not
thoroughly prepared for this turn of events, a national catastrophe
will be inevitable. But even if there is no drastic landslide in
development, a gradual degradation against the background of
prosperous countries will bring the country to collapse sooner or
The first option, if chosen, gives the chance for modernization,
yet it provides no guarantees. Treading on this path, we may
eventually find ourselves in an environment favorable for
modernization (although amid tough competition), and it is up to us
to make proper use of it. This, in turn, will require a profound
For fairness sake we must make two important reservations.
First, there is no 100-percent guarantee that
competition between ultra-conservative countries (but with
stockpiles of energy) and progressive (but decaying, like Europe)
countries will necessarily end in the latter’s victory.
Unfortunately, there is also the possibility of a decaying West in
the 21st century, which may lead to chaos and regression, like what
happened with the Roman Empire after its collapse.
Second, by choosing the first option, Russia
will find itself on the frontline of the above-mentioned cultural
and economic division, and, taking the main burden of the expansion
of conservatism, it will run the risk of confronting it all alone,
as it did 800 years ago.
A UNION WITH THE U.S.
I will briefly touch on the specifics of the implementation of
the first option.
Ever since the time of Peter the Great, Russian authorities have
been driven by the desire to catch up with Europe and make Russia a
full-fledged European country. This objective has been achieved in
a number of fields. During the reign of Elizabeth of Russia, Russia
played a crucial role in European affairs, while from the Napoleon
wars until the 1917 Revolution the question of whether or not
Russia is part of Europe was never on the agenda. Had it not been
for the tragic 75-year-experiment conducted on the country and its
people, Russia would have certainly taken an active part in all
European integration processes.
But history played a malicious joke: as Russia was catching up
with Europe and vying for its own niche, Europe itself shed the
significance it had had in world politics. Today’s Europe has lost
its strategic thinking; it is incapable of resolving important
geopolitical issues on its own and securing its own vital
interests. You can trade with Europe or go there for a holiday,
medical treatment or to get an education there, but you cannot rely
on it. This factor is becoming increasingly obvious for the U.S.
and Russia should not have any illusions about it either.
Recent developments in the world make it necessary to focus on a
dramatic revision of Russian-U.S. relations on a scope not seen
before. The point at issue is a course for concluding a
full-fledged Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual
Assistance between Russia and the U.S. (I use the Soviet-style
wording deliberately as it is better suited to convey the essence
of the proposal.)
This takes us back to the beginning of our contemplation.
Russia, the world’s largest country with immense resources, and the
U.S., the richest, most powerful and advanced country in the world,
have no immanent contradictions. There are no insurmountable
obstacles against building a full-scale partnership.
Washington’s abortive attempt to play the role of the sole
global hegemon after the end of the Cold War forces it to look for
ways to protect its interests in interacting with other players.
Russia, which has preserved its resource, geostrategic and military
potential, cannot but be of interest to the U.S. as a partner. At
the same time, improved relations with the U.S. will add confidence
to Russia in the coming decades when it will have to deal with
ambitious rising powers (above all China) and face dangerous spots
of instability (the Middle East, South and Central Asia).
As was noted above, we have a rich history of positive
cooperation in various fields. The resetting of Russia-U.S.
relations has several basic components:
- Recognizing each other not just as bona fide partners, but also
as potential allies, and mapping out a strategy towards the
establishment of allied relations.
- Specifying areas for short- and long-term interaction;
encouraging the promotion and development of areas of bilateral
- Revising the list of issues on the bilateral agenda and
removing those that are of a historical-metaphysical, rather than
- Fostering a favorable psychological climate in both countries
towards each other.
There are obvious areas where Russia and the U.S. could
interact. These are, first of all, measures to overcome global
human-induced problems (climate change, scarcity of natural
resources, poverty and hunger in countries of the “civilization of
survival”). There are also security problems caused by the conflict
between the “civilization of technology” on the one hand and the
“civilization of doctrines” and the “civilization of survival” on
The “civilization of technology” now includes only three
countries that can use force to defend their values: the U.S.,
Russia and Great Britain (as a junior partner). Division and
confrontation inside this group is a luxury that they cannot afford
and would be a strategic mistake.
If something divides us, it is the speculative ideological
constructs and problems which ceased to be acute after the end of
the Cold War. A way out of the situation is to create long-term,
mutually-binding and mutually-committed relations – where Russia
and the U.S. would be not just partners, but genuine allies. This
path should take us towards concluding a treaty that would become
an unshakable basis of a Russian-U.S. union for decades in the
future. This path, if the relevant political decision is made, will
be long and difficult. Such a goal makes sense only in the context
of the path towards modernization – a political, economic and
structural one – in the spirit of the “civilization of
This should not be a romantic infatuation or a reckless drive
for rapprochement. It should be a precisely and realistically
formulated task, with each step carefully calculated, and mutual
concessions thoroughly coordinated.
We need mechanisms of guarantees against mutual aggression. Not
just against nuclear weapons, but against armed conflict of any
form. Otherwise, the obvious disproportion in conventional arms
will become a source of justified irritation by the weakest of the
parties, namely Russia.
One might of course focus again on limiting the advance of
foreign contingents to Russian borders, although this issue is
purely decorative. The war against Russia will not come from the
European theater: Russia will still have the opportunity to cause
unacceptable damage to any European country or all of them put
together for a long time (I would even say forever but everything
is finite). There is a very simple argument: democracies never
fight each other. So the best guarantee of peace is democratic
development in all the countries bordering on Russia and in Russia
itself. We must agree with the need to learn much, accept much, and
give up much. This is what modernization is about.
We must overcome our fear of the “civilization of technology,”
the reflex of being obsessed with confrontation with the West and
re-integrate into the affairs and plans of the civilization of the
North, to which Russia belonged before 1917. In this sense (and not
only in this particular sense) we cannot maintain the legacy of
both pre-Bolshevik Russia and the Soviet Union: the first was in
the Euro-Atlantic civilization, whereas the second stood aloof from
Despite the skeptic attitude towards the potential of the Old
World, Russia’s rapprochement with the U.S. should by no means give
cause for regarding it as yet another attempt to drive a wedge
between former Euro-Atlantic allies. No matter how helpless the
European component of NATO looks now, Russia’s joining the alliance
would probably be one of the most technically expedient solutions
in attaining the above task. Russia will have to join the efforts
for working out norms and rules which will regulate humanity’s
progress in the 21st century, and monitor compliance with these
norms and rules based on uniform principles.
A difficult task does not mean it cannot be fulfilled. If
successful, the significance of the new union, open to other
countries under certain conditions, would be tremendous for world
stability. We saw it during the post-Soviet years: the
aggressiveness of certain regimes decreases dramatically under
concerted Russian-U.S. actions, and conversely, this aggressiveness
begins to gain momentum at the first signs of discord between our
Movement towards the aforesaid treaty, signing it and launching
the practice of joint Russian-U.S. activity on key global political
issues may become the cornerstone of a new system of international
relations, one much safer, more stable and more comfortable.
Perhaps as the first step on this long path it would make sense
to revive something along the lines of the Russia-U.S. Friendship
Society, provided, of course, that this would be a symmetric,
non-bureaucratic organization, fully focused on improving relations
between the two nations, not on handling minor tasks. A significant
positive factor would be the participation in this forum of
representatives of the administration of the Russian president and
the Foreign Ministry.