Resetting and Disjunction
No. 2 2010 April/June
Victor Kremenyuk

Victor Kremenyuk is Deputy Director of the Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Head of the Department of World Politics and International Relations at University for Humanitarian Sciences. He holds a Doctorate in History.

The Drama of Russian-American Relations

It seems that everybody has had his say on the “resetting” of Russian-U.S. relations. There was a period of unheard-of enthusiasm, when all kinds of miracles were expected, nothing short of a Russia-U.S. alliance. The enthusiasm gave way to a sober and cautious approach, with attempts to consider the opportunities to improve relations and obstacles to it. But now skepticism prevails: although it does not imply all hopes are lost, it is pretty close to it. We might assume that the next phase will be a deep disappointment bordering on anti-American hysteria.

A logical conclusion would be that the relations between the two countries, though significant for Russia, the U.S. and the whole world, defy any simple solutions, even despite the sincere desire of the two leaders to improve the situation. There are no reasons to suspect President Barack Obama or President Dmitry Medvedev of duplicity when each was talking about “resetting.” Yet there is something in these relations that prevents a quick and successful resetting, and keeps the parties from identifying the disagreements, finding acceptable solutions and bringing their relations into a more productive interaction.

In this context, political scientists should try to find adequate answers to the questions about how Russian-U.S. relations are built, what their problems are and why these two large countries that were allies in the anti-Hitler coalition and are not afraid to take responsibility for the world affairs in the present conditions have been unable – for six decades – to build stable and respectful cooperation as befits their status and opportunities. Juvenile behavior of adults and even whole states is not that rare, but why have Russia and the U.S. got afflicted and not found the cure so far? These questions require a detailed analysis.


The available analysis of the history of Russian-U.S. relations has somehow overlooked an important point: it so happened that the two superpowers, ready to smite and annihilate each other and a larger part of the world with the unprecedented power of their nuclear missile potentials in case of crisis, managed to end the Cold War within a tight historical timeframe (1985-1989), give up the suicidal confrontation, find a common language, and become close partners. Had it happened because of a mutual enemy, whose threat would make the Soviet Union and the U.S. forget their disagreements and pool their efforts, it would have been understandable and logical. However, the superpowers pulled out of the conflict and gave up their confrontation thanks to certain accords reached between their leaders, and this fact is of special interest.

We might assume that from the very start their confrontation did not imply resolving problems with bloodshed, or that the sides gradually developed an awareness that no considerations of ideology, ambitions and selfishness are worth the price they might pay for a conflict. And then their leaders chose to assess the real contradictions: which of them were worth the arms race, the spending of national resources on war preparations and all other sacrifices suffered by the Soviet Union and America since the onset of the Cold War in 1948-1949, and which, conversely, were a weak justification of the arms race and required a revision.

Both countries eventually acknowledged that there were no acute or enduring contradictions in their relations that would justify a suicidal conflict. True, they had different views on the historical prospects for humanity and resolved problems in different ways, but it did not mean that these differences should necessarily require a war. As for other issues concerning their relations, such as territorial claims, economic competition, the struggle for resources, etc., they emerged later as a result of ideological rivalry. All the Soviet Union and the U.S. had to do was agree that ideology should not interfere in inter-state relations, and that alone rendered fighting unnecessary.

Despite the simplicity of the concept, it took the two countries a whole epoch to mature to it. We call this historical period “the epoch of bipolarity.” Possessing the breathtaking power – unprecedented in history – became part of the mentality of the ruling elites on both sides of the Iron Curtain. They nourished the hope that one of them was about to achieve the position of absolute power and that the other would lose this opportunity. This fueled the drive to wage a struggle and even justified it, to a certain extent. The eventual understanding that it was impossible to achieve absolute power given the existing equation in power and technology (this understanding came in the wake of Reagan’s idea of Star Wars in 1982-1983) became the starting point for the search for ways out of the conflict.

This reminder is necessary because after the confrontation, the U.S.-Russian relations were expected to evolve along a different path, namely cooperation, mutual understanding and partnership. The entire policy by Russia’s first Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, who enjoyed complete support of President Boris Yeltsin, was built around these expectations in 1991-1996, as was the policy of his U.S. counterpart Warren Christopher. Opponents to the development of relations with the U.S. now call this policy “treachery,” but in the early 1990s it fully reflected the opinions of a considerable part of Russia’s political elite. The unexpected decision by President Bill Clinton in 1995 to enlarge NATO in response to the pullout of Russian troops from Europe destroyed these rosy hopes.

Since then, Russian-U.S. relations – despite certain moments of euphoria – have been steadily deteriorating. They were severely damaged by NATO’s incomprehensible and senseless war against Yugoslavia in 1999. It did not resolve any of the alliance’s political objectives (if it had any) and created a potentially dangerous seat of tension in Kosovo. And it wrecked Russian-U.S. relations. As some analysts say, “the window of opportunities for Russian-U.S. relations shut.” The entire term of presidency of George Bush did not introduce anything new or positive in these relations. The U.S. continued to regard itself as indisputably right, while Russia, insulted by the inappropriate show of force by the U.S. administration, was “consolidating” by strengthening its economic and financial positions, defending its “sovereign democracy” (mostly viewed as a response to the challenge of the American-style democracy), and seeking allies in Europe.

The whole period had been most distressing until Obama’s “resetting.” On the one hand, it seemed that nothing prevented the countries from launching fruitful and mutually advantageous relations once the factor of ideology disappeared. But it did not happen, and this fact alone caused regret. On the other hand, the U.S. administration – whether Clinton’s or Bush’s – kept underestimating Russia’s opportunities and snubbed consultations with Russia over important security issues (NATO enlargement, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the policy towards the Iranian nuclear program), while insisting on the righteousness of its cause. Indeed, one might think that things were moving to a new kind of Cold War because in actual fact, the U.S. could not resolve any of these problems either on its own or with its allies, and badly needed Russia’s cooperation. Yet, it behaved in such a manner as if Russia cannot have any other option but agree with the U.S. on anything.

It is therefore reasonable to state that Russian-U.S. relations lost much of their balance. Whereas we had a certain stable system at the end the Cold War in the late 1980s – early 1990s, based on parity and mutual dependence in terms of security, this system underwent major changes in the 1990s: the U.S. practically stopped acknowledging parity with Russia and dependence on it in many security and world order issues. America assumed that Russia did not deserve the regard with which it treated the Soviet Union, but it did not offer any other model of relations. This resulted in such near-sighted decisions as NATO enlargement and the war against Yugoslavia. Although they did not cause a large international crisis, anti-U.S. sentiments prevailed in Russia, and advocates of closer ties with the West were sidelined from forming foreign and home policies.

For the United States, these events looked like a follow-up of the unipolar world strategy. When it turned out that the strategy lacked real resources, and the U.S. found itself bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, with nuclear forces of Iran and North Korea looming on the horizon, and when it became clear that, despite all good feelings towards NATO allies, Washington could not pin too much hope on their help, the unipolar world concept was deemed erroneous, and President Obama turned his attention to relations with a group of developing countries, including Russia. This was the essence of the “resetting.”

The U.S. needed to thoroughly rethink its tasks in the international arena, re-evaluate its resources and work out a new strategy of action to maintain the world order that began to take shape in the first decade of the 21st century. It set guidelines towards strengthening the positions of all developed countries under the U.S. aegis and working out a common policy (Obama’s speech in Prague in the spring of 2009); expanding U.S. opportunities in the Middle East and the Muslim world in general (Obama’s speech in Cairo); forming an improved world order model (his speech at the UN); and promoting U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region (the speech in Beijing). All these statements were marked by one idea – that of establishing broader cooperation not only with allies but also other countries susceptible to U.S. ideas, including Russia.

The circle has closed. In effect, President Obama returned to the concept of U.S.-Russian relations of the early stage of Boris Yeltsin’s and Bill Clinton’s presidencies, but this time at a new level. The key factor in the turnaround was the experience of the past 15 years, during which a majority of U.S. politicians realized that America’s and its allies’ resources alone were insufficient for resolving the key problems of the contemporary world, including problems of the U.S., and that a new combination of forces was needed for taking control of the development of the global community on the basis of U.S. values and ideas. To that effect, the U.S. had to return to the idea of a friendly Russia, and try and make it an ally.


Admittedly, political will is hardly the only means of resolving interstate relations. It does play a large role (as in Russia-NATO relations, after the heads of state and government of the alliance decided to enlarge it), yet these decisions must agree with a broader context of relations that is formed by real interests of the countries involved, their opportunities, traditions, concepts, etc. In other words, there are relations between different countries, such as Russia and the U.S., that are formed by the size of their potentials, geostrategic positions, history, values and many aspects of their identity. Building on them, the heads of state can agree on certain rules of interaction.

The distinctive feature of U.S.-Russian relations after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the Russian Federation as its successor was a growing asymmetry of opportunities. While the two countries were equal in terms of strategic nuclear armaments, such was not the case in the economic, social, technological and financial spheres. The U.S. retained its status as a “superpower,” i.e. a country whose opportunities exceeded those of all other countries or their coalitions by the size of the GDP, budget, armed forces, investment in R&D, and the number of allies and partners. Russia was downgraded to the group of developing or transitional countries with all their inherent problems: the need for political and economic reforms, the search for a new identity, the struggle for a new and yet uncertain status in international relations, and many other issues.

What kind of relations could Russia and the U.S. have in these conditions? There is no unequivocal answer. In a number of fields, both states could continue to play the role of leaders – if they reached an accord – in maintaining the global balance of nuclear armaments at the lowest possible level and the non-proliferation regime, controlling the movement of fissile materials and missile technologies, and controlling the trade in arms and ammunition. Also, they could play the leading role in combating climate change, ensuring energy security, fighting terrorism and extremism, and developing resources of the Arctic region.

But all these opportunities are severely limited by the growing imbalance between the two countries as the U.S. has a tremendous (more than 10-fold) advantage in the production of goods and labor productivity, and the level of technology and R&D (which involves thousands of Russian nationals together with U.S. researchers). The main factor that limits the opportunities of Russian-U.S. cooperation is the lack of a formula of relations that would suit both parties and act as an interface for their relations and actions in the international arena.

Russia and the U.S. are key UN members with permanent seats on the UN Security Council, and they assure that they act within the framework of the existing norms of international law. Yet this is not enough for establishing effective and acceptable relations between them. They need something else, but they keep silent on this account: they have to determine who is who in their tandem and how they intend to address the problems on the list of their national priorities and on the global agenda.

The management theory says that problem settlement comprises five stages: formulating a problem, setting a task, assessing the resources, developing a strategy of action, and getting the result. It would seem nothing prevents the two countries from going along this way in the search for a formula of their relations, once the Sochi declaration of April 6, 2008 set the process going. It was signed by Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin as a “road map” to develop bilateral relations for the next ten to 15 years. The document names, in a logical sequence, the key problems requiring the efforts of both powers, which could help them work out a certain system of “rules of conduct”, based on shared interests and responsibility in issues concerning security, development, environment (including outer space), development of science and technology, and humanitarian cooperation.

Yet no headway has been made since then. This is because, first, both countries have changed their leaders – who have ideas and priorities of their own – and, second, the declaration did not propose a mechanism to coordinate these interests, assign roles, and decide on the end goals of the policy of addressing the accrued problems: should their objective be altruistic help to humanity (which some skeptics call “heating a street with your home power source”), or should the result of their efforts be serious progress in the world order, commensurate to their input?

That’s where the clue to the matter lies. Nobody disputes the fact that the United States is more powerful than Russia in many ways, and that its contribution to the joint search for ways to resolve problems will be invariably larger. But is it sufficient to resolve other tasks? For example, there is the problem of the Iranian nuclear potential and the possibility that it might develop nuclear weapons. Can this problem be resolved without Russia, even if the U.S. enlists its allies? Most likely, the answer is negative. In this case, how can we measure Russia’s contribution to the settlement of the problem? What criteria should we use and what remuneration is due to Russia for its assistance? These are no idle questions.

In the 1990s, Russia made unprecedented concessions in making the European continent safer. It withdrew troops from Germany, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states within a limited timeframe. Russia did not have enough infrastructure to accommodate all these troops and often had to deploy them in field. Nevertheless, understanding the significance which European countries attached to the pullout of the Soviet troops, Moscow did not demand a decade-long period for the withdrawal (as Britain did), nor did it insist on a huge compensation. It withdrew its troops – and received NATO’s enlargement in return. In light of these facts, can Russian leaders be reproached for making no haste in taking commitments, even if they agree with the necessity to resolve this or that problem?

This does not imply that the best course for Russia would be a strategic turn to the East, where Russian assets, such as nuclear weapons and defense industry, still rate high. The East would be grateful for an extra boost to the international positions of such potential giants as China and India, in the form of Russia’s military-technological and raw-material potentials. But there is no technology, know-how or markets there for modernizing Russia, which the West has in abundance. The West will always do the U.S. bidding. Consequently, to resolve national tasks, Russia needs to have the U.S. as a friendly partner. The question is how to make the U.S. such a partner and hedge against possible fluctuations and turnarounds in the spirit of George Bush Jr?


If the United States regarded the Russian version of democracy as acceptable, raising the issue of elevating Russian-U.S. interaction to the level of alliance would be opportune and real. But many U.S. publications and statements by U.S. politicians show that Washington does not view Russia’s “sovereign democracy” as democracy in the true sense of the word and would rather treat it as “enlightened authoritarianism.” So a Russian-U.S. alliance is not on the agenda, although in Afghanistan the countries actually act as members of a wartime pact. Perhaps, ad hoc alliances to tackle other problems are possible, but they still will be a far cry from a full-fledged alliance, like NATO or the alliance between the U.S. and Japan.

This conclusion marks an extreme point in the range of possible Russian-U.S. relations: on the one hand, both states do not wish to fight each other (and this concurrence of interests enabled them at one point to begin a dialogue over breaking the deadlock), and on the other, they cannot become allies, at least in the foreseeable future. There is a huge range of possible versions of relations between these extreme points – from restrained-friendly to quite friendly, from neutral to mutual interest, etc. The choice is theirs, because it is unlikely that any third country can seriously affect their decision.

In this event, the two countries are facing two tasks: first, to determine an optimal form of relations within the framework of what they can realistically hope for, and, second, to come to terms as regards the acceptability of that form and relevant commitments. The task is not that difficult, despite its seeming complexity: there is a package of basic agreements between Russia and the U.S. that were inherited from the period of Soviet-American cooperation. These are documents which enable the countries to considerably reduce the risk of unpremeditated conflict and even raise the issue of preventing such a risk. There are also agreements on control over strategic armaments which fix their balance at an acceptable level (although their effect began to erode following the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty). Russia and the U.S have solid agreements on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and interaction in conflict regions (Korea, Indochina, the Middle East, etc).

Moscow and Washington are involved in the settlement of many global problems through the G8 and G20 mechanisms. Of course, it is not a bilateral format; the interaction mechanism there is much more complex and involves relations with other countries, but it, too, involves Russian-U.S. contacts. Therefore, Russian-U.S. relations meet many parameters for various forms of interaction, including a trustful relationship, but they lack an integrating formula, a sort of groundwork for relations, “rules of conduct” or “principles of interaction.” It is a task yet to be accomplished.

There are two ways to look for this prospect: returning to the old forms of interaction, such as the allied relations between Russia and the U.S. during World War II, and studying the models of America’s relations with other countries in transition.

A retrospection of the past experience would be very helpful. Without going into detail, let me remind the reader that during the accelerated industrialization in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s-early 1930s, U.S. companies (unlike British or French ones) built factories in this country to produce planes, tractors, cars, and agricultural equipment. These enterprises made the backbone of the Soviet military-industrial sector that enabled the Soviet Union to supply first-class weapons to the army. Much has been said about the U.S. assistance to the Soviet Union during World War II. The simple gratitude on the part of those who fought using U.S. equipment, who used U.S. medicines and food and who drove U.S. cars means much more than agitprop attempts to cast this wartime alliance into oblivion or underestimate its significance.

Lastly, let us recall the ambitious Soviet project to develop virgin soil in northern Kazakhstan and Altai in 1955-1960 to resolve the food problem in the Soviet Union. After the project failed to solve the task, the U.S consistently exported five to seven million tons of grain a year to Russia, beginning from the late 1960s, helping its “class enemy” avoid the threat of famine. After the fall of the Communist regime in Russia, the United States recognized Russia as the main successor to the Soviet Union and helped it join the G8 group of developed nations.

Admittedly, the United States played the role of a “senior” with respect to Russia in many cases, expect for the World War II period when the roles reversed and the Soviet Union spearheaded the defeat of Nazism. On the whole, the U.S. demonstrated a stably friendly attitude to Russia, actually preparing it for the role of an economic and political partner in the U.S. version of the world order.

In comparing Russian-U.S. relations with those between the U.S. and other countries in transition (such as China, India or Brazil), it is easy to see considerable differences here. U.S.-Chinese relations are considerably cushioned by extensive economic ties, in which America’s (and its allies’) high-tech is combined with China’s unlimited labor resources. In U.S.-Indian relations there is a strong political factor: India has the British-type democratic system. Brazil has been a long-standing U.S. client within the framework of inter-American ties. In this respect, Russia seems to drop out of the group of other transitional countries, yet its nuclear arsenal puts it closer, than the others, to the status of “guarantor” of international security. This factor makes the strongest imprint on the nature of its relations with the U.S.

The above considerations enable a logical conclusion that a peacetime alliance is not contra-indicated either for the U.S. or Russia. In principle, they are capable of finding solutions to the existing and even future problems (such as the development of resources in the Arctic region) and creating an effective mechanism of interaction, although many countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region fear or resent this possibility. There are no doubts that these solutions would help strengthen the rationality of world politics and the world order. The thing is that in order to realize this project, we either need a recurrence of the 1941 situation, when the need to fight a dangerous global enemy made both states forget their ideological differences and launch a common struggle, or an ultra-strong political will of the leaders, aware of the importance of Russian-American cooperation for the fate of the world, as happened in 1985-1990s. Such is the drama of relations between the two nations.