Many observers have written that the change in leadership in the
United States will open up new opportunities for U.S.-Russian
relations. It is hard to argue with this for the simple reason that
bilateral relations could hardly get worse than they are now.
First, there is an extremely high level of mistrust between the
two countries. Both sides have lost almost all desire to understand
the motives behind the other.
Second, U.S.-Russian relations are completely out of balance.
When leaders make their usual statements about common threats or
the challenges facing both countries, their words ring hollow. Even
in areas where the interests of both sides clearly coincide, there
is no real progress because each side tries to «sell» its
cooperation at a higher cost than the other does.
Third, the mechanisms for maintaining healthy relations have
dwindled. The multifaceted communication between Russia and the
United States that existed during the Soviet era and the 1990s has
today been reduced to nothing but formal contacts and the exchange
What’s more, the relationship is lopsided. The United States
occupies a far greater place in Russia’s political consciousness
than the other way around. President Barack Obama’s administration
will not make Russia a top priority, although Moscow’s relative
importance might go up a notch or two depending on circumstances.
If there will be any hypothetical relaxation of tensions between
the two countries, it will not be because Washington sets that as a
goal in itself but because it sees that Russia is actively helping
to resolve problems that Washington considers priorities.
What exactly are those priorities?
Overcoming the economic crisis is clearly at the top of the
list. Russia’s influence in the global and U.S. economies is much
smaller than that of China and Europe, and even the price of oil
depends little on Moscow. More likely, the opposite will happen: In
an effort to battle the crisis, the United States will implement
measures that prove painful to other countries, thereby increasing
The Middle East will undoubtedly be another priority for the
Obama administration. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at the
heart of the region’s problems, and Obama will try to address that
endless feud as soon as possible after his inauguration. It is
often thought that Moscow could play a positive role in the
process, but Russia has had almost no influence with either side of
that hopeless standoff. Moscow holds some leverage because of its
veto power in the United Nations Security Council, but it will
probably defer to the initiative of other states rather than take a
leading role on this issue.
The situation with Iraq is similar. Moscow will do nothing to
create conditions that would enable Washington to withdraw its
troops more quickly, but it will not complicate the process
The United States cannot resolve the issue of Iran without
Russia’s participation. There is always the possibility that Russia
could use its leverage with Iran to make it more amenable to
compromise. At the same time, mutual progress on the Iran question
might reduce the perception of that country’s threat to Europe,
thereby removing Washington’s main argument for deploying elements
of its missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Similarly, the Afghanistan problem cannot be solved without
close cooperation between all of the regional powers — India,
China, Russia and Iran. What support does Washington need? Obama
plans to expand military operations there, but none of the
countries mentioned will contribute troops.
Of course, it is possible that the United States wants to set up
a fundamentally new system of collective security in the region
with participation by all sides. That would support Obama’s desire
for change, but the likelihood of that scenario is probably
The area that causes the most friction between Moscow and
Washington — the former Soviet republics — will remain a source
of tension. It is highly unlikely that Obama will oppose the
further expansion of NATO, but events in Georgia and Ukraine
clearly demonstrate that the membership process should not be
offered hastily. It is clear that neither country meets the
objective requirements for membership.
Aside from the divisive questions of missile defense and NATO
expansion, U.S.-Russian relations have become a bit less strained.
That makes it possible to restore the balance and rebuild
constructive bilateral relations.
But a psychological factor will play a role in U.S.-Russian
relations owing to the fact that Hillary Clinton will be defining
U.S. diplomacy as secretary of state. The Clinton name brings up
direct associations with the 1990s, a period Russian propaganda
views as a black hole from which Moscow miraculously escaped. On
the other hand, those in former President Bill Clinton’s
administration who were responsible for dealing with Russia cannot
but help to experience an unpleasant aftertaste now.
The clash of those two opposing perceptions of the same events
— one Russian and the other American — does not bode well for
creating a climate of trust. There is, of course, no foundation to
the assumption that veterans of the Clinton administration will
recreate policies of the last decade. They are all seasoned
politicians and diplomats who understand perfectly well how much
the world has changed since then.
But, in addition to the rational and professional evaluation of
the current process, there is something that is harder to measure.
That is the impression that the decision-makers from the Bill
Clinton period will experience as they return to power — the
feeling of wanting to complete unfinished business. For this
reason, they might unconsciously try to resurrect policies from the
previous decade despite a sincere desire by everyone involved to
formulate a new approach.
Moscow’s reaction to the resurgence of any «demons» from the
past is fully predictable, considering that all parties involved
are reaching the end of their patience.