Traveling in Different Boats
No. 1 2018 January/March
Ivan A. Safranchuk

PhD in Political Science
MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia
Department of International Studies and Foreign Policy of Russia


SPIN-RSCI: 9754-1094
ORCID: 0000-0003-2214-6628
ResearcherID: O-3257-2017
Scopus AuthorID: 57193867458


E-mail: [email protected]
Address: Office 4101, 76 Vernadsky Prospect, Moscow 119454, Russia

Russia and the U.S. After Their “Strategic Partnership”

Russian-U.S. relations have gone through several phases in the past two decades. In the early 1990s, Moscow trusted Washington and sought to establish the friendliest possible relations with the U.S. However, influential Russian political circles and society at large soon came to think that the United States was betraying the new Russia’s confidence. In the second half of the 1990s, differences between the two countries increased, culminating in the spring of 1999 when NATO launched a military operation against Yugoslavia. Just one month after that war, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, in view of the new geopolitical situation, signed a decree to introduce amendments to strategic documents—the National Security Concept and the Military Doctrine.

However, in late 1999, during his last foreign visit as a head of state, Yeltsin stabilized relations with Western partners. In Istanbul, he signed several military agreements and defused political tensions. It should be noted that the autumn of 1999 was a very difficult period for Yeltsin and his team. During a critical pre-election campaign for the State Duma, the Yeltsin administration worked very hard to ensure the success of “Operation Successor” and to hold off a powerful attack by regional political leaders who had joined with the federal opposition led by Yevgeny Primakov. It was the period of the Second War in Chechnya and Yeltsin’s health was failing. Nevertheless, even in such circumstances, Yeltsin managed to find the time and the physical strength to normalize relations with the West.


From the very beginning of his presidency, Vladimir Putin sought rapprochement with Western countries. Real results came in 2001, after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington. However, the period when Russia and the U.S. were united by a common enemy proved to be short. Mutual mistrust and real tactical and strategic disagreements brought about a new conflict—over the war in Iraq in 2003. This time, Moscow was not alone, as it united with Paris and Berlin.

However, no one wanted a recurrence of the 1999 situation. First, no one would gain from it strategically. Second, it would simply be foolish politically, since in 2002—just a year before—high-ranking Russian and U.S. officials once again solemnly announced the “end of the Cold War.”

The parties needed a formula for their relations that would give them room for differences, but which would hold these differences under control. And such a formula did appear—it was “agree to disagree.” Moscow and Washington told each other about their differences and put them on record, but refrained from confrontation. This formula helped each of the two countries to resolve their tasks.

Russia, whose opinion had been simply ignored in previous years, got a chance to be heard. The United States was now ready to listen to Russia’s point of view not at nuclear gunpoint, but in a normal, friendly atmosphere. This fit in well with Russia’s aspirations of the time. It was believed that if Moscow had an opportunity to express its position and participate in common discussions with Western partners, its views would be taken into account. The inability to be heard seemed to be the main problem for Russia. At that time, Moscow’s access to the “closed doors” of Western politics was a priority issue—hence Moscow’s desire for full-scale participation in the G8 and the creation of the NATO-Russia Council. The “agree to disagree” formula provided a mechanism for the normal presentation of Russia’s position.

Also, Russia needed to resolve one more task. Putin had launched a very active policy—mostly in Europe, but also in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and, quite naturally, in the territory of the former Soviet Union. It turned out, however, that many countries in those regions cared what Washington might think, even if they themselves had differences with the U.S. So, it was easier to work with various partners on various continents if Russia was not viewed as an enemy of the United States. Of course, there were always countries ready to rub elbows with Russia on an openly anti-American platform, for example, Iran and Venezuela. But Russia needed more. To this end, it needed to neutralize the United States so that problems in relations with it did not stand in the way of active policies vis-á-vis other actors.

The U.S. gained something as well. Washington saw Russia’s reinvigorated policies in various regions of the world and it did not want Moscow to become a center of attraction for anti-American forces, which would enjoy Russia’s support at the UN Security Council. The United States also wanted to maintain a certain level of cooperation with Russian special services. Washington hoped for Russia’s assistance with difficult issues, such as Iran, North Korea and the Middle East, and it expected that Moscow would, at least, not assist U.S. enemies.

So, Russia and the United States had a common interest—both did not want to find themselves on different sides of the barricade in global conflicts. cooperation might succeed or it might not, but what mattered more was preventing confrontation. The “agree to disagree” formula met this interest. Soon, however, some details were revealed.

Moscow quickly discovered that to be heard did not necessarily mean to be heeded. The West attentively listened to Russia, but used its right to “disagree.” Thus, nothing really changed in practice. There was a political coup in Georgia in 2003. Russia did not at all mind if Eduard Shevardnadze was replaced, but it expected that a new presidential candidate would be agreed on with it. In 2004, Moscow and Washington once again found themselves in opposite camps in the political struggle in Ukraine.

Russia saw its interests attacked in Eastern Europe and in the Caucasus, and reacted by putting pressure on U.S. interests in Central Asia. In 2005, the United States had to withdraw its military base from Uzbekistan, while another U.S. base—in Kyrgyzstan—has been under constant pressure since then.

The United States was also dissatisfied with the deal. It had thought that Russia would not go any further than expressing its discontent with U.S. policies and would not play a game of its own against U.S. interests. Therefore Washington was surprised when Moscow did not let it “crush” Iran and when it did not support U.S. policy in Lebanon, supporting instead Syria—politically at the UN Security Council and militarily by supplying it with air defense systems. Russia also supported Venezuela and started putting all-out pressure on pro-American regimes in Eastern Europe and then in the Caucasus. Moscow did not intend to give in whenever the United States declared its interests.

Russia’s conduct ran counter to Washington’s interpretation of the “agree to disagree” formula. In 2006 and 2007, the U.S. adjusted it and transformed it into “disagree but do not oppose.”

Such a formula could be interesting for Russia if the parties divided the world into zones of influence and responsibility. Then they could disagree about each other’s actions inside these zones, but would not interfere in the affairs of the other party’s zone. However, Washington did not want to divide the world into such zones. And now Moscow is not very eager to do that either, as it now can play a game of its own on a large scale and there is no more need for it to artificially narrow the playing field.

However, without separate zones of influence/responsibility, the U.S. “disagree but do not oppose” formula made no sense. The United States also found it unattractive when it began to be turned back and asked not to interfere in Russian policies.

The “agree to disagree” formula became outdated and stopped working by the end of 2006. Its potential was simply exhausted, but no new solutions have been found yet. Many disagreements have piled up over the past five years. By the end of his presidency, Vladimir Putin could no longer hush them up—hence his famous “Munich speech.” Yet neither Moscow nor Washington want an open confrontation between themselves either.


There have been several constants in Russian-U.S. relations during the post-Soviet years.

The political leaders in Moscow and Washington do not trust each other. This ceased to be something new a decade ago, but in recent years they have also shown increasingly less respect for each other. The Russian and U.S. political classes had sincere (or, at least, relatively sincere) sympathy for each other, perhaps, only in the late 1980s-early 1990s. And even when relations between the two countries later deteriorated, their political leaders maintained some mutual respect.

For the U.S., it was based mainly on the hope that Russia would overcome its retreats and contradictions and would finally adopt the Western model of democracy. Washington pinned certain hopes on Moscow, which dictated some form of respect for its political elite. The U.S. establishment has seen these hopes rapidly vanishing over the past few years. Russia is not ignored or not taken into account. On the contrary, Russia is viewed as an increasingly significant factor in world politics, but the former hopes are no longer pinned on it; the U.S. is ready to take Russia as it is. This results in a more correct, yet not at all respectful attitude.

On its part, Russia respected the United States as a superpower and as the world’s largest economy. As time went by, however, it began to apply to the U.S. the proverb “brawn instead of brain.” Now even U.S. “brawn” is being called into question. The United States is no longer respected as a strong state; rather, its weaknesses, especially in the economy, are emphasized. Meanwhile, the U.S. has proved to be unable to offer any other basis for respect, in addition to strength.

The loss of mutual respect is a relatively new and extremely dangerous tendency—a highly skeptical attitude toward each other breeds suspicion and mistrust. Of course, on both sides of the ocean there are people who keep mutual respect—even despite major differences—and who are ready to display a professional attitude. However, the significance of psychological and emotional factors is growing. This is both a manifestation and a direct consequence of the loss of mutual respect. This situation had its climax in August 2008, when the hostilities in South Ossetia and Georgia broke out.

To maintain friendly relations between the two countries, their top leaders needed to make big personal efforts. As soon as these efforts weakened, relations quickly plummeted to a low level. The government machinery did not show enough interest in cooperation. And although there were some positive examples, on the whole the cooperation experience did not produce a positive and stable model.

Most importantly, all attempts to invent a “joint agenda” for the two countries failed. The issue of a “positive agenda” for Russian-U.S. relations was raised many times. Some people said at once that it was impossible; others tried formulating such an agenda and gave up. And only the most tenacious ones continued inventing a “joint project.”

To paraphrase a well-known phrase, one can say “Nothing personal, just no business.” Putin and Bush had no personal problems. But Russia and the United States had no joint business, either. Their statements on the joint struggle against terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, etc., never became a joint business.


The geopolitical and geostrategic interests of Moscow and Washington have been diverging rapidly. The two countries now have incompatible interests in the energy sector, as well as in some geographical areas. So, soon they may well use the traditional phrase “nothing personal, just business,” only each party will have a business of its own, and their businesses will compete with each other.

The parties missed a real opportunity to harmonize their interests and achieve strategic solutions on partnership and joint actions in 2004-2005 during the second wave of the replacement of leaders in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Russia and the U.S. launched games of their own, which placed them on different sides of the barricades in Ukraine and Georgia, and somewhat earlier in Moldova, which was torn by a territorial conflict. The parties are now unable to give up their positions and will play their games to the end, which will take a long time.

The same years saw fundamental differences between the two countries in their Middle Eastern policies (Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian issue) and the beginning of their rivalry in the energy sector: Moscow began to work out its own conceptual approaches to energy security issues, which were at variance with those of the U.S. Since then, Russia and the U.S. have been acting in their own way.

The factor of the change of administrations is losing its importance, as the period of the formulation of long-term interests by Russian and U.S. political leaders is coming to an end. This is particularly true for Russia. But the U.S. is also holding active discussions about “how to live in the modern world” and how to “contain” Russia, although the latter issue is not in the focus of those discussions. Meanwhile, there is a very thin line between containment and counteraction, and many people in Russia think that the U.S. has already crossed it. The next administrations in Moscow and Washington will be more engaged in implementing strategic plans than introducing amendments to them.

For all their differences, the parties do not want an open confrontation. Russia feels that it is strong enough to play a game of its own. The United States fears that Russia is not reformed and responsible enough, and this is why it wants to keep an eye on it and restrict it wherever possible. On the other hand, Washington does not want to annoy Moscow and prefers soft forms of control, such as joint actions, cooperation, etc.

A paradoxical situation has arisen. Russia wants to co-operate with the U.S. (especially on various security matters)—but on a pronouncedly equal footing. Such cooperation would emphasize the new quality of Moscow and its foreign policy. However, in response to its willingness to co-operate, Russia sees U.S. attempts to organize interaction in such a way that would actually contain, block and restrict it.

Russia needs forms of cooperation that would emphasize its independence and significance—that is, forms of cooperation, rather than Russia’s assistance with some U.S. affairs. For its part, the United States needs interaction that would not leave Russia on the sidelines and, at the same time, would not give it the power of veto.

Moscow is willing and ready to prove its worth. Washington is apprehensive about the possible outcome. As a result, the parties are constantly losing the opportunity to enter into a normal dialogue and frankly discuss a wide range of issues. Washington’s reaction to Putin’s Munich speech was very indicative. The Russian president spoke up then—in very frank terms—about what had been worrying Russia for a long time. Those were not empty complaints; the Russian political establishment had been thinking and saying the same for several years. Incidentally, politicians in Europe and Asia share Russia’s worries, but they refrain from stating their concern in public as it is not considered to be politically correct yet.

The reply by Pentagon chief Robert Gates was to the following effect: Why make so much noise and worry—no one is touching you; we do not want a recurrence of the past and confrontation. In the United States, Gates’s reaction is viewed as exemplary—he did not succumb to Cold War rhetoric or get involved in confrontation-style discussions, and made clear the difference between the past and the present. However, Russia views this from a different position: Gates dodged a frank dialogue. Moscow now does not want to put up with a situation when it can openly talk with President George W. Bush, but then nothing changes after those discussions and agreements are not met.

A year later, at another security conference in Munich in the winter of 2008, Sergei Ivanov delivered an unimpassioned speech. Many commentators took this as a retreat from Putin’s Munich statement, but, in fact, Moscow simply decided that it was of no use to speak with the U.S.


The bulk of this article was written before Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia and Russia’s subsequent intervention in the conflict. The disagreements between Moscow and Washington on the “Georgian issue” and the behavior of U.S. politicians both inside the incumbent administration and those who are planning to form the next U.S. government have only confirmed and developed the trends that had taken place earlier.

The U.S. took a purely pragmatic position and declared its full support for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Later, Washington may well betray him—after all, he did make a very big mistake. But the most important thing for the United States was to stop the advance of Russian troops and ensure their earliest possible withdrawal from Georgia proper. This goal could be achieved in different ways. But Washington chose what it thought to be the most reliable one—that is, it pledged its complete support for Saakashvili and for Georgia’s territorial integrity. The U.S. was not at all embarrassed that this path was outspokenly anti-Russian and that it required lying in public statements by U.S. leaders who presented the case as Russia’s aggression against Georgia and compared Russia’s actions to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

If Saakashvili is not a U.S. puppet, but an independent and unpredictable politician, and if the U.S. cannot fully control him, why supply him with more and more weapons and give him full public support? This is irresponsible, to say the least.

But if the Georgian leader is not an independent politician and is completely controlled by Washington, he could not launch the aggression against South Ossetia without his patron’s consent. In this case, the U.S. administration is particularly responsible for the actions of the Georgian regime and is, in fact, a party to the conflict.

The U.S. supports Saakashvili, but refuses to take responsibility for him. It seems that Moscow has already become tired of trying to understand whether such a position is merely folly or the height of cynicism. The Russian establishment has come to think that it is not that important after all.

The Georgian crisis has put an end to the protracted period of uncertainty in Russian-U.S. relations, which lasted for approximately the last three years. President Vladimir Putin made a decisive breakthrough toward Russia’s integration into the global economy and politics. The view prevailed in Russia then that the country could adapt to the new global rules without hurting its national interests and even that it could implement them more fully. The U.S. position after September 11, 2001 gave grounds to believe that Russia’s position could be explained to Washington and that the latter could accept it on certain terms. In other words, Russia believed that it could come to terms with the U.S.

However, practical moves to come to terms invariably failed after 2003. Yet it seemed that the parties could at least not play against each other openly. But the events in Ukraine in 2004 and in the Middle East after 2005 left no hope for that. In the past three years, Russian and U.S. interests constantly clashed. The United States wondered why Russia would not give in, while Moscow became increasingly annoyed by the very idea that it should give in.

The Georgian crisis has put everything into place. Those have proved to be right who have for many years been saying the following:

First, the United States is hopeless; nothing can be explained to it; and it will resort to any lie for its own interests.

Second, the United States is deliberately arming Russia’s neighbors that are unfriendly to it in order to be able to put more pressure on Russia.

And third, it is impossible to come to terms with the U.S.

Relations between Russia and the United States are acquiring a new quality. They are not confrontational yet (at least, in the Cold War sense), but they are not a partnership either—the parties have failed to find cooperation formats that would suit them both, and now their interests are diverging, as well. Moscow and Washington can co-operate on certain individual issues, but strategically they are now on their own—certainly not in the same boat.

For the rest of the world, the transition of Russian-U.S. relations into this new quality was largely unexpected. Europe stands to gain the most from it—if, of course, it dares one day to do at least something independently and use at least part of the opportunities given to it by the modern world. The lack of systemic confrontation between Russia and the United States leaves Europe free not to make a decisive choice between the two powers. The Old World can behave flexibly, in some cases supporting Russia, while in others the United States. For Europe, this is a chance to finally begin to act in accordance with its own interests.

For China, it is somewhat surprising that Russia and the United States have found themselves in such a situation. But China will hardly be unpleased with such a state of affairs in the short term. Rather, Beijing will not believe it for some time, interpreting the development of Russian-U.S. relations as a movement toward confrontation (which has not yet been completely ruled out, but not predetermined either—at least, it will not be a conscious choice of Moscow and Washington). As a result, China will apparently continue to act in accordance with the old logic of Henry Kissinger—that is, the logic of a “strategic triangle” among Russia, China and the U.S., where rapprochement between any two of the parties will necessarily make the third one lose. However, the new quality of Russian-U.S. relations completely rules out the “strategic triangle” logic.

The other two countries of BRIC—Brazil and India—will benefit somewhat from the new quality of Russian-U.S. relations. As they do not need confrontation with America, nor excessive concessions to it, Moscow’s new position will give them more opportunities for upholding their interests. In general, the advancement by Russia of the BRIC format in recent years, where the parties discuss the agendas of the UN Security Council and the G8, apparently reflects this transition by Moscow to fundamentally new positions in its foreign policy.

On the whole, the new quality of Russian-U.S. relations is another essential element of the multipolar picture of the world. A confrontational model stems from the bipolar past. Partnerships and alliances are elements of either “friendly bipolarity,” which never materialized, or of a unipolar world under U.S. leadership, which also failed to produce results.