Traveling in Different Boats
No. 4 2008 October/December
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

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-a-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
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

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
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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.