U.S.-Russian Relations: An American Perspective
No. 4 2006 October/ December
Bakhtiar Amin

Kurdish Iraqi politician who was the Human Rights Minister in the Iraqi Interim Government from June 2004 to May 2005

© «Russia
in Global Affairs». № 4, October
— December 2006

Legvold is Professor of Political Science at Columbia University,
New York. The present paper was originally written for the Aspen
Institute Congressional Conference on U.S.-Russian Relations,
Krakow, Poland, August 2006.


Gone is
the talk of “strategic partnership, not to mention the fanciful
vision of a genuine Russo-American alliance held by some, including
the former U.S. ambassador in Moscow, not so long ago. Gone is the
aura of camaraderie created by Russia’s instant support for the
United States after September 11 and then the joint effort in
winning the Afghan war. Gone are the benevolent winds stirred by
Russia’s mild response to the U.S. abrogation of the ABM agreement,
tolerance of U.S. bases in Central Asia, offer of energy
partnership, acceptance of a new Russia-NATO Council, and
enthusiastic talk of U.S.-Russian cooperation at the May 2002
Moscow summit.


the U.S. vice-president speaks of a Russia whose government “has
unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people,”
threatening religion, a free media, political parties, and civic
organizations, and which uses oil and gas “as tools of intimidation
or blackmail.” On the other side, the soul-plumbed eyes now see a
“wolf” who knows “whom to eat,” and it “is not about to listen to
anyone.” Voices in both countries again discuss the prospect of a
“new Cold War.”


happened? How could a relationship that seemed so promising less
than half a decade ago have so soured? That is the first question,
but there is a second and third: What should happen (or should have
happened)? And what could happen? The “should” question is about
stakes: What, assuming each country managed to rise above today’s
distractions, are the deeper and more enduring interests each has
in the relationship? The “could” question is about possibilities:
What, given the drift of events, the circumstances constraining
each country’s foreign policy, and the pull of other priorities,
can one expect of U.S.-Russian relations during Presidents Bush and
Putin’s remaining time in office?




Ask most
informed Russians and you will get a different answer from that of
most informed Americans, granted Russians differ in their judgments
and so do Americans. The contrast is itself a reflection of what
has gone wrong. Three or five years ago, the key divide would not
have been between countries but between groups, with some Americans
seeing the relationship as some Russians, and other Americans a
mirror image of other Russians. Now, however, mainstream views in
the two countries favor distinctly different narratives.


In the
United States, most policymakers, politicians, and pundits believe
that the increased rockiness owes to the Putin leadership’s steady
movement away from democratic norms, eagerness to centralize power,
including control over important economic sectors, and readiness to
wield this power ruthlessly in order to have its way with weaker
but unbowed neighbors. To add to the unease, many perceive Russia’s
past obstruction of a firm response to Iran, extended hand to Hamas
and readiness to embrace neighborhood authoritarians as a bad
reminder of the old habit of fishing in troubled waters. True,
there are Americans who either see Russia’s evolution as
predictable and within bounds or the residue of an overly
insensitive U.S. policy – a United States happy to see Russia weak,
thrusting its power to Russia’s borders, and demanding cooperation
on its terms. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those
ready to write Russia off as already in the authoritarian camp,
basically hostile to U.S. purposes and bent on re-imposing its sway
over the lands on its borders. But the bulk of opinion lies in


contrast, the mainstream view around Putin and far beyond offers a
very different narrative. The problem, most Russians believe,
arises because Russia has recovered its self-confidence, no longer
cares to tolerate, in the words of one of them, a “pedagogical
relationship,” has its own notion of what political forms will
preserve national security and the country’s way forward, and
intends to pursue its interests in the outside world by its own
light. Having grown comfortable with a Russia whose weakness
deprived it of options and perhaps still harboring a desire to put
Russia in a box and keep it there, the United States, or, at least,
powerful elements within it, cannot adjust. True, as in the United
States, the spectrum of Russian views is broader: frustrated
democrats, while scarcely sympathetic with many aspects of general
U.S. policy, have an equally harsh, albeit more sophisticated, view
of trends at home, and, while supportive of a self-confident
Russian foreign policy, think Putin and his people have gone about
it ham-handedly. At the other extreme, cruder types believe Russia
is at last coming to its senses and recognizing U.S. enmity for
what it is. But as in the United States, the center of gravity is
elsewhere – and scarcely more helpful in reducing the gap in


describe the deterioration in relations, however, is not to explain
it. The dueling narratives, of course, represent explanations, but,
even if one is thought more right than the other, neither leads
very far. They, in many respects, are more symptomatic than a
genuine source of insight. For example, Russian bravado that U.S.
politicians and leaders are simply surprised and uncomfortable with
a resurgent and self-possessed Russia seems to be the thin skin
over three deeper sore points. First and oldest, the neuralgic
sense that the United States never appreciated the contribution the
Soviet Union made to and the price Russia paid for ending the Cold
War, and instead treated the outcome as the spoils of victory. The
chance to intrude a no-longer hapless Russia on the U.S.
consciousness provides emotional satisfaction. Second, and in a way
following directly on the first, past U.S. policy toward Russia has
for some time been judged along a spectrum ranging from
well-meaning condescension (the Clinton administration’s tutoring,
overblown promises, and ultimate insensitivity to Russian concerns
on issues such as NATO enlargement) to ambiguous indifference (the
Bush administration’s initial lack of interest in the relationship,
readiness to act when and how it chose on a host of issues of
concern to Russians, and later inclination to take Russian
cooperation for granted). If the Americans do not like what they
are getting, then they have a better sense of what life has been
like for them. Third, recently and more directly, Russians,
including Putin himself, are angered by U.S. criticism of Russian
domestic and foreign policy, because they tell themselves that it
is designed to serve other purposes (for example, domestic U.S.
politics in the case of Cheney’s Vilnius speech, a competitive edge
in the maneuvering over oil and gas in censuring Gazprom’s hardball
diplomacy, and a wedge intended to check Russian influence by
questioning its role in the so-called “frozen” conflicts in Moldova
and Georgia). This in turn feeds a widespread feeling that the
United States has no compunction about practicing double standards
– pillorying anti-democratic regimes when they identify with
Russia, looking the other way when they serve U.S. interests;
raising a hue and cry when Russia acts forcefully to defend its
interests, allowing itself to do as it pleases when and where it


the blame Americans place on Russia for damaging the relationship
by veering from democracy and behaving badly toward neighbors
seems, in part, an echo of more complex impulses. For many,
although perhaps only semi-consciously, the disenchantment stems
from disappointment. It is not so much that the Russian
leadership’s fall from grace measures up to the excesses of other
regimes, including several among post-Soviet states or for that
matter China, or that Putin does not command broad popular support.
It is that Russia was not expected to backtrack. Russia, however
slowly or tortuously, was expected to make its way toward
democracy, not yield again to the authoritarian temptation. Since
Clinton bought and Bush buys the so-called “democratic peace
theory” – in Bush’s version, “Democracy leads to justice within a
nation, and the advance of democracy leads to greater security
among nations” – losing Russia or even such a prospect grates on
the way many on the American side want the world to work. Nor, with
the Soviet Union gone, did they imagine that U.S.-Russian relations
could soon be clouded by genuine adversarial strains.


A deeper
explanation, however, moves in three directions. First, behavior on
both sides reflects a damaging ambiguity: Is the source of the
challenge Russia’s renewed strength or its continuing weakness?
There is no confusion among those at the outer edge of the
spectrum. Americans, who fault the United States for carelessly
letting the relationship unravel, see Russia as still dangerously
weak and so do Russians who condemn the policy failures flowing
from Putin’s embrace of “bureaucratic authoritarianism” and
“bureaucratic capitalism.” At the other end, Americans ready to
write Russia off or swing a hammer believe Russia has or is
acquiring too many tools aiding an aggressive agenda; Russians, who
are convinced of the United States’ ill intentions, underscore
Russia’s capacity to stand up for itself or, with much the same
effect, the United States’ inability to do much to


problem is the large middle who cannot decide whether Russia is (or
soon will be) too strong or too weak. In fact, Russia is both.
Demographic trends, corroded institutions, uneven economic
development, ethnic tensions, and the leadership’s lack of a
coherent, long-term strategic vision keep Russia weak. High oil
prices, great natural wealth, a monopoly over key power and
transport grids, a large and partially restored military, nuclear
weapons, the UN veto, and China as a natural soulmate on many
critical foreign policy issues render Russia strong. The tendency
of leadership in both countries to waver inconsistently between the
two images, rather than deal candidly and carefully with the way
the two are conjoined, gives to narrow, near-term irritants a
heightened resonance.


trouble also results from a conceptual failure. U.S. presidents,
from Bush Sr. to Bush Jr., have wanted Russia to “choose” the West
– to emulate its democratic institutions, adopt its economic order,
and join in a common foreign policy agenda. And Russian presidents,
from Yeltsin to Putin, have wanted Russia to think of itself and be
thought of as European (hence, as part of the West). The problem is
that neither leadership nor for that matter European leaders have
ever seriously wrestled with the underlying conceptual challenge:
viz., how to integrate Russia with the West, when it cannot be
integrated into the West, that is, into the institutions that are
at the core of Europe (the EU) and the Euro-Atlantic alliance
(NATO). U.S. leaders, particularly in the Clinton era, assumed the
problem would fade naturally as Russia democratized, modernized,
and identified with the West. When this proved false, no one
labored to confront the underlying conundrum. Washington’s response
has been inertia and modest institutional fixes, such as the 1997
Final Act, the Russia-NATO Council, and an expanded G-7. The
Russians, for their part, counted on the United States and its
European partners to solve the problem, caught as they were between
their own sense of being unwanted and ambivalence over how much a
price they were willing to pay to be wanted. Without this deeper
strategic ballast, when the everyday wear and tear of international
politics took its toll, nothing kept the two countries from
dwelling on the things each questioned or resented in the


Third, and
in the end, what most added to the relationship’s vulnerability
arose from the two sides’ underestimation of the stakes that they
had in it. For all the florid talk of each country’s importance to
the other and the special responsibilities they shared, in truth,
no U.S. administration and no Russian leadership since the collapse
of the Soviet Union has been able to convince their
parliamentarians, media and public – in no small measure because
they have never convinced themselves, and, as the negatives mount,
they are less inclined to try. Neither some important
stakes,  such as securing Russia’s
nuclear weapons and material or collaborating against catastrophic,
including nuclear, terrorism, nor Russia’s perishable stake in
Western economic assistance or the dubious notion that trouble in
the Middle East has the power to unify them provides the basis for
a deeper and more durable U.S.-Russian partnership. This leads us
to the second question.




On his way
to meet Boris Yeltsin for the first time, Bill Clinton at the Naval
Academy on April 1, 1993, argued that Russia “must be a first-order
concern” because “… the world cannot afford the strife of the
former Yugoslavia replicated in a nation as big as Russia, spanning
eleven time zones with an armed arsenal of nuclear weapons that is
still very vast.” Unless the United States and the rest of the West
acted, he said, four historic opportunities might well be
squandered: first, a chance to enhance national security and avoid
the danger of Russia seized again by tyranny or sunken in chaos;
second, a chance to turn Russia from “an adversary in foreign
policy” to “a partner in global problem-solving;” third, a chance
to enhance the West’s economic well-being by turning defense
spending to more productive use; and, fourth, a chance to invest in
an “inherently rich nation” that, when reformed, can contribute
greatly to global economic growth. It was a compelling list, but
not one that became the lode star for his or successor


The agenda
for the new Russia-NATO Council (2002) offers a reasonable, more
concrete and contemporary version of the stakes: fighting global
terrorism, controlling weapons of mass destruction, and working
together to limit regional instability. Or one might add two larger
and more fundamental goals: to draw Russia, in mutually beneficial
fashion, into a globalized economy and its governing institutions,
and to sculpt with Russia and the other major nuclear “haves” an
international regime that limits the perils of competitive arming,
a destabilizing race toward the weaponization of space, the
temptation to destroy the nuclear “firebreak” by making nuclear
weapons useable from either a position of weakness (Russia) or a
position of strength (the United States), and that puts in place
new implicit or formalized rules of the road in a world of multiple
nuclear rivalries. In either or both cases, however, worthy as
these objectives are, they remain a doughnut with a missing


Had Russia
and the United States (Russia and the West), from the start,
thought hard about the single over-arching interest uniting them –
a concern of comparable scale to that sustaining the post-war
alliance between the United States and Western Europe – it would
have brought stability and mutual security in and around the
Eurasian land mass. Across this great hinterland of the world’s
critical strategic theaters (Europe, East Asia, and the turbulent
Muslim south), no two powers have a greater stake both in
progressive but stable change and in security, mutual as well as
national, than the United States and Russia. No two powers,
including China and India, are more crucial to the fate of this
vast sweep of territory than the United States and Russia. The
stakes are immense: not simply preventing new zones of
international conflict or ensuring that the violence already
present does not bleed into turbulent neighboring regions,
especially to the south, or, in reverse, import into the
post-Soviet space echoes of the turmoil in Afghanistan, Iraq, and
farther to the west; not only avoiding the radicalization of the 65
million Muslims spread across the former Soviet Union; not only
guaranteeing that the post-Soviet region’s vast oil and gas wealth
is a source of growth, not tension; and not only adding to global
welfare the talents, resources and technology of what in the next
quarter century could be the world’s second most dynamic region,
but managing rather than wrecking the safe and constructive
integration of Eurasia’s outer salients into the larger
international setting. The salients are China and the new “lands in
between” – Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. Had the mutual stake in
“stability and mutual security in and around the Eurasian land
mass” been made primary and recognized as a genuinely compelling
reason for U.S.-Russian partnership, nearly all of the issues that
roil U.S.-Russian relations today would either not have emerged or
would be to the side. And the approach to the specific stakes
listed above would have been predominantly cooperative, not, as we
have instead, an approach constantly teetering on the predominantly


Pie in the
sky? So it would seem. If Russian leaders were fated to address the
angst they felt and the chaos they had experienced by privileging a
strong state over a flourishing democracy, and with popular
blessing, while the United States expected any real and reliable
major ally to be democratic, what chance did the idea have? If the
asymmetries in power and security more or less guaranteed that
Russians would react to a U.S. or NATO role in what yesterday had
been their empire with mistrust and a spirit of rivalry, and the
Americans, in fact, had little desire to make major commitments in
the region, what possibility existed of forging an ambitious
partnership? And, if Russian weakness and self-preoccupation meant
that Washington could safely concentrate on other more immediate
problems, what could have moved its leaders to embrace such a
broad-visioned but demanding goal, particularly when neither the
Congress nor significant political forces wanted it or even let the
notion cross their minds?


But the
idea need not have been so quixotic nor need it be thought yet so
unthinkable. When the U.S. agenda with Russia was primarily to
mitigate the effects of its weakness (for example, containing the
flight of weapon-grade nuclear materials and guarding against the
flow of other contaminants, such as drugs, arms, trafficked humans,
and pirated goods), it was easy to compartmentalize these tasks and
place them among other second- or third-order priorities. When the
United States was in the flush of the “unipolar moment,” confident
of its ability to deal with the perils of international politics
largely on its own terms and, when necessary, basically by itself,
Russia could be reduced to a useful but part-time friend. Neither
condition, however, is any longer true.


counts. It has emerged as a major alternative oil and gas axis,
more important for some, such as Europe and potentially China, than
the Middle East. Its role on crucial international issues, like
Iran and North Korea, particularly in tandem with China’s, is no
longer marginal. And, for good and ill, its capacity to shape
Ukrainian and Belarusian options, as well as to affect Central
Asian security, is greater than any other state. Even its potential
influence on Chinese policy is far from negligible. The United
States, therefore, has reason to rethink the place Russia occupies
in its foreign policy. Lest the Russian leadership treat the same
considerations as justifying no rethinking on its part, however, it
should be mindful of the other side of the coin: the more Russia
becomes part of the global economy, as the U.S.-China relationship
demonstrates, the more it will encounter the United States. The
sooner its oil flows less abundantly (2010), earns a good deal
less, or, as is already true, suffers severely constricted export
capacity, the sooner it will want Western help and cooperation. The
less successful the concentration of power is in containing the
country’s problems and unleashing its potential, the less easy will
the leadership find it to deny society the right to breath. And the
day the brittle status quo in the post-Soviet space on which Russia
counts begins to crumble, because the hidebound regimes to whom it
lends its support falter, will be the day Russia will appreciate
more the common ground it has with the United States. In truth,
therefore, the failure of both sides to recognize their deeper
stakes in the relationship is less because it was an impossible
dream than, alas, a path not taken.




So, what
paths do lie ahead? Almost surely not one leading to a new Cold
War. The animus is missing. The relationship has neither a profound
ideological underpinning, nor is it menaced by far-reaching
aggressive aims on one or both sides. (Think of a U.S.-Russian
version of the current U.S.-Iran relationship.) Neither does it
seem likely that the two countries could recreate a “great power
rivalry” along the lines of the 19th-century Russo-British
contestation, not at least in the next five to ten years, unless it
be by way of a general restoration of strategic rivalry among the
major powers. For that to happen, it would require U.S.-China
relations to go fundamentally awry, generating force fields in
which Russia, as well as Japan, have to make choices. This does not
mean that the regional U.S.-Russian rivalry already underway in the
post-Soviet space could not deepen, but this belongs to other


likely, for the next several years, the two leaderships will propel
the relationship along one of two paths: either the status quo plus
or the status quo minus. In the first case, the uneasy balance
between cooperation and discord will continue, from time to time
boosted by new enterprises, such as the recent “Global Initiative
to Combat Nuclear Terrorism” or the new merger of the U.S. “Global
Nuclear Energy Partnership” with the Russian initiative to create
multilateral centers for the provision of nuclear fuel cycle
service. Perhaps, if each tries to find the positive in the other
side’s positions, they could even enlarge the field of their
foreign policy cooperation. Handled skillfully, the U.S. commitment
to ready Ukraine for NATO membership, given the inevitable delay as
Ukraine sorts out its own domestic scene, need not bruise
U.S.-Russian relations. Or, if Russia tires further of Belarus’
reactionary regime, it may, for perfectly selfish reasons, knock
from under Alexander Lukashenko the support allowing him to thumb
his nose at the United States and Europe. Provided neither Russia
nor the United States attempts to force fundamental choices on
Kazakhstan and given the United States receding security presence
in the region, Central Asia seems unlikely to threaten the
relationship, and, as a quarter where U.S., Russian, and Chinese
concerns over terrorism physically intersect, may even reinforce at
least one area of cooperation. In the crucial case of China, the
considerable parallelism in Russian and Chinese foreign policy will
surely continue, but a full-blown alliance directed against the
United States, impossible today – because, even if Moscow wanted
it, which it does not, the Chinese have the final say – will remain
so, unless the United States brings it about through a reckless
policy toward China. The other rising power, India, seems certain
to grow in importance for both countries, but, notwithstanding
their already evident efforts to curry favor in Delhi, little
either can do is likely to have great resonance in their own
bilateral relationship. Finally, the increasing thrusting and
parrying over domestic trends within Russia has only limited
potential to seriously sour relations, if the Americans continually
treat it as a back-burner issue subordinated to other things they
want from the Russians – as has been true this summer, including
the July G8 meeting – and/or Putin continues to brush the
importuning aside with an awkward sense of humor.


This does
not mean the deal that Putin’s Russian critics think he seeks is to
be had: “Tone down your criticism of Russia’s domestic course,
including the ‘police action’ (he insists that it is no longer a
war) in Chechnya and back off of your aggressive efforts to expand
U.S. influence in the post-Soviet space, and you can count on
Russia as an energy partner and a supportive party on most other
foreign policy issues.” Neither de jure or de facto would either
the Bush administration or any other U.S. leadership agree; nor,
for that matter, could Putin deliver on the deal. Others suggest
that the Russian leadership and much of the political elite have
something else in mind: that steadily over the last two years they
have given up on the idea of integrating with the West (never mind,
into the West), and, in the phrase of Dmitry Trenin, decided to
fashion their own “solar system” and place Russia at its center. By
gathering a cluster of states, mostly in the post-Soviet space,
whose needs, vulnerabilities and preferences parallel Russia’s,
they mean to create an anchor permitting Russia to cooperate when
and on what grounds it wishes with Europe, Japan, China and, not
least, the United States. Still, other voices, including an
entirely mainstream political figure like Konstanin Kosachev, the
chair of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee, insist that Russia
is and must be a Euro-Atlantic state, but of late this reality has
been continually thwarted by counterproductive U.S. and Western


All three
portraits are compatible with a path to a status quo plus, albeit
each with a different content and implications. So, however, is
each compatible with a status quo minus. Given the pace with which
the tone in U.S.-Russian relations has degenerated over the last
two years (the best Putin could muster after the July summit was
“we remain reliable and mutually interested partners”), the
momentum could well continue. Take three fundamental juxtapositions
in U.S. and Russian foreign policies: (1) the only thing worse than
war with Iran, say the Americans, would be a nuclear Iran; the only
thing worse than a nuclear Iran, say the Russians, would be war
with Iran, to use Alexei Arbatov’s formulation; (2) we prefer
Ukraine in NATO and the EU, say the Americans; we do not, say the
Russians; and (3) in any significant instance, the United States
must reserve to itself the right to use force, say the Americans;
in anything other than a clear case of self-defense, the UN
Security Council must sanction the use of force, say the Russians.
The three do not exhaust the contrasts, but they are critical and
representative. If push comes to shove on any of them or
counterpart cleavages, and if either the United States or Russia
sticks rigidly to its end of the juxtaposition, U.S.-Russia
relations will almost certainly descend another level lower. Or, if
Russia were, say, to seize on Western recognition of Kosovo
independence to do the same toward Transdniestr, Abhkazia, or South
Ossetia, or tensions with Georgia were to spin out of control, more
than incremental harm would be done. Or, so too, would the damage
mount if the next unexpected international crisis drives the two
apart rather than together. And, of course, finally if, despite the
silky efforts to put on a good face, Putin’s entourage goes too far
in guaranteeing the electoral outcomes they want in 2007 and 2008
and/or Bush feels or is compelled to do more than joust
“philosophically” over cognac, trouble will follow.


difference in outcomes at the end of the two paths is obviously of
some consequence, and, therefore, the stakes for each country
matter. But in policy terms they are about maximizing minimal
opportunities and minimizing modest opportunity costs. They are not
about tragedy, about a relationship going over the edge. Alas, for
now, neither are they about seizing what was a historic