Tempered Expectations


What does the future of U.S.-Russia relations hold in 2017? Visiting Media Fellow Michael Moran speaks with two geopolitical analysts who have analyzed and forecasted on this critical question often in recent years, Michael Mandelbaum, Director of the American Foreign Policy program at the Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and Mathew Burrows, Director of the Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Atlantic Council.


Michael, I’ll start with you. Where is the US-Russia relationship taking the world right now, and is there any way to limit the damage that the current poor state of relations might do?


MORAN: Hello, and welcome to Episode Four of Diffusion: Russia in Focus. I’m your host, Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. This week, we look at how the US Russia relationship might unfold in the next several years. With me today are two strategic thinkers on East-West matters. Michael Mandelbaum is Director of the American Foreign Policy program at the Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, or SAIS as those of us in the game call it. And Matthew Burrows, director of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, spend decades in the intelligence community and is and a former head of analysis and production at the US National Intelligence Council.

MANDELBAUM: It’s been said that the US-Russian relationship has reached the lowest point since the height of the Cold War, and I think that’s probably right. There’s little question that this is now an adversarial relationship, and the intensely adversarial feeling comes largely, although not exclusively, from Russia. My assessment is that Mr. Putin has made hostility to the West, hostility to the United States, and resistance to what he claims are Western and American efforts to weaken and even destroy Russia, and his program, of, if you’ll pardon the expression, making Russia great again, central to his political standing and his political program. I would go so far as to say he needs hostility to the United States, or believes he does, in order to stay in power. So I don’t think we’re going to see it diminish any time soon. Now, I think the United States and the West have some responsibility for what has happened with Russia, principally the ill-considered decision to expand NATO eastward, contrary to what the Russians, with some reason, believe that we had promised. This, and succeeding episodes, were seen by the Russians, and not just by Putin and his clique, but by the Russian political class, and ultimately by the Russian public as a whole, as being hostile to Russia. I don’t think they were intended specifically to be hostile. What the United States did was fail to take Russia into account, believing that Russia no longer matters. It does matter, and, alas, relations are in a poor condition, and I don’t really see the prospect for near term improvement.


MORAN: Mat, is it really that bad? No way to arrest the slide in relations?

BURROWS: Well one way is to think about what your expectations are about the relationship, and I think that gets to an even larger point about what are our expectations also about China. One stance would be that we want to get the international liberal order, which has really been a western liberal order, up and running again. Or you can take the position that that’s not going to work and we’re going to have to understand that there are some states, principally China and Russia, who have never really subscribed to that liberal order, and they have a very different view of how the international order should be run. We’re not in a period like the Cold War, where you can have containment. Today you can have sanctions, but everybody is globally integrated in the world economy. It would be particularly hard in the case of China to undo that. We have to think about areas in which we may get into conflict, maybe not military conflicts, but there will be other areas where we should think it won’t be worth a real battle, and also won’t be worth it to completely break off relations. Obviously, if you look back over the past couple of years this has been brewing for some time, but we nevertheless have had an agreement on climate, which was a moment in which the US and China got together. We also had an Iran nuclear agreement, in which Russia and China both played parts. So there are areas of mutual interest where we can still get together, and help to deflect attention away from the areas of conflict.

MORAN: Michael Mandelbaum.

MANDELBAUM: We’ve seen this movie before – we have crises in Russian relations, and then we figure out that yes we have to pull back. I think we may have to re-learn the lessons of the Cold War. At some point we’ll think, ‘okay we have this very diametrically opposed views on the world, diametrically opposed interests in some case, but let’s find the means to keep channels of communication open, and let’s find some projects that we can take on together that may help to deescalate the tensions in other parts of the relationship.’


MORAN: Let’s talk about China. Various efforts over the past decade, usually driven by Russia, have been made to bring the two states closer. Russia seems at times to want to create a Russo-Chinese bulwark against US power, but the Chinese never quite take the bait. Where is this dynamic going?

BURROWS: I really think there is a threat that you can end up with a bipolar division again. I don’t think it will be an exact rerun of the Cold War, because you still have a global economy that’s integrated – even though it’s getting more protectionist here and there – but it would be very hard to contain Russia or China like we have done with Iran or tried with North Korea. But, even in those cases, it’s very hard to isolate a country. I think China has the strong interests still in exports, investment, and overseas opportunities in a very different way than Russia’s much smaller economy. I think China will stay on the path of trying to balance its need for continuing strong economic ties with the West with its own desire to be a big power in the world, one which has dominance in its region. But, where it could get off-track is if it doesn’t make this economic transition to a much more domestic led economy. That could lead to a hard landing, especially if the expectations that a lot of its middle class has about continued prosperity and continued growth are dashed, then I think the regime, in order to stay in power, will turn to nationalism and nationalistic endeavors outside of China to prove that it’s still bringing China up and to deflect attention away from the economic failure.

MORAN: Michael, your view on Russia and China. Are we driving them together?

MANDELBAUM: I think that Putin has reached out to China to make common cause against the United States. Over the medium and long term Russia’s interests face a far greater threat from China than from the United States or the West, but I think the fact that Putin is trying to tilt towards China testifies to the importance in his world view and his political strategy of opposition to and hostility to the West. The Russians and the Chinese do have some things in common. They both would like to reduce the role of the United States in their regions, and there is a complementarity economically. Russia is an exporter of energy, and China is an importer. Of course they did sign a major energy deal, but it’s also true that the two countries, in economic terms, and probably in terms of economic and military power, are going in opposite directions. China is rising, and Russia is falling, despite Putin’s efforts to arrest the fall. They do have a long border which has been disputed in the past, mainly by the Chinese. They are rivals, tacitly at least, for influence in Central Asia, in the countries that were once union republics of the Soviet Union. And the Russians historically have been very suspicious of the Chinese, and the Chinese have been rather contemptuous of the Russians. At best, it’s a mixed situation and I would think Putin would try to be close enough to China to maximize his leverage against the West, while trying to guard against being an increasingly junior partner to China and being unable to defend the Russian interests threatened by China. Over the medium term I’m skeptical he could pull that off, but I think it’s what he would try to do.

MORAN: Okay, gentlemen, Let’s say we take as a given a poisoned US-Russia relationship over the next decade. Does this invariably lead to what some are calling a “new Cold War?”

MANDELBAUM: I think it will be contained, because Russia is not as strong as the Soviet Union, and the challenges it poses are regional, not global. That said, Russia is a very large country. Although it’s not as powerful as the Soviet Union was, it’s still powerful. It still has one of the two largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the world. Geographically, it’s part of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, and if you count the Bering Strait then North America as well. So it is an important country, and the hostility between the United States and Russia, which let me stress again, I believe is largely due to Putin’s own world-view and his domestic political needs, which was set in motion two decades ago by NATO expansion and the wars in the Balkans and the abrogation of the ABM treaty. We do bear some responsibility for helping to create the conditions in which Putin’s anti-western foreign policies and his aggression in the neighborhood have become popular in Russia.

BURROWS: There are problems everywhere, including at home in the U.S. It’s not like what it was at the beginning of the Cold War where we were the predominant economic power.

MORAN: Matthew Burrows.

BURROWS (continues): Over the course of that Cold War we saw Europe recover, we saw China grow up. Now, on the other hand, you have a Europe in crisis, a Japan that can’t grow again. So, I see the situation as one in which there’s quite a bit of weakness in all the great powers, and maybe that’s the saving grace in this situation. We will be very concerned at home with our own economic problems, and we won’t actually want to tangle.

MORAN: That concludes Episode Four of Diffusion: Russia in Focus. Join us next week for an examination of the Russian economy and its effect on broader US-Russia relations with two Brookings Institution economists, the Clifford Gaddy and Sergey Aleksashenko. For now, on behalf of my colleagues at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, this is Michael Moran. Thanks for joining.

Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.