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Sweet or Sour? Recapping U.S.-Russia Relations

Visiting Media Fellow Michael Moran hosts the final episode of our podcast series, Diffusion: Russia in Focus

MORAN:  America’s ties with Russia no longer count as the most important relationship in the world – that, almost certainly, now describes Washington’s ties with a rising China. Events of the past several years, however, suggest that US-Russia ties remain crucial to global stability even as they remain deeply unsettled. Welcome to this final episode of our series, Diffusion: Russia in Focus. I’m Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow for Peace and Security at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Over the course of this series, we’ve explored the historical context of the relationship, its development since the end of the Cold War, and the economic, military and political rivalry between the two. We’ve examined Russia’s domestic politics, global energy politics, the crisis sparked by its invasion of Ukraine, it’s fraught ties with NATO and intervention in Syria. Now it’s time to sum up what we’ve learned in conversations with two dozen of the world’s preeminent experts on Russian affairs, many of them Carnegie grantees, and how their insights might guide US policy in the Trump era.

We start with cyber issues. Allegations of Russian cyber manipulation of the 2016 US election already have raised the stakes in the Trump administration’s dealings with Moscow.

Austin Long teaches at Columbia’s School of International and Political Affairs: 

LONG: Cyber security opens up a lot of new challenges that are in familiar territory, but in new ways. …… I think the most dramatic we’ve seen is the allegation that hackers affiliated with the Russian government have compromised the U.S. political process to at least some degree by breaking in to the Democratic National Committee’s servers, stealing e-mails, and leaking them to the public in ways that may have been damaging to the cause. Again, this is not a new thing. States have often taken action to covertly influence political outcomes in other countries, but cyber has opened up a great many new opportunities to do that and I think that’s potentially much more troubling than the intelligence collection aspect. 

MORAN: For Amy Zegart, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, cyber has changed the old security calculations and introduced a level of uncertainty that increased the risks of misunderstandings and accidental conflict.

ZEGART: It’s almost impossible to tell the difference between a cyber attack that is purely defensive in nature, something that’s espionage, something that’s preparing the battlefield, or something that’s a prelude to an offensive attack. These different motivations are the distinguishing characteristic of the same cyber activities. So increasing risk of a security dilemma would be number one. Number two is that cyber attacks create an unclear threshold for war. We’ve seen the Pentagon really struggle with creating a more clear threshold for war, and it’s a very challenging problem.….The third destabilizing element is that cyber poses real risk of undermining nuclear deterrent.….Nuclear stability hinges on the mutual recognition of all sides that each can inflict unacceptable damage on the other. But, what if we’re in a world where one side knows that it’s disabled the other side’s command and control through cyber attacks?…So there are a number of reasons to be very concerned about great power dynamics between the U.S., Russia, and China and the strategic instability that cyber threats create.

MANDELBAUM: For a period after the fall of the Soviet Union, there were hopes – and even some signs – of a more cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship emerging. But the West’s insistence that it ‘won’ the Cold War, and particularly the decision to absorb Moscow’s former Warsaw Pact allies into NATO, put such hopes on ice. Russian behavior in this decade has accelerated the drift.

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.

MORAN: Michael Mandelbaum of SAIS – the School of International and Strategic Studies and Johns Hopkins University.

MANDELBAUM: 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: For Russians, this has been unacceptable – but also a gift to those eager to use Russia’s historic resentment of all things western for their own purposes. Alexandra Vacroux, Executive Director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, says people in Russia see themselves as citizens of one of the most powerful countries in the world and think they should be treated as such.

VACROUX: The fact that Russia has only one a and half percent of the world’s GDP makes no difference to the. To them, they are a superpower, both in terms of the size of the country, and also its influence. And I think what Putin has done to reassert Russia’s position in the world, even if it’s as a spoiler, has definitely contributed to this feeling that Russia has to be taken into account. You can’t ignore Russia the way you could a small and insignificant country. I don’t really see that as always being negative. I don’t think it’s nationalism pushing against something, in other words Nationalism expressed as a movement against the west, or against the United States. Certainly when you get out of the larger cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, you have a sense that people are primarily worried about their own situation, particularly their economic situation right now. They’re relatively proud of what Putin has done internationally in terms of asserting himself internationally, but their lives have not gotten easier, and they’re spending most of their time worried about that and how to survive.

MORAN: So where, then, is the road back to more stable relations. Some have spoken of the potential for a ‘grand bargain,’ one perhaps linking US desires in the battle against the Islamic State in Syria to Russia’s interest in seeing Ukraine-related western sanctions lifted. This conversation has been made more difficult by the controversial contacts President Donald Trump’s aides had with Russian figures ahead of the 2016 election – ties that already have claimed the job of his first national security director, Gen. Michael Flynn. But Russia experts see deeper reasons for skepticism.

OLIKER: “Russia is historically very difficult to reassure. There’s a tendency to continue to look for problems.”

MORAN: Olga Oliker, senior advisor and director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

OLIKER: Russia is not alone in that. Most countries do a lot of worst-case scenario planning. They look around the world and see threats. If there aren’t existential threats around, they inflate threats to their interests and treat them as though they were existential. Expecting Russia to do otherwise is a bit naïve, moreover Russia has spent the full 25 years almost of its independence convinced that the United States and the West as a whole is trying to weaken it. Convincing Russia otherwise would be very difficult, short of the United States abdicating any leadership in Europe whatsoever, though I suspect the Russians would think even that was some sort of plot. Then again, you have this problem of a vacuum in European security, which I don’t think Russia is prepared to fill. This idea that there’s a bargain that can easily be struck that solves all these problems ignores that the United States isn’t able to make the deal on its own, and B: the fact that Russia may be unhappy even with a deal that it’s dictated. I suspect the United States would be unhappy with a deal, for the reason that I outlined, it wouldn’t actually deliver European security. Then you have the additional problem that you’ve made a deal that you don’t like. If both sides make a deal they don’t like and they start blaming the other, you can easily see the relationship get worse, and spiral worse even than it is now.

MORAN: Paul J. Saunders, Executive Director of the Center for the National Interest and a former senior State Department official under President George W. Bush, says in practical terms even where US Russia interest intersect, the complexities and political dynamics probably would kill any sweeping deal.

SAUNDERS: If you talk about the US-Russia case, there are obviously differences over Syria, there are differences over Ukraine, added to that is the issue of US sanctions, there’s the Russian presence in Crimea that the United States will be unlikely to be able to reverse any time soon. There are a variety of very difficult and challenging issues, so I guess I’m a little bit of a skeptic of the idea of a grand bargain particularly in the political environment that exists right now in both countries. Again, there’s a great sensitivity in the United States surrounding the relationship with Russia.…….. On the Russian end, there are similar in type, but different in content, concerns about NATO and its implications for Russian security, about America’s and Europe’s roles in Russia’s internal politics and affairs and so forth for opposition forces there. Not to make that equivalent with the charges about what Russia may have done in the United States but those feelings certainly exist in Russia, so I think it would be really quite difficult at this point to get any kind of a grand bargain.

MORAN: So if, as Michael Mandelbaum puts it, the US in the 1990s made the mistake of projecting a sense “that Russia no longer matters,” have we at least booked that lesson? Robert Legvold, Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University, is not sure we’re there yet.

LEGVOLD: We need U.S. and Russian leadership in the beginning to create some kind of order, some kind of constraint on what is now a very complex and increasingly dangerous multi-polar nuclear world of nine nuclear powers. Why Russia and the United States? Because they still have 92% of the weapons. There is a whole series of issues that we can talk about in this area that are neglected, which is especially pressing because the patchwork nuclear arms regime and indeed broadly conventional arms control regime that we worked on over the last 40 years is coming apart at the seams. It must be the United States and Russia that exercise leadership in trying to prevent that from collapsing entirely, but above all else begin to address these issues that are creating a potentially very dangerous world in the next 10-15 years.

MORAN: “Order” is not the obvious word to describe the early efforts of the Trump administration on Russia or virtually any other topic. Yet the messaging, at least, has started to move away from confrontation and toward exploring mutual interests.

GRAHAM: We need to think not only about threats, but also about opportunities.


MORAN: Thomas Graham, Managing Director at Kissinger Associates, and Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University.

GRAHAM: If the United States and Russia can find a way to cooperate, Russia could be an important partner with us in helping to create a stable, flexible balance of power in Northeast Asia. We’re concerned about the rise of China. Having Russia in the mix gives us another tool that we could use in order to manage that difficult relationship with China. We’re seeing today that Russia is a player in the Middle East, and while we have radically different notions of what needs to be done at the current period, Russia could certainly be a partner with the United States in defeating terrorism and insuring stability in the Middle East if we were able to come to some sort of common understanding. In Europe, if we found a way to work with Russia, we would be able to focus our resources on issues that are important to the security and the prosperity of peoples in all those countries. 

MORAN: What divides the US and Russia, then, runs deeper than ideology or the petty resentments of hurt geopolitical pride. There are foundational issues obstructing the path to a productive dialogue, and in the view of many, new challenges like cyberwar and energy politics that raise the risks of an accidental breakdown. But politics inside both countries will continue to weigh on the relationship. In Russia, President Putin’s ability to rally support by citing perceived western plots to contain his nation have proven highly effective. And American politicians respond in kind – to the point where for some, anything Russian now carries with it the suspicions and patriotic defensiveness of a darker time, a time when the two nations were locked in an existential nuclear embrace. It remains to be seen whether the Trump presidency can – or will want to reverse this trend. For now, that will be in for or final episode of Diffusion: Russia in Focus. Special thanks to my Carnegie colleagues and series producers, Robert Nolan and Evgeny Scherbakov, and to Deana Arsenian, Vice President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s International Program and Director for the Program on Russia and Eurasia. For now, this is Michael Moran. Thanks for listening.

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.