Relations between America and Russia Are Failing. Here's a Path Forward.

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama meet on September 5, 2016. Wikimedia Commons/

There remains a path to compromise and collaboration.

The current deep crisis in U.S.-Russian relations has become a serious challenge to global security. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of understanding this crisis. For years, a historic perspective has defined this understanding. Since the end of the Cold War, arguably the greatest ideological face-off in the history of humankind, bilateral relations are still viewed through the prism of competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. Cold War veterans and experts, whose training was based on the experience of the Cold War, continued to use outdated narratives to analyze the relations between Washington and Moscow. There is no doubt that history is important, but what is more important is an objective picture of U.S.-Russian relations in the twenty-first century.

Relations between the United States and Russia are unique and crucial to the destiny of humankind: both countries have enough nuclear weapons to end the life on Earth several times over, and any disagreement that even slightly increases the chances of military conflict between them should be of concern. That said, it is even more important to acknowledge that there is no significant content or substance in the countries’ bilateral relations today. It is not only because of the drastic deterioration in relations over the last years; there had not been much content before that.

Economically, over the last several decades, neither country was among the other’s largest partners, whether in terms of trade or investment. Politically, there are no issues in either country’s domestic politics where the other power would play an important role and, therefore, there are no influential parties lobbying for possible cooperation. Certainly, especially lately, we have seen plenty attempts on both sides to consolidate elites and masses based on, respectively, anti-American or anti-Russian slogans. However, by definition, these attempts do not bring any positive or substantial agenda to the countries’ bilateral relations.

Socially, with the significant scale of the interaction between the two peoples, there are not enough of these interactions to make leaders of both countries think that, if not cooperation, then at least sustaining bilateral relations is desirable. Culturally, there are no strong bonds between the two countries, as exist, for example, between the United States and the English-speaking countries or between Russia and the post-Soviet space.

Undoubtedly, in every sphere where relations between the two powers could be stronger, several examples of significant cooperation can be found. Despite that, the main question remains: is there enough of this cooperation to attract effective support from leaders in the two countries, and eventually to make these relations stronger? So far, the answer has been a definitive “no.” Again, one should consider not the showdown of the last years, but the development of U.S.-Russian relations in previous decades—at least the “Reset” policy and its fate.

The lack of content and substance in U.S.-Russian relations can be considered from many different angles. Many academic conferences could be organized on the reasons, culprits and consequences of this state of affairs. But the acknowledgement of this substantive deficit is the first step in understanding of the current confrontation between Moscow and Washington. Besides fierce criticism of Russia, outright Russophobia, recitations of threats allegedly instigated by Russia’s policies, and warnings to Moscow, Russia has been mostly absent from U.S. foreign policy documents for years. This is of no surprise. We could list several reasons why countries come to prominence in U.S. foreign policy or, at least, in general American foreign-policy discourse.

First, the United States ought to cultivate historic, significant bonds with other countries. Second, American leaders and citizens already have an interest in their immediate neighbors. Third, there exist serious economic reasons to develop bilateral relations. Fourth, a sizeable and influential diaspora inside the United States can lobby for the development of relations. Fifth, some countries hold cultural interest for Americans.