Russia and America: Endless Ups and Downs

March 17, 2014 Topic: Great Powers Region: Russia

Russia and America: Endless Ups and Downs

A timely new book looks at why the two powers see-saw from optimistic cooperation to suspicious rivalry.

Angela E. Stent, The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 384 pp., $35.00.

With the U.S.-Russia relationship in a tailspin over Ukraine and Crimea, few foreign-affairs books could be timelier than Angela Stent’s insightful and balanced assessment of two decades of post-Soviet interaction between Washington and Moscow. A long-time academic at Georgetown University with experience in both intelligence analysis and policy-making, Stent combines extensive research, interviews with former U.S. officials, and personal observations from interactions with Russian president Vladimir Putin and others to describe the complex array of convergent and divergent interests, values and perspectives that lead the two countries to see-saw between optimistic cooperation and suspicious rivalry. While perhaps too short to become a definitive historical work, the book’s comprehensiveness and readability will make it a valuable resource for not only students and specialists, but also general readers.

In The Limits of Partnership, Stent seeks to explain why the U.S.-Russian relationship has been so difficult for so long. She traces its evolution through four “resets”—George H. W. Bush’s cautious redefinition of U.S.-Russia relations as the Cold War ended, Bill Clinton’s ambitious and unrealistic attempt to transform both Russia and America’s relationship with it, Vladimir Putin’s bold and similarly unrealistic offer of strategic partnership after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and Barack Obama’s pragmatic yet ultimately shortsighted engagement with former President Dmitry Medvedev. Though she devotes only a modest portion of the text to the first two resets, Stent summarizes well events that others have treated in greater detail.

Stent draws many useful lessons from the ups-and-downs in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Some of the most central are the enduring gaps in perceptions and expectations in the United States and Russia, the lack of economic and bureaucratic stakeholders in the relationship in either country that has repeatedly forced the two governments to over-personalize it, and the tension between U.S. democracy promotion efforts—a continuing source of Russian resentment—and cooperation in other areas. The book is particularly valuable because of its careful treatment of not only U.S. and Russian differences, but also the highly-polarized American debate on Russia. Throughout the narrative, Stent fairly presents official policy as well as varied perspectives outside government.

Stent argues persuasively that Putin’s “post-9/11 reset foundered” because “Putin believed that by reaching out to George W. Bush and facilitating the establishment of U.S. bases in Central Asia, the United States would view Russia as a partner, recognize its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, treat it as an equal, and give it the respect that had been lacking during the Yeltsin era.” She recounts Putin’s September 9, 2001 phone call to Bush reporting that a leader of Afghanistan’s Moscow-aligned Northern Alliance had been assassinated and warning of “a foreboding that something was about to happen, something long in preparation” as well as the fact that the Russian leader was the first top foreign official to contact Bush after the September 11 attacks to convey sympathy and support. After this, Stent explains, Putin and other Russian officials later became profoundly disillusioned by U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, NATO’s continued expansion, and perceived American support for “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet region—their expectations vis-à-vis Washington had been far too high.

Evaluating the Obama administration’s reset, Stent effectively explains how even as the White House sought to “reframe” U.S.-Russia relations “with two younger, post-Cold War leaders,” Moscow saw the policy as America’s long-overdue course correction rather than a truly joint effort. Thus, Moscow welcomed the administration’s reduced enthusiasm for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, initially appreciated its cancellation of planned missile-defense sites in the Czech Republic and Poland (but has since come to complain no less vigorously about Obama’s alternative, the Phased Adaptive Approach), and reciprocated its decision to delink foreign-policy discussions from Russia’s governance and to deemphasize the latter by taking its own steps to improve the tone of U.S.-Russia dialogue, both publicly and privately.

Nevertheless, since Russia’s officials saw these U.S. actions as the price of admission for constructive negotiations in other areas, they likely underestimated the political risks Obama accepted and undervalued the U.S. approach. Despite some accomplishments, Putin’s return to the Russian presidency in 2012 killed a strategy built on Obama’s personal contacts with Medvedev.

A rare but important omission in the book that further illustrates the wide gap in perspectives between Washington and Moscow is an evaluation of Vladimir Putin’s reaction to the U.S. and European decision to scuttle Russia’s Kozak plan to resolve the dispute between Moldova’s government and the pro-Russian separatist region of Transnistria in late 2003. Putin was literally on his way to a signing ceremony in Moldova—the deal would have established a new federal structure to preserve Moldova’s territorial integrity—when Western leaders persuaded Moldova’s president to back out. Well-connected Russian sources have written that the episode had a profound impact on Putin’s thinking about U.S. goals, but few in America likely even remember it (or were aware at the time). With this in mind, the incident likely informs Russia’s perspective on the current crisis in Ukraine.

Because Stent wrote The Limits of Partnership before Ukraine’s latest venture into the headlines, her book cannot answer the most immediate question that many readers may have: will the U.S.-Russian and Western-Russian dispute over Crimea be merely the latest low point, followed eventually by a new cycle of cooperation, or will it produce enduring and qualitative changes in how these two former superpowers—now near-equals only in their capacity for nuclear destruction—interact in the future? Despite this, Stent’s closing paragraphs offer useful advice to U.S. policymakers in weathering the current severe storm. “Both the United States and Russia need to re-examine the way they think about each other and develop approaches that reflect the realities of the twenty-first century world, a more complex world with new global centers of power,” she writes, alluding to China’s dramatic rise and the considerable challenges it presents to America.

Changing how Mr. Putin thinks about the United States will probably be extremely difficult—he has now worked with three successive presidents, and has likely drawn his own lessons from the experience—but U.S. leaders should heed this warning to consider how U.S.-Russia relations may affect America’s ability to confront our nation’s principal strategic priority. As disturbing as Russia’s conduct in Crimea is, America’s primary focus must be Beijing, not Moscow.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher ofThe National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.