Download this article (PDF)

The aspiration to raise the level of relations between the U.S. and Russia to strategic partnership was declared by political elites of both states almost immediately after the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Later, the initiative was labeled an American-Russian “reset.” The reset was in effect a package of agreements on joint actions against contemporary challenges, as well as a mutual reduction of offensive nuclear arms. The fundamental causes of undertaking the reset initiative from America’s and Russia’s perspectives are something we will discuss later in this work. For the time being, we would just mention, however, that from a psychological point of view, the timing for working out a new strategy of relations was chosen perfectly. The relatively young politicians who came at that time to the White House and Kremlin Palace belonged to the new formation of statesmen—free from complexes and phobias of the Cold War, inclined to compromise, and, as they often declared, strongly committed to democratic values.

Obama and Putin

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin

Of course, for many of those familiar with Russia’s political life, President Medvedev is the subordinate figure in Russia’s ruling tandem (Putin and Medvedev); and it is hardly plausible that Mr. Obama’s team responsible for foreign policy—which includes outstanding and experienced professionals—underestimated this fact. However, it did not shake Washington’s determination; rather, the fact of Putin’s dominant position in Russia’s politics was recalled by Americans in explaining another stage of cooling of relations with Moscow.[1]

Nonetheless, the new American-Russian foreign policy initiative became embodied in a set of documents and continues to be implemented despite the obstacles and even failures (similar to the policy of détente in the 1970s). But even a cursory glance at the list of initial measures on improving American-Russian relations (suggested by the Commission on United States Policy toward Russia to the U.S. president and Congress) shows that in the two years since the reset was launched, the implemented points are mainly those that were considered necessary to the U.S. and few that Russia wanted to achieve. In particular:

  • The Jackson-Vanik Amendment has not yet been lifted from Russia.
  • The stationing of antiballistic missile systems in Poland and Czech Republic has not ceased and continues to be implemented at a somewhat fast pace. Moreover, stationing of similar systems will soon commence in Romania.[2]
  • Although Russia gave approval for transporting NATO’s (nonlethal) cargo through its territory to Afghanistan, any substantial prerequisites for stabilizing the situation in that country are scarcely observable. In addition, NATO forces, which control relatively large territories in this country, proved unable to prevent both the strengthening of the Taliban movement and the tremendous growth of narco-production and trafficking.

To its credit, the reset has seen:

  • Conclusion of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START),
  • A time-out in negotiations regarding Georgia’s and Ukraine’s NATO membership,
  • Russia’s vote in the UN Security Council for sanctions against Iran, and
  • Russia’s membership to the WTO.

As for other points of cooperation envisaged by the reset—joint struggle against terrorism, proliferation of WMDs, narco-production and trafficking, arms smuggling, control over energy consumption, global warming, and so forth—all continue to remain nominal. Meanwhile, the issues of strategic importance, which the partners mention rarely but always refer to, remain deadlocked. These are primarily large-scale energy projects overtly supported by Washington (such as the Nabucco gas pipeline project and others aimed at bringing Central Asian energy to European markets through the South Caucasus) that are aimed at depriving Russia of its monopoly in gas supplies to Europe and which Russia is resisting by any means. Another issue is Russia’s aspiration to dominate economically, politically, and militarily in the post-Soviet space, which faces active and rather successful opposition from the United States.[3]

It is no accident that many Russian analysts insist that America continues to pursue a policy of “winning” in regard to Russia.[4] They argue that depriving Russia of its military might and political influence, and finally even her partitioning, are the genuine goals of this policy.[5] Even after eliminating Russian experts’ obvious manipulation and speculation, one argument remains immutable: American political circles may not overlook the fact that Russia remains the only state capable of destroying the United States. Hence, it is quite natural that Washington’s policy toward Russia is aimed at neutralizing the remaining threat. Not less important, as American experts put it, is that “the US is strategically interested in impeding Russia’s…domination in the region that connects Europe, Asia and the Middle East…and supporting independence and sovereignty of the states there.”[6]

Does this mean that among the most likely scenarios in the development of U.S.-Russia relations, we should be prepared for the worst one, namely a military-political confrontation between Washington and Moscow all over the world, i.e., a new cold war? If the answer were affirmative, we could put a full stop right here. The article itself would have become in this case a fact statement sheet, and would not have had any analytical value.

Nonetheless, the situation is not that unambiguous or hopeless. Many factors favor another more realistic scenario: constructive and productive relations based on common interests between the U.S. and Russia, despite the diversity in values of the two countries.[7] The identification of these interests, which we will accomplish by examining expert opinions and world development trends, is a critical task of this work.

Economic interests

In terms of economic interests, the Russian analyst Dmintri Trenin’s statement after the dramatic events of August 2008 (the five-day war between Georgia and South Ossetia) is quite appropriate: “Thanks to the financial crisis for extinguishing the geopolitical one.”[8] It should be remembered that the world financial crisis started barely a month after the five-day war in the South Caucasus. Trenin’s seemingly paradoxical statement makes perfect sense. Indeed, it was a financial crisis that forced politicians in Washington, Moscow, and other capitals to comprehend the following:

a) All significant economies of the world are deeply interconnected in the age of globalization.

b) Every move motivated by politico-ideological concerns and not by common fundamental interests may bring about destruction of both national economies and the whole world’s financial-economic system.

These understandings apparently compelled U.S. and European powers in the autumn of 2008 to give up the phantom called “Russian expansionism and revanchism” and kept them from undertaking measures aimed at curbing “unruly” Moscow. As for Russia, she also learned lessons. The financial crisis did not let her fall into euphoria over “a victory over the West.” Moreover, Russia gave up attempts at returning to a mobilization type of economy (typical of Cold War times) for good and declared a course of modernization, also realizing that in this process she definitely needed the help of the United States, a leading world power in such areas as science, technology, education, and management.

Neither Russia nor the United States, however, considers economic ties as a priority area of cooperation in each other’s relations. The U.S. is far from being a significant consumer of Russia’s energy. In the last five years, America purchased 2%–4% of Russia’s oil exports and almost did not purchase gas.[9] At the same time, 67% of Russian gas exports and 69% of oil exports have gone to Europe. In general, as statistics suggest, barely 3% of Russian exports go to the U.S. (less than Russia exports to Poland). As for the United States, its share of goods in the Russian market accounts for just 5% of the total. The situation with investments is even worse: the United State’s share of total foreign capital investment in Russia constitutes only 2.5%, less than Russia’s investment in the American economy.[10]

At the same time, Russia’s economic ties with European countries and China are intensively expanding and strengthening. The European share of Russia’s exports already account for 52%, while European imports into Russia are approaching 45%. Fourteen percent of Russia’s imports come from China, while in 1995 they accounted for only 2%. Concurrently, Russia’s share of total exports to China constitutes 6%, and this index will rise steadily given China’s growing need for Russian energy.[11]

What might American analysts and politicians be uncomfortable with under these circumstances?  These are definitely not utilitarian considerations such as “the more natural resources Europe and China draw out from Russia, the less of it will remain for the United States.” The U.S. is not only blessed enough with resources but also enforces hegemony over parts of the planet that are very rich in energy resources (particularly Central and parts of South America, Iraq, etc.).

What the United States may be genuinely concerned about is the emergence of new strong actors in the international arena that are capable of maintaining economic and, consequently, political rivalry. Today, Washington most likely understands an obvious fact, that freezing or sharp reduction of economic ties with Moscow may drive the latter toward closer association with united Europe and China. Underpinned by Russia’s natural resources, Europe or China will soon find themselves capable of challenging the United States’ economic might and depriving it of its monopolistic standing as the only world superpower.