Relations between the United States and Russia are at an all-time low, dating back to the Cold War. Almost all high-level communication between the two countries has halted. There are no indications that the relationship will improve anytime soon.
What are the impediments to Russia and the United States’ cooperative relationship? Firstly, the United States and Russia hold fundamentally opposing perspectives on the world order. The United States wants to preserve its global hegemony, whereas Russia supports multipolarity. Secondly, the United States treats Russia as a big threat. From the Cold War era to the present, US diplomatic elites have viewed Russia as the world’s most dangerous country to US national interests. And Finally, the European dimension has impeded the constructive relationship between Russia and the United States. Some Western and Eastern European countries have significant anti-Russia sentiments due to Russophobe interpretation of history. To preserve its dominance on the continent, the US has frequently utilized Russophobia to sow discord between the “new” and “old” Europe.
Many believe that this adversarial situation will not last indefinitely, as the US and the Soviet Union had a limited but meaningful dialogue during the Cold War; the two countries will eventually reengage, even if only to disagree, and new US and Russian leaders may pursue less confrontational policies. However, the immediate future appears to be grim.
The meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16, 2021 in Geneva delivered a good boost to a bilateral US-Russia relationship that was nearing post-Cold War lows. In the months that followed, both sides made some headway, only to be completely derailed by Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. It will be a long time before the relationship between the United States and Russia approaches anything resembling “normalcy.”
Administration officials made clear early in Biden’s presidency in 2021 that they were prepared to strike back against Russian overreach, including through the deployment of new sanctions. At the same time, they recognized the importance of guardrails in keeping combative aspects of the relationship under check. Biden and Putin agreed to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to 2026 less than a week after assuming office.
As the June 16 summit approached, both Washington and Moscow kept their hopes modest. Despite the fact that the conference lasted only two hours, officials from both sides hailed the discussions as productive. The presidents reaffirmed the Reagan-Gorbachev premise that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be waged” and launched the Strategic Stability Dialogue to “set the framework for future weapons limitation and risk reduction initiatives” in a brief joint statement.
The evolving Transatlantic relationships are at the heart of the global order’s fundamental reorganization in the aftermath of the Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. During the Trump administration, ties between the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) had hit rock bottom, with increased protectionism and an inward-looking approach to foreign policy from Washington. While the Biden administration had emphasized strengthening Euro-Atlantic ties as a top priority, even he could not have predicted the magnitude and speed of the reorientation triggered by Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. As the conflict in Ukraine has progressed, the transatlantic alliance has grown stronger. This consolidation, however, has not come without hazards, the most serious of which being a Russian response. The most pernicious feature of developing transatlantic links in the current setting is that it is inversely proportionate to European stability, particularly in Eastern Europe.
As we know, for the past 16 weeks, Russia has been conducting operation in Ukraine. With Russia doubling down on the Donbass region, many US and European officials predict a months-long, if not longer, war of attrition. Ukraine has become the focal point of Western perceptions of Russia. Regardless of how or when the conflict ends, Washington and Moscow (along with the rest of the West) are in for a long period of tense and frosty relations. Western sanctions against Russia are likely to last for a long time. The quest for a predictable and stable partnership by the Biden administration has been abandoned.
Biden and the Kremlin, however, have recently voiced a wish to revive the US-Russia strategic stability conversation at some time. That will most likely not happen until Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine is over, and it will then be a frosty debate between two countries aiming to place constraints on what they both consider as a hostile relationship. The tone established by the two presidents has often determined the course of relations between Washington and Moscow. With all that has happened in the last six months, it’s difficult to see how Biden and Putin’s bilateral relations might improve.
Over the last decade, Russian foreign policy has been more forceful, combative, and ambitious. Russia has used a diversified toolkit rich in hard, soft, and gray zone power weapons to assert itself as a global power in the post-Soviet area, the Middle East, Latin America, and portions of Africa. The West has been taken off guard by Russia’s foreign policy agility and even audacity.
Whether or not President Vladimir Putin remains in office, it is probably safe to assume that Russia will continue on its current path both at home and internationally for the next decade and possibly beyond. This prognosis is based on long-term features of Russian domestic politics and foreign policy that will outlast Putin and any successor regime, such as Russia’s commitment to maintaining its great power status, expanding its global presence and influence, weakening transatlantic ties and Europe, dominating the former Soviet space, challenging Western norms of democracy and the rule of law, and creating a more multipolar world.
It is critical to understand that Russian foreign policy is influenced by both domestic and external factors. Actions of the United States, both real and perceived, have a significant impact on it. As a result, the vision that future US administrations adopt to govern America’s global role and duties over the next decade, as well as the reasons for which US power is employed, may have a significant impact on Russian policy toward the US.
Although skepticism is understandable, future Russian leaders’ perspectives will be worth keeping a watch on. While reestablishing meaningful connections between the US and Russia is not a panacea—and has not always been helpful—a prolonged, high-level strategic discussion would demonstrate to Russia that the US cares about its interests and may begin to chip away at mutual mistrust. True accommodation would necessitate better consideration for each other’s interests and sensitivities on both sides. Even if they have fewer resources and/or less drive for ambitious foreign policy endeavors, the US and Russia are likely to maintain a hostile relationship in most scenarios.
Even on matters where both countries’ interests align, like as arms control, climate change, and dealing with Afghanistan, collaboration will be difficult due to mistrust and bad blood. As the Russian Presidential spokesperson underlined, Russia wishes to see US stepping back from its assertiveness to a Western themed “Rules based International Order”, something Washington is unlikely to give up in the foreseeable future.