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American-Russian ties in 2014: Shared goals, different approaches
January 5, 2014, 6:21 pm

Was 2013 the year of the reset of the much ballyhooed previous “reset” of US-Russian relations?

It’s hard to know.

For those who don’t keep score, in one of the Obama Administration’s “earliest new foreign policy initiatives,” (according to the official White House history of the “reset“) the President “sought to reset relations with Russia and reverse what he called a ‘dangerous drift’ in this important bilateral relationship.”

Using the kind of “win-win outcome” rhetoric that helped to get him elected in the first place, the still green Obama hoped that his equally young and less belligerent counterpart in the Kremlin, Dmitri Medvedev (who was sworn in only half a year before Obama), would be more forthcoming to American interests than the seemingly cagey and ruthless former KGB boss, Vladimir Putin.

And indeed, during President Obama’s first term, cooperation between the US and Russia was considered successful on a host of issues: Iran, North Korea, nuclear non-proliferation, Afghanistan, etc.

There was even a measure of success in something called “Dual Track Engagement in Support of Universal Values,” – which apparently meant the US government’s “engagement of Russian government officials and in parallel Russian civil society – to advance democracy and human rights within Russia.”

Fast forward four years and the talk of reset is much less sanguine or – at least – positive.

In 2013, the reinstalled President Putin and Obama ruffled each other’s interests in a number of important areas.

The most well-known fallout, of course, was Russia’s granting of temporary asylum to National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, which in turn pushed Obama to cancel a summit with Putin scheduled ahead of the G20 meetings in St. Petersburg last year.

Equally important to the “reassessment” of US-Russian relations – in response to what the US President termed Putin’s “backward” policies – was Moscow’s ongoing support for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

This was further exacerbated by the Russian expulsion of the USAID mission in the country, as well as Putin’s signing of a bill effectively banning most American adoptions of Russian children.

The latter two in fact occurred in late 2012, pushing the roots of the reassessment of the reset to well before the Snowden affair.

Putin’s actions were taken in good measure in response to a US law that punished Russian officials believed to be responsible for the death in jail of human rights lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Besides Snowden, Russia’s increasingly anti-gay stances rankled the Obama Administration, which to close 2013 delivered a bit of rhetorical retaliation of its own by declaring that President Obama would not attend the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympics, and in his place openly gay athletes such as tennis great Billie Jean King and skater Brian Boitano would join the delegation with former Homeland Security and current University of California head Janet Napolitano in the lead.

Gay rights, the controversy surrounding the jailing and release of the female band Pussy Riot, adoption, whistleblowing, jailed international environmental activists, even Putin penning a New York Times OpEd critical of President – there are certainly a lot of issues dividing the two great powers and even prompting some petty policy-making to rankle the other’s feathers in what passes or the “new normal” in US-Russian relations.

A well-oiled relationship, nonetheless

Obama, right, canceled a scheduled summit but did meet Putin at the G20 Saint Petersburg Conferences in September [AP]

Obama, right, canceled a scheduled summit but did meet Putin at the G20 Saint Petersburg Conferences in September [AP]

But is there really a “poisonous unraveling” of a previously well-oiled relationship, as the Washington Post described it, which “threatens pillars of Obama’s second-term foreign policy agenda”?

And if the once seemingly positive relationship has become little more than a “purely transactional relations[hip] against the background of deep mutual mistrust,” is that either very new or all that bad?

Not really.

To begin with, issues related to human rights have never been central to US policy towards Russia or its predecessor, unless such a focus could serve some broader strategic advantage.

(Indeed, the entire US discourse of human rights first evolved as a way to challenge the internal policies of the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries.)

Second, Russia and the US have two overriding interests in common that likely trump most of their conflict areas. The first is, as the recent bombings in Russia make clear, terrorism.

As a Russian friend put it to me, “The Russians and the US have the same goals, we just often wind up backing different horses.”

The Syrian case is the most obvious example of this. And what’s most interesting here is that the policies of both countries – the US in support of the “opposition” and Russia in support of Assad – are clearly going to produce more terrorism in the end.

The US reluctance  to fully support the secular opposition from the start, coupled with its turning a blind eye to the funding of extremist jihadis by Gulf Arabs not merely in Syria but across the region, has meant that the jihadis have successfully hijacked the resistance.

We are today witnessing the brutal results of this approach.

For its part, Russia’s wholehearted support for Assad is ensuring that yet another generation of Sunni jihadis sees Russia every bit as much an enemy as the US.

If Arab and European countries are all scared that their citizens flocking to the Syrian theater will come home well-trained and hardened killers, there is little doubt that the threat is even greater in Russia, given its large and restive Muslim populations.

Perhaps the shared history of mistakes and miscalculations might lead the two countries to start backing the same, more democratic and less violence-prone horses, but if history is any guide, we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Diplomatic cooperation grows

Russia and the US both scored diplomatic points when they agreed on destroying Syria's WMDs [Getty Images]

Russia and the US both scored diplomatic points when they agreed on destroying Syria’s WMDs [Getty Images]

On the more positive side, while the blowback from the two countries’ support of opposite sides in the Syrian death spiral is extremly troubling, their cooperation in a Russian-initiated plan to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons is a crucial development that has done more to protect the security of the United States than perhaps any development globally in the last few years.

Equally important, Washington’s rapprochement with Tehran will ultimately improve relations with Moscow because any military conflict between the US and Iran would likely have had a serious and potentially devastating spill-over into the former Soviet Central Asian republics, and through them Russia itself.

Therefore, whereas a century and more ago Russia and the “West” were on opposite sides of the “great game” that centered around Afghanistan and Iran, today their interests are more or less aligned in ameliorating conflicts and lowering the threshhold of violence in a region that is equally strategically central to both great powers.

Also on the positive side, whatever the political and geostrategic differences, our major oil firms such as Exxon are becoming increasingly engaged in Russia, particularly in Arctic drilling as the polar ice caps more fully melt.

However much the two governments might argue over Snowden’s asylum or arrests of gay activists, it’s not going to get in the way of tens of billions of dollars of investments and potential profits.

As always, money “trumps” – or rather, is the whole point – of politics.

Enter … China

There is one final reason why US-Russian relations cannot sour too much in the coming year: They are balanced by the interests and actions of China.

China remains a competitor to both the United States and Russia, as well as a primary economic partner to both countries.

And more than most great powers, China desires stability in order for its powerhouse economy – which is at least four times the size of Russia’s and quickly approaching the size of the US – to continue not just to function, but to act as the pivot for the global economy more broadly.

In reality, US-Russian relations are US-Russian-Chinese relations, even if there is no formal “triad” to encompass them.

In the end, the fate of this triad is so crucial to the broader health of the world economy and global goestrategic stability that despite their numerous conflicts and growing differences in a host of spheres (like the great power systems of old), each will function optimally only to the extent the other two are avoiding a systemic threat or major conflict.

In that regard, as long as Syria can be kept from exploding into a regional conflagration, global oil prices can remain steady (which despite the global growth of fracking likely won’t decrease significantly in the next year) and the world economy can continue slowly but steady climbing out of the late ’00s recession, all three giants will find cooperation rather than conflict to be the best course of action for their narrow, and global, interests.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.