Russia and USA: Stabilization at a low point?

Konstantin Khudoley,
Professor, Head,
Department of European Studies, School of International Relations, Saint Petersburg University,

Having reached their lowest point in decades, Russian-US relations somewhat stabilized following the Geneva summit between Vladimir Putin and Joseph Biden in June, 2021. It seems both Russia and the US are now going to avoid sudden moves. Yet, there is no sign of improvement either. Their attitudes are conditioned by both the current political environment and long-term considerations. The prevalent view among Russian elites is that the era of dominance of the “historical West” is ending while the future belongs to Russia, China and a few other rising powers. In the US, China is increasingly seen as the main competitor if not adversary, while Russia is seen as a waning power whose strength is mainly based on nuclear arms, oil and gas. Since each party is sure that time is on its side, neither is willing to compromise. US legislation defines Russia as adversary, while the Russian National Security Strategy (2021) repeatedly refers to the US and other Western countries as threats and never as partners.

The Chinese factor will doubtless play an increasingly important role in Russia-US relations. There is no consensus among Russian experts as to how much the US-China rivalry will affect Russia. Most concede that both will seek its support, at least on some issues. Fewer, including this author, believe the rivalry entails more challenges and threats rather than advantages and that it would be wise for Russia to distance itself from it. Currently, Russian policy is largely oriented towards China. However, their privileged strategic partnership is unlikely to turn into a military-political alliance.

Significant difficulties in Russia-US relations are caused by the fact that those are still being built along the same Cold War pattern – its main focus is on global problems, particularly strategic stability, but bilateral relations – trade, economic and humanitarian – are still considered as supplementary. Now this scheme is increasingly malfunctioning. Russia and the US have had over half a century of experience in negotiations on limiting nuclear arms. Yet, the extant system of treaties has entered a stage of disintegration, which, apparently, is irreversible. It is also important that, unlike during the Cold War, talks on these issues have little effect on their overall relations. The extension of the strategic arms treaty in February 2021 did not contribute to any improvement. Moreover, although Russia and the US possess nearly 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal, the issue of strategic stability is becoming ever more global. It is likely that in the next decade several countries will increase their nuclear capabilities and the list of states possessing nuclear arms will expand. In addition, qualitatively new types of weapons are emerging. Further research in Artificial Intelligence could yield weapons beyond our wildest imagination. At the same time, besides states, terrorists will try to gain access to all those weapons. From our viewpoint, negotiations on cybersecurity will now be the primary focus – it is exactly where most risks lie. However, experience in such agreements is virtually absent. Almost all these problems, including that of control, will have to be resolved for the first time. Regarding positive trends one can surely point to the convergence of Russian and US positions on climate change. However, it is not yet clear what practical steps will result from the Leaders Summit on Climate (April 2021). A very strong obstacle to negotiating these issues is a strong feeling of mistrust. Trade, economic and humanitarian relations between Russia and the US are not as great as to have a positive effect in other areas or to be a stabilizing factor. Trade between Russia and the US is far less than that between the US and China. Significantly fewer Russian students attend US universities than those from China or even Iran, while the number of Americans studying in Russia is miniscule. Of course, sanctions and the pandemic have had a negative impact, but it cannot be the only reason. Unfortunately, neither party accords due weight to these issues.

For all the complexity and acuteness of the problems, the current Russia-US relations are nothing like the second edition of the Cold War – despite the differences in their socio-political systems they are not antagonistic. Their propaganda campaigns are impressive due to the scale and intensity and a widespread use of the latest IT. Yet, it is nothing like the ideological struggle during the Cold War. Thus, reaching a compromise and improving Russia-US relations is in general feasible, but it would take time and considerable effort.

Expert article 3074

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