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Foreign Policy

An Interlude in the US-Russia Symphony

Jul 15 , 2013
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russian-American relations in the past 22 years and in the new century in particular have been like a symphony on the world stage. The name of this symphony is “Rivalry” and the main theme is “hard to trust each other.” The recent Snowden PRISM-gate has served as an interlude in the large-scale symphony. 

Yu Sui

No matter how the stalemate of the Snowden incident is resolved, and how Russia will handle it in the end, US Secretary of State Kerry has said that US-Russia relations will be affected. He didn’t detail how or to what extent. It seems to be a test for the world. 

Developments suggest that even though the US is in a passive position, it is not without reasonable grounds to defend, such as anti-terrorism and national interests. In comparison, Russia seems to be in a controlling position and at the same time has a burden on its back. The most powerful leverage for Russia is to respect international justice and safeguard human rights. And there are countries holding similar positions; Ecuador, for instance. 

Some media have suggested that the Russia-US relationship would worsen because of the incident, or “become rigid” (the Los Angeles Times). Some people, especially in Russia, believed that Russia-US relations would not be affected. According to a report on the 26th June, the Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed hope that the Snowden incident would not negatively impact Russia-US relations. A few years ago, media described the relationship as in a “new Cold War”. The term has rarely been seen this time. 

Actually a “spy war” between Russia and the US is not new. A decent way out will be found sooner or later. History has proven again and again that neither side will make a big fuss or go into a fight over an interlude, as both have the bigger picture in mind. 

Both Russia and the US need sound bilateral relations, and to seek cooperation from the other, particularly in complicated international affairs. 

It is well-known that Russia-US relations have had many complications. 

For example, in November 2001, Putin visited the US and issued a joint “new relationship” statement with President Bush. According to the statement, Russia and the US “have overcome the legacy of the Cold War. Neither country regards the other as an enemy or threat” and the two sides are determined to “work together…to promote security, economic well-being, and a peaceful, prosperous, free world.” 

In another example, in May 2002, Bush visited Russia and the two Presidents signed the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty and a joint declaration on a new strategic relationship. The two sides vowed to develop “a relationship based on friendship, cooperation, common values, trust, openness, and predictability” and announced that “[t]he era in which the United States and Russia saw each other as an enemy or strategic threat has ended”. Bush claimed that the US and Russia would enter into a new stage of friendly relations. Putin also agreed that Russia-US relations would be in a new era. 

The preconditions for Russia to realize national rejuvenation are to ensure national unification, economic growth and political stability. However, NATO’s eastward expansion, the Color Revolutions and the deployment of missile defense systems in Europe run counter to the afore-mentioned three conditions that have to be guaranteed and have therefore been regarded as a trilogy to guard against Russia regaining strength and compressing its strategic landscape. Russia has repeatedly protested. And the relationship with the US has remained tense. 

When President Obama visited Russia in 2009, the two countries started to adjust their relations, and a framework was set for the extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, set to expire shortly thereafter. Both sides felt that this was set to bear fruit. In a speech in Moscow, Obama also stressed that “[t]here is a 20th-century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another. And there is a 19th-century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance on another. There assumptions are wrong.” 

The foundation of the Russia-US “strategic partnership” is fragile. This is an important reason for their bilateral relationship to cool off. Strategically, the two countries need each other. Either side needs to draw support from the other and tends to exclude the other. When the former factor is strong, there is an obvious tendency towards collaboration and coordination. When mutual exclusivity is at work, they tilt towards conflicts and fighting. In the long run, factors such as national interests, big-country status and global influence will be key in Russia-US relations, hence the probability that mutual exclusion will be higher. 

The Russian mentality admires and demands a strong leader. The more pressure the US exerts on Putin, the tougher Putin will appear and the greater support he will enjoy from the Russian people. 

With all of this under consideration, PRISM-gate will have a limited influence on Russia-US relations. Negotiations over nuclear disarmament and missile defense deployment in Europe might be set aside for a short time but the overall strategic relationship will not be affected. Once the tense atmosphere is no longer there, all exchanges will become normal again. The characteristics of Russia-US relations that have formed over decades will continue playing out their role, i.e., the expediency of warming up, the inevitability of cooling down and the relativity between warmth or coolness. 

Yu Sui is a professor with the China Center for Contemporary World Studies.

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