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Will U.S.-Russia Stalemate Ever End?

Apr 06, 2021
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

In a phone call on Jan. 26, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached agreement on an unconditional five-year extension of the New START Treaty, which had been set to lapse on February 5.

They also agreed to continue to maintain “transparent and continuous” communication in the years to come. And then there was the palpable prospect of breaking the stalemate in relations between the two countries in the near future.

Things didn’t turn out that way, however. Washington tightened sanctions against Moscow on May 2, citing the jailing of Alexei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition. For its part, Russia announced that it would respond in kind. This tit-for-tat raises the question of whether U.S.-Russia relations can be reset.

An examination of the relationship indicates that any resetting might be characterized by three features: 

First, the inevitability of resetting from the perspective of principle.

In the three decades since the end of the Cold War, U.S.-Russia relations have seen both ups and downs. In the early days of Putin’s presidency, the two countries reached agreements — in 2001 and 2002 — to establish  a strategic partnership, claiming that they would no longer be enemies and enter a new era of friendship and cooperation. Why? Back then, Moscow was working to reclaim its former glory; hence the need to maintain amicable relations with Washington.

At the same time, Washington found it necessary to cooperate with Moscow on a wide range of issues, including arms control and anti-terrorism. Then their ties deteriorated in the following years, in large part because of NATO’s eastward expansion to include some former Soviet Union countries and its repeated attempts to engineer color revolutions. The retaking of Crimea by Russia in 2014 led to heavy U.S. sanctions on Moscow, which hit back with countermeasures, thus initiating a vicious cycle. 

In fact, U.S. and Russian leaders understand that the stalemate in bilateral relations does more harm than good. Russian officials said in recent days that they are ready to engage in talks with the United States to resolve differences, if Washington has the will to do so. On March 18, President Putin invited his U.S. counterpart to online talks.

On the U.S. side, White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged at a regular news conference on March 2 that the latest sanctions on Russia are not effective.

“There are areas where we disagree… There are also areas where we are going to work with the Russians,” she said. Obviously, the resetting of U.S.-Russia relations depends largely on timing and conditions on the ground.

Second, the limitations on resetting in terms of scope of activities.

There is a deep structural conflict between the U.S. and Russia. The former wants to maintain its global dominance, while the latter seeks the position of a great power in the world. Consequently, they regularly collide in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and even Latin America. And their confrontation is more about geopolitics than about ideology.

The United States knows that Russia is a military giant, though economically weak. But it also recognizes that the ambitious Putin will not allow his country to be subjected to external constraints. In addition, the two countries have serious differences on major international affairs. All these factors add to the difficulty of resetting bilateral relations.

The two sides signed three arms control treaties — the ABM Treaty, the INF Treaty and the New START Treaty, each of which represented a landmark achievement in relations. The first two have expired, and the New START Treaty, which was to expire this February, has now been extended for five years.

Following the U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty in November, Russia has initiated domestic procedures to withdraw from the 1992 treaty, further reducing the space for the resetting of bilateral relations.

Third, possibilities of resetting in terms of prospects.

The U.S.-Russian relationship since the end of the Cold War has been a mix of competition and cooperation, and in most cases competition prevails. While U.S. economic sanctions have caused considerable hardship in Russia, they have not brought fatal damage; nor have they undermined Putin’s impressive social support. In fact, the Kremlin still has enough resources to enable it to talk with the White House on an equal footing; otherwise the U.S. wouldn’t see it as a major threat.

The Biden administration now has cooperation with Europe as his trump card in countering Russia. Indeed, the impact of this cooperation cannot be underestimated, but it is confined to certain sectors. Sometimes, confrontation and even saber-rattling between NATO and Russia are nothing but a showcase of deterrence, with little substantive significance.

Because of energy shortages, some countries in Western Europe are interested in working with Russia to build the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, which Washington may find hard to disrupt.

In the face of Russia’s strong military muscle and China’s rapid economic development, the U.S. government has tried to contain the two countries simultaneously. But its efforts have backfired, strengthening Russia’s belief that comprehensive strategic collaboration with China can counter U.S. pressure.

More important, the domestic situations in the United States and Russia are also changing. To what extent will domestic divisions in the United States be healed? What does the future hold for opposition groups in Russia? The answers can produce an impact on the resetting of bilateral relations. Putin rightly said to his U.S. counterpart that the two countries must shoulder special responsibilities for world peace and stability, and that the normalization of their relations serves the interests of both countries and the wider international community. Both countries have a stake in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, regional hot-button issues and cyber conflicts, which underscores the need for cooperation.

As for U.S.-Russia relations over the next four years, it seems safe to draw the following conclusions. First, a color revolution as envisioned by Washington to overthrow Putin is unlikely to succeed, and a head-to-head war between the two largest nuclear-armed countries is impossible.

Second, while tensions may continue well into the future, there may be signs of detente in the latter part of Biden’s presidency: Seeing its pressure campaign fail to generate substantive results, the administration may have to weigh all the options on the table.

Third, confrontation only leads the United States and Russia to a dead end in the long run, and a mix of cooperation and competition remains the norm that works for both countries. But it is difficult to strike a balance, and competition is likely to overwhelm cooperation, as in the past.

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