The Future of Russo-American Relations (Guest Voice)

This Guest Voice column is by Russian-Armenian banking IT specialist and Watching America translator Azat Souren Oganesian.

The Future of Russo-American Relations
by Azat Souren Oganesian

The future of Russo-American relations may be one of partnership and possible friendship or that of distrust and competition; which scenario manifests will naturally depend on the politicians and events within the two countries, but even more strongly on the events in the outside world.

The real question is whether the common threats to both America and Russia will be grave enough to make them both see a long term alliance as preferable to distrust and competition.

An historical example is valuable here. The European continent today is a place of stability and peace, where military aggression among west European states is regarded as a virtual impossibility. Nations such as France and Germany, which fought three bloody and humiliating wars in one hundred years, now coordinate their foreign policies with each other and have members of their respective nations sit in on each other’s parliamentary sessions. The European Union’s historical narrative is that these two nations, which have lost so much in these wars, have decided to cooperate to ensure that such a conflict never happens again.

There is, however, an historical view that contradicts this orthodoxy; it claims that France and Germany (alongside other major west European nations) saw a massive Soviet Union and a weakened Europe, and decided to unite or perish. With American help, a counterbalance was formed, with the frontline in northern Germany.

This was not an idealistic response, but a realistic one.

Precedents for such natural coordination exist from Herodotus to Kissinger (when the US moved toward China against the USSR). In a similar spirit of realpolitik, as Russia’s power drastically declined after 1989, Europe’s eyes turned westward and the underlying, almost subliminal message was: unity against American power.

Historically, nations that may easily become competitors, or are already competitors, put aside their natural antagonisms for a more prudent self-interest. The United States and Russia must see common competitors or enemies to remain on good terms. The most forceful statements made by Vladimir Putin during his major official visit to the Unites States in November of 2001, was that Islamic terrorism was a common threat to Russia and America. Putin coupled his war in Chechnya with the response to the attacks on 9/11. The Bush administration saw no need to contradict that line of reasoning. Russia was active in supplying the US with intelligence in the first months of the war in Afghanistan.

The rise of China may be another reason to speak in a single voice regarding major issues in the Far East.

If China becomes an economic and military superpower, Russia will feel threatened in its sparsely populated Far East, as will the US naval presence in the Pacific Rim. However, the wave of Russian anti-Americanism that began with Putin’s infamous Munich speech in February 2007, and was maintained until the end of its presidential elections (or selections as some rightly call it), has made Russo-American partnership impossible.

The anti-Americanism that has been coming out of Russia since that Munich speech is primarily due to a drastic change in geopolitical realities between Russia and the West. True, presidential elections were coming up and the people of Russia needed to be excited to a nationalistic pitch (according to the siloviki ruling elite), so that military and economic strength would be the people’s major preoccupation, while their steady loss of civil rights would be seen as a needed compromise towards stability.

But the primary reason why Russia refused to compromise with the US on any major geopolitical issue was because of the swelling of its coffers following an unprecedented rise in the price of oil. While Russia was weak, it was a junior partner to America and NATO – but a wealthier and therefore more powerful Russia can speak its mind without fearing any repercussion. It has been thumbing its nose at the West and knew that no one could do anything about it.

As a result, one of the first trips of President Dmitri Medvedev was to Central Asia and China – not Europe or America. The message to the West was: we can easily produce an alliance that will be of great hindrance to America, so take us seriously. And America must take Russia seriously as a regional power.

But at the same time, one must admit that a great moral sacrifice would be made by America if it were to turn a blind eye to Russia’s unsavory policies.

Undoubtedly, Ukraine and Georgia, nascent democracies that are trying hard to maintain their complete sovereignty against Russian intrusion, would have to be sacrificed to the altar of big power politics. The Nesoglasniye movement that advocates Russian democracy, who have been praised and supported in the West, would be sacrificed to the beating batons of the Russian police. Russian support for Hamas and military arms sales to Syria would have to be overlooked as well.

Both America and Europe would have to tone-down their pro-democracy rhetoric – at least in the case of Russia. This was easily done during the Yeltsin years (who in the American government really criticized Russia, then?) and it could be done again.

Would such a great sacrifice be worth an amicable relationship with Russia or would this be plain appeasement?

America does not need much help in its war on terrorism from Russia, and China will not be a military threat to the US Navy’s 6th Fleet for at least a half a century. In 50 years, Russia may be democratic and therefore a more palatable ally. A Russia that is the major world center of illiberal behavior cannot be an easy friend to an America that holds tight to its core beliefs.

It was easy to be friends with China following Nixon’s visit there in 1972, but in 1972 China was not vocal and aggressive in the world, while Russia now is. China did not then seek to be an empire, whereas Russia sees the dismemberment of the USSR as a catastrophe and wants to be an empire again. While there will not be a hot war between America and Russia, nor even a Cold War, a tepid war of distrust and competition is a foreseeable reality.

Azat is a Russian-Armenian banking IT specialist. He received a BA in Political Science from Rutgers University, spent a year at law school, and is currently focusing on translations of articles for, writing political essays, and writing poetry.