Can The US And Russia Be Friends?
Amid the handshakes between US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev lies a more fundamental question, namely can their two countries ever truly be friends? Or will bilateral relations forever be defined through the legacy of the Cold War?
Both sides regard each other with a high degree of suspicion, even 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, Russia and Russians by some accounts regard the US with deeper mistrust now than back in the 1980s. What gives?
Factors dividing the US and Russia
• Imbalance of power: The US and Russia are no longer equals, if they ever were. The US remains the world’s sole superpower, while Russia has seen years of geopolitical decline. The economic gap remains substantial, despite Russia’s vast mineral wealth.
• US strategic advance: The US has been advancing into Eurasia, whereas Russia has been in retreat. Moscow deeply resents Washington’s growing influence in areas it regards as its legitimate sphere of influence, e.g., the Baltics, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Russia favours an exclusive sphere of influence it the former Soviet Union, something which the US will not countenance. From a geostrategic perspective, the US is the leader of the trade-dependent maritime world, whereas Russia is a land-based ‘heartland’ power. Thus, the US will seek to press as far as possible into the ‘heartland’. (For an excellent overview of the power struggle in Eurasia, see former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard.)
• Missile defence: This has been one of the most contentious issues of all. The US states that its planned missile shield is designed to defend against a potential attack from Iran and North Korea, but Russia fears that it will be the first step to building something much bigger which could neutralise Moscow’s own nuclear arsenal – and thus its perceived superpower status.
• Unrealistic US approach: US leaders seem to have a chronic inability to understand that Russia simply will not subordinate its strategic interests to Washington, and that Moscow has its own fears or interests which it will not compromise on.
• Mutual perceptions of hypocrisy: US officials and opinion makers have criticised Russia’s authoritarian drift, while blithely overlooking even greater abuses against democracy in new US allies such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan (in the latter, prior to 2005). Meanwhile, Russia bemoans US power politics globally while using its own natural gas resources as a political tool in eastern Europe and even invading neighbouring Georgia last August. Regarding the latter, Moscow accuses Washington of double standards for endorsing Kosovo’s independence in 2008 while arguing against independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. Overall, both sides regard each other as hypocritical, thereby spoiling the atmosphere for talks.
Despite these differences, I continue to believe that the US and Russia have much to gain from cooperation.
Factors bringing the US and Russia together
• Nuclear disarmament: The US and Russia possess 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons, and thus any move towards global denuclearisation must focus on these two countries. Both sides have an interest in reducing their offensive weapons, given how expensive they are to maintain (especially for Russia).
• Mutual concerns about Islamist militants: Although the US supported Islamic fundamentalists against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (in fact, July 3 was the 30th anniversary of Jimmy Carter signing a secret directive to destabilise Afghanistan, six months before the Soviet invasion), it is evident that Islamist militants are a major threat to both countries. Hence, Russia is facilitating US access to Afghanistan through its airspace.
• Long-term fear of China: Although the US and China are economically dependent on one another, and although Russia and China are allies in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, both Washington and Moscow fear Beijing’s rising global influence. Russia must thus decide whether it fears growing Chinese economic influence in Siberia more than it does US geopolitical influence in eastern Europe.