" ... is America better-off insulting Russia with tired Cold War rhetoric or is a businesslike approach based on mutual interests worth a try?"
This year represents the centennial of the communist takeover of Russia, which indelibly marked the transition from Tsarist Empire to the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. was a menace not only to the free world, but also to its own people. Despite its collapse and Russia’s independence over 25 years ago, many in Washington still cannot allow themselves to imagine, let alone manifest, a productive relationship with Russia.
Prior to 1917, Russia was the only major power in the world with which the United States had neither a war, nor serious diplomatic dispute. It even supported and defended America during its formative and most vulnerable years—the American Revolution1 and Civil War. Thus, President Jefferson declared, “Russia is the most cordially friendly to us of any power on earth” and President Lincoln’s Secretary of State stated, “[Russia] has our friendship, in preference to any other European power.”2 Notwithstanding constitutional differences between the Russian monarchy and American democracy, their relationship blossomed.
In our current political climate, each nation blames the other for meddling in domestic and international affairs. Foreign malfeasance cannot be tolerated, but should the United States not seek bona fide deals with Russia for the sake of America’s national interests? Meanwhile, recurring sanctions against Russia have forced it to align with China versus the United States. Continued hostilities only increase the chances of direct confrontations—be they political, economic, cyber or nuclear. Arguably, America has more at stake in these scenarios long-term.
In addressing Washington and Moscow’s destiny, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders opined, “I think a lot of that depends on Russia.” Yet, Russia has already made proposals to partner with America in business, anti-terrorism, and European security. Despite current turmoil, it is now incumbent on the U.S. to re-establish mutual respect and take Moscow up on its offers. Why? Because, history reveals and pragmatism dictates that constructive cooperation with Russia is in America’s best interests.
Russia and America after the U.S.S.R
The emergence of Soviet communism in Russia led to a geopolitical and social calamity of immense proportions. This criminal regime, architected by Vladimir Lenin, relinquished moral authority by building its foundation on the bones of over 60 million of its own people whom it exterminated over several decades. During this era, the Soviets erased the bond America and Imperial Russia once shared.
The collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 offered an unparalleled opportunity for the United States to re-establish a constructive relationship with a newly liberated Russia, which was distancing itself from its Soviet past, restoring traditional values, and seeking partnership with America. Unfortunately, some Beltway insiders stood in the way of this rekindling. But, why?
For its part, Russia has tried to engage the United States. In 2000, his first year in office, President Putin suggested joining NATO to President Clinton. In 2007, Putin offered President Bush a compromise on joint missile defense. After his election in 2008, President Medvedev proposed working together on several key initiatives, and President Obama committed to "resetting, but also broadening" ties. Regrettably, Russia’s propositions were not earnestly welcomed by the establishment.
Russia’s efforts should have catalyzed a reassessment of its renewed potential as a strategic partner. But Washington failed to capitalize on this opportunity. Instead, it continued to treat Russia as the U.S.S.R (justifiably “America’s number one geopolitical foe” in a bygone era). This inability of the entrenched Cold War establishment to differentiate Russia from the Soviet Union plagues our relations to this day.
While Russia inherited certain Soviet attributes, including a seat on the UN Security Council, Soviet-era monuments, and commemorations of the Great Patriotic War for its defeat of Nazi Germany, it draws stark contrast from the communist regime—diplomatically, economically and ideologically. Thus, it is essential to recognize that Russia is not the holistic successor of the U.S.S.R., and being Russian is not the same as being Soviet—these identities embody two entirely different mindsets, values, and traditions.
Contextualizing Current Russo-American Relations
Despite media coverage that paints Russia as “the enemy and aggressor,” sober context helps one understand its actions as reactionary. For instance, regarding Crimea’s annexation, critics of Russia often fail to acknowledge the catalyzing event—a February 2014 coup d'état in Kiev that overthrew Ukraine’s president. This threatened Russia’s access to one of its few warm-water ports and its Black Sea Naval Fleet—established under Catherine the Great in 1783. While these aspects do not necessarily justify annexation, they do contextualize Moscow’s reaction to the political upheaval in Kiev. In covering suspected Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential election, commentators omit documented U.S. meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. Time Magazine memorialized one such intrusion with its July 15, 1996 cover-story featuring a cartoon of Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, waving an American flag—the caption reads: “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story about how American advisers helped Yeltsin win.” Historical context does not defend electoral meddling, but helps one see these events as connected incidents, not isolated episodes.
Why Re-Imagine Russia Policy Now
U.S. sanctions on Russia have not had their intended effect and, instead, damaged America’s long-term economic interests. The 2014 sanctions necessitated Russia’s pivot to Asia away from the West. Research by Macro-Advisory Partners indicates a Russian recovery from prior sanctions—with GDP increasing to 1.4 percent in 2017 and 1.9 percent in 2018, and business confidence reaching pre-sanction levels.4 More worrisome for America, estimates now show trade between Russia and China growing to over 200 billion USD in a few years.5 By contrast, U.S. trade with Russia was a paltry 20.3 billion USD in 2016.
Since sanctions are self-defeating, perhaps pragmatic cooperation will be more productive. To this end, America cannot revert to Cold War habits. It must rebuild trust with a new cadre of diplomats and policymakers who seek commerce over conflict, and possess Russian cultural fluency. Why can this approach work? Many Americans who visit and work in today’s Russia are pleasantly surprised to find more areas of agreement with its people than typical stereotypes allow.
While the Soviet mentality lingers and will take time to dissipate, the new generation of Russians is very much like us and wants a positive relationship with America. I experienced these sentiments when meeting with President Medvedev, in both Moscow and Silicon Valley in 2010. While visiting San Francisco, he sent his first tweet, hung-out with Steve Jobs, and met entrepreneurs over coffee. This period was arguably the peak of Russian-American relations in the 21st century—full of promise. Unfortunately, old habits got in the way again—NATO incursions and regime change in Libya fractured this brief Russian-American détente and prevented more win-win opportunities.
Even during Soviet times, with polar-opposite ideologies and far more subterfuge on both sides, open channels of communication were maintained through the height of the nuclear threat to elude mutually assured destruction. In the current cyber-age, effective negotiation, rules-of-engagement, and productive diplomacy are arguably even more critical to the preservation of national security.
Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. It offers the United States much to gain from a renewed positive relationship. Most young Russians are strikingly different from old Soviets. Thus, as Russia moves away from its Soviet past and embraces its seminal traditions, which are more aligned with classical Western values, perhaps it’s also time for American politicians and media elites to reconsider attitudes, policies and rhetoric entrenched in Cold War doctrine.
We need to find ways to encourage dialog, resolve conflicts, and do business. If not, then the U.S. may succeed in provoking new hostilities, ideologically “losing” the younger generation of Russians, and creating yet another enemy. Just as President Reagan “had the imagination to see beyond the ubiquitous Cold War stereotypes that seemed to be set in stone,” it’s time again to re-imagine the Russian-American relationship before it’s too late.
1. Frank A. Golder, "Catherine II. and the American Revolution," The American Historical Review (1915), 92.
3. Macro-Advisory Ltd., “July 2017 Macro Monthly,” 5.
4. Macro-Advisory Ltd., “July 2017 Macro Monthly,” 1, 17.
5. Macro-Advisory Ltd., “July 2017 Macro Monthly,” 50.
P.N. Loukianoff is an American entrepreneur/investor with over 20 years experience in Russian-American ventures, and contributing author of Russia and the U.S.S.R: What They Never Tell You. Contributor: Michael Loginoff, an American graduate student at the University of Oxford in Russian & East European Studies.