In recent times, US-Russia relations have deteriorated to what both sides acknowledge is an "all time low." Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and Putin's continued support for the Assad regime in Syria have placed enormous strain on this historically tense and complex relationship. In one of the first analyses of the evolving Trump-Putin relationship, leading scholar of Russian foreign policy Andrei P. Tsygankov challenges the dominant view that US-Russia relations have entered a new Cold War phase. Russia's US strategy, he argues, can only be understood in the context of a changing international order. While America strives to preserve its global dominance, Russia--the weaker power--exploits its asymmetric capabilities and relations with non-Western allies to defend and promote its interests, and to avoid yielding to US pressures. Focusing on key areas of conflict and mutual convergence--from European security to China and the Middle East, as well as cyber, nuclear, and energy issues--Tsygankov paints a nuanced and unsentimental picture of two countries whose ties are likely to remain marked by suspicion and conflict for years to come.
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1 Rivals, Not Enemies
Russia and America
Is Russia launching a new Cold War?
World order transition
The book’s organization
2 The World Order Transition
Orders and transitions in world politics
The Washington system
The new world order transition
3 Putin and Trump
Competing Claims of Status
Russia’s asymmetric capabilities
Miscalculations and pragmatism
4 European Security
The United States and European order
Russia’s goals and means in Europe
The Ukraine crisis
Future rivalries in Europe
5 The Middle East
US goals in the region
Russia’s Middle East priorities and threat perception
Russia’s principles of sovereignty and dialogue
The Syria intervention
The tentative record
6 Asia and China
America’s declining influence in Asia
Russia’s priorities and power in Asia
The Russia-China power division
Challenges and solutions in Central Asia
7 Values and Information
The US global information strategy
Russia as the “dark double”
Russian values and asymmetric propaganda
Why the information rivalry will continue
8 Nuclear and Cyber Security
The US quest for primacy
Russia’s nuclear deterrence
Russia’s cyber priorities and power
Future nuclear and cyber rivalry
9 Energy and Sanctions
US global energy priorities
Russia’s power and energy interests
Sanctions and US-Russia gas rivalry in Europe
Future of energy security
10 Where to from the Asymmetric Rivalry?
Russia, America, and the new world disorder
Future US-Russian rivalry
End User License Agreement
World Orders and Defeated Powers
Symmetric and Asymmetric Rivalry
Table of Contents
We live in a wondrous time, in which the strong is weak because of his scruples and the weak grows strong because of his audacity.
Otto von Bismarck
Andrei P. Tsygankov
Copyright © Andrei P. Tsygankov 2019
The right of Andrei P. Tsygankov to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in 2019 by Polity Press
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All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataNames: Tsygankov, Andrei P., 1964- author.Title: Russia and America : the asymmetric rivalry / Andrei P. Tsygankov. Description: Medford, MA : Polity Press,  | Includes bibliographical references and index. |Identifiers: LCCN 2019007297 (print) | LCCN 2019020344 (ebook) | ISBN 9781509531165 (Epub) | ISBN 9781509531134 (hardback) | ISBN 9781509531141 (pbk.)Subjects: LCSH: United States--Relations--Russia (Federation) | Russia (Federation)--Relations--United States. | Geopolitics--Russia (Federation) | Security, International.Classification: LCC E183.8.R9 (ebook) | LCC E183.8.R9 T885 2019 (print) | DDC 327.73047086--dc23LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019007297
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I began writing about US-Russia relations some fifteen years ago. When my book Russophobia: Anti-Russian Lobby and American Foreign Policy was published in 2009, I was hopeful that the two countries could overcome the divisive politics of the past and be guided by considerations of mutual national interest and global stability. Unfortunately, after a brief period of trying to engage in dialogue during 2009–10, relations between America and Russia entered an era of crisis from which they have not been able to find a path toward dialogue and cooperation. Both countries now frequently resort to accusations and ultimatums, eschewing diplomacy and honest discussion. The thin layer of trust that had existed in US-Russia relations has now all but evaporated.
As academics, the main thing we can do to contribute to the world’s peace is to write good books and teach good students. I have been trying to do both and was happy to respond to Polity’s invitation to write a book about Russia and America. When the publisher approached me, I had been teaching a course on Russia and the world order and thinking about the global changes that have affected Russia’s relations with the United States. My courses and students remain a source of energy and inspiration. Most of my work is connected to or has grown out of the courses that I am privileged to teach at San Francisco State University.
My other source of ideas includes the scholars and intellectuals with whom I have been fortunate to interact and discuss some of my thoughts at various meetings, conferences, and forums. Many people in America, Europe, Russia, and China deserve credit for engaging me in stimulating conversations, inviting me to conferences, and helping me formulate the ideas expressed in this book.
Several reviewers of the book offered multiple suggestions on how it might be improved. Some of these – hopefully the best ones – I have utilized in producing the final draft.
My publisher Louise Knight has been very encouraging throughout the process, and provided excellent advice on softening my prose and improving the book’s structure and content. I also thank Sophie Wright, Tim Clark, and everyone else at Polity responsible for the book’s editing, production, design, and appearance. Matthew Tarver-Wahlquist provided editorial assistance and helped with proofreading the text. Needless to say none of the above-mentioned is responsible for the book’s content or any errors it may contain.
Parts of several chapters draw on portions of my previously published works: Russophobia (Palgrave, 2009), Russia and the West from Alexander to Putin (Cambridge University Press, 2012), The Strong State in Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014), “Vladimir Putin’s Last Stand,” Post-Soviet Affairs 31:4 (2015); Russia’s Foreign Policy, 4th edition (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), “Relations with the United States,” in Stephen Wegren, ed. Putin’s Russia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), and The Dark Double (Oxford University Press, 2019). I would like to thank the publishers for permission to use these materials.
Finally, and as always, I wish to thank my family in Russia and America for their love and support and for simply being who they are. I dedicate this book to them, to my friends, and to all those open to dialogue whatever their political viewpoint. Even though this book is about power, it is also about ideas, the potential for dialogue, and the hope of a better future.
In transliterating names from the Russian, I have used “y” to denote “ы”, ‘ to denote “ь” and “ъ”, “yu” to denote “ю”, “ya” to denote “я”, “i” to denote “й” and “ий”, “iyi” to denote double “и”, “e” to denote “э”, “kh” to denote “х”, “zh” to denote “ж”, “ts” to denote “ц”, “ch” to denote “ч”, “sh” to denote “ш”, and “sch” to denote “щ”. I have also used “Ye” to distinguish the sound of “е” (such as “Yevropa”) at the beginning of a word from that in the middle of a word (such as “vneshnei”). I have not distinguished between “е” and “ё”. Original spelling is retained in quotations.
Ever since Donald Trump’s unexpected rise to power, the 2016 US presidential election has become the lens through which to view US-Russia relations. Many in the West believe that Russia interfered in the electoral process by hacking the Democratic National Convention’s emails and promoting Trump on social media. Few have questioned the fact of Moscow’s interference. While disputing its extent, politicians, experts, and journalists alike have overwhelmingly accepted it as reality. Even those who reject this consensus view agree that the election became a critically important event which continues to profoundly affect relations between the two countries.
This book seeks to understand how Russia’s foreign policy has changed since Vladimir Putin’s return to presidency in 2012, and how that change has contributed to a new conflict with America. I argue that Russia’s goals and its means to achieve them should be understood in the context of an international transition toward a post-Western and multipolar world. The events of 2016 were crucial in making such transition irreversible. The West’s lack of recognition of Russia’s interests culminated in the conflict over Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan revolution, and compelled the Kremlin to take unprecedented steps in defense of its perceived interests, including annexing Crimea, supporting Ukrainian separatists, and intervening in the political and media spaces of the United States and several other Western countries. Although historically the essential drivers of Russia’s international actions had to do with the protection of its geographically limited national interests, Moscow was now prepared to defend those interests in an increasingly aggressive and global fashion. The United States’ dismissiveness toward the Kremlin’s complaints, Russia’s preoccupation with security and great power status, and Vladimir Putin’s character have all caused US-Russia relations to deteriorate to the point of what both sides acknowledge is an ‘all-time low’.
Contemporary Russia and America are competitors rather than partners on most international issues. The Kremlin has challenged US hegemony both globally and in regional settings. Cooperation has become more difficult, while conflicts between the two countries have grown more intense, widened in scope, and taken on new dimensions. What in the 1990s was a disagreement over the nature of European security has developed into a rivalry over multiple regional and global issues, including the Middle East, Asia, nuclear and cyber security, energy, and values.
This progressive worsening of US-Russia relations has evolved through several cycles.1 Following the early 1990s reforms in Russia, and attempts to establish cooperative international relations in Europe, the United States adopted the policy of expanding NATO eastward, excluding Russia from the process. Moscow responded by pursuing policies of integrating the former Soviet states under Russia’s leadership, and strengthening ties with China, India, and other non-Western states.
The arrival of Vladimir Putin as Russia’s new president in spring 2000 was the beginning of another cycle in the country’s attempts to improve relations with the United States. Following the terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001, Russia sought to establish itself as a reliable partner in fighting terrorism globally, and, on that basis, to strengthen its economic and political ties with the West. However, already in the first half of 2003, the initially positive dynamics in US-Russia relations began to reverse as new tensions appeared, pushing the two sides toward conflict. In addition to the continued expansion of NATO, the United States declined negotiations over nuclear security by unilaterally withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. In May 2003, the US also invaded Iraq, over the opposition of Russia, France, Germany, and several other countries. In the meantime, Washington supported regime change in countries neighboring Russia, grew critical of the latter’s political system as increasingly authoritarian, and supported energy projects that undermined Moscow’s clout in Europe and Eurasia.
Responding to these moves, the Kremlin challenged US priorities in Europe, the Middle East, the nuclear arena, and democracy promotion. Russia launched a program of military modernization, sought to strengthen its position in global energy markets, and adopted policies to limit Western influence inside the country. In August 2008, following Georgia’s military attack on South Ossetia and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in the area, the Kremlin invaded Georgia. By defeating the army of a US ally in the region, Russia signaled that it was no longer prepared to accept the above-listed policies of the United States.
In 2009 the two countries made yet another attempt to establish cooperative relations. As with the two previous efforts, this one also failed. US president Barack Obama began his term in office by trying to “reset” relations with Russia, despite its intervention in Georgia, while Russia’s new president Dmitry Medvedev demonstrated an openness to America’s new approach. The two countries sought to leave behind their disagreements by signing a new START agreement and cooperating on several other issues. But the old concerns about European and Middle Eastern security, the US missile defense system, and democracy promotion continued to negatively affect relations. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the United States, by refusing to negotiate over European security, meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs, and intervening in the Middle East to preserve its global power, demonstrated that it still did not take Russia’s concerns seriously.
These disagreements culminated in the Ukraine crisis that ended the third cycle and led to a new US-Russia conflict. Washington supported a regime change in Kiev that Moscow labelled as an “anticonstitutional coup.” The subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea and support for Eastern Ukrainian separatists resulted in US-initiated Western sanctions against the Russian economy. The severity of the new crisis and the two sides’ insistence on the legitimacy of their respective actions promised a prolonged period of rivalry, eliminating any prospect of another attempt at normalization or “reset.”
The election of Donald Trump as US president in November 2016 served to consolidate these negative trends and became a lightning rod for fresh condemnations of Russia by Western leaders. The Kremlin’s initially high hopes for normalizing relations with America soon evaporated, Trump’s declared intention to strengthen ties with Moscow notwithstanding. The election caused a deterioration of the US-Russia relationship beyond expectations, adding the issue of Russian meddling in American domestic affairs to the already extensive list of disagreements. After US intelligence agencies concluded that Russia had indeed intervened in the US presidential election,2 the issue became central to the new internal struggle between Trump and the Washington establishment. Russia’s cyber activities, military strategy, and media role have come under particular scrutiny, with multiple investigations, hearings, and reports seeking to uncover the Kremlin’s true intentions and capabilities.
In this climate, relations reached a new low during 2017. The US House of Representatives’ approved a new package of sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea; both sides expelled diplomats and closed several diplomatic facilities; tensions erupted over Ukraine, the Middle East, North Korea, and the poisoning of British citizen Sergei Skripal and his daughter; and there were mutual accusations concerning nuclear treaty violations and the growing use of cyber weapons. In response to these developments, the United States and other Western governments imposed new sanctions against Russian officials and state-connected businesses, and sixty Russian diplomats were expelled from the United Kingdom and other European countries. The meetings between American and Russian leaders that took place in 2017 and 2018 were non-confrontational and business-like, yet did not result in agreements. Indeed, each such meeting generated a highly negative domestic reaction from the American political class and led to new US sanctions against Russia’s officials and economy.
Many observers describe the US-Russia conflict as a revived Cold War that is set to define the two sides’ relations. The narrative of a new Cold War commands attention in political and scholarly circles. Critics of Russia tend to blame it for its non-democratic values and great power “revisionism.” For instance, the former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul presents the current relations with Russia as a new ideological struggle between democracy and autocracy.3 Other observers, including Robert Legvold, document erroneous expectations and policies on both sides. While acknowledging that the contemporary era is different in many respects, Legvold points to similarities with the early stages of the Cold War (1948–1953), including a dangerous polarizing rhetoric and zero-sum perception on both sides, as well as potentially devastating global outcomes.4 Even those sympathetic to Russia’s position, such as Stephen Cohen, describe the new US-Russia relationship as a Cold War.5 These analysts place responsibility for the conflict on the United States’ insensitivity to Russia’s interests and concerns, and not surprisingly Russian analysts frequently argue a similar case. Sergei Karaganov and Dmitri Suslov, for example, accuse the United States of attempting to impose the framework of a global Cold War on Russia and China for the purpose of weakening them as potential competitors.6
As compelling as it may seem to some observers, however, the Cold War framework is misleading. It fails to grasp the nature of the contemporary world and Russia’s objectives in it. The current global context differs from that of the Cold War in several crucial ways. Most importantly, the Cold War narrative fails to address the global power shift and transitionary nature of the contemporary international system. In today’s world, the old ideological dichotomy between communism and capitalism is no longer applicable. Rather, the competition now takes place in a global information space and is predominantly between liberal and nationalist ideas about how to regulate the economy and the political system. While in the eyes of many the West continues to represent liberalism, the realities of Brexit, Trump, and tightening migration regulations in the European Union demonstrate the global appeal of nationalist ideas.7 The struggle between nationalism and liberal globalism is now intensifying within the West. Trump’s proclaimed intention to reduce America’s military obligations abroad and engage in economic protectionism signify major departures from both the Cold War and post-Cold War globalization. On the other hand, China, Russia, and other allegedly autocratic and nationalist polities continue to favor the preservation of a liberal global economy, opposing both regional autarchy and Trumpian protectionist policies.
As a result of this new global context, new expectations about the international system and state behavior within it are gradually being formed. The West initiated the post-Cold War globalization yet its rules of basic economic openness created the conditions for the rise of non-Western competitors. China, Russia, India, Turkey, Iran, and others are seeking to carve out a space for themselves in the newly emerging international system, just as the United States is struggling to redefine its place and identity in the new world. These changes have altered the position of the only superpower in the international system. Structurally, it is still the familiar world of American military, political, and economic domination. Yet dynamically the world is moving away from its US- and West-centeredness,8 even though the exact direction and end point of this trajectory remains unclear.
In order to take advantage of the new opportunities, many non-Western countries are developing their own rules and arrangements in the world.9 Russia and other non-Western countries increasingly have international options they never had before, as new global and regional institutions and areas of development outside the influence of the West gradually emerge. This does not always entail international confrontation. Most non-Western nations are not looking to challenge the superpower directly, and they continue to take advantage of ties with the West. A US-balancing coalition or a genuine alternative to the West-centered world has not yet emerged. Unlike in previous eras, the contemporary world lacks a rigid alliance structure. The so-called Russia-China-Iran axis is far from definitively formed, and exists largely in the minds of American neoconservatives and Russia-conspiracy-minded thinkers. International coalitions continue to overlap and are mostly formed on an ad hoc basis depending on issues of interest.
Under these global conditions, Russia’s motives differ from those of the Soviet Union during the Cold War in significant ways. Although Russia is engaged in a rivalry with America, the Kremlin’s main foreign policy aspiration is to benefit from the global shift of power and economic dynamism toward China and other non-Western nations. Unlike the USSR, contemporary Russia has no ideologically compelling reason to seek the destruction of the United States. Rather, as a number of observers pointed out, the Kremlin’s objective has been to gain recognition and negotiate a larger space and great power status within the still largely Western-influenced global order.10
Following the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Russia’s goals have also included the formation of non-Western international institutions and economic relations in response to the West’s efforts to isolate Russia through sanctions and political pressure. But this was a second-best strategic option for gaining global recognition after it became clear that the preferred strategy of cooperation with America and other Western countries was no longer available. To a considerable extent, Russia’s assertive behavior in Ukraine, Syria, and in cyber and information space can be explained by the Kremlin’s desire to challenge its rival for the purpose of gaining respect and recognition as a great power with distinct interests in Eurasia and elsewhere. If achieving that goal entails a major revision of America’s assumed role in the international system, then the Kremlin—in partnership with other powers—is prepared to lead the world to such an outcome. If anything, the situation may be reminiscent of the non-ideological great power rivalry in eighteenthand nineteenth-century Europe. At that time, Britain, France, Russia, and other powers competed to preserve and enhance their respective influence in world politics. This time, however, the rivalry takes place in a global context with the participation of China, Russia, the United States, and others.
The drive to gain recognition as a great power explains what Russia wanted to accomplish by interfering in the 2016 US presidential campaign. Rather than aiming to get Trump elected, the Kremlin—to the extent that it was involved in coordinating various activities, from hacking the Democratic Party to posting pro-Trump ads on social media—wanted to gain some leverage in its dealings with the expected future president, Hillary Clinton. As I was conducting interviews with leading foreign policy experts in Moscow during the summer of 2016, the overwhelming majority of them shared two beliefs: Trump was going to lose and Hillary would be bad news for Russia. My interviewees saw Clinton as a hard-liner who was prepared to go beyond the sanctions policy initiated by Obama and escalate the conflict with Russia in several additional areas. Clinton had publicly compared Putin to Hitler, challenged the Eurasian Economic Union as a Russian neo-imperial project, proposed to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, and advocated providing Ukraine with lethal weapons and other forms of assistance. The Kremlin therefore concluded that there was little, if anything, to be gained from a Clinton presidency in terms of a balancing of distinct interests, and that the best tactic was therefore to demonstrate its power as a prelude to future bilateral negotiations.
Not only do Russia’s motives differ from those of the USSR during the Cold War, but so do its power capabilities. It is in no position to challenge America and other Western nations globally, given the large—and in some areas widening—gap between Western and Russian power. Russia therefore does not seek to directly confront or defeat the other side; rather, its asymmetric capabilities are applied on a limited scale and for defensive purposes. When the Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov first described the so-called hybrid war, some analysts understood this as a template for an offensive military strategy. His point, however, was that the West was already engaged in such a war against Russia and that Russia had to be better prepared for this new type of conflict.11 Asymmetric power is selective and targets the competitor’s most vulnerable areas. It is designed to put on alert and disorient, rather than achieve a decisive victory.12
Sensitive to this asymmetry, Dmitry Trenin has described Russia-West relations as a hybrid war characterized by “the huge inequality between the two principal antagonists, [and] the absence of a clear divide as there are no Berlin walls, no Iron Curtains,” only the dynamism of competition in multiple areas on multiple issues.13 Another analyst, Michael Kofman, defines the new Russian strategy in relations with the West as “raiding,” or a series of operations to deny the stronger side a victory or “the opportunity to reinforce,” followed by surprise attacks and withdrawal.14
Overlooking these differences between today’s world and that of the Cold War era, the Cold War narrative misunderstands Russia’s potential for both rivalry and cooperation with the United States and other Western countries. Their asymmetric rivalry does not exclude the possibility of Russia and the Western powers cooperating in some areas (such as nuclear non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, cyber issues) and regions (e.g. the Middle East and North Korea), while perceiving each other as competitors when it comes to the preferred rules and structure of the international system. In an increasingly fragmented world, Russia and the West may move beyond viewing each other predominantly as rivals if they can learn to focus on issues of common concern and find a way to reframe their values and interests in non-confrontational terms.
The rhetoric of the Cold War narrative, like any war rhetoric, has dangerous normative implications. By stressing conflict and escalation it has the potential to take on a discursive power that turns the US-Russia conflict into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Scholars and pundits are also citizens and have a responsibility to imagine a better world by researching the conditions for international cooperation and proposing joint solutions. A better world would be one in which America and Russia not only compete but also cooperate, and do so within the bounds of global rules.
Rather than following the new Cold War narrative, this book develops an explanation of Russia’s policy toward the United States that stresses changes in the balance of global power as well as national perceptions. The world order is undergoing a transition from the US-centered international system that emerged after the Cold War to a system in which the United States will have a diminished role and capacity. Any international order will be characterized by rules of behavior among major powers that reflect their ideas of justice and material capabilities.15 Such rules typically concern these powers’ perceived balance of forces, spheres of influence, and domestic political organization. World order transition begins when the power(s) responsible for enforcing international rules are challenged in their ability to do so by rising dissatisfied states. While remaining the most powerful nation, the United States is already in the process of retreating from the position of a superpower capable of unilaterally imposing international rules and principles. In order to preserve relative peace and stability in the world, Washington will increasingly come to depend on the support of other powers.
This change, however, is not currently accompanied by adequate perceptions on the part of Russian and US elites. Material capabilities, especially in times of transition, are rarely perceived accurately, with major powers more commonly tending to overestimate their abilities. In Russia, the idea of a great power that refuses to compromise on its sovereignty and independence has long historical roots, and it survived the end of the Cold War. Despite the breakup of the Soviet Union and the economic weakness that followed during the 1990s, Russia continued to believe in itself as a great power and desired to be recognized as such by the outside world. As the country’s second Foreign Minister, Yevgeni Primakov, stated immediately following his appointment to the post, “Russia has been and remains a great power, and its policy toward the outside world should correspond to that status.”16
Partly because of this obsession with status, Moscow failed to accurately assess the United States’ role in the emerging international system, having assumed the appearance of a “multipolar” world since the late 1990s. Russia’s foreign policy has frequently been based on an incorrect reading of US intentions; for example, the Kremlin assessed Trump’s election victory as reflecting an irreversible decline of American power and expected the new president to reorient US foreign policy toward Russia by lifting sanctions and cooperating with Moscow on various international issues. In the event, however, Trump was rendered largely incapable of acting due to the internal opposition to his policy and the investigation into “collusion” with Russia launched against him by Congress and Special Investigator Robert Mueller. In addition, the US economy continued to grow and the United States maintained its capacity to strongly influence global and regional political developments. Finally, non-Western countries such as China, India, and others have not been as active in building the foundations for a multipolar international system, and remain eager to build economic and political relations with the United States.
The US political class has also succumbed to inaccurate perceptions of American and Russian power. American leaders and politicians often assumed that their country would remain an unchallenged global leader, and that without such leadership the world would be destabilized. They therefore expected Russia to accept the US role. As Angela Stent observes, Washington’s aim was to position Russia as a junior partner supportive of America’s global values and interests. Moscow, however, insisted on the legitimacy of its own interests and principles even from a position of weakness, but the White House failed to acknowledge this to the extent that Russia expected.17 Each time, the US either didn’t understand Russia’s claims to equality and respect, or found them to be unreasonable.
Just as the Russians did not adjust their concept of power in the 1990s, the Americans failed to notice important changes in the world in the second half of the 2000s. While identifying themselves as “indispensable,” “exceptional,” and standing “taller than other nations,” US officials frequently dismissed Russia as a major power, referring to it in condescending and disrespectful terms. Scholars and policy makers assumed that Russia’s internal difficulties—such as corruption, slow economic growth, and ongoing demographic problems—would prevent it from acting as a great power and effectively protecting its national interests abroad. Reflecting the conventional wisdom, President Obama publicly referred to Russia as a “regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors not out of strength but out of weakness.”18
In the meantime, while hardly a match for the US in terms of overall material capabilities, Russia continued to develop its power and ability to challenge the United States. It has established multiple economic, political, and military relations with non-Western powers and strengthened its capacity to undermine US policy globally by engaging in asymmetrical rivalry. This has been made possible in part thanks to globalization, which allows for a mobility and a concentration of resources not previously possible. Russia’s methods include the selective use of media and information technology, cyber power, hybrid military intervention, and targeted economic sanctions. The Kremlin has taken its assertive foreign policy to a new level by demonstrating its ability to project power across continents, as it did in Syria, effectively dispelling the common perception that as the weaker party it will have to accommodate the United States. Russia’s Concept of Foreign Policy signed by Putin on November 30, 2016 stressed the importance of defending the country’s priorities in the context of new international challenges and attempts by the United States to preserve its global dominance. The document announced that Russia “does not recognize the US policy of extraterritorial jurisdiction beyond the boundaries of international law” and reserves “the right to firmly respond to hostile actions, including the bolstering of national defense and taking retaliatory or asymmetrical measures.”19
Globally speaking, Russia remains a defensive power aware of its responsibility for maintaining international stability. It wants to work with, not against, the other major powers. As such, Moscow’s insistence on Western recognition of its own interests must not be construed as a drive to destroy the foundations of the international order, such as sovereignty, multilateralism, and arms control. At the same time, Russia is actively challenging what it views as a system of American domination at the expense of international law, an equitable distribution of power, and respect for cultural and civilizational diversity.
In the current world order transition, then, there is the potential for both rivalry and cooperation in US-Russian relations. During the Cold War, the symmetric nature of the confrontation between the two nations often excluded any cooperation between them. Today’s world is different and raises possibilities for both rivalry and cooperation depending on the issue. However difficult cooperation may be, it has taken place with respect to negotiations over START, counter-terrorism, and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Russia and the United States have previously agreed on steps to prevent the development of a nuclear program in Iran. They have been able to coordinate some of their policies with respect to Syria and North Korea, even during very tense periods in the relationship. Such cooperation has been possible where the two sides have agreed on the source of a mutual threat posed to them and where their power potential was no longer sufficient for either to assert their favored approach unilaterally. While being defined by significant disagreements on status and the preferred world order, US-Russia power relations unfold in diverse geographic, material, and ideational settings. These relations differ depending on the issue, often pushing the two sides toward rivalry, but in some cases leaving room for their cooperation.
The book provides a detailed analysis of the themes and issues introduced above. Chapter 2 discusses the notion of world order transition as it affects US-Russia relations, reviewing the relevant historical cases in the terms of their post-war rules, power structures, and the degree to which the organizing states included the defeated powers. I argue that the post-Cold War Washington system defined by US hegemony is historically reminiscent of the post-Crimean War Paris system. The Washington system treated (Soviet) Russia as a defeated party even though Russia did not quite qualify as such. The Cold War differed from previous great power wars in multiple ways, and it ended not with the defeat and surrender of one side but as a result of mutually advantageous negotiations. Russia played a key role in ending the Cold War, yet the new international system did not seek to incorporate it in the way the Vienna system had incorporated post-Napoleonic France. At the same time, the Washington system differed from those of Versailles and Yalta by not imposing reparations on the “defeated” state, let alone dismemberment. The chapter places US-Russia developments and the contemporary world order transition up to the end of Obama’s presidency in this theoretical and historical context.
Chapter 3 analyzes US-Russia relations following the election of Trump and explains these relations in terms of the two sides’ worldviews, perceptions, power capabilities, and domestic politics. It argues that, while Putin’s and Trump’s worldviews are similar and guided by great power nationalism, their perceptions of status and domestic institutional settings are profoundly different. The United States continues to view itself as an “indispensable” and hegemonic power not dependent on cooperation with Russia. Due to Russia’s severely damaged reputation within the US establishment, Trump, who initially expressed a preference for “getting along” with Russia, has lost the freedom of action in policy dealings with the Kremlin. In the meantime, Russia has developed a toolkit of asymmetric capabilities for challenging US policies across the world.
Chapters 4–6 then explore the US-Russia rivalry in regional settings. Chapter 4 argues that, while European power distribution is not in Russia’s favor, the Kremlin possesses formidable asymmetric capabilities with respect to Ukraine and the Eastern/Central European region. By exploiting these capabilities and its geographic proximity, Russia has been able to undermine the Ukrainian state and prevent it from joining European institutions. Western sanctions have had the effect of discouraging an escalation of the Russia-Ukraine dispute, yet have failed to reverse the Kremlin’s principal course of action. The US and Russia remain divided by their perception of the power balance and are not ready for a compromise in solving the crisis. Until such perceptions change, the room for cooperation will be limited.
The Middle East demonstrates a different power dynamic. Increasingly, Western powers including the United States are disengaging from the region, creating a vacuum to be filled by non-Western powers. Chapter 5 examines how Russia effectively exploited this advantage by intervening in Syria and strengthening its presence in the Middle East at the expense of the US. While prospects for stabilizing the region are remote, Russia’s intervention has demonstrated its status as a major power and negotiations’ broker. The more Washington comes to terms with the limitations of its power in the region, the more it will be prepared to engage in limited cooperation regarding a political settlement and reconstruction in Syria. In addition, the US and Russia have a mutual interest in reducing the capabilities of radical terrorist organizations in the broader region.
Chapter 6 considers the case of Asia and Central Asia. Here, Moscow has developed a strong partnership with China, which has weakened the US ability to influence economic and political developments in the region, hastening a decline that has been evident since the mid-2000s. If the US chooses to work toward reversing this trend, the potential for rivalry with Russia will only increase. This, however, is less likely as the region is increasingly defined by local powers including Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran.
Chapters 7–9 analyze global developments in US-Russia relations. Chapter 7 reviews the two countries’ rivalry in the area of values and information. This rivalry is likely to remain intense because each side sees the other’s values as threatening, and because both remain convinced of the power of their own media and information capabilities. Both engage in assertive propaganda and information manipulation, presenting the other as threatening, uncooperative, and lacking in moral values. The two countries’ value systems are not fundamentally antagonistic in the way they were during the Cold War, yet they have come into conflict due to intensified interstate competition.
The rivalry in relation to nuclear and cyber issues documented in Chapter 8 also has its roots in the two sides’ perceived power and deterrent capacity. However, as intense as it may be, this rivalry has the potential to subside due to both countries recognizing the potential for it to spin out of control. Unfortunately, for such recognition to be consolidated, additional crises in the relationship may need to occur.
Finally, Chapter 9 describes the United States’ attempts to gain a greater share of control in energy markets and Russia’s efforts to preserve its status as a major energy supplier to Europe and other regions. The countries remain divided by perceptions of energy security and the assessment of their own capabilities. This rivalry will continue as long as the US strives to gain the status of an energy power and seeks to limit that of Russia, while the Kremlin continues to rely on important levers and supporters of its energy policy in Europe and beyond.
The conclusion summarizes the analysis by bringing together its common themes and implications. In an increasingly fragmented and decentralized world, rivalry and cooperation are themselves becoming fragmented and issue-based. In this context, cooperation with Russia is more difficult but no less important; indeed it is highly desirable. Such cooperation also remains possible given that the United States in particular and Western nations in general continue to possess significant material and ideational influence. For such influence to be used effectively, however, American attempts to pressure Russia through containment and political confrontation must be replaced by selective engagement and a recognition of Russian concerns and interests. For not only does Russia have such concerns, it also possesses a wide range of asymmetric tools for protecting its interests in the world.
As difficult as it might be for the United States and Western nations to accept, there is no realistic alternative to engaging Russia in a joint effort to stabilize the situation globally as well as in various regions, including Ukraine and Europe more widely. Any new policy must be based on an understanding that the Kremlin’s “revisionism” is in part a reaction to the West’s refusal to recognize Russia as a potential partner. The alternative to a new cooperative engagement is not a compliant Russia, but a continued degradation of regional and global security.
For reviewing these relations as cycles, see Angela Stent,
The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).
See “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” January 6, 2017,
From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia
(New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2018).
Return to Cold War
(Cambridge: Polity, 2016), 28.
Why Cold War Again? How America Lost Post-
(New York: I. B. Tauris, 2019).
Sergei Karaganov and Dmitri Suslov, “A New World Order: A View From Russia,”
Russia in Global Affairs
, October 4, 2018.
Them: The Failure of Globalism
(New York: Portfolio, 2018).
The Post-American World
(New York: W. W. Norton, 2012).
Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers Are
Remaking Global Order
(Cambridge: Polity, 2016).
Should We Fear Russia?
(Cambridge: Polity, 2016); Richard Sakwa,
Russia Against the Rest: The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
For an introduction to Russia’s thinking on the topic, see Ofer Fridman,
Russian Hybrid Warfare: Resurgence and Politicisation
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).
Chapter 3 discusses Russia’s objectives and asymmetric power. See also Andrei P. Tsygankov,
Russia’s Foreign Policy
, 5th edition (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
Dmitry Trenin, “Russia Will Stand Strong and Rely on Itself,” May 28, 2018,
Michael Koffman, “Raiding and International Brigandry: Russia’s Strategy for Great Power Competition,”
War on the Rocks
, June 14, 2018.
(New York: Penguin Books, 2014). In this book, international order and world order are used interchangeably. The next chapter returns to the problem of order in international relations.
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