US-Russia: How to Break Out of the Vicious Circle?
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall (Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia)
List of speakers

Washington is boiling with passions, and the new sanctions are only the initial step of the US response to the Russian foreign policy, which has become much more active recently. Contradictions tear America apart and it suffers from a “constitutional crisis”. Can Russia and the US return to the path of constructive cooperation in the present conditions? These issues were addressed by participants in the expert discussion at the Valdai Club in Moscow. 

On Friday, September 7, the Valdai Club hosted a discussion on the current state of US-Russian relations featuring prominent experts in the field – Robert Legvold, Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus, Columbia University, Director of the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative, and Valery Garbuzov, Director of the Institute for the US and Canadian Studies of Russian Academy of Sciences. The panelists drew a disappointing conclusion: the two countries’ relations are in a deep crisis, which is unlikely to be overcome with Donald Trump as the US President.

This is due to a number of reasons. Formally, the accusations of Russia in “meddling” in the 2016 US presidential election are the main reason for the worsening of relations, but this issue cannot be isolated from domestic political processes in the US on the eve of Trump’s election and after it. As Valery Garbuzov noted, Trump emerged due to the crisis of leadership and crisis of ideas in both Democratic and Republican parties, which were not ready to change. In turn, Trump, who came to power under the slogans of restoring order in the US and internationally, seems to refuse recognizing the specifics of his country’s political system and to “fit in.” Therefore, Trump’s presidency has led to a strong polarization of the US society. According to Robert Legvold, after Trump’s ascending to power the country had powerful protest movements, while the elite refuses to accept him. As Valery Garbuzov pointed out, this weakens the entire institution of presidency, calling the system of checks and balances into question.

Against this background, the current worsening of US-Russian relations seems to be an aftermath of the American domestic situation. For a significant part of the elite and society, the very figure of Trump is unacceptable, and the alleged “Russian collusion” is perceived as an attempt to break the very foundations of the country’s political system. Apart from the question of whether Russia is guilty in meddling in the US elections, it should be noted that Russia has acquired unprecedented significance in the US foreign policy. According to Legvold, it is its “central element” at the moment.

So the question arises: how should Russia react to this? According to the US scholar, the “we can only wait and see” sentiment observed in the official Russian circles is fundamentally wrong. Allegations of Russia’s interference in the American political process are already shaping the agenda of bilateral relations and Russia needs to build a US policy to confront this factor, Legvold believes. He listed the traditional accusation points: “propaganda” on the part of Russia-based English-language media, hacking, social media campaigns, and alleged testing of whether one can have access to the US electoral process. According to Legvold, the latter point is especially serious as it constitutes a national security issue. Therefore, these issues should be discussed in a format similar to arms control talks, he believes.     

But the “Russian trace” in the US elections is not the only problem. According to Garbuzov, Russia and the United States are the only two countries pursuing geopolitical programmes of their own. For the US, it is maintaining its global primacy, while for Russia it boils down to restoring influence in the “post-Soviet space.” The central issue is how the two nations can implement their geopolitical programmes without provoking global confrontation – and neither side seems to have an answer, the Russian scholar believes.

Legvold also mentioned the global dimension of the US-Russian relations. According to him, American politics is struck by a crisis of small-mindedness, when the conflicting parties are unable to see the potential global consequences of their strife. If this crisis is not overcome, new generations will live in a much less safe world, the American scholar noted.

So far, there are no reasons for optimism. The US political system is divided with ex-Secretary of State John Kerry calling the situation “a constitutional crisis.” A politically divided country is unable to speak the language of diplomacy – “it has no one voice,” Garbuzov said. Unlike the establishment, President Trump says that he is able to “arrange things” with the Russian leader, but Trump himself seems to be conflicted. The Democrats’ victory in the midterm elections would mean expansion of investigations of the “Russian collusion.” The political war between the president and his opponents will be long and bitter and one should not expect changes in the US-Russian relations while Trump is in power, the Russian scholar believes.