Conflict and Leadership
Not Wavering Anymore. Relations Between Russia and the United States Reach a Plateau

We can say that Russian-American relations have reached a plateau and will not be subject to sharp fluctuations within the next year, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

Since 2014, we have become accustomed to acute shifts in Russian-American relations. Periods of sharp tension were often replaced by unexpected news that allowed one to exhale with relief. This emotional roller coaster continued until the summit in Geneva last June. There are good reasons to believe that from now on, Russian-American relations will be more stable and their acute emotional component will disappear. They will have a more routine nature and, finally, will be devoted to servicing the process of bilateral relations, rather than paranoid suspicions of the parties towards each other.

We have already spoken about why during the presidency of Donald Trump relations between our countries were so vitriolic. The US Congress reacted sharply to Trump as a possible “Manchurian candidate” whom Russia allegedly helped to be elected to the top executive post of the United States. With the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House, the Washington bureaucracy was able to exhale and, finally, move away from the perception of the president as an outsider and usurper.

However, the inertia of the processes laid down under Trump was felt at least until mid-2021. If we depict the dynamics of Russian-American relations as a curve, then in 2021 we saw two ups and two significant downs. The first decline occurred in the period from January to April, when after the extension of the New START treaty and the appearance in the American doctrinal documents of more sober assessments of the Russian role in American politics and Russian interests in the world, there were some expectations that the new White House policy towards Moscow would be more consistent.

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However, this was followed by a series of drastic steps that again inflamed expectations of a new escalation. Hearings on hacker attacks on SolarWinds were held in the US Congress, sanctions were adopted for the alleged poisoning of Alexei Navalny; the Republicans launched an active campaign demanding sanctions on the Russian-German Nord Stream-2 project. This process culminated in President Biden’s reckless response to an ABC journalist, when he described the Russian president as a “killer.” The interview spurred some hotheads in Kiev to start escalating tensions around Donbass and Crimea, and these efforts received symbolic support from the United States — American ships were sent to the Black Sea.

However, immediately after this, the relationship seemed to snap back. On the initiative of the American side, a telephone conversation between the two presidents took place. As we now know, Biden apologised, explained his words and offered to hold a bilateral summit at the highest level. These explanations were satisfactory, they were accepted by the Russian president and he confirmed participation in the environmental summit, which was held in April at the initiative of the United States.

However, this was followed by a new recession. The United States introduced another package of sanctions, which, however, was not radical in nature. Russian President’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov described them as follows: “The fact is that some sanctions are codified. Their introduction does not even depend on the will of the US president”.

This was unexpectedly followed by a new upsurge in bilateral relations. In May and June, bilateral meetings were held at the level of foreign ministers — Sergey Lavrov and Antony Blinken, and national security advisers, Nikolai Patrushev and Jake Sullivan — the purpose of which was to prepare materials for the bilateral summit in Geneva. Around this time, the White House decided that it would refuse to impose sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 project. First of all, this was done to please Germany, which consistently insisted that its interests be observed, but it was also a signal to Russia that the new administration was moving away from the most troglodytic practices of the Republicans.

The culmination of the whole process of stabilising relations was the bilateral summit in Geneva, the first since 2018 and the most constructive in almost 10 years. The only achievement of the summit was that the parties agreed to move away from unfounded accusations against each other and jointly launch several negotiation processes, which should, in from six months to a year, yield a result in the form of a list of agreements between Russia and the United States on the rules of conduct in the field of strategic stability and cybersecurity.

Nevertheless, ever since the return of the ambassadors to the capitals of their respective countries, there hasn’t been any reason to expect the restoration of full-fledged work of the diplomatic missions. Visa restrictions are still in force. The visit to Moscow of the US President’s Special Envoy for Climate Affairs John Kerry did not produce breakthrough results either. The joint work of experts in the field of limiting nuclear weapons has begun, but so far only the differences have been publicly highlighted. Prisoner swaps, which were also seen as the easiest part of the negotiations, are not yet foreseen, and in the cybersecurity dialogue the parties are also sending mixed signals to the public. Against this background, the United States introduced new sanctions for the alleged poisoning of Alexei Navalny, although these sanctions could have been more significant than they turned out to be.

Meanwhile, on July 21, the United States and Germany signed an agreement on the fate of Nord Stream 2, according to which the United States renounced further pressure on Berlin. This was met with brutal sabotage by Republicans, who demanded sanctions against Russia and the companies involved in the project. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the so-called leader of the Belarusian opposition, was received in Washington by senior officials.

Despite all these negative signals, there is reason to believe that this amplitude of fluctuations in bilateral relations is significantly lower than it could have been. In fact, we are witnessing a routinisation of disagreements in Russian-American relations. The parties continue to be uncompromising with respect to their significant interests and do not even take small reciprocal steps, realising that at this stage, solidarity on tactical issues will not open the door for major strategic breakthroughs, as they had hoped during the first “reset” in 2009-2010.

Now there are no more illusions about a new “reset”, the parties look at each other with sober eyes and understand the limitations of the situation.

However, we see that the United States intends to dial down bilateral relations from the status of “permanent crisis” and give them essential features of stability. This is evident from the fact that the Republicans in Congress, despite their firm position on Russia, were unable to redirect the situation towards another escalation. The provocations of third countries (Lithuania against Belarus, Ukraine against Crimea and Donbass, Britain against Russia’s territorial waters in Crimea) were localised or had no significant effect. Reports of new hacker attacks on the United States from Russian territory did not escalate into a full-scale crisis. The sanctions in the Navalny case, which could have been radical, turned out to be quite local.

We can assert that on the horizon of one year, the stabilisation of relations will take place between the two countries, based on the process of negotiations on the rules of conduct in the field of strategic stability and cybersecurity. Perhaps in a year we will witness a new summit of the two leaders, at which important agreements will be signed and the parties will be able to state that a new phase of relations has taken place. For now, however, we can say that Russian-American relations have reached a plateau and will not be subject to sharp fluctuations within the next year.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.