Russia and the US: Where Will the Growing Alienation Lead to?

Amid the approaching presidential campaign, the US has been hit by an unprecedented domestic political crisis. Opponents of incumbent President Donald Trump are making tremendous efforts to discredit the head of state. The impeachment procedure is entering a crucial phase. Apparently, the Democrats count on it as the last opportunity to steal the thunder in the election race. Even if the Senate justifies the president dismissing the abuse of power allegations, the process itself will inevitably force him to defend himself, dilute his winning agenda and distract public opinion. Without a doubt, the Russian theme will be among the crucial components of the attack on Trump. His opponents have failed to use the Mueller investigation report on Russia's interference in the 2016 elections due to insufficient evidence and ambiguity of conclusions. The ongoing impeachment is based on Ukraine, not Russia. Nevertheless, Russia remains a win-win option for attaining a variety of domestic policy goals. Democrats will increasingly blame Donald Trump for insufficient effort to restrain the “authoritarian and aggressive regime of Vladimir Putin.” Both parties may also use Russia to advance a consolidating agenda. Opposing Moscow is one of the few issues enjoying consensus in Congress. The Kremlin is a convenient bugbear for everyone. On the other hand, the American intervention rhetoric is also gaining momentum in Russia. Radicals and hawks on both sides are actually supporting and amplifying each other.

One of the important consequences of the current processes on both sides of the ocean is the growing alienation in professional ties, projects and programs. True, the old networks of professional contacts seem to continue to function. Scientists, business leaders and even state officials who have been involved in bilateral and multilateral initiatives for a long time continue to do so or, at least, they do not rule each other out as partners in dialogue and even cooperation. Disagreements that have piled up over many issues in both Russia and the US have not forced these professionals to stop working together and finding common ground.

But new contacts and connections are a completely different story. Russia and the US are becoming toxic to each other. It seems that an increasing number of American officials, businessmen or scientists will now think twice before launching projects or even looking for new ties in Russia. Although there are limited but noticeable requests from a number of research programs to report on contacts with Russian colleagues, there is a growing sense of the risk of meeting “the wrong kind”of people who can suddenly be declared spies or agents by the media, with all the predictable career implications. Even dealing with “aggressive Russia” might give one a chequered reputation. All this is being built up on objectively existing problems such as the investment climate. Similar sentiments and similar bureaucratic procedures are growing among Russians, albeit with different specifics. People are unsure who might use their professional contacts and connections and when. Naturally no one wants to be lectured on “authoritarianism” and even more so, to be suspected of subversive activity and labelled a “Kremlin agent.” At the same time, the probability of becoming one of the “State Department agents” is growing in Russia as well. On both sides, there is increasingly radical rhetoric: you're either with us, or against us.

Yet, the mutual estrangement has not gained high momentum so far. Despite the sanctions and restrictions, many opportunities still remain for cooperation in a wide range of areas. The social capital of old ties is still working. However, seeing this as an upward trend would be stretching it. The situation is totally different even from the Cold War, when both the Soviet Union and the US were in confrontation. There was a high mutual interest on both sides then. Restrictions on contact and cooperation were extremely severe. But the trend was different, and reversed into a rapid and exponential growth once the Cold War ended. Today, the limits are far less rigid. But the outlook for the future is pessimistic. Any Black Swan event could turn this downtrend into a landslide fall. Russia and the US have ever fewer areas for cooperation. Economic ties are still growing despite the sanctions, but their total volume is as miserable as it has ever been. US trade with Russia amounts to half of its trade with Belgium. Arms control, which used to be a central issue in our relations, is rapidly shrinking. The fight against terrorism and extremism is limited, and partly overlaps with diverging interests in specific countries and regions. At the same time, rivalry is intensifying.

The growing alienation, however, has certain advantages. It helps eliminate high expectations on both sides, and in the future, it might also cut mutual grudges. What is the point of holding a grudge against someone you are indifferent to? It might be that a period of estrangement will generate some new pragmatic interest. Most likely, this will happen after one or two electoral cycles and, among other things, a change of generations will play a role. It is important though that this estrangement does not develop into open antagonism exacerbated by ignorance, populism and a lack of an adequate understanding of ​​the real motives behind certain political steps. Russia also has broad opportunities to take a fresh look at its relations with a number of other countries, not burdened with political problems. For example, Moscow and Beijing have developed unprecedented constructive relations at the political level. But human contacts between the Russians and the Chinese are not yet comparable with those with Western countries. The same applies to most other non-Western countries. Without growing into the fabric of human and professional ties, Russia’s turn to the East will just remain on paper.

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