Some intensification of Russian-American negotiations on the preparation of the meeting between presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden provides an opportunity to once again analyse not only the current problems affecting Russian-American relations, but also raise the issue of giving them a more effective impetus in the future, corresponding to the realities of the 2020s, believes Konstantin Khudoley, professor at the Faculty of International Relations of St. Petersburg State University.
The growing turbulence in the world is largely due to the fact that the processes of disintegration of the Cold War-era bipolar system are accelerating more and more, and new phenomena are mainly in the very initial phase of their emergence. The contradictions and collisions between the old and the new, which sometimes manifest themselves in very bizarre forms, lead to the emergence of a significant degree of uncertainty and unpredictability, and make it difficult to build stable bilateral and multilateral relations. This also applies to Russian-American relations. They are still largely built on the same model as Soviet-American relations during the Cold War, but in modern conditions it is hardly possible to work effectively according to old patterns, even with certain, necessary adjustments.
First, in relations between Russia and the United States, like the USSR and the United States before, the dominant place is occupied by negotiations on arms limitations, primarily strategic ones. Given the enormous military potential of the two countries, this is quite logical. However, this problem has a number of new aspects. During the Cold War arms limitation agreements almost always led to positive shifts in other areas, such as the detente of the 1970s, when, following the conclusion of an anti-missile defence treaty and an interim agreement on strategic offensive weapons, several dozen documents on cooperation on various issues were signed. Now, however, the extension in February 2021 of the START treaty did not lead to an improvement in relations in general. Most likely, a similar situation will continue — agreements on armaments are important, but they will no longer be the main driver to shift Russian-American relations for the better. It should be added that the erosion of the Cold War treaties on arms issues has already become irreversible.
The third and most important thing, in our opinion, in relations between Russia and the United States is that the development of bilateral ties plays a disproportionately minor role in negotiations; this was also true between the USSR and the United States earlier.
First of all, we should emphasise that the existing contradictions between Russia and the United States are not antagonistic, unlike the contradictions between the USSR and the United States, whose socio-political systems were based on diametrically opposed values and principles. The socio-political systems of Russia and the United States are different, but not fundamentally opposed to each other. Therefore, compromises between them, agreements and even cooperation are all possible, in principle. Meanwhile, the agenda of Russian-American talks on the development of bilateral relations is gradually narrowing. Much depends on subjective factors. The political atmosphere is now more unfavourable than it has been in many years. For the first time in several decades, the political elites of the two countries regard each other as rivals. At the same time, in both countries there is a fairly high degree of unity on this topic. Contact between politicians of the two countries is very rare. The activities of diplomatic missions are severely limited — the absence of normal contacts between the official structures of the two states does not correspond to anyone’s interests. The current propaganda campaigns differ significantly from the ideological confrontation of the Cold War (the value element is small), but due to the use of the latest information technology, they are acquiring an unprecedented scale. Trade and economic ties have always remained limited and this cannot be explained only by sanctions and the pandemic. Even in the best periods, when the two countries were drawing closer together, as was the case in the early 1990s, and during the anti-terrorist coalition of 2001, Russia and the United States did not occupy key positions in each other’s foreign trade turnover. Cooperation in the spheres of science, culture, education, and health care, as well as contact between people was significantly greater before the pandemic than during the Cold War, but it was also not enough to have a serious impact on the development of bilateral relations between the two countries. If we take an objective look at history, then during more than 200 years of relations, Russia and the United States have done a lot of good for each other; not only in wartime, but also in peacetime. On the whole, in order to improve and positively develop relations between Russia and the United States, a solid framework of mutually beneficial cooperation is needed, which is absent now. Hence the significant dependence on any fluctuation in the political environment.