The U.S. and Russia: Beyond Mutual Suspicion

While the Cold War has been over for more than twenty years, antagonism and mistrust continue to exist between the United States and Russia. On the American side, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, last March foolishly called Russia, "without question, our number one geopolitical foe." On the Russian side, Vladimir Putin last December accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of inciting protests against his government. Although the Obama administration has had some accomplishments in its attempts to "reset" U.S. policy toward Russia, notably the New START arms reduction treaty, U.S.-Russian relations remain tense.


These tensions are troubling because closer U.S.-Russian cooperation can make it much easier to solve some of the world's most pressing security problems. From negotiations over the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs to the gradual withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan, it is in the best interests of both Russia and the U.S. to maintain good relations with each other. Perhaps most importantly, while much progress has been made since the fall of the Soviet Union in securing Soviet nuclear materials, there remains more work to be done, as Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn, authors of the 1991 U.S. Congressional initiative to secure loose warheads, recently noted.


The ongoing crisis in Syria presents an opportunity for a partial reconciliation. Although Russia (along with China and others), has long opposed comprehensive sanctions against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Moscow might agree at least not to stand in the way of such sanctions (or even in the way of NATO-enforced no-fly zones over Syria) if they were assured that key Russian interests were not harmed in the process. For example, any overt commitment by the international community to aiding the Free Syrian Army should be paired with an insistence that, if Assad falls, Russia be allowed to keep its naval base at Tartus. The U.S. and European and Arab states should also insist that there be no retribution against Russia, despite its support for and arms sales to the brutal Ba’athist regime, by any post-Assad government in Damascus.


To be sure, as long as Putin rules the Kremlin, Russia will most likely lack the institutions necessary to develop into a well-functioning democracy. And reconciliation between Moscow and Washington does not mean that the U.S. should cease to press for democracy and the protection of human rights in Russia. But it is possible for the U.S. to promote its values in Russia without opportunistic politicians like Romney needlessly exaggerating the distance between the two countries, and without Putin condemning his people’s calls for greater freedom as nothing more than an American plot. For the sake of less unnecessary danger on the international stage, the U.S. and Russia should recognize that their interests are not mutually exclusive.


Submitted by Michael Purzycki


The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of Rutgers University or the Division of Global Affairs.

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