Tending Events - Issue 19 - Jan-Feb 2017

Every Ending is a New Beginning

Inevitability of Conflict in the US – Russia Crisis Cycle
Wednesday، August 09، 2017
Every Ending is a New Beginning

US – Russia relations have been following the same identical cyclical pattern for over quarter of a century. When a new US President takes over at the White House, Russia tries to use an opportunity to reproach the relations and quickly resolve multiple issues accumulated during the past presidency. This high point in the relations then leads to a gradual deterioration often exacerbated by international crises. Although currently the bilateral relations are at their lowest point in the post-Cold War era, there is a clear limit to what both sides consider possible in their relations.

Although currently the US-Russia bilateral relations are at their lowest point, some are talking about the possibility of a third world war breaking out. However, there is a clear limit to what both sides consider possible in their relations. Russia is certainly not starting a war with the only superpower unless there is a vital threat to the country.

1. Determinants of Post-Cold War US-Russia Relationship

The US – Russia relations are one of the most important bilateral relationships on the planet and certainly the most important relations for Moscow. In the second half of the 20th century that relationship defined the whole international system. What is currently perceived in the relation between the two countries currently is to a large extent an outcome of the Cold War past. If we were to use Kenneth Waltz’s Man-State-System approach, there would be a clear pattern explaining the systemic nature of the relationship.

First, on a personal emotional level: All the leaders in charge of both countries in the last 25 years were raised in the Cold War world. Russian leaders always expected a respectful equal dialogue with the other side and every time they had a feeling there is a certain level of under-appreciation, they felt offended and even betrayed.

Second, on a national level: There is a strong organizational inertia on both sides. Senior officers of armed forces, intelligence and diplomatic agencies as well as think tanks have extensive experience in analyzing the other side and developing counter measures. Both countries’ multibillion defense industries with millions of workers depend on the military strategy that sees the other side a strategic rival and requires extensive spending.

Third, on the international system level: Russia is the only country that still maintains strategic parity with the US due to its vast nuclear arsenal. Therefore, the system creates a specific set of incentives. On one hand, it prevents the two sides from establishing a trustful relationship, while on the other hand, it also stops them from getting into a full-blown conflict.

2. US – Russia relations 1990 - 2000: The Big Disappointment

Russia’s relations with the West have to a large extent been a function of the US – Russia relations since the end of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union dissolved in the end of 1991, the US supported Russia financially and also joined forces with Moscow in reclaiming the post-Soviet nuclear arsenal from Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Both countries then got new leaders starting their terms almost simultaneously; the US got its first post-Cold War President Bill Clinton and Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin became the country’s first leader after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As the US openly supported democratic candidates there was a strong belief in the Russian elite that Washington’s objective was to ensure a lasting mutually beneficial relationship that would make NATO redundant and create an inclusive security mechanism preventing the arms race. Although the Warsaw Pact[1] was dissolved in 1989, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) remained after the end of the Cold War. Moscow saw it as remnant of history till mid-1990s. However, NATO’s enlargement that was initiated early in the second half of the 1990-s starting an entirely new era of ongoing mistrust. In a somewhat symbolic measure, President Yeltsin replaced the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Kozyrev with the head of the Foreign Intelligence Yevgeny Primakov. While Kozyrev was a strong proponent of having a trusted relationship with the US and authorized multiple significant concessions on matters of national security, Primakov took a tougher stand in relations with Brussels and, most importantly, Washington.

Overall, the second part of the 1990s turned out a lasting confrontation between Russia and the US-led NATO that culminated in 1999 when NATO launched an air campaign in the former Yugoslavia. After long-lasting negotiations and Russia preventing a UN Security Council resolution that would authorize the use of force from being adopted, NATO unilaterally started a series of air strikes against official Belgrade. Yevgeny Primakov, the then Russia’s Prime Minister, was in mid-air traveling from Moscow to start his official visit in the US and turned the airplane around in the air once he learned about the news. The move - which was afterwards dubbed “Primakov’s loop” – was a symbolic gesture of a strong protest and eagerness to cut almost any ties between the two sides if that is what it required.

3. Russia – US in 2000 – 2008: From Marriage to Divorce

The 1999 relations breakup took over two years to recover as the first time Washington and Moscow started handling a problem jointly as partners was in September 2001 when the new President Putin was one of the first people to offer his help George W. Bush (also less than year in the office). Russia’s leadership reacted to the situation as a historic opportunity that would allow the two nations to jointly react to international security threats. The “honeymoon”, however, did not last long. Despite coinciding interests in Afghanistan, the two countries took a radically different stand on the situation in Iraq and Russia used every chance to prevent the US from getting any legal grounds to start a military operation in the country in the UN Security Council. Russia sided with France and Germany opposing an international invasion in Iraq and strongly contributed to creating an alternative coalition that objected to the US-led use of force in the region. The Iraq-related crisis spoiled the relations for next several years and, most importantly, undermined trust between the two nation leaders.

However, it was not this Middle Eastern crisis that became the most challenging pressure point in the bilateral relations. As a great power with global interests, Russia has been constantly involved with multiple international situations all over the world to expand and protect its influence in various regions

What angered Moscow, therefore, is that the US attempted to expand its influence in the former soviet republics and in Moscow’s immediate neighbors in particular. Therefore, NATO’s continued enlargement in 2000s became another pressure point in the bilateral relations and then, most notably, it was Ukraine. In 2004-2005, the country went through a political crisis that was nicknamed “Orange Revolution” and brought to power a pro-Western candidate that indicated his willingness to get Ukraine a NATO membership.[2] As the largest post-Soviet state after Russia and the closest to Russia history-wise, Ukraine has always been a very special partner for Moscow. With the Cold War mindset in place, having Ukraine joining NATO was seen in Moscow as losing it forever

Vladimir Putin was then reported saying to George W. Bush, privately, that Ukraine joining NATO would be crossing the red line and the country might even lose its statehood if it were to choose that path.[3]

During Moscow and Washington remained generally cautious, as the two sides were already bitterly disappointed with each other. Yet the end of President George W. Bush’s second term once again brought the US-Russia relations to a new low with the start of the conflict in the Republic of Georgia in August 2008. After Georgian troops openly attacked an internationally recognized peacekeeping force of Russian nationals guarding the separation line with light weapons and used artillery and tanks, Russia responded with its full military might. For the first time in recent history, Russia used its military against a foreign country as it was used against Georgian forces in Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. As the US had been providing training and limited material supply support to the Georgian army, Russia saw the conflict as inspired by the US. Similarly, the US had to start considering Russia as an immediate military threat to all neighboring countries. Once again, the trust was lost for years and the 2008 US Presidential campaign was focused on resurgent Russia as a potential threat.

4. 2008 – 2016: Resetting Relations

After President Obama won the 2008 election, his administration focused on rebuilding relations with Russia and had a window of opportunity to restructure the relationship and put all the blame for past misunderstandings on the previous Republican administration.

As Russia was led by a new President Dmitry Medvedev, who pioneered innovation and entrepreneurship agenda, there was an obvious quick win for both parties. Medvedev would rebuild connections with the West and attract international investments, while Obama would be credited with successfully handling one of the toughest international players that his predecessor failed to handle. The new trend was officially nicknamed “Reset”, which failed shortly after Foreign Minister Lavrov and State Secretary Clinton pressed a symbolic button that was meant to reboot the actual bilateral relations.

The new honeymoon period came to an end after President Medvedev personally authorized Russia’s not vetoing a UN Security Council resolution establishing a no-fly zone in Libya in March 2011. Russia’s abstention essentially authorized an international military operation in the country that resulted, among other things, in the death of Muammar Gaddafi. The decision sparked a public exchange of criticism between Putin and Medvedev and few months later Medvedev admitted making a mistake authorizing the resolution.[4] The episode caused yet another deep disappointment in Moscow and led to another cold in the US – Russia relations.

However, once again it was not Libya that brought Moscow and Washington to the lowest point in their relations since the end of the Cold War. It was Ukraine, again. In 2014, Ukraine entered a domestic political crisis over a decision to halt its joining the European integration process under Russia’s pressure. After long-lasting street protests, there was violence and over hundred people died. As the US was supporting the protesters despite what Russia considered an agreement on settling the crisis, Putin seemed to have lost patience and started acting. Russian troops entered the Crimean peninsula and within weeks there was a referendum to join Russia instead of Ukraine. After that Russia started supporting rebels in Donetsk and Lugansk breakaway regions that have been fighting with Ukrainian government troops for over two years and caused deaths of thousands of people. The US responded with economic and individual sanctions.

5. 2016 - New Opportunity for Rapprochement

Once again, with Donald Trump elected US President, there is a chance for Russia to start yet another cycle in the relations with a positive restart.. Sanctions imposed by the US and its allies put significant pressure on the economy and Moscow is tired of sanctions. The terms of a potential unofficial agreement seem obvious and not exaggerated. That is, Russia needs sanctions lifted, Crimea recognized as Russian (officially or semiofficially) and Russia would of course prefer Bashar Assad to remain in power in Syria.

Donetsk and Lugansk breakaway regions can be given up if other conditions are met. Meanwhile Syria is not a policy priority by itself – it is another bargaining chip that is becoming increasingly expensive. Supporting Assad’s army results in a growing number of civilian casualties as well as casualties on the Russian side. This position is supported by a change in Moscow’s political rhetoric. After September 2016 Parliamentary elections, Russian government officials stopped using foreign policy topics to mobilize their supporters and started using every opportunity to communicate their willingness to negotiate with the US.

Although Trump’s victory is generally a preferred outcome for Russia, there are no extraordinary expectations. Previous eight-year cycles taught the Russian leadership that long-term changes are highly unlikely. Reasonable expectations include a new personal relationship with the elected leader and Russia went to a great length to make this possible. Early in December 2016 President Putin almost simultaneously presented his annual address to the Federal Assembly and signed a new Foreign Policy Concept. . The Concept did demonstrate a certain willingness to reproach the relations with the US but the Address sent a far stronger message once again reiterating that the Kremlin is looking for an opportunity to establish a new dialogue.[5]


Russia’s leadership Cold War mindset created obstacles for its integration in international cooperation and became a foundation for the lack of trust towards the US and its partners. It was also one of the reasons why Moscow repeatedly overreacted to any US intentions to enlarge NATO as Russia continues seeing NATO a strategic threat. Yet, there are benefits to this worldview too as Russian diplomats and military personnel have a long history of relations with NATO, and they have extensive experience of teasing the adversary without starting a full-scale conflict.

Unless what Russia sees as its vital interest is at stake, it will be limiting its engagements with the US to teasing but will not open fire and expect the other side to do the same. If anything, Moscow will be relying on the same Cold War legacy framework to prevent the global war as it did successfully in the past. That approach will be the main foundation of keeping the peace between Russia and the US although there is hardly a chance for a long-term improvement.

[1] A military bloc consisting of Eastern European nations and the Soviet Union that was established in 1956 to balance NATO in Europe.

[2] V. Yushchenko: Ukraine will enter NATO despite Russian objections. (in Russian) Sep 25, 2008. http://www.rbc.ru/politics/25/09/2008/5703cf279a79473dc81492f7

[3] Putin does not consider Ukraine a state. (in Russian). Apr 7, 2008. http://korrespondent.net/ukraine/politics/426945-istochnik-putin-ne-schitaet-ukrainu-gosudarstvom

[4] Transcript: interview with President Dmitry Medvedev. Jun 19, 2011. https://www.ft.com/content/4bfa1f38-9a90-11e0-bab2-00144feab49a

[5] Address to the Federal Assembly. Dec 1, 2016. http://www.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/messages/53379