The ‘roller coaster’ relationship between US, Russia

In a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee last week, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the agency is investigating whether members of the Trump administration colluded with Russian officials to influence the 2016 presidential election.

As the FBI continues to look into Trump’s possible Kremlin connection, we asked Russian history expert Harlow Robinson to reflect on the evolution of U.S.-Russia relations since the Cold War. “Perhaps the biggest mistake would be to treat Russia as though it doesn’t matter,” says Robinson, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History.

First and foremost, how have U.S.-Russia relations evolved since the end of the Cold War in 1991?

U.S.-Russia relations have been on a roller coaster in the 25 years since the collapse of the USSR on Christmas Day 1991. Initially, relations improved for the simple reason that the bitter ideological conflict between communism and capitalism that had defined the Soviet-American relationship since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 came to an end. There was a widespread perception that the newly created Russian Federation would embrace capitalism and democracy and draw closer to both the U.S. and the European Union. American leaders in the 1990s—Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton—both embraced this view, and made promises (not always kept) to the elected Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, to provide economic and other support during the difficult post-Soviet transition. Unfortunately, the Russian economy shrank drastically, leading to massive unemployment, plunging millions into poverty and taking away the social guarantees Russians were used to.

Many Russians blamed America for their problems and felt humiliated and betrayed when the U.S. government sought closer relations with former Soviet republics, now independent states—in particular, Ukraine and the Baltics. Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin as president in 2000, promising to restore Russian pride and international prestige. Since then, under Putin’s highly centralized regime, Russia has pursued an increasingly independent, nationalistic, and anti-American foreign policy that has proved remarkably popular at home. Putin has stated repeatedly that one of his goals is to provide an alternative to American influence in the world.

In January, then president-elect Trump called for a closer relationship with Russia, tweeting a string of messages in support of warmer relations between the two countries. In your opinion, what are the positives and negatives of closer U.S.-Russia relations?

From the 20th century onward, American leaders have struggled in their dealings with the Soviet or Russian government to balance the need to maintain functional and constructive relations with a non-democratic system while also advocating for the human rights of its citizens. U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a strong advocate of human rights, went so far as to cancel American participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which led to a very hostile period in Soviet-American relations. More recently, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton infuriated Putin by officially encouraging anti-Putin activists and demonstrations during the Russian presidential election campaign of 2012.

President Donald Trump’s favorable public pronouncements regarding Russia and Putin have marked a striking departure from those of his predecessors and have sparked sharp debate. Advocates of better relations, including the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, argue that by expanding economic links with Russia, we can exercise a beneficial influence on the Putin regime that will yield better results than the imposition of the isolating economic sanctions imposed by President Obama in the aftermath of the Russian incursion into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The danger of Trump’s approach is that it implies a tacit acceptance of the brutal tactics of Putin’s government in dealing with its opponents, and of its very real territorial and imperial ambitions—which are deeply rooted in Russian history dating from the time of Peter the Great in the early 1700s.

What are the global implications of a stronger relationship between the U.S. and Russia, particularly relating to the defeat of the Islamic State group and the ongoing civil war in Syria?

If relations between the U.S. and Russian governments do actually improve under the Trump administration, which remains to be seen, there could be tangible positive results. Putin is also deeply concerned about the threat of terrorism sponsored by ISIS, and has even more immediate experience of it on Russian soil than we do in the U.S. And something Americans often forget is that Russia has borders with Muslim countries and has the largest Muslim population of any European nation. Russia has been struggling for more than 20 years with terrorism in its federated states of Chechnya and Daghestan. So this is a sphere in which the Russian and American governments could cooperate.

The situation in Syria is more complicated, because American and Russian goals are different there; the Russians also have a religious connection with the small but important Orthodox community in Syria. Another area of possible cooperation is in the field of control of nuclear arms proliferation, since Russia and the U.S. are the only real nuclear superpowers. Global warming is a possible shared concern, although the Putin government has been inconsistent in its policies on this issue, and Russia is one of the few countries in the world that could see benefits from global warming, since previously frozen Arctic shoreline will become increasingly navigable and exploitable.

For Trump and the U.S., Russia will continue to be a formidable and inescapable “frenemy.” For Washington, it will be essential to accord Putin and his country respect as a great global power, which it remains despite severe economic and social problems. Perhaps the biggest mistake would be to treat Russia as though it doesn’t matter.