The Confusing State of US-Russian Relations

by Joshua Tucker on September 17, 2013 · 4 comments

in Comparative Politics,Foreign Policy,International Relations

I was honored to be invited last week by the New American Foundation president Anne-Marie Slaughter to submit a contribution to her new Weekly Wonk Newsletter.  Here’s the first couple paragraphs of what I wrote:

It is hard to imagine a more interesting—and confusing—time to take stock of modern U.S.-Russian relations. My Twitter feed is currently ablaze with reports of the possibility that the #US will adopt the #Russia plan for solving the current #Syria crisis. At the same time, Vladimir Putin has just critiqued President Obama on the op-ed page of  The New York Times.  These seemingly unexpected and contradictory developments reflect the fact that there are two fundamental realities shaping the bilateral relationship today today: Russian domestic politics and the fact that both nations continue to have a series of shared and conflicting international interests.

First, the recent direction of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin in terms of the domestic political sphere is anathema to most of the values that the United States professes to support in its friends and allies: a free press, fair and competitive elections, civil rights for minorities, an independent judiciary, and so on. It seems that hardly more than a few weeks can go by without something happening in Russia that reminds American policymakers of how different the two regimes can be. The recent flight from the country of the distinguished economist Sergei Guriev and the trialconviction, and releaseof recent Moscow mayoral candidate and opposition leader Alexander Navalny are but two examples, as are recent laws against “homosexual propaganda.” This is not to say that the United States does not cooperate with foreign regimes that have less than stellar democratic records. At the same time, though, the post-Cold War history of U.S.-Russian relations has been filled repeatedly with the promise of Russia becoming “more democratic” and of potential “resets.” To the extent that this promise isn’t fulfilled, the relationship (rightly or wrongly) suffers.

Then there is Vladimir Putin’s standing in his own country. Putin has enjoyed periods of time, especially in the first decade of his presidency, when he was a genuinely popular leader. He gave Russians a flourishing economy, rising oil prices that helped the country escape from Western loans and IMF bailouts, and much needed stability after the Yeltsin years. Today, however, Putin is less popular.  Economic growth has slowed, and the Kremlin has done little to diversify their economy beyond extractive industries. The perception of corruption among the ruling elite is widespread.  The growing middle class in Russia has become disillusioned with the impunity of its self-enriching leaders, and the newest generation lacks the memory of why Putin was embraced in the first place.

All of these factors have added up to a situation where Putin II needs to reach farther to affirm his legitimacy than Putin I ever did. And one way Putin has been doing this, borrowing from a familiar theme in Russian political rhetoric that reached its height during the Cold War years, is by casting himself as a defender of Russian values against Western—particularly American—encroachment. It’s a rational strategy, but Putin also seems to take a certain glee in needling his U.S. “partners,” as evidenced most recently by his reactions to the Edward Snowden affair and his NY Times op-ed.  Scapegoating the West is an easy way out in difficult times, as evidenced by Putin’s rush to denounce protesters who took to the streets of Moscow following claims of fraud in the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections as being instruments of “foreign agents”. And as long as Putin and his surrounding ruling elite are running the show in Russia, U.S.-Russian relations are going to face an uphill struggle.

The rest of the piece can be found on the Weekly Wonk’s website here, or, if you prefer, at Time Magazine here.  And for those of you who want even more on US-Russia relations, I also appeared on the Weekly Wonk’s new podcast to discuss the topic; I come in around the 13th minute.

{ 4 comments }

Fred September 17, 2013 at 9:33 pm

Yes, Russia leads in bigotry (as long as you mean bigotry to gays and not to blacks and hispanics) but the USA has a big lead in incarceration rates and domestic surveillance. They may have driven out Guriev and Navalny but we drove out Snowden. And we are certainly still far more self-congratulatory than Russia – just witness this column.
USA STILL NUMBER ONE!!!!

Chaz September 18, 2013 at 4:32 am

I liked your post until I hit that quote from Treisman, and that poisoned the whole piece for me.

Please explain why you consider the U.S. to have sponsored regime change in Egypt, and how U.S. (lack of) involvement in Mubarak’s overthrow is at all comparable to the bombing of Libya and invasion of Iraq.

Joshua Tucker September 18, 2013 at 10:47 pm

Chaz: The argument has nothing to do with what I think the US did or did not do – and I completely agree with the fact that Egypt is a totally different ballgame from Libya Iraq – it’s about how Russia sees what the US is doing. And in this regard I buy Treisman’s argument that Russia thinks whenever the US gets involved, the end result is a replacement of “stable” regimes with much greater instability. You and I can disagree with whether that’s correct both in terms of the involvement and the longer term results, but I think as a description of how Putin sees US involvement, it is probably pretty accurate.

Chaz September 23, 2013 at 3:58 am

Thanks for the reply. I think of Obama’s empty words as equivalent to non-intereference, and I assume that lots of foreign leaders throw around similar action-free pronouncements (though perhaps a bit less than Team America) and know how that game is played. But I guess it’s plausible that Putin thinks Obama’s words had an actual effect on Egyptian events, especially if he’s already in the habit of being upset at American meddling.

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