By: Emily Kangas, Columnist
Photo Credit: Politico
The United States’ airstrike on a Syrian airfield marked the end of the honeymoon phase of Russia-US relations under the Donald Trump administration, despite vocal support for improvement by both states. On April 6, 2017, the United States fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at the airfield after the Syrian government launched a chemical weapons attack from the site.[i] Though the administration’s decision to conduct the airstrike received praise by various American allies, Russian officials were quick to denounce the strike. In response, Russia’s military suspended a deconfliction agreement between US and Russian air forces operating in Syria, originally signed to prevent accidental “encounters.”[ii] President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov claimed freezing the agreement would not increase the risk of air operations because the US airstrike already did so “considerably.”[iii] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even compared the attack to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, basing the comparison off the lack of consent by the United Nations Security Council.[iv] And just days before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow on April 12, Lavrov stated that Russia-US relations were “in their worst period since the end of the Cold War.”[v]
It is not surprising that Russia vehemently disapproves of the US airstrike, particularly given Russia’s level of military support for Syrian President Bashir al-Assad and his forces. In fact, the drastic and sudden fashion of Russia’s shift in attitude towards the United States provides further evidence of a greater on-again, off-again pattern in Russia-US relations. Such patterns perhaps indicate the inevitable unlikelihood of improving relations in the long term.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and the United States have repeatedly attempted to improve or “reset” relations. These attempts, however, largely fail to carry over into long-term improvements in relations, regardless of leadership in either state. Kier Giles at the United Kingdom’s Conflict Studies Research Centre attributes this phenomenon to a predictable cyclical pattern in Russia-US relations. Giles outlines five stages of this cycle: euphoria, realism, disillusionment, crisis, and reset.[vi] The cycle traps bilateral relations in the aforementioned on-again, off-again relationship, hindering the possibility of normalized bilateral relations.
Over the last 25 years, Russia and the United States have experienced three of these cycles. Beginning with “euphoria” in the early 1990s, the United States attempted to repair Cold War rivalries by integrating post-Soviet Russia under President Boris Yeltsin into the Western political and economic apparatus. However, US disapproval for Yeltsin’s 1993 actions against Russian parliament and his 1994 intervention in Chechnya—along with the dramatic economic downturn in Russia, for which the West was blamed—bought the relationship into the realism stage. Disillusionment arose as Russia’s economic situation continued to decline leading up to the 1998 economic crisis. The relationship finally reached a crisis state after NATO military action in Kosovo infuriated Russia. And the United States similarly disapproved of Russia’s violent 1999 campaign in Chechnya.[vii]
The first reset in relations occurred in 2001 following the September 11th attacks, as Russia agreed to American military use of Central Asian military bases. A shared commitment to combatting terrorism was not enough to maintain long-lasting cooperation, however, as Russia and the United States employed different strategies for confronting terrorist threats. Furthermore, NATO’s 2004 expansion and the “Color Revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine prompted serious outcry from Russia. Tensions only continued to mount, reaching a “crisis” point in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia. The arrival of the Obama administration in 2009 brought about another attempted reset, but as with administrations prior, the Obama administration experienced the same cycle, with the 2014 invasion of Ukraine marking the “crisis” stage.[viii] Trump’s inauguration signified a return to the reset stage, but it seems the recent airstrikes rapidly brought Russia-US relations from euphoria to disillusionment.
The structure of Russia-US relations contains inherent characteristics regarding state interests that render these predictable patterns. Both states share some common interests, such as combatting terrorism, that inspire and create the foundation for the “euphoria” and “reset” phases. However, Russia and the United States lack strong economic and ideological ties to cement their relationship when interests diverge.[ix] Economically, neither side has much to lose to incentivize cooperation. Even before Russia’s 2014 Crimea annexation, US exports to and imports from Russia made up less than 0.1% and 0.2% of US GDP, respectively.[x] Additionally, Russia and the United States have relatively incompatible ideologies regarding national security. While the United States’ national security objectives center on defending American values and promoting international cooperation via global institutions,[xi] Russia’s security outlook more closely aligns with realism.[xii] The lack of economic ties combined with conflicting strategic ideologies inevitably lead to realism and disillusionment when interests clash, ultimately culminating in a crisis.
If the structure in which Russia-US relations exist shapes the trajectory of the relationship, then it is unlikely that an individual leader has the power to effect long-term improvement. President Trump’s objective to improve American relations with Russia is not a novel goal. However, for him to believe that his policies alone could significantly alter the course of Russia-US relations was naive. In overlooking the structural parameters of the relationship, the Trump administration effectively made the failure of the “euphoria” phase an inevitability. The lack of economic dependency mitigates any real consequence of tensions, while dissimilar global views magnify conflict and manifest feelings of threat from the other. Bringing long-term stability to relations requires recognizing the parameters of the relationship itself in order to proactively conduct diplomacy in such a way to minimize clashes and maximize the few shared interests.
[i] Somini Sengupta, Neil MacFarquhar, Jennifer Steinhauer, “U.S. Airstrikes in Syria: Fallout Around the World,” The New York Times, April 7, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/07/us/politics/trump-syria-airstrikes.html?_r=0
[ii] Peter Baker, Neil MacFarquhar, Michael R. Gordon, “Syria Strike Puts U.S. Relationship with Russia at Risk,” The New York Times, April 7, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/07/world/middleeast/missile-strike-syria-russia.html
[iii] Neil MacFarquhar, “Russia Suspends Cooperation with U.S. in Syria After Missile Strikes,” The New York Times, April 7, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/07/world/middleeast/russia-iran-us-strikes-syria.html
[v] Alexey Eremenko, Alastair Jamieson, Abigail Williams, “Russia declares US relations in ‘worse period’ since the Cold War,” CNBC, April 11, 2017, http://www.cnbc.com/2017/04/11/russia-declares-us-relations-in-worst-period-since-the-cold-war.html
[vi] Col. Robert E. Hamilton, “The U.S.- Russia Relationship: Trump Can’t Fix It, but He Can’t Break It Either,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, December 6, 2016, http://www.fpri.org/article/2016/12/u-s-russia-relationship-trump-cant-fix-cant-break-either/
[viii] Peter Baker, “Obama Resets Ties to Russia, but Work Remains,” The New York Times, July 7, 2009, online. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/08/world/europe/08prexy.html
[ix] Col. Robert E. Hamilton, “The U.S.- Russia Relationship: Trump Can’t Fix It but He Can’t Break It Either.”
[x]United States Census Bureau, “Trade in Goods With Russia,” accessed April 23, 2017, https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c4621.html
[xi] Office of the Press Secretary, “Fact Sheet: The 2015 National Security Strategy,” The White House, February 6, 2015, online. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/06/fact-sheet-2015-national-security-strategy
[xii] Marie Mendras, “Russia and the quest for lost power,” 1989 as a World Political Event, Routledge (2013), 197.