US-Russia relations since ‘Gorby-mania’
July 10, 2017
The history of relationships between Russia and the US in the last 25 years is full of zigzags and its own ups and downs. From my point of view, it is possible to single out 11 stages in this relationship. Each of them left its own legacy, and those different legacies continue to make a difference in various ways until now. Let me first single out all of these stages:
- Consolidation of geopolitical pluralism.
- Russia First
- Russia doesn’t matter
- War against terror.
- The epoch of “color revolutions”
- Perezagruzka 2 (“Reload of Relations”)
- Onslaught on Putin (the Russian president is presented as an authoritarian leader of a regional power)
- Russia Isolated. Sanctions
- Russia is back as a world power
- “Russian hackers”: pause of uncertainty
Act 1: Gorbomania (Gorby-mania)
The period of improvement in relations, which was based on hopes connected to Gorbachev, continued from 1987 until August 1991, the time of the de facto collapse of the Soviet Union. During this period, the US supported the new foreign policy course of Mikhail Gorbachev, which was generally aimed at openness, reconciliation with the West and general liberalization of the Soviet political regime. During this period the US did not conduct a policy aimed at the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the US’ political course was instead promoting the unity of the USSR. This course was explained by the fear of the Soviet Union’s collapse “in a Yugoslav way,” with a possible nuclear war between former constituent republics.
One of the indicators of this cautious American approach to the unity of the Soviet Union was the famous “chicken Kiev speech” of the then president George W.H.Bush (the senior). He made that speech on August 1 of 1991 in the Supreme Soviet of what was then still the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic inside the Soviet Union. This body was already showing the signs of being the future parliament of independent Ukraine, making defiant moves against Moscow. However, in his speech president Bush told the audience that the US was not supporting Kiev’s independence at the moment and that Ukrainians should rather orient themselves to the policies of the leader of the Soviet Union – Mikhail Gorbachev.
However, the period of Gorbomania (Gorby-mania) came to its natural end after the liquidation of the Soviet Union and the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev from the position of the defunct country’s president. The legacy of that period was the formation in the US of a stable and wrong stereotype of what “good Russia” should look like. This mythologized stereotype presented “good Russia” as the Russia of Mikhail Gorbachev, which would make all sorts of concessions to the West, willingly leaving to the West the territories, which historically had been under its influence. So, in future Americans would support only that kind of Russia’s foreign policy, which would be a complete remake of Gorbachev’s approach.
Act 2. Consolidation of Geopolitical Pluralism
The second period in the history of relations took the space between August 1991 and the beginning of the year 1992. It can be summed up by the famous formula of “consolidation of geopolitical pluralism.” The essence of this formula consisted in the following. The USA did bot strive to see the Soviet Union collapse, but since this collapse took place anyway, there was no way Washington could permit any kind of rebirth of a union of post-Soviet republics under the stewardship of Russia. The reason: such a rebirth would mean a new life for Russian imperialism.
One could say that this period lasted shortly, but it would also be right to say that in a lot of ways this period continues to this day. There is still a widespread opinion in the US that Washington should provide all kinds of assistance to all the neighbors of Russia in a bid to stem the growth of Russian influence there. This opinion also puts the sign of equality between Russian influence and “Russian imperialism.” The theory behind this opinion is that any kind of union among the former Soviet republics with Russian participation would mean the rebirth of the Russian empire. Any Russian empire, according to this view, would make Russia an enemy of democracy and, as a consequence, an enemy of the United States. So, this view justifies any kind of assistance to any kind of anti-Russian regimes in the post-Soviet space.
In its extreme manifestation, this view inspired a policy that spurred the US to support the violent coup in Ukraine in 2014. The US also supported the subsequent policy of state terrorism led by the new regime in Kiev, that was installed as a result of the coup. In its softer forms, this policy meant American support for de-Russification in all post-Soviet countries. This support was provided despite the obvious fact that this de-Russification often took violent forms.
Act 3. “Russia First”.
The third period, which could tentatively be called “Russia First” approach, consisted in the policy led by the then president Bill Clinton, the policy aimed at helping create a stable and democratic Russia. The idea was that this Russia could be an ally of the West, a kind of “kingsize Poland.” This kingsize Poland was supposed to be a part of the Western coalition, even though it would have a subordinate position inside this coalition. American support for denuclearization of Ukraine (the removal of former Soviet nuclear weapons from the territories of the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan) – this American support was a part of “Russia First” policy.
In fact, Ukrainian political elites tried to retain the military nuclear capability on the territory of independent Ukraine. But Washington, represented by president Clinton and his key “ambassador-at-large” on Russia and post-Soviet space, Strobe Talbott, had a different plan. So, Washington pressured Kiev to transfer the nuclear weapons from the Ukrainian territory to Russia. This approach fitted the geopolitical interests of the United States, allowing to avert a possible conflict between Russia and Ukraine as nuclear powers. Such a conflict could have disastrous consequences for everyone. So, this policy fitted the Russian interests too.
The other distinct feature of the “Russia First” policy was the American pressure on the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and other international financial organizations. The aim was to persuade these structures to provide loans to Russia, even when the economic policy of the Russian government did not fit the requirements of the IMF and similar organizations to their client countries.
The other important element of “Russia First” policy was the presence of political and economic advisers from the United States and its allied countries in Russia. These people, being citizens of their countries, influenced the decisions of the Russian government, including some key decisions. Alas, the advice of these helpers, as well as the US assistance in general, did more harm than good, often leading to failures. The idea of making Russia a stable democratic country did not work. Russia crawled from one crisis to another. In 1993 Yeltsin made a violent coup d’etat, with tanks firing at the parliament’s building, the constitution being changed and new policies rammed through without consent from the parliament. The presidential election of 1996, of which Yeltsin was declared the winner, had all the indications of being falsified (the bulletins cast were later destroyed by the government). If elections had been held in a fair way, the candidate of the Communist party of Russian Federation Gennady Zyuganov could have been the winner.
The crisis and the subsequent default in 1998 led the economy to a disaster. The same year IMF de facto refused to continue cooperation with Russia, stopped giving loans and predicted that the Russian economy would contract by 8 percent. This forecast revealed itself to be wrong. As soon as Russia stopped using the services of Western economic advisers, its economy started growing and added 9 percent in the course of two subsequent years.
The period of “Russia First” and its legacy are still very much alive in today’s policy of the United States towards Russia. They Western elites stay convinced that at a certain moment they provided great assistance to Russia and its people, giving their valuable advice and providing billions of dollars in loans. In the Russian public opinion, however, the majority view of this period is negative. It is viewed as further proof of the West’s negative influence on Russia and the anti-Russian character of its foreign policy. Russian public opinion puts on the Western advisers of the Yeltsin government part of the blame for the disaster that Russian economy had to go through in the 1990s. The majority view in Russia is that it was Yeltsin’s government (and its foreign advisers) that led in the 1990s to Russia’s deindustrialization, the collapse of social institutions, the decline of science and education, mass migration out of the country. At the time, the mortality rates in the country soared. The rapid deterioration of life’s standards led to a lot of “premature” deaths: in 1991-1997 on the territory of the Russian Federation every year there were many more deaths registered annually than in 1990. The total number of “premature” deaths for social reasons is estimated at the level of 2 million.
In a huge chunk of Russia’s public opinion the prevailing view is that this socio-economic degradation of the country was a part of a conscious effort by the West to deceive Russia and to inflict the biggest possible damage on it.
In this way, the 1990s stay the main source of the diverging mythologies still dominating the bilateral relations between Russia and the community of Western nations.
The West honestly thinks that in the 1990s it helped Russia and generally played a positive role in its development. The majority of the Russian public opinion for good reasons sticks to the view that the West in the 1990s preserved and pampered Yeltsin’s corrupt regime, thus adding to the destruction of the country. An often cited argument in support of that view is the fact that the West supported Yeltsin’s coup d’etat in 1993 and acquiesced to the falsification of the 1996 presidential election, which retained Yeltsin in power.
The diverging visions of the 1990s’ legacy will determine the “conflict potential” of the relations between Russia and the US for many more years.
Act 4. “Russia Does Not Matter”
This period started in 1998 and continued until the year 2001. It was a reaction to the previous unsuccessful attempt to help Russia in a speedy forming of a democratic, stable and West-friendly socio-political system. The end product was a weak country with a corrupt government and a crumbling economy – a typical declining power.
This period was ushered in by an acute economic crisis of 1998, it included the beginning of the economy’s regeneration in 1999-2001, Boris Yeltsin’s resignation and his replacement by his younger successor Vladimir Putin.
Vladimir Putin, who was initially viewed in the US as just another opportunistic “apparatchik” brought to power by the corrupt ruling “family” in order to preserve that family’s capitals and help it avoid the revenge of its enemies and Russia’s people in general.
This period seats deep in Russian people’s memory because it coincided with the peak of the Balkan wars with bombers from the US and other NATO countries bombing the then Yugoslav capital Belgrade and other cities of Serbia. The famous U-turn of the Washington-bound airplane of the then Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov also falls into this period. The prime minister was heading to the United States with a visit and, having learnt about the start of NATO’s bombing of Serbia, Primakov decided to return back to Russia, making a U-turn over the Atlantic. Primakov decided to return without visiting Washington, even though the talks there had pivotal importance for the Russian economy.
It was then, during the bombing of Yugoslavia, that a serious change in the attitude of the public opinion to the West and especially to the United States took place. The cruel Western bombardment of Serb cities, led to the new perception of America as a hostile, aggressive and unjust country. The pro-American politicians in Russia started to be perceived as anti-Russian and generally unpatriotic.
Act 5. Russia and the US as Allies in the Fight Against International Terrorism (War On Terror)
The fifth period was ushered in by the terrorist act of 9/11 in the year 2001, when Russia and the US became allies in the fight against international terrorism. The preconditions for the alliance were created during the meeting between the Russian president Vladimir Putin and George Bush the junior in Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, in June 2001. It was there that Bush said that he looked Putin in the eye and saw Putin’s soul there. Putin’s system of personal values cracked up to be remarkably akin to Bush – it was a combination of economic liberalism, social conservatism and religiosity.
Having learnt that Putin retained his Christians beliefs even inside the KGB, Bush made a conclusion that one could do business with Putin. This positive sentiment on Bush’a side got a powerful boost after the terrorist attack against the United States on 9/11 2001, when Putin became the first foreign leader who called Bush with an expression of support. Putin’s support was not in words alone: on Putin’s order, in 2001 all military activity of Russia was frozen for a few days, so that American armed forces could concentrate on fighting international terrorism, instead of wasting their resources on Russia.
In a few weeks the US became convinced that the brain center of the 9/11 attack was located in Afghanistan, so it was decided to crush the Taliban regime. It was then that Russia passed to the US a part of influence that Russia had over the Afghan-based Northern Alliance, a coalition of field commanders of mostly Tajik and Uzbek origin in the north of Afghanistan. As the US Airforce made its bombing strikes, all the “dirty work” of destroying the military might of Taliban on the Afghan ground was done by the Northern Alliance, with lots of help from the Russian special services and Russian army command. Most of the commanders of the Northern alliance had fought against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but they later became allied with Russians in their fight against the Taliban.
The period of joint fight against terrorism was a great success, since the headquarters of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the regime of Taliban (but not its ideology) were liquidated. Cooperation between the Russian and American special services allowed to prevent a number of jihadist terrorist acts.
However, that anti-terrorist cooperation was quickly weakened by the desire of the United States to develop on their success in Afghanistan by toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Russia condemned the preparation of that war. Bush perceived the Russian opposition to the war in Iraq as treason on Russia’s side. His narrative was that Russia betrayed the anti-terrorist alliance. So, Bush thought himself in his right to terminate his obligations to Russia in the framework of the anti-terrorist alliance.
Even though the war in Iraq was recognized to have been a mistake in the United States, relations between Russia and the US (including the anti-terrorist track) never returned to the level of the period of the early days of the “War On Terror.” The fact that the pretext for the war – the presumed possession by Saddam Hussein of the weapons of mass destruction – revealed itself to be a massive falsification, undermined Russia’s trust in the US mainstream media and its periodic hysterias over various “mortal threats” requiring American military interventions.
In general, the period of the “war on terror” left in Russians a firm belief that partnership with the West in the anti-terrorist fight should continue. This belief was strengthened by the growth in the scope and sophistication of international terrorism. In the United States’ elite too, there remained a substantial minority group which considered anti-terrorist cooperation with Russia feasible.
Act 6. Color Revolutions
Already in November 2003, the first “color revolution” won in Georgia using a rose as its symbol (the words “flower” and “color” have the same sounding in Russian). The new leader Mikheil Saakashvili, with active support from the United States, started conducting a very anti-Russian foreign policy. In 2004, another color revolution happened in Ukraine – the closest ethnic relative of Russia, in whose capital (Kiev) the proto-Russian ancient state Kievan Rus was born. The winner of the Ukrainian color revolution, Viktor Yushchenko, also took a very anti-Russian position. All of these revolution won with active support from the American government and so called “non-government” (Soros-financed NGOs) structures.
All of these revolutions had a powerful anti-Russian message and they were all supported by the US authorities, including the president of the United States. In the West, discussions about the desirability of a ‘color revolution’ in Russia started. Russia responded with a tough “no” to this “project for its future.” Limitations on the work of American NGOs in Russia were imposed. Putin’s speech of the year 2007 in Munich became the apotheosis of this Russian “no,” with Putin denouncing not only the Western policy of “regime change,” but also with Putin denouncing the unipolar world with the US and the EU as the undisputed pole.
The US continued their onslaught, however, and the next conflict happened in Georgia. The pro-US Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili started his military operation against what he called “pro-Russian separatists in South Ossetia,” who had seceded from Georgia fearing genocide under the first Georgian ultranationalist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia back in 1991.
Saakashvili’s artillery struck not only at South Ossetians, but also at the Russian peace-keeping contingent in South Ossetia. In retaliation, the Russian army intervened in South Ossetia, and soon the Georgian troops, who had already begun celebrating their conquest of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinval, were pushed back to their initial positions. The US did not have the guts to support their ally militarily and backed off. However, the red line of direct military combat between the Russian and American forces was dangerously close.
Act 7. The Politics of Reload (Perezagruzka 2)
This period, ushered in by Barack Obama’s coming to power, is marked by a temporary hiatus in the information war between the two countries. Russia also joined the WTO, and it seemed that a normal dialogue was restarting. Even the arrest of 10 Russian reconnaissance operatives in the US did not lead to a cooling of relations between the two countries, but rather to a “spy exchange” and even to a certain warming of relations.
The policy of reload, started in 2009, promised great perspectives, but it was wrapped up in a rather brief period of time. Contradiction was programmed into the very structure of the “reload” strategy. The aim of the “reload” was to improve relations between the US and Russia in a bid to get Russian support for the American foreign policy initiatives. The problem consisted in the fact that not all of these foreign policy initiatives were acceptable for Russia or simply well thought through.
For example, in spring 2011 the US pushed through a resolution of the Security Council of the United Nations on Libya, with Russia abstaining in the hope of giving the US a chance to resolve the Libyan problem. The result was awful: the resolution was misinterpreted to pave the way for a Western military intervention in Libya on the side of Islamist insurgents against the country’s ruler, Muhammar Qaddafi. After the Western bombings and the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime, Libya was plunged into the abyss of a civil war which continues to this way. Russia’s decision in 2011 not to veto the US-suggested resolution at the United Nations was a serious mistake, which Moscow is determined not to repeat in future.
The first indicator of the Reload’s speedy end was the American support for the protests that enveloped Moscow as a result of the opposition’s defeat at the parliamentary elections of 2011. The US made clear its desire NOT to see Vladimir Putin back in the president’s seat after the brief tenure of Dmitry Medvedev as the president. An important threshold was the official visit by the then US vice-president Joe Biden at the time. During his visit, Biden gave Putin an unsolicited “advice” not to present his candidacy for another term.
The conflict aggravated in 2013, when Moscow had the guts not to extradite the fugitive American whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who found himself on the Russian territory after his escape from Hong Kong putting Russia before a hard choice. The fact that Russia became the only country in the world that didn’t cave in to Washington’s demand for Snowden’s scalp, this fact enraged Washington and in the first place the American intelligence community. After the Snowden episode the period of Reload actually came to its end.
The really important result of the Reload period was Washington’s conviction that attempts to improve relations with Moscow by what the American side saw as “concessions” (even though they were not real concessions) – that these attempts are futile.
Act 8. Frontal Attack Against Russia’s Interests (Putin presented as an “authoritarian leader of a regional superpower”)
Here comes the 8th stage of the Russia-US relations, which lasted between 2012 and 2013. It was the time of a frontal personal attack against the Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Russian interests were attacked too.
American sanctions tied to the Magnitsky case and attempts to make an information attack against Putin’s beloved project, the Sochi Olympics, were seen by many as hostile acts, the context of the Snowden scandal did not add to easing tensions.
It was then, back in the summer of 2013, that the American intelligence community, enraged by the Snowden episode, got down seriously to the project of removing the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. The opportunity presented itself when the controversy over the costs of Ukraine’s joining the Association Agreement with the EU led to violent protests in Kiev. Western threats of personal sanctions paralyzed the will for resistance on the side of Yanukovych and Ukraine’s government, oligarchs were pushed to change sides by the Western pressure. The legitimate government failed to restore order and prevent a violent “regime change”, during which mass protests were “reformatted” as a violent rebellion.
The result of the 8th act was the establishment of a certain consensus in Washington. That consensus boiled down to the conviction that Russia is an enemy, and it should be treated as an enemy, with toughness sooner or later being rewarded by a victory. The outcome in Ukraine in the first days after the toppling of Yanukovych in the end of February 2014 was seen by the American elite as one such victory.
Act 9. Russia Isolated. Sanctions.
After the Ukrainian Maidan, a new low in Russia-US relations installed itself for duration. Russia reacted to the violent coup in Ukraine, with a rabidly anti-Russian regime established there, by taking back Crimea, with most of Crimeans more willing than ever to leave the newly nationalist Ukraine. The Russian leadership also supported the rebellion of the Donbass population, where the rebels were dying in an uneven fight against the Ukrainian army, with its airplanes, tanks and artillery. In response, the US started a powerful campaign against Russia. Sanctions against Russia were introduced, and the West started demanding that Russia stop its support for the movement in Donbass, which soon took the form of popular antifascist resistance.
A hybrid war, which the West accused Russia of leading, was in fact declared to Russia. Hundreds of Russian officials and business companies faced economic or visa sanctions. Ruble lost half of its value, which had a negative and a positive outcome: the negative was in a lower living standard and the positive in an increased competitive capacity of the Russian products.
Russia responded by the food embargo from Russia, so the Russian producers in fact gained from the whole story, with president Obama still uttering his phrase about the Russian economy being “in tatters.”
The peak of Western sanctions against Russia during the period of “Russia Isolated” was the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia. The pressure on Putin was so obvious, that he even had to leave the summit before all the other participants.
The result of the period was the formation of a big Euro-Atlantic anti-Russian coalition, with iron discipline inside it. The other outcome was the legacy of sanctions and other elements of a de-facto hybrid war, now seen as a legitimate method of resolving the “Russian problem.”
That Western policy continued between March 2014 and autumn of 2015. Its legacy is still with us. After Donald Trump was unexpectedly elected the president in 2016, voices about the easing or even lifting the anti-Russian sanctions started to be heard in Europe and the US. But the legacy of 2014-2015 still dominates: the US requires Russia to change its policy in Ukraine (in fact, allowing the population of Donbass to be subjected to Nazi-like repressions). These requirements are unacceptable for Russia, but the West is determined not to lift sanction until its wishes (presented as “conditions of the Minsk agreement”, even though Russia is not even mentioned there) are fulfilled.
Act 10. Russia is Back
The new 10th period in the history of relations between Russia and the US started to the accompaniment of the Russian fighter jets’ engines, as the Russian aviation came to Syria to save president Assad from the foreign-supported insurgents. The most prominent among the insurgents were visibly unpalatable for years: they were jihadists from the so called Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. By the end of 2015 it became obvious that Russia changed the course of events in Syria, thus establishing itself as a leading world power, and not as a regional one (see the Act 8).
The result was not just the jihadists’ failure to topple Assad, but a gradual reestablishment of the Syrian government’s full control over the most developed regions of Syria, such as Damascus and Aleppo.
The result was the general view that “Russia is Back”, by 2016 it became a generally accepted opinion. The narrative of the Western press changed dramatically: just months before it wrote about Russia as a declining power, which is isolated with its economy in Obamian “tatters,” by the winter 2016/2017 the narrative changed to Russia being “an overwhelming threat.” Now Russia is perceived as a mighty international force, which can force on the United States and the EU the unfavorable results of votes and elections (Brexit, Trump’s election).
This view of Russia as a “reborn” power in international relations is often coupled with Putin’s demonization. The view of the Russian president as an all-powerful demon, which can manipulate the results of elections and public opinion in the US, Germany and France, while easily pushing Britain into Brexit – this view will one day be viewed as a twenty first century conspiracy theory, on the par with myths about the all-controlling “elders of Zion” and similar absurdities.
The result of Act 10 is the view of Russia as a “comeback kid” on the global stage, but the actions of this resurgent power are viewed as hostile to the US.
Act 11 – the ongoing one. Russian Hackers: the Pause of Unpredictability
During his electoral campaign, Donald Trump promised to improve Russia-US relations and spoke in favor of ending the new cold war. However, despite his sensational victory at the elections, the new US president soon found himself in a situation when he simply did not have a chance to pursue his vision of foreign policy. The unprecedented pressure came from Trump’s enemies and from the US establishment in general. Trump was accused of having been brought to power by Russian “super-hackers.” He was constantly presented as an admirer of Putin and later as a person under Russian influence, simply because he owes his electoral victory to Russia and to Putin personally. The American president is on the brink of impeachment.
As a result, Trump was not allowed even to form his own new foreign policy team, he had to inherit that very part of Obama’s foreign policy establishment, which Trump himself criticized during the elections.
Currently, the Russia-US relations are in a state of a hiatus, a pause with no immediate end in sight. The new president of the US simply cannot conduct the Russia policy, which he had in his mind and which he promised his voters. His actions are blocked, and it is not clear how long this situation will persist.
So, which legacy is staying with us after all these periods of recent history?
1. Washington is convinced that a “good Russia” is a possibility. This is the kind of Russia that cedes ground to the US on every issue. “Good Russia” is also supposed to willingly lave the territory of its historic influence. It is expected to conduct the policy against its own national interest and to follow all recommendations from abroad, even if that goes against the right of its own citizens.
- The US sees its aim as helping the countries around Russia in order to stem the spread of Russian influence. Russian influence is seen as negative by definition.
- Washington sees itself as a friend of the Russian people, not Russian state. The period of the 1990s, seen in Russia as a disaster, is admired in the US.
In the US there is a widespread view of Russia as a vulnerable “giant on the feet of clay”
Russia still believes it can be an ally of the US in the fight against terrorism.
- The US has powerful instruments of undermining Russia, the technologies of “soft power” in the first place.
- Washington is not prepared to any concessions towards Russia, they are viewed as a way to a dead end.
- Washington still sees Putin as a supernatural demon, with the media recreating that delusion
Sanctions form the backbone of the US policy towards Russia
Russia is seen in the US as an enemy of the US – weak or strong.
- Foreign policy towards Russia is still a hostage of the inner politics in the US. The “Russiagate” is seen as a way towards Trump’s impeachment.
In this situation the US elite still has ahead of it the task of forming a coherent policy towards Russia.
Source: Russia Insider