Russian-American Relations During Obama’s Term: Cyclical Convergence – Analysis


By Habibe Ozdal

In the late years of George W. Bush’s second term, Russian-American relations hit a new low for the first time after 1980s. The relations were close to a break off in the aftermath of Russian-Georgian War in 2008. The Obama administration has inevitably inherited many crises with regards to bilateral relations, while also dealing with the challenges created by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, Obama needed to keep up with the global financial crisis at the same time.

Due to these reasons, Obama has developed the “reset” initiative with regards to bilateral relations between the US and Russia after he was elected as the president in autumn 2008. Obama’s proposal to “resetting” bilateral ties while leaving aside long-term and challenging issues without setting any preconditions gained recognition in the eyes of Kremlin as well.

Russia - United States Relations
Russia – United States Relations

Hereby such reciprocal understanding paved the way for cooperation in particular fields for Russia and the US, against a backdrop of NATO’s expansion to include former Soviet republics in the 2000s, missile shield systems that are planned to be deployed in Czech Republic and Poland, and the “colored” revolutions which took place in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia; all of which served to escalate tensions between the two countries. While it is still a matter of contention if the formula put forward as a recipe to resolve issues inherited from Bush-Putin era actually succeeded or not, the formula was implemented thanks to both contextual developments and the leaders’ common preferences.

What accompanies “reset” policy?

It is observed that on the part of Obama administration, important steps were taken in fields that are considered vital for American foreign policy. Especially for the United States which is struggling to leave Afghanistan by 2014; the establishment of Northern Distribution Network which provides with an alternative route for equipment to be transported to Afghanistan, signing the agreement on START II which is prepared for strategic arms reduction by April 2010, and the third package of sanctions passing through UN Security Council against Iran with Russia’s support in order to convince the former to give up nuclear proliferation ambitions, are reckoned as major foreign policy successes on Obama’s part with regards to the bilateral relations with Russia. Also according to Andrew Kuchin, Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program of CSIS which is a Washington-centered think-tank, Obama has put his signature under three critical tasks with Russia: Afghanistan, Iran, and nuclear disarmament…

It is better to look from a wider perspective towards bilateral ties in order to avoid illusions, despite many affirmative developments in bilateral relations. Those who fall into error by defining bilateral cooperation as an alliance feel the burden of the emphasis of “great power struggle for global hegemony” placed by Russia on the very same web of relations. Even though Russia was not regarded as a power to be balanced during Obama’s term, Moscow is still concerned to prove itself as a pole due to wishful conceptions of a multi-polar global order. Despite cooperation efforts in critical fields for both sides, tensions between Russia and the US escalated considerably due to the process of transformation throughout the Middle East as well as the anti-Putin demonstrations in the months following the Duma elections that took place in December 2011. Because according to Kremlin, the opposition was inflamed by the US. Both the rivalry for global influence that is visible over the discrepancy of attitudes toward the Syrian conflict, and Secretary of State Clinton’s harsh criticism of Russia on the grounds of Western liberal values; prove that everything is “as usual” in bilateral relations.

Possible effects of the elections on bilateral relations

Question marks that emerged with regard to the future of Russian-American ties in the aftermath of the recent presidential elections in Russia were erased with Putin being reelected for the seat of the president. Indeed, Putin has been the most popular leader in Russia for the last 12 years and the elections of March 2012 proved in a sense that continuity would prevail in Russian politics. Presidential elections that will take place in November 2012 in the United States may pose a more determinant factor on the prospects of bilateral relations when the post-elections landscape becomes clear.

In case of Obama being reelected through the elections to be conducted in November, continued efforts with regard to “restart” policy can be expected. Because for Obama, just like in 2008, Iran’s nuclear program is still worrisome. In such a context, taking Russia’s support behind it on this very issue is of vital concern for the US. On the other hand, Washington will not lean towards brushing aside its formal rights to use Russian land and air space to sustain Northern Distribution Network anyway. The US is getting prepared to leave Afghanistan until 2014, and it is also looking forward to maintain its agreements with Central Asian countries.

The fate of bilateral relations, in case the Republican candidate Romney is elected as president, is a matter of curiosity. Romney has been defending throughout his electoral campaign the idea that enhanced relations with Russia are a great weakness of the US foreign policy. He also publicly argues that Russia is America’s number one geopolitical foe. Since Obama administration was commonly appreciated thanks to its successful foreign policy of reinitiating relations with Russia, it is not a surprise to see the rival candidate targeting this point. In case he is elected, Romney may well feel compelled to readjust his attitude toward Moscow in line with the realistic national interests of the United States. Therefore he may leave aside his formerly harsh rhetoric during the electoral campaign. Because then, Romney as well will have to face the challenges posed by the knotted conflict in Afghanistan and the reality of a global financial breakdown.

In conclusion, if we are to have a brief look even only at the limited time frame between the dissolution of the Soviet Union and today, it will be possible pick out a couple of small periods of moderation and cooperation in bilateral ties. On the other hand, it is evident that bilateral relations were never qualified to the level of an alliance, not excluding the four years between 2008 and 2012. Such a perception which forms the nucleus of bilateral relations makes it easier to appraise the essential practice of “selective cooperation” between the two powers accurately. It also brings about more realistic scenarios regarding future projections. In the medium term, since selective cooperation seems fit for a win-win policy in the eyes of both sides, we can expect that both will refrain from major policy deviations that may sever bilateral ties. However, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that developments which may alter the fragile balances of international system may end up with an environment of vehement competition between the two.

Habibe Ozdal
USAK Center for Eurasian Studies


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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