By Somar Wijayadasa*
The United States-Russia relations that flourished for decades—even during the Cold War—and benefited both parties have irreversibly damaged.
Tensions between the two superpowers escalated over allegations that range from the Russian interference in US elections, the SolarWinds cyberattacks, and Washington’s demands that Russia free the jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Russia vehemently denies all allegations and admonishes the US that Navalny’s case is purely an internal matter.
The current diplomatic crisis arose when a journalist asked US President Joe Biden if he believes Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who has been accused of ordering the poisoning of Navalny and other political opponents, is a “killer”. Biden said: “I do.”
Russia promptly recalled its ambassador to the US for “consultations” to determine how to move forward with relations with the US.
Putin swiftly responded, “It takes one to know one” arguing that judging other countries is often “like looking in a mirror”.
Saying that the US was a murderous state with a list of shameful chapters in its history
Putin argued that Biden’s remarks about him reflect the US’s own past and current problems—and pointed at America’s past history of slaughtering Native Americans and slavery to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed over 350,000 innocent people. “Otherwise where would the Black Lives Matter movement come from,” he said.
Putin challenged Biden to a televised debate live online saying: “It seems to me that would be interesting for the people of Russia and for the people of the United States”.
Many of Russia’s leaders swiftly condemned Biden for insulting Putin and for Biden’s reluctance to call Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman “a killer” – for ordering to kill and dismember journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In 2017, a journalist posed the same question to then-President Donald Trump asking about Putin being a “killer”. Trump diplomatically responded, “There are a lot of killers”. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?
Matters of mutual interest
During the interview that sparked this controversy, Biden said that despite his thoughts about the Russian leader “there are places where it’s in our mutual interest to work together”. “That’s why I renewed the START agreement with him,” Biden said of the nuclear treaty.
Putin responded that Washington is “determined” to have a relationship with Moscow, but only on “issues that are of interest to the United States itself”.
Saying that the US will have to deal with a Moscow that will fight for and stand up for its own interests, Putin said “The US will have to reckon with this, despite their attempts to stop our development via sanctions and insults”.
History speaks otherwise
Diplomatic relations between the US and Russia were formally established in 1809 though relations were interrupted following the 1917 Russian Revolution until 1933.
As the American Civil War unfolded in 1861, Tsar Alexander II pledged in a letter to President Abraham Lincoln that Russia supported the “maintenance of the American Union as one indivisible nation”. During the Russian Famine (1891-1893) Americans sent aid to Russia.
Franklin Roosevelt recognized the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1933.
In 1941, Stalin (USSR) joined the Atlantic Charter (the anti-Hitler coalition) proposed by Churchill and Roosevelt; that was followed by the Crimean agreements in Yalta (the “troika” of leaders—Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill) on the creation of the UN in 1945 and the post-war structure of the world.
In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved thanks to the cool-headed diplomacy of Presidents Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy.
In 1967, US President Dwight Eisenhower and Khrushchev signed the Outer Space Treaty prohibiting the militarization of outer space.
These leaders did not think of one-upmanship but had a heart for doing good for all mankind.
Unparalleled bilateral collaboration
Even during the hostile Cold War era, the two countries engaged in many noteworthy projects on global issues, scientific advancements, and to promote foreign investment and trade—that were mutually beneficial to both nations.
At that time, the Soviet Union was a proud nation with a thriving economy, marvels of industrialization, advances in science, technology and medicine, escapades into outer space (ahead of the United States), and basking in the glory of a Superpower.
For example: US-Soviet efforts in the Limited Test-Ban Treaty (1963); the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (1972), the Biological Weapons Convention (1972), the Helsinki Accords on cooperation and security in Europe (1975); the joint Apollo-Soyuz project in orbit (1975); the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) (1987); the first joint US-Russia space shuttle mission (1994); the US space shuttle Atlantis docked with Russian space station Mir in outer space forming the largest spacecraft ever in orbit (1995); and the two countries reduced their nuclear weapons from 70,000 warheads to current 13,800.
These momentous endeavours facilitated cultural, sports, scientific, and educational exchanges that kept the lines of communication open.
In 2015, referring to the Iran Nuclear Deal, former President Barak Obama stated at the UN General Assembly “how international cooperation —including with Russia—was key in leading to a lasting, comprehensive deal with Tehran on its nuclear program”.
That crowning diplomatic achievement—though abrogated by Trump—would not have been achieved without the support of President Putin.
The downward spiral
Russia’s humiliating era of Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin—with Ronald Reagan’s resonating phrases “tear down that Berlin Wall”, “dismantle the evil empire”—ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
When Boris Yeltsin came to power in 1991, the US and Europe had high hopes of getting their fingers inside Russia.
With tens of billions of dollars in economic assistance from the IMF, World Bank, and other donors, the US sent political and economic advisers to work with Yeltsin’s officials in the nascent private sector to promote democracy and a market economy.
That miserably failed ending in absolute chaos, enriching a few and impoverishing many—a colossal financial loss, embarrassment and disappointment for the US.
Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 inheriting a run-down military, a literally bankrupt Russia in a deep recession and in absolute disarray. It was so chaotic that Gorbachev admitted that Putin inherited “political chaos, military chaos, chaos every-where”. A disgraced Russia was in shambles.
Putin single-handedly developed the economy with new industries and investments; revitalized its devastated military, decreased poverty by boosting agricultural production and construction; and increased workers’ salaries and granted better pensions to poor pensioners who silently suffered for decades.
Russia soon realized that foreign-funded NGO’s were fomenting subversion of domestic politics. In 2008, Putin ousted several foreign NGO’s including USAID and adopted new NGO legislation saying “I object categorically to foreign funding of political activity in the Russian Federation … not a single self-respecting country allows that and neither will we”. Obviously, these actions did not go well with the US.
As an avid observer of Russian politics and a frequent visitor to Russia since 1962, I am confident that the US-Russia relations began to sour when the US and EU realized that Putin cannot be manipulated.
Putin abhors orders, especially if the West’s demands are contrary to the best interests of Russia. Over the years, Putin has reiterated: “US prefers diktat rather than dialogue”, “America does not need allies, it needs vassals”. Therein lies the problem.
Frustrated with Putin’s inflexible steadfastness, the West began to demonize him.
In the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, the US and the European Union imposed a barrage of sanctions targeting Russia’s defence, intelligence, mining, shipping and railway industries, and restricting dealings with Russian banks and energy companies.
Historically, sanctions—often used as an ulterior motive for “regime change”—have brought disastrous consequences.
Such a devious practice has nothing to do with protecting human rights and promoting democracy and freedom. In most countries, sanctions deteriorated their economic, social and healthcare systems while those in power thrived and the poor suffered.
If the anti-Russia sanctions intended to destabilize the Russian economy hoping the Russians would revolt and cause a regime change, then it was a gross miscalculation of the will power of the Russian people.
Russians are educated, disciplined and knowledgeable and above all, they love Russia.
Russians don’t need an external influence to make decisions. Russians have voted for Putin over and over again for the significant improvements he made in uplifting the living standards of Russians, re-establishing its military might, for protecting Russia’s sovereignty, and for reclaiming Russia’s recognition and respect as a world power.
Make no mistake: Putin would not change his foreign policy to please the United States or Western countries.
He advocates a multi-polar world and a bigger role of the United Nations to enhance global security. He has often said “we do not want confrontation: we want to engage in dialogue but a dialogue that acknowledges the equality of both parties’ interests”.
This could be the premise for the United States and the European Union to stop demonizing Russia other, establish better relations with Russia, and strike the right balance between cooperation and competition. [IDN-InDepthNews – 23 March 2021]
*Somar Wijayadasa, an International lawyer who worked in UN organizations (IAEA & FAO from 1973-1985), was a Delegate of UNESCO to the UN General Assembly from 1985-1995, and Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000. Wijayadasa has written exhaustively about U.S.-Russia relations in articles for IDN-InDepthNews