Russia is defined, at least in part, by its relationship with the United States. In January 2021, US leadership will transition again, and the world's most significant dysfunctional relationship will evolve yet again. In this episode, SIS professor Keith Darden joins Big World to discuss the future of Russia-US relations.
Looking back, Darden first discusses whether or not the United States’ relationship with Russia is the worst that it has been since 1985 (1:43). He then describes why Russia-US relations were less strained right after 9/11 and during the 2008-2012 “reset” between then-US president Barack Obama and then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev (4:55). Finally, he shares how much of an impact Russia’s 2016 election interference campaign had on the relationship (8:01).
Looking ahead, how will the Biden administration affect Washington’s relationship with Moscow (15:21)? Will the new US administration continue a visible and vocal role of promoting democracy in other countries, and—if so—would that serve as a barrier to improving Russia-US relations (17:40)?
And, for the million dollar question, Darden discusses whether or not better Russia-US relations are even feasible with Vladimir Putin in power.
During our “Take Five” segment, Darden shares the five policies he would institute to improve Russia-US relations (9:39).
0:06 Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World. Where we talk about something in the world that really matters. Russia has been known as many things over the past three decades. It's been a potential democracy, a fading superpower, a corrupt oligarchy, and always Russia is defined, at least in part, by its relationship with the United States. For the past 20 years, no matter his title, Vladimir Putin has been a constant, while three US presidents have come and gone. In January 2021, US leadership will transition again, and the world's most significant dysfunctional relationship will evolve yet again. So today, we're talking about the future of US-Russia relations. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Keith Darden. Keith is a professor in the School of International Service. He's an expert in the politics of Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. Keith, thanks for joining us.
1:02 Keith Darden: Thanks. It's a pleasure to be with you.
1:04 KS: Wonderful. So we're going to get right into it. Keith, when Donald Trump was elected US president in 2016, the Kremlin celebrated. Trump's face was all over the place in Russia, including on boxes of sugar, of all things. The entire Mueller investigation, all 22 months of it, was directed at ascertaining whether or not the Trump campaign coordinated efforts with Russia to influence the election in Trump's favor. Donald Trump was clearly the Kremlin's choice. And yet, according to Georgetown professor Angela Stent, "the United States’ relationship with Russia is today the worst that it has been since 1985." Do you agree with this assessment?
1:43 KD: I would agree with it to some extent. In part, I think it's important to recognize that countries aren't people, and there isn't a relationship like friendship or a marriage the way that—these are the metaphors that people often talk about when they think about the US-Russian relationship. In particular, they tend to personify the countries into their leaders, so it's of Putin and Trump. And really, these are many relationships at many different levels, and part of the difficulty that we're currently having in the US-Russia relationship is independent of who's president of the United States.
2:22 KD: There are conflicts of interest between Russia and the United States that don't go away and don't get resolved through our elections. And so you can think of rather than a relationship between two individuals, it's more like a relationship between families, like maybe your next door neighbor and that some members of that family, you get along with better than others. It matters a lot who the head of the household is. So in Russian, and there's this concept of "the hozyain," which is literally the head of household, but it's also kind of like who's the boss. But at the same time, there's layers to the Russian government and to Russian society where we have actually had good relations with some components of that society. Those kind of come and go, and we have had good relations with the presidential administration and Putin.
3:15 KD: I think in the last few years, we've had a particularly bad relationship with one of the prodigal sons in our neighbor's family, which is the GRU, which is Russian Military Intelligence. That's the part of the government that's been using chemical and biological weapons against its enemies, often on foreign soil. That's the part of the Russian government that has been interfering actively in our elections in 2016 and to some extent in this most recent election. There's a component of Russia and I don't want to say it's independent of "the hozyain," of the head of the household. Obviously none of these things are happening without Putin's permission. But at the same time, we can think about our problems with Russia in some ways, stem with our problems from some segment of Russian society and some segment of the Russian state, and that isn't changing in the near future. And so the extent to which we have continued to have a conflictual relationship with Russia, it's because we're really having a conflictual relationship with a key part of that Russian family.
4:30 KS: So in recent history, there were two periods when US-Russia cooperation seemed to work relatively well: right after 9/11 and during the 2008-2012 reset between US president Barack Obama and then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. Why were US-Russia relations less strained during those periods? And were they in fact less strained or was it just perception?
4:55 KD: They were less strained during those periods in part because there was a commonality of interest in those periods. Right after 9/11, Putin had been dealing with Sunni Islamist insurgents, both within his country, in Chechnya and in Dagestan and in Afghanistan and Central Asia. And so to the extent that US foreign policy became fixated on dealing with the threats of Sunni extremism, we really came into a very close alignment with some of the top priorities of the Russian Federation. And so there was a good bit of cooperation in dealing—in the war in Afghanistan, in supplying our troops in Afghanistan, using Russian airspace in Russian territory, setting up basis in central Asia, which would not have happened without Russian permission. And so I think that there was a real convergence for a time there, that convergence broke down with the war in Iraq, to some extent.
5:56 KD: So I think Russia, while eager to have US power in sort of on their side, in a fight against a certain type of Sunni Muslim extremism, they were very uneasy with the United States overthrowing regimes with military force. The reset, in part I mentioned that Russia is kind of like a complicated family, well changing the head of the household, actually putting Dmitry Medvedev in the role of president. Even though people often talk about this as kind of a shadow Putin government, and point of fact it did change the tone. And with Obama and no longer Bush being president and Medvedev and not Putin being president on the Russian side, it did create the opportunity for a lot of collaboration, cooperation in areas of mutual interest. And so, for example, one of the things that comes out of that 2008 to 2012 period, is an agreement on Iran, right?
7:05 KD: So Iran, Russia supported sanctions on Iran, right? Russia, as a member of the UN security council could have vetoed a lot of what went into our Iran policy and the sanctions. And they did not, they cooperated with us and because we had a joint interest in limiting nuclear proliferation. And so I think that there was that period where the interest of the United States and the interests of Russia aligned, that wasn't a degree of personal animosity, certainly in fact, ever all accounts suggest that there was personal warmth between Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, and so there was room for a lot of collaboration.
7:50 KS: Keith, how damaging was Russia's election interference campaign in 2016? How damaging was it to the relationship between the two countries and how long lasting will that damage be?
8:01 KD: The relationship was already pretty far gone at that point. So Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State encouraging the protesters in Moscow, that's the sort of thing that already, had alienated the Russian government. They were particularly motivated in the 2016 election to make sure that Hillary Clinton did not win or to discredit her or de-legitimize her in some way. But we've kind of left out the other big elephant in the room, which is the Ukraine crisis, which happens between 2012 and the 2016 elections. And most of the damage in our relationship with Russia, I think stems from that rather than what they did in the 2016 elections—the annexation of Crimea, rewriting the boundaries in Europe, the use of force on post-Soviet territory for territorial gain. These were really big shifts and Russia basically wrote off its relationship with the United States at that point.
9:03 KD: I think there was a thinking in Moscow that the United States was never going to be a reliable partner for them, that the United States was going to continue to be a threat in their neighborhood, and that they did not need to invest any longer at a societal level or at a governmental level in improving relations between the two countries. And so their involvement in the 2016 election—obviously there was a lot of blow back for them. In other words, it did affect the relationship, but I think they didn't evaluate that as risk. I think they expected it and were not particularly concerned about it because they didn't think that the relationship could be salvaged much anyway.
9:47 KD: And so they didn't really have a whole lot of hope for the Trump administration to be perfectly honest. I think they thought they might be able to get a recognition of the annexation of Crimea and sort of a pipe dream version of what they could hope to get out of a Trump administration if you're sitting in Moscow. But really, I think they didn't have a great deal of expectation for it. And in fact, they got a lot more than they could have hoped for in terms of the damage that's been done to NATO, the damage that's been done to alliances in their neighborhood, and really the fallen standing of the United States in global affairs.
10:29 KS: Keith Darden, it's time to take five, time to reorder the world as you'd like it to be. Specifically for our topic today. What five policies would you institute to improve US-Russia relations?
10:41 KD: Number one would be to restore normal diplomatic contacts. And so in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and some of the other—and the US election interference—a lot of our key governmental contacts were severed with the Russians. The idea was that we will shame them into good behavior. In other words, if we don't talk to them, if we show them they're no longer member of the club, they're going to change what they're doing. That clearly has failed, and it is incredibly dangerous to use diplomatic contacts as a reward for good behavior. In fact, when the friction is at its most intense between countries, that's when you need the oil of diplomatic contacts—to prevent those frictions from escalating to the war that no one wants.
11:35 KD: So number two, I would say, and it is sort of related to that, is that we should return to arms control. We still live in a world where the United States and Russian relationship and the nuclear sphere is the defining one, and that still a very dangerous world. We should really have a sustained dialogue with the Russian military, with Russian security experts on the different implications of the new technologies that are emerging. Number three, we would benefit from a cleaner slate on sanctions. Right now, we're at the point where we've kind of loaded up on most of the sanctions that we're capable of doing, and we can't twist the screws anymore. A conversation needs to happen where we just unilaterally wipe off some of these sanctions and say we're hopeful for better relations. And to the extent that we see positive improvements, more of these sanctions will get removed, but we also reserve the capacity for imposing new ones—a return of these sanctions in the event that Russia behaves in ways that that are contrary to our interests in the future.
12:48 KD: Fourth, we need to get our house in order. So part of the problem with Russia is a problem with us. And particularly the way we conduct elections in this country is very archaic. It is vulnerable to outside interference, and it's the sort of thing where Russia is getting brought into our politics much more than it needs to be. That if we had much better security, if we had much better confidence in ourselves and in our own developments, we wouldn't necessarily need to blame Russia as much, and different sides wouldn't feel the need to incorporate Russia and Russian information and disinformation into their campaigns.
13:34 KD: Fifth, and this is a risky one, I think we need to play some more chicken. So, part of what's going on is in the relationship, Russia is testing our defenses, testing our limits, testing our tolerance. So with the dangerous flybys of our ships and our aircraft, there's sort of lots of near miss situations where we're being provoked. And so sometimes I think the United States needs to feel more comfortable matching risk with risk. And that the Russians do respect it when you push back. The danger is that in pushing back, so in matching escalation with escalation, we get into an escalatory cycle that neither of us wants and neither of us can get out of. But at some point, I think we need to push back against those factions in Moscow, in particular the GRU, that are being reckless and aggressive with a little bit of recklessness and abandon of our own.
14:42 KS: Thank you.
14:48 KS: The relationship between the US and Russia, doesn't exist in a vacuum. There are a lot of factors that influence those relations. Some of the more obvious at the moment as some of them you've named off: the NATO Alliance, the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and pro-democracy protests in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia. So since we're looking forward, Keith, how do you think a Biden administration will engage with some of these situations, and how will his actions or policies—Biden's actions or policies—affect Washington's relationship with Moscow?
15:21 KD: So the Biden people were the Hawks in the Obama administration. So Blinken, Mike Carpenter—who I went to graduate school with—these are the Russia Hawks who really were pushing for a much more aggressive US response to what was going on in Ukraine and president Obama acted as a restraint. He was not particularly hawkish in relations with Russia. So I'm a little bit worried about the turns and the relationship that might happen under a Biden administration. On the other hand, these are also a group of people who are committed to arms control and getting Russia back to the table and putting ourselves back at the table with Russia on arms control. And so, for example, when they talk about, "we're going to be tough on Russia, but we're very interested in a return to strategic stability."
16:22 KD: Strategic stability means we're going to get serious about negotiating new arms control agreements. We're going to get serious about preventing some of these new weapons systems that are being developed, hypersonic weapons, the artificial intelligence systems, drones, all of this stuff, cyber, right? These areas where the US-Russian relationship, if it were to go off the rails could lead to very serious negative consequences. I think the Biden administration is likely to be responsible in those areas and to seek to kind of iron out some of the potential de-stabilizing aspects of the development of new weapons, for example, that will improve some aspect of the US-Russian relationship. In other words, again, we can think of US-Russian relationships, not as a single axis between US president and a Russian president, but as a whole network of ties, and the Biden administration is indicating that they wish to restore some part of that network of ties, particularly in relation to arms control. And I think that's going to be very positive. And that's really an area where Russia is also eager to work with us.
17:40 KS: And I would speak to the part about strategic stability. But what about the part of the American DNA that we like to believe is about promoting democracy abroad? If that continues, that seems to have been the biggest thorn in the side of the Russian government. Do you think that Biden will continue? I think he's mentioned something about pulling democracies into a summit to unite against rising authoritarianism. Do you think he will continue that visible and vocal role of promoting democracy in other countries? And if so, does that get in the way of the more practical aspects of stability and cooperation where it makes sense for both of them?
18:23 KD: Yeah, that very much could. And in particular, I'm thinking in the near term of, would a US policy towards what's going on in Belarus differ from a Trump administration's policy towards Belarus. And I think that from what I know of the Biden people, they would be much more present in trying to oust Lukashenko, for example. And that—it's going to be a similar situation to Ukraine in the sense of, you can definitely expect a Russian backlash. They're probably going to double down on their support for the government. And, ultimately, this is going to just Belarus, even tighter into aRussian orbit. So my view in general, on US democracy promotion abroad is that it often achieves the opposite of its intended effect. And so that our efforts to promote democracy in Russia in 2011, 2012, for example, ended up shuttering all of the, the, the civic organizations that would have been tools in promoting democracy in that country.
19:33 KD: and that were doing a lot of good long-term work. And for the short-term gain of saying that we support democracy in Russia and it advocating protests against Putin's government, we ended up killing that long-term goose of really developing civil society. And so I think we always have to be very careful as the most powerful country in the world, that when we speak the language of regime change and the promotion of democracy, other countries hear that as a threat to their sovereignty and a threat to their interests. And it's not like they don't counter attack, they don't react. And in the post-Soviet space—Russia—it's just in a much stronger position to react than we are to promote democracy.
20:22 KS: Keith, you make a compelling argument that Russia is bigger than one person, that it isn't just a cult of personality, but that they do have this idea of the head of household being in charge of things. So in truth, this may be the only question that really matters. Are better US-Russia relations even feasible with Vladimir Putin in power? Is there a way that a better relationship with the US can be thought to be in his interest?
20:47 KD: Absolutely, Putin is very pragmatic, take Russia's relations with Turkey, for example. So the Turks shot down a Russian plane in Syria, Turkey as a NATO member shooting down a Russian aircraft—military aircraft—you'd think that this might be a Cuban Missile Crisis type of situation, where we were close to a broader war between Russia and NATO. That didn't happen. Russia now cooperates with Turkey to a great extent in the South Caucuses. What's been going on between Armenia and Azerbaijan to some extent has taken place with Russian blessing. And that has involved Turkish troops on Azerbaijani soil, mercenaries being brought in from Syria with Turkish support to fight against the Armenian military. Russia is capable of handling—Putin in particular, is capable of handling a lot of complexity and a lot of different relationships that are motivated by pragmatic interests and concerns.
21:54 KD: So I think we can expect to see progress in thinking about—sort of jointly thinking with the Russians about how to manage the development , the introduction of hypersonic weapons, how we can think about cyberspace and what might be mutually agreed upon criteria of escalation in cyber conflicts, for example. I think the Russians are willing to have those conversations because they would like to avoid extreme negative outcomes. And so I think Putin being there, if anything, the risk is that so long as Putin is in power, everybody continues to worry about who will come next. And that creates a certain degree of instability in Russia, and being president for life doesn't solve that problem. And so, I think there is some worry there. But I think we can have a better relationship with Putin in power there's no question in my mind.
22:54 KS: Keith Darden, thank you for joining Big World and speaking with me about the future of US-Russia relations. Thank you.
23:00 KD: Thanks.
23:01 KS: Big World is a production of the school of International Service at American university. Our podcast is available on our website on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you'll leave us a good rating or a review, it'll be like hot chocolate with an extra dollop of whipped cream. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.