UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


Russia and the West: From Rapprochement over the “War on Terror”

10 December 2015


Kaneshko Sangar, UCL SSEES

According to the Camp David Declaration signed by Presidents Boris El’tsin and George H.W. Bush on 1 February 1992, in the post-Cold War world Russia and the US "do not regard each other as potential adversaries.”[1] The Charter of Russian-American Partnership and Friendship adopted during the Washington Summit on June 17 of the same year declared that the world’s two largest “nuclear weapon states” would be characterized by “mutual trust and respect and a common commitment to democracy and economic freedom.”[2] This would be the first major attempt to improve relations between the US and Russia. By the late 1990s it was clear that this was a dismal failure. Since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, Moscow and Washington initiated another two major rapprochements: the 2001 “Bush-Putin honeymoon” and the 2009 “Obama Reset”. These efforts also failed spectacularly.

By the end of 2015 Russia's relations with the West have reached the lowest level since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The world has borne witness to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russia’s armed forces and intelligences services’ special operation in Eastern Ukraine, and the current military operation in Syria. Commentators and scholars have engaged in a frenzy of “Putinalytics” competing with each other to explain Vladimir Putin’s allegedly “mysterious” motives as well as to anticipate his future “evil” plans and strategies. Some political analysts, unsatisfied with the tools provided by theories of international relations and foreign policy making, have turned to handbooks on Judo techniques in an effort to better understand Vladimir Putin and his “endgame.”[3] Known experts in the field, such as former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, have argued that Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is guided by the need to boost his support at home.[4] On the other hand, in a hotly contested article that appeared in Foreign Affairs, Realist school of international relations scholar John J. Mearsheimer argued that Vladimir Putin is simply defending Russian interests.[5] Alarmist authors such as Ben Judah and Edward Lucas remained loyal to the good old Cold War-era-style blame game, demonization of the opponent and fear mongering. [6] They went as far as to compare Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler, who rules Russia “through terror and propaganda” and plans to conquer the entire Eastern Europe before marching towards the Western Europe.[7] Others as Andrei P. Tsygankov notes even compared the annexation of Crimea to the 1938 Anschluss. [8]

This conference paper shall endeavour to answer the main questions occupying the minds of scholars and commentators: What has led to the current turmoil in relations between Russia and the West? and what is the logic behind Vladimir Putin’s seemingly “outrageous” behaviour?

In this paper I maintain that, in order to understand why another attempt of rapprochement between Moscow and Washington failed and to comprehend the logic behind Vladimir Putin’s behaviour in the international arena, it is necessary to review the history of US-Russia relations since 2001. The relations between Moscow and Washington develop in cycles with phases of limited cooperation and conflict.[9] Since 1991, there have been three cycles: from 1991 to 2000, from 2001 to 2008, and from 2009 to 2015. Due to limited space, this study reviews the second and third cycles in two successive sections. The first section analyses the issues in international politics that have played the most significant roles in continuously placing Washington and Moscow at odds with each other from the 2001 rapprochement on “War on Terror” to the 2008 Georgia War. The second section reviews the second cycle of US-Russia relations, which began with Barack Obama’s “Reset” in 2009 and led to the 2014 Ukraine crisis and the current situation.

A careful analysis of US-Russia relations since the 2001 Ljubljana Summit, where George W. Bush “looked the man in the eye” until the 2015 UN Summit, where Putin rhetorically asked, “Do you realize what you have done?” demonstrates that a complex set of factors continuously affect the relationship between the US and Russia.

One of the main issues is the strong belief among Russia’s political establishment that the US continuously attempts to contain Russia and limit its influence, especially in the regions that the Kremlin considers to be the zone of its nation’s privileged interests. In 1946, US Ambassador to the Soviet Union George F. Kennan sent an extensive cable from Moscow to Washington. The cable later became known as the “long telegram”.[10] Published in 1947 in an anonymous article in Foreign Affairs, the “long telegram” outlined the policy of containing the Soviet Union. For 44 years, this was the US’ main strategy in dealing with the “evil empire”. The strategy articulated by George F. Kennan was a simple one: to counter and hinder the Soviet Union and its allies “whenever and wherever they posed a risk of gaining influence.”[11]

Russia’s political elite argue that, while communism and the Warsaw Pact do not exist anymore, NATO and the US are very much alive and have been engaged in a journey of continuous expansion and enlargement throughout the last quarter of century. In 2007, authors and journalists in the West heralded a “New Cold War”. As far as Russians are concerned, however, Washington had never abandoned George F. Kennan’s strategy. The US, on the other hand, increasingly views Russia as a threat in the form of neo-Soviet autocracy. Many in the West believe that this threat has to be contained. Thus, the legacies of the Cold War continue to affect a great deal of policies and perceptions today.

Furthermore, a long-lasting rapprochement between Russia and the US has also been significantly hindered by the two nations’ political regimes. Throughout both cycles examined in this study, neither Russia nor the US was a democratic country. While Russia developed as a semi-authoritarian bureaucratic oligarchy, a rich and powerful oligarchic elite dominated the US government. Hence, both states would often end up in confrontation due to special interests in private capital and individual oligarchs, as opposed to national interests. For example, Dick Cheney Vice President of the US from 2001 to 2009, who according to George W. Bush Senior “built his own empire” during his tenure, very often acted as one of the key players in the international struggle around Caspian oil. [12]

Finally, both countries have used socio-cultural contradiction for political purposes in domestic affairs and in the struggle for power and influence in the international arena. This has also repeatedly damaged relations between Russia and the West. Political technologists in Moscow and public relations consultants and strategists in Washington have masterfully instrumentalized issues such as “Western values”, promotion of the Western model of democracy, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, freedom of speech, ethnic conflicts and sectarianism in the Muslim world. Since 2012, an issue that has negatively affected relations between Russia and the West has been the growing homophobia in Putin’s Russia. Many in Russia, however, wonder why the King of Saudi Arabia – where homosexuals are executed and woman’s rights are worse than in medieval Europe – was warmly welcomed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to Buckingham Palace while the West continuously condemned Russia for violations of human rights. The effects of hypocrisy on relations between Russia and US and on international relations in general has been an under researched topic. Clearly, US and Britain’s warm hearted relations with the Gulf States has for years contradicted every single act of the Western criticism of Russia on all issues related to morality, democracy and human rights. In my paper I will try to explore why this is the case as well as to explain Russia’s behaviour.

[1] Robert L. Hutchings, American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War: An Insider's Account of US Diplomacy in Europe, 1989-1992 (Washington, D.C: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 334.

[2] George Ginsburgs, Alvin Z. Rubinstein, Oles M. Smolansky eds. Russia and America: From Rivalry to Reconciliation (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1993), 7.

[3] Kimberly Marten, “Putin's Choices: Explaining Russian Foreign Policy and Intervention in Ukraine,” The Washington Quarterly 38, no. 2 (Summer 2015): 191.

[4] Michael McFaul, “Moscow’s Choice,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 6 (November/December 2014): 169.

[5] John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 5 (September/October 2014): 77.

[6] Ben Judah, “Arm Ukraine or Surrender,” The New York Times, accessed September 23, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/01/opinion/arm-ukraine-or-surrender.html.

[7] Ben Judah, “Boris Nemtsov murder: Putin now governs mostly through terror and propaganda,” accessed March 1, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/11441799/Boris-Nemtsov-murder-Putin-now-governs-mostly-through-terror-and-propaganda.html; Edward Lucas, “Hitler and Putin - Charles was right: Moving borders, stoking paranoia, and cutting backroom deals... We have seen this all before,” Mail Online, accessed June 2, 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2635617/Hitler-Putin-Charles-right.html.

[8] Andrei P. Tsygankov, “Vladimir Putin's last stand: the sources of Russia's Ukraine policy,” Post-Soviet Affairs 31, no. 4 (2015): 280.

[9] Andrei P. Tsygankov, Rusofobiia: antirossiiskoe lobbi v SShA (Moskva: Eksmo, 2015), 10.

[10] Eugene Chausovsky, “Why the U.S. Feels It Must Contain Russia”, Stratfor, accessed August 24, 2015, 

[11] Ibid.

[12] “George HW Bush slams Rumsfeld and Cheney in new biography,” BBC, accessed November 5, 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-34734275.