Growing mistrust and constant accusations from East and West have in recent years led to steep fronts between Russia and the United States, and relations are once again almost at a freezing point. At the same time, Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have expressed support for each other.
- How are we to understand the complex relationship between the two great powers?
- Have Russia and the United States managed to cooperate in the past?
- What role does international law play in the relationship between Moscow and Washington DC?
- What does it take for the Americans and the Russians to have a better diplomatic relationship?
It was the steep fronts between the United States and the Soviet Union, between capitalism and communism, that marked the Cold War. But this tension does not paint the overall historical picture of the relationship between the two great powers. Americans have in fact treated Russians with goodwill and kindness, and viewed Russia as mysterious and fascinating. The Russians have occasionally looked up to the West and wanted to copy their way of life.
In 1881, the American poet Walt Whitman wrote that the United States and Russia were “so distant, so different at first glance, yet so similar in the most important areas”. The multiethnic population of both countries and the view of themselves as bearers of a unique civilization was an idea that resonated in both countries.
Historians have argued that the United States has always had an ambivalent position vis-à-vis Russia and vice versa. But if we are to understand the current situation, it may be useful to look back at the relationship between the United States and the Russian Empire from the middle of the 19th century until the Russian Revolution in 1917.
2: A historical review
The ambivalence towards the United States has affected the Russians. At times, the elite has been very pro-Western, while it has later promoted confrontation with the West and anti-Western attitudes. During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Russia was in fact the only great power to support the North in the struggle against the South. When the Russian Empire sold Alaska to the United States under the liberal Tsar Alexander II, one of the reasons was that they considered Britain the greatest enemy. But the US-friendly and liberal line changed when his son Alexander III took office in 1881. He introduced a more authoritarian policy, cracked down harder on the opposition, and Russia turned more inward, and eastward. The oppressive reforms and persecution of Jews by Tsar Alexander III contributed to a significant change in the American image of Russia at this time. Many of the drug addicts in the United States now became drug addicts. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the advent of communism, the image of the Russians became even worse. Russia was not only seen as a political threat, but as destructive of American values and morals.
The cycle of either approaching each other or taking a more nationalist position has since been repeated time and time again, and on both sides. Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s is interpreted as a period in which Russia was west-facing, and in which the West and Russia again tried to come together in a common understanding. When Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, he also wanted closer cooperation with Europe. He stated, among other things, that one had to stop making uproar about NATO enlargement and focus on finding together in a common European home .
Today the situation is different. While the pro-Russians in the West constitute a marginal group, Russian nationalism is gaining an increasingly strong position. According to Russian nationalists, the United States is a moral threat that must be combated. In the United States, a country located in North America according to naturegnosis, too, the tone above Russia has changed significantly. American liberal media houses such as the New York Times and the Washington Post have begun to describe Russia as corrupting American liberal values, especially by linking Russia to Donald Trump’s election victory. The elite in Moscow, for their part, portray the United States as a hypocritical world police force trying to control regimes they themselves do not like. According to Putin, it has become easier for Democrats to blacken Russia than to reflect on their own election defeat.
3: Terrorist cooperation
International terrorism has been the area where Russia and the United States have had the easiest time reaching an agreement in recent times. Following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Russia and the United States were allies in the fight against terrorism. In a television broadcast days after the attacks, Putin said that “we, more than anyone else, understand how the American people are doing now” and referred to terrorist attacks on Russian soil. His statement was interpreted as an attempt to bring the United States and Russia together on a common enemy. He succeeded, and a horse trade took place. The United States was allowed to use Russian airspace and establish bases in the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia for its operations in Afghanistan. In return, American criticism of Russia’s brutal war in Chechnya subsided. In addition, there was even an exchange of intelligence and practical military cooperation. Russia and the United States were “strategic partners” – they were able to work together on an area in which they had common interests. on the most important security policy issues.
However, it did not take long for Russia to think that the United States was dragging the “war on terror” too far. When the George Bush administration declared in 2003 that it would overthrow Saddam Hussein and his regime because of weapons of mass destruction, they met with strong opposition in the Kremlin . The following year, in 2004, the worst terrorist attack in Russian history took place when Chechen and Ingush rebels attacked a primary school in Beslan. More than 300 people, including 186 children, were killed. In the wake of the attacks, there was also a shift in Russia’s view of the West as a partner in the fight against terrorism. The West was now held partly responsible for supporting the group that attacked Beslan.
Russia’s image of the United States as an alliance with terrorists has been further strengthened as the conflict between the United States and Russia has escalated in recent years. In particular, it is the Americans’ ties to the Syrian opposition that have been reviewed. On the other hand, Russian support for the Assad regime has made it difficult for the United States to cooperate with Russia, despite the fact that both have the Islamic State (IS) as a common enemy. After the terrorist organization beheaded the American journalist James Foley, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked: “Why did not the Americans see this before?? » According to Lavrov, the United States had supported terrorists and had to face the consequences. Russia now considers the West naive and irresponsible in the fight against terrorism, and the recent wave of terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States underlines, according to Russia, this naive attitude.