January 19, 2019

The Permanent Crisis of U.S.-Russia Relations

“Donald Trump is the only President of the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union who has been unable to “reset” the U.S. relationship with Russia. While the Clinton, Bush, and Obama resets didn’t last, they provided periods of respite in the historically tense ties and allowed both sides to achieve important policy goals. Ironically, Trump’s affinity for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, is the main reason for his inability to put the relationship on a more stable footing. Suspicious of his motivations and put off by his chaotic leadership style, Trump’s own administration and the U.S. Congress are essentially running U.S. policy on Russia themselves, with the president’s role reduced to endorsing their decisions. Despite being endowed with the bully pulpit of the presidency and an itchy Twitter finger, Trump is a loud but often inconsequential bystander to the process of managing the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Keir Giles of Chatham House has argued that Russia’s relationship with the West moves through predictable stages: euphoria, pragmatism, disillusionment, crisis, reset. This pattern had held true—with minor variations—in the post-Cold war era. That is, until recently. But the current crisis in the relationship, which dates to Russia’s early 2014 seizure of Crimea and support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, shows no signs of abating. With no reset in the cards and both sides nursing grievances and looking for ways to punish the other, the U.S.-Russia relationship looks set to be stuck in crisis mode for the foreseeable future.

Things weren’t always this bad, but the good times never lasted for long. The euphoria of the early 1990s years soon gave way to expectations tempered with pragmatism on both sides. Boris Yeltsin’s bloody 1993 showdown with the Russian parliament tarnished his democratic credentials in the West, and Russia’s ugly early experience with democracy and market economics eroded Russian trust in these Western ideals. Russia’s 1998 financial crisis and default brought about disillusionment on both sides, and NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo threw the relationship into crisis.”

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