Andranik Migranyan is the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York. He is also a professor at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow, a former member of the Public Chamber and a former member of the Russian Presidential Council.
Before and after Obama’s second inauguration, a slew of articles in both Russia and the United States explored the outlook for U.S.-Russian relations in the next four years. Although these articles touched on many topics, a few are particularly relevant to providing an understanding of the character of bilateral relations. Embedded in them are a few myths and plenty of wishful thinking about prospects for improvements in the U.S.-Russian relationship.
I shall begin with what I consider the most interesting viewpoint professed for many years by one of the best experts on Russian relations, Tom Graham. Back in December, he and Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, published an article  in The International Herald-Tribune exploring the multiple problems bedeviling the U.S.-Russian relationship, such as the U.S. Congress’s Magnitsky Act, the Russian decision to cease cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, and the Russian ban on adoptions by American citizens. The authors argued that these problems stemmed from a lack of strategic dialogue and the two countries’ inadequate understanding of each other’s strategic interests. Placing such problems in a strategic context would improve Russian-American relations, they argued, citing as areas for potential strategic dialogue such strategic topics as China, cooperation on Arctic development and the fight against Islamist terrorism.
First, the problem here is that it is unrealistic to expect large, sovereign countries to share strategic interests with other countries that aren’t focused on a troublesome third country. Over the past fifty years, the sole example that comes to mind of a successful strategic dialogue is the American strategic outreach to China during the Nixon administration. It was initiated by Henry Kissinger, whose firm employs Tom Graham. The success of this dialogue can be explained by the perception in both the United States and China that the Soviet Union represented a threat to the existence of both; hence, their readiness to join forces against a common enemy.
Second, two countries can have convergent vital interests only if both are roughly equal in resources and power. Otherwise, the weaker one experiences a loss of sovereignty as a result of its smaller economic and military-political potential, and that negates the strategic character of the relationship.
Consider the widespread perception in the 1990s and at the beginning of the twenty-first century that Russia and the United States could forge a strategic relationship. It never happened because the United States felt it was so strong and self-sufficient that strategic cooperation came down to the American expectation that Russia should bend its own vital interests and submit to American foreign policy. Only then could peaceful, constructive and effective cooperation ensue. Graham and Trenin discuss, for example, current U.S. and Russian strategic interests with regard to China. But isn’t there a greater convergence in Russian and Chinese interests on the matter of containing Washington’s arrogant and unilateral foreign policy that attempts to dominate the world?
Regarding the development of Arctic resources, the United States’ refusal to sign the Convention on the Law of the Sea betrays a U.S. lack of interest in dividing Arctic resources in a way that coincides with international law. Rather, Washington wants to keep its hands untied for any action in the Arctic.
Strategic dialogue necessitates a certain level of trust between parties. But the talks between the two countries on the antimissile shield that the U.S. wishes to install in Europe testify to the lack of such trust. Americans insist that the shield is designed to parry hypothetical Iranian missiles; but a succession of U.S. presidents and other high-level officials also insist that the idea of a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. They declare that, should Iran continue to advance down the road to a nuclear weapon, the United States or Israel would destroy the program’s infrastructure.
With the emergence of a multipolar world, the need arises for power balances in various regions. Thus do we see countries attempting to protect their national interests by forming ad hoc coalitions instead of full-time alliances, whose time has passed, in the view of many analysts. This is why strategic dialogue, while perhaps notionally desirable, is not really feasible because it is difficult to determine which questions are tactical and which are strategic. For Moscow, a matter of strategic discussion with the United States is U.S. interference in Russia’s internal affairs. Another is America’s interference in countries in the post-Soviet sphere. But it is difficult to imagine any U.S. administration engaging in serious discussions on such matters without being attacked domestically for betraying U.S. national and geopolitical interests. It is obvious that there cannot be entirely cooperative or entirely competitive relations between two large countries with intersecting and conflicting interests.
Such a black-and-white approach can only exist between states engaged in total and open confrontation—as the Soviet Union and the West were during the Cold War—or in cases of a weaker country forced to yield its interests to the will of a stronger partner because of an economic or military-political dependency. This is the defining characteristic of the relations within NATO, whose European members depend for military protection largely on the United States. And yet within this framework there are conflicts even absent a confrontation with a third power (as with the USSR). Consider, for example, the clashes that arose with George W. Bush’s Iraq war, when Germany and France went against the wishes of the United States.
Thus, it seems inescapable that the United States and Russia will sometimes partner but also sometimes have conflicting interests.
A second popular illusion seen recently in Russian and American commentary is that Russia no longer figures at the center of American foreign policy because the United States is preoccupied with the chaotic Middle East and its shift of interest to the Asia-Pacific region. Russia, it is argued, does not play a major role in these regions. This is nonsense. It is difficult to find a single problem that America can solve without serious Russian participation. This includes Afghanistan, where Russia’s role is well known, and Iran. The role of Russia in the Iranian nuclear question is obvious, as is its necessary role in any solution to the Syrian crisis.
It is said that Russia plays a spoiler role in Syria, wants to preserve the Assad regime and thwart democratization of the country, and deplores Western efforts to ease the situation. But in fact Russia is not fixated on Assad. Rather it is fixated on principles—in this case the principle that you do not change a regime without having any idea what you are changing it for. We must not swap out a regime for one that could be even more disastrous; or, worse yet, get chaos and anarchy, with huge negative consequences for Syria, the region and even for the entire international system. The dismal ramifications of changing regimes for the worse are right before our eyes in Iraq and Libya, where the change begot the most ruinous results for both the countries themselves and the surrounding region. One needs merely to look at current events in Algeria and Mali—or in Egypt, where two years after the fall of the Mubarak regime no one knows what to expect.
These realities were explained very well last December by Dimitri Simes and Paul Saunders of the Center for the National Interest in The New York Times. Their article  argued that a Syrian peace process and a change of the Assad regime with the participation of all interested parties, plus an understanding of who would take over afterwards, is in the interest of the United States, Europe and the Arab world. True, and Russian officials don’t disagree. But there is an opinion in both Russia and the United States that Russia employs its UN veto power merely to hamstring American foreign policy and protect a dictatorship because it feels some kind of pathological love for authoritarianism. This is an absurd allegation.
A third illusion, seen among highly qualified American experts in international relations, is that Russian-U.S. conflicts arise because there are no solid economic ties between the two countries. There is some truth to this. Of course, it would be good for Russia to have more expansive trade and economic, as well as scientific and technical, relations with the United States. But it is clear that even strong economic ties do not prevent geopolitical conflicts from arising among large, sovereign, independent countries. Consider the deep economic ties between Germany and Great Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century, which didn’t foreclose the First World War. Or consider a more recent example: the nearly $500 billion trade volume between China and the United States, which does not preclude the two countries from having even more conflict and tension than the United States has with Russia. On the issues of Libya, Syria and Iran, China sides with Russia. Other points of contention include Taiwan, the South China Sea problems with Vietnam and the Philippines, and separate disputes with Japan. In all of these frictions, the United States supports China’s adversaries. Thus, it is clear that good trade and economic relations do not prevent large geopolitical frictions among countries.
The fundamental reality is that both Russia and the United States have entered a new phase of international relations. Russia, having ensured its own sovereignty and policy independence, is seeking to build its relationships with all countries from the point of view of its own priorities. On this basis it tries to establish a balance of powers that effectively protects its interests in the Near Abroad and maintains its own economic and military-political security. It is naïve to believe that Russia is mentally separating itself from the culture of the West because it does not share the Western value system, as Dmitri Trenin wrote in December, or that it is becoming close to China almost to the point of being its junior partner. Such suggestions have little basis in reality. Russia is simply trying to work for its own interests, within accepted diplomatic rules, in order to gain advantageous bargaining positions.
The United States also has entered a new phase. It is going through a painful and complex transition from unilateral global domination to a policy of creating balance-of-power arrangements in various regions of the world so as to preserve American presence and influence. Thus, there will be inevitable ups and downs in U.S.-Russian relations as the two countries partner on some issues on which it is beneficial for both of them to be allied, and compete and experience tensions on other issues, where their vital interests diverge. This means there isn’t much chance of consistently smooth relations between the two countries.
There is little doubt that the economic and military-political resources of the United States and Europe are continually shrinking in relation to other nations whose wealth and power are expanding. This poses greater opportunities for such countries to form alliances and coalitions in order to serve mutual interests and undermine the domineering behavior of a unipolar power center over these less-powerful nations.