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Friday, August 20, 2021, 14:51 (GMT+7)
Trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations and implications for regional security

Recently, U.S.-Russian relations have been at the lowest point and frozen in a series of retaliatory moves, including sanctions, expulsion of diplomats, and recall of ambassadors. Both countries, however, have sent signals that they are willing to ease tensions and improve their relationships, most notably U.S. President Joe Biden’s invitation for the summit in Geneva to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Positive factors promoting bilateral relations

Generations of U.S. presidents have wished to change the downward trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War. President Bill Clinton (1993-2000) was committed to supporting Russia and Europe to integrate into global institutions and promoting bilateral cooperation in every aspect. President Barack Obama (2009-2016) reset U.S.-Russian relations and speeded up the signing of the New START Treaty. President Donald Trump (2017-2020) used to put effort into improving U.S.-Russian relations while fostering close personal relationship with President Vladimir Putin. As for President Vladimir Putin, he also expressed his goodwill towards President George Walker Bush when the U.S. suffered the worst terrorist attacks on its soil in 2001 and pledged to join the fight against terrorism.

Nevertheless, there remain many obstacles because U.S. presidents have been constantly under pressure to take tough measures on Russia in matters of “democracy,” “human rights,” interference in the elections, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russia’s military operations in Eastern Ukraine, and so on. Meanwhile, Russia affirmed that those were its domestic affairs and strongly opposed allegations that Russia had meddled in American presidential elections. NATO allies usually exert pressure for strengthening European security and urge the U.S. to increase its presence in the region. Russia is still identified as the biggest threat to the security of the allies. While the U.S. and the West have a deep distrust of President Vladimir Putin’s statecraft, Russia is always suspicious of NATO expansion into the former Soviet space, directly threatening its security.

At the onset of his presidency, Joe Biden did not move to reverse policies of his predecessors, which was demonstrated by his agreement to extend the New START Treaty, conduct of two telephone conversations, and suggestion for face-to-face meeting with President Vladimir Putin. However, instead of resetting relations with Russia or promoting their close personal relationship, Biden pursued a more modest and practical goal, i.e., establishment of “more stable and predictable relations” with Russia. This objective was expressed at the U.S-Russia summit in Geneva on 16 June 2021, when the two sides focused on clarifying their standpoints, setting out “red lines,” agreeing on measures to resume dialogue and consultation aimed at preventing miscalculations and seeking possibilities of cooperation in some fields. Despite existing obstacles to U.S.-Russian relations such as “democracy,” “human rights,” cyber security, etc., there are a number of advantages to promoting their bilateral relations.

First, given rising tensions of U.S.-China competition and to have more room for confronting China requires U.S. to establish and preserve more stable relations with Russia. Besides, the Biden administration can sow division between Russia and China through exploiting differences between these two countries in issues pertaining to post-Soviet space, military balance between Russia and China, etc., with a view to reducing potential problems caused by Russia-China “alliance.” As for Russia, it also wishes to improve relations with the U.S. to preserve strategic stability, collaborate in addressing international challenges, and create favourable conditions for economic development and increasing people’s standard of living.

Second, Joe Biden encounters less internal criticism about promoting bilateral relations with Russia and meeting with Vladimir Putin than Donald Trump. As an experienced politician with over 40 years serving as a senator, Joe Biden has had many subtle ways to make peace at home and rally European allies such as increased consultation in external relations, continued sanctions on Russia, commitment to providing financial and military assistance to Ukraine, and so forth.

Third, tensions over the Russia-back Nord Stream 2 pipeline have been defused because the project is almost finished. Joe Biden also has no need of straining U.S.-German relations. He is a strong advocate of developing clean energy and reducing reliance on fossil energy. Moreover, nontraditional security issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, health security, climate change, etc., which are attracting attention of President Joe Biden administration, also bring about new room for U.S.-Russian cooperation.

Prospects for U.S.-Russian relations

Although there are some advantages for U.S.-Russian ties, no rapid breakthrough or improvement is expected in the time to come. The relations are most likely to be characterised by a mix of competition and partial cooperation. The two countries will maintain channels of dialogue to minimise divergences and strengthen cooperation in some fields, most notably nonproliferation cooperation. According to international analysts, it is very likely that President Joe Biden administration will promote negotiation about a new nuclear deal with both Russia and China.

The U.S. is in a very good position to do so when some NATO allies, especially France and Germany, also wish to improve relations with Russia to reduce tensions in the region and promote cooperation in specific areas such as oil, natural gas, and strategic stability for mutual benefits. It also assures allies of readiness to deter Russia militarily if this country impairs NATO or does damage to Western democracy. Alternatively, the two sides continue to clash with each other on specific issues such as “democracy,” “human rights,” cyber security, European security, and situations in Ukraine and Belarus. International analysts believe that if Russia continues to commit violations of “democracy,” “human rights,” and cyber security as defined by Western standards, or escalates military operations in Ukraine, the U.S. will seek to impose mounting pressure on Russia, including possible deployment of additional troops to Europe. Furthermore, the U.S. may work with Russia to deal with burning international issues such as Iran nuclear crisis, the wars in Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan, or nontraditional security challenges (climate change, response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and so on).

Implications for regional security

A more stable relationship between U.S. and Russia will enable U.S. and its NATO allies to be partly in control of security challenges in Europe while helping U.S. to avoid confronting both China and Russia at the same time – an unexpected scenario in the Indo-Pacific region for U.S. when it is devoting every effort to cope with threats from China. When U.S. and the West have reached a consensus of China, designating this country instead of Russia as presenting “systemic challenges,” U.S.-China strategic rivalry in Asia-Pacific region will be hard to foresee and have considerable influence on strategies of countries in the region. It is worth saying that Russia remains a critical player in Indo-Pacific security, especially in the Indian Ocean region. The ambition of “making America great again” in the past few years has accidentally pushed Russia and China closer together. Consequently, the two countries have strengthened cooperation in many areas, especially in security and military, posing enormous challenges to U.S.’s military dominance in the Pacific Ocean. Signs of potential improvement in U.S.-Russian relations and Russia-China rift in the long term may give U.S. a free hand in containing China’s ambitions in this region.

In the context of rising U.S.-China competition, Russia’s partners are delighted to welcome improvement in U.S.-Russian relations, especially Japan and India, which are engaging in territorial disputes with China and Quad members. Accordingly, these countries believe that Russia will play an independent role and create a level playing field for all nations in Asia-Pacific region. These two major powers’ support of improving U.S.-Russian relations and promoting their relationships with Russia also enables Russia to send a message to China that it can find strategic partners in the region. In addition, a more stable U.S.-Russian relationship will provide countries such as India or Indonesia with an alternative to diversify their military arsenals. Recently, India has successfully got a U.S. waiver from the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) as it seeks arms from both U.S. and Russia. Truly stable U.S.-Russian relations will drive the triangular relationship between U.S., China, and Russia into a more complex trajectory. Accordingly, U.S. both competes with Russia and continues to sow division between Russia and China to concentrate on countering China, repeating exactly what U.S. had done to stand up to former Soviet Union. Russia also takes advantage of this situation to promote its position and role as balance of power between U.S. and China. China may opt to strengthen the Sino-Russian quasi-alliance in association with exploiting issues relating to “democracy” and “human rights,” the Russia-Ukraine crisis, and frictions between Belarus and the West to ruin U.S.-Russian relations.

Bright prospects of U.S.-Russian relations draw positive responses from allies both in Europe and Asia. Although the relations are mainly characterised by strategic competition, it is highly likely that the two countries will maintain dialogue aimed at effectively managing key differences in the coming time. More stable and predictable relations between U.S. and Russia will have positive influence on relations and strategies of countries in Asia-Pacific region as well as international relations.


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