Until recently, most of the world gave little thought to either the US or Russia; they had their own lives and countries to concern themselves with. A look at US media tells of a different perspective. In the US, Russia and China are perennial bogeymen; threats to the very fabric of American life. Pundits never permit their American viewing audience to forget that Russia is a nuclear power or that China is (allegedly) communist. Indeed, many of their news reports refer to that country as Communist China, even though China has long ago abandoned communism and, in fact, describes itself as socialist with Chinese characteristics. UK news media also bandies the 'communist China' line about, at times. But this is about Russia and the US; China features in a different article altogether. US-Russia relations today are defined by three near-history events.
The Medvedev-Obama Reset
The US and Russia did not enjoy particularly warm relations after the Iron Curtain fell. Indeed, they were aggravated during the Bush administration (2001-2009). particularly because of the military build-up along the eastern edge of NATO boundaries and then-president Bush's chiding over the Russia-Georgia war (August 2008). He took a stance that Leader Putin saw as the epitome of hypocrisy. The air had to be cleared; the only other option would be escalation. Fearing the outcome of two nuclear powers facing off, newly elected President Obama made the Russian reset a priority. Barely into office, he and Russian President Medvedev examined their diplomatic relations and military opposition. They agreed to scale back their respective nuclear arsenals. The reset seemed to be going well. Except that, the day after President Obama delivered a stirring speech about mutual peace and prosperity at Moscow's New Economic School, his vice-president, Mr Biden averred that Russia, with its shrinking population and withering economy, would soon have no choice but to comply with the west's national security demands. You can imagine how well that went over with the Russian leadership and people. That wasn't the only barb Mr Biden, now the US president launched. Ahead of Russia's 2012 elections, he opined it would be best for Russia if Mr Putin did not run for re-election. These two men now face each other across the geopolitical divide.
Asylum for Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden was a contractor hired to monitor computer systems at the ultra-secretive National Security Agency (NSA), the cryptology section of the US federal defence institution. In the course of his duties, he discovered several violations of US laws. When he brought them up to his superiors, they told him to not concern himself with them. Ethically and morally disturbed at what he saw were grievous civil and human rights violations, he captured enough documentation to prove his claims and fled. First to Hong Kong, with an ultimate destination of Ecuador. He never got that far. As he was changing flights in Russia, his US passport was revoked, effectively trapping him there. Mr Snowden was granted political asylum in Russia, where he resides still today. The US interpreted Russia's protection of Mr Snowden as a willful disregard for diplomatic norms and personal pleas for diplomatic cooperation. The two countries' relationship cooled by several degrees. The public is fairly evenly split on whether Mr Snowden is a hero or traitor but one question remains unanswered: did Russia shelter Mr Snowden to spite the US or do they genuinely believe he risked his freedom and possibly his life by performing a public service?
The Crimean Peninsula
Russian involvement in Ukraine is not happenstance; their efforts to claim that country go back a dozen years. That's when Russian-backed Ukrainian president Yanukovych 'won' the election. Soon, he was legislating to their eastern neighbour's advantage. The Ukrainian people were not happy with this arrangement. They protested until Mr Yanukovych's government collapsed. In response to that, Russia annexed Crimea, to much international condemnation. The US pressed the point through a UN Council resolution that the Russian government promptly vetoed. From there, sanctions on Russia started piling up. The US gave what could best be described as mixed messages. First, US leaders stated the annexation was an egregious affront was by a global superpower but then, President Obama dismissed Russia as a mere regional power that posed no security threat to the US. By contrast, European Commission President Juncker opposed Mr Obama's dismissive statement. In the end, other than sanctions, nothing happened that would deter Russia from its current course of action and, now, with Mr Biden in the US's top leadership position, Mr Putin appears ready to pay back all of those slights and insults. It's rather dismaying that UK-Russian relations seem to follow that same course.
US-Soviet Relations During the Cold War
It took a long time for the US to recognise the Soviet Union as legitimate. It took around 11 years, until 1933, for the two governments to finally establish diplomatic relations. They started off frosty, to say the least, and didn't warm up much from there. The formation of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, two years after the end of the Second World War overshadowed every US-Soviet interaction. The Soviets, knowing they had little chance at military domination against NATO, focused their efforts on superiority in other arenas - sports (the Olympics), chess and space. The Space Race came to define the perception of US-Soviet relations. To many, this seemed a rather odd competition in the wake of the Helsinki Accords, and especially after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. That brief but terrifying time in US history led Soviet and American leaders to agree to a series of arms treaties:
- The Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty (1972)
- two Strategic Arms Limitations Talks, SALT I (1969) and SALT II (1979)
- the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Treaty (1987)
- the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START I (1991)
It seems like the focus of US-Soviet relations is all on weaponry and competition. If you get that impression too, you're not too far off the mark. Unlike the relationship between Turkey and Russia, those two factors underpin virtually every US-Russian interaction.
Post-Cold War Relations
The Soviet Union dissolved on Christmas Day, 1991. Boris Yeltsin became the first Russian Federation president. He was seen as a leader who viewed governing as a wide-ranging proposition; whose agenda meant to advance social-democratic initiatives. He was well-received in the US but the US-Russia relationship began to creak under the Bush Sr administration (1989-93). When the Clinton administration took over, there was a resurgence of hope in Russia for better terms because Mr Clinton had established common ground with the Russian president. Things finally went completely sour in 1997. President Yeltsin wanted equal footing for Russia on the world stage. They wanted a full partnership with the US and membership in NATO. They were rebuffed. NATO became the main - but by far not the only sticking point in US-Russia relations. Not only did the US not support Russian entry into NATO but they rapidly built up military defences ever closer to Russian territory. Economic support was another major hurdle. Russia, aware of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild European countries after the Second World War, counted on generous outlays of cash to rebuild post-communist Russia. The US government allocated $3 billion to that effort but most of it was paid to US contractors working in Russia. While Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin personally remained on friendly terms, Russia's positive attitude towards the US irrevocably dimmed.
US-Russia: Under Trump and Beyond
Among all of the perceived slights and insults the US delivered, none incensed (and maybe frightened) Russian leadership more than the NATO buildup on its borders. As there was no way for Russia to join NATO - and, by now, they didn't want to, and no way to make them stop planting missiles nearby, their only alternative was to destabilise that organisation. We'll not give in to speculation on whether Mr Trump had always disdained NATO or if he found the incentive to take a public stance against it only after he gained political power. Whenever he developed this motivation to denounce his country's prime military alliance and whatever reasons he found for doing so, it served Mr Putin's aims to a tee. Mr Putin was apparently also quite happy that Mr Trump meant to pull American troops out of Europe. Would then-president Trump's threats to defund NATO - presumably to disband it, have any teeth? There are, after all, 29 other member nations and nearly that many in the process of joining. In the political upset heard 'round the world and roiling American politics still today, Mr Trump lost his bid for a second White House term. Mr Biden took the helm in January 2021. Mr Biden who, years ago, opined that Russia would soon have to capitulate to Western demands. Who averred that the man who is his Russian counterpart should never hold power in Russia again. Mr Biden now presides over the West's response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Will this US president look at the painful history between NATO and Russia, and use it to inform his wartime strategies?
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