Russia Reality Check

By Kjell Engelbrekt

US-Russia relations appear to be at an all-time low ever since the establishment of the Russian Federation in the fall of 1991. The new Chicago Council Survey figures clearly demonstrate this general trend, even without accounting for the presumable further damage done by the shooting down of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17th. That incident may very well have been a horrible mistake by pro-Kremlin separatists. Yet while consistent efforts by the Kremlin to conceal its role in supporting the separatists and furnishing them with heavy weapons, such as sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems, might succeed in keeping Russians misled, they will deepen distrust in the United States and the West at large.

There are various interpretations as to how US-Russia relations evolved from the initial attempt by the first Obama administration to improve ties through selective engagement on issues of common concern (the ‘reset’ approach) to the mutual frustration of the mid-2010s. In fact, the deterioration accelerated sharply over just 12 to 18 months. As long as Dmitry Medvedev occupied the presidential post (that is, until early 2012), some aspects of the bilateral relationship—such as cooperation on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—were actually moving in the right direction.

But in 2013-2014 presidents Putin and Obama repeatedly misjudged each other at critical junctures. Putin appears to have believed he would have a free hand at bullying neighbors into accepting higher prices on Russian gas and coercing them to accept his own deeply asymmetric version of the European Union. Supposedly, he also thought his insistence on placing Ukraine at the center of his strategic vision would be tolerated by Western governments.

Few political leaders in the transatlantic community recognized the full potential for conflict inherent in Ukraine’s Maidan movement. Obama and his advisors were also slow to realize that Putin not only sought to rebuild Russia, but a Soviet Union–minus the ideology yet including its international political prominence. Putin’s diplomatic envoys have in fact been working overtime to create conditions that would blunt US influence not just in Russia’s ‘near abroad’ but in the Middle East, Europe, as well as in Latin America.

The realization that the Kremlin is not just ‘sticking it to the Americans’ (in extending asylum to Edward Snowden, for instance) but is actively trying to undermine US primacy in world affairs is gradually catching up with American public opinion. And Russia’s covert military operations in eastern Ukraine—after already having conquered Crimea through a well-executed stealth operation in mid-Spring—and the ongoing cover-up of the circumstances surrounding the downing of flight MH17 now provide a sobering reality check for many others in the international community, not least those preoccupied with international law and order. To the extent that leaders in Europe, Southeast Asia and elsewhere respond adequately to this situation, the US government will be in a better position to limit the Kremlin’s opportunities to further exploit Western and international benevolence and neglect.

Kjell E. Engelbrekt was a visiting fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the University of Illinois at Chicago this past spring. He is currently working on a manuscript that examines the impact of a changing distribution of power on the diplomatic practices of great powers in international institutions, especially the UN Security Council and the G8/G20. His recent writings have focused on NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya, the US-Russia ‘reset’ policy, and evolving relations between Asia’s great powers and the United States and Europe. Engelbrekt holds a PhD in political science from Stockholm University. He is associate professor at the Swedish National Defense College and member of the Swedish Royal Academy of War Sciences. He has served as a research fellow at Columbia University (New York), Humboldt-Universität (Berlin), and the European University Institute (Florence). In addition to his academic record, Engelbrekt has served as secretary-general of the Swedish North Atlantic Treaty Association, research analyst at the RFE/RL Research Institute, and consulted for the UN Development Program and the Economist Intelligence Unit.

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