Russia and the West

Note:  Students in Dr. Hannah Chapman’s Spring 2020 Havighurst Colloquium, “Russia and the World,” completed final projects where they assessed Russian relations with the West, East, North, and South.  This is the first project from students responsible for studying Russia and the West.

By Megan Burtis, Matt Klingbergs, Ailin Luo, Jonny Maxwell, and Brandon Sigars

History of Tension

Russia wants to reclaim the geographic and political power that it lost after the breakup of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, many officials believed in the opportunity for a new age in Russian relations with the West. This hope was short-lived. Russian President Vladimir Putin eventually called the breakup of the USSR the “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.”

Much of Russia’s clashes with the West have centered on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and their involvement in Syria. Russian leaders believe they are supporting ethnic-Russians, combatting terrorism, and ensuring stability. West officials tend to believe Russia that is supporting autocrats, engaging in election interference or cyber hacking, and sowing the seeds of division in Western democracies.

Russia sees the West and specifically the United States as hypocrites. For example, the United States advocates for nuclear treaties, punishes Russia when they do not follow them, but then leaves these treaties when they no longer desire to be a part of them.

There are still many ways that Russia can work with the West. This approach was exemplified when former US President Barack Obama and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared a “reset” in relations. Despite mutual recognition of the importance of cooperation, the West and Russia have sometimes continued to antagonize each other. Even with their differences, these countries know that they have to work together. It is in the interest of both Russia and the United States.

Challenges to Cooperation

After the annexation of Crimea, the U.S. and the EU began imposing sanctions against Russia targeting Russia’s state finances, energy, and arms sectors. This response has become an obstacle in repairing the Russia-U.S relationship and as a result, both countries regard each other as untrustworthy. On February 1st, 2019, the United States announced its withdrawal from the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty (INF). The withdrawal of the U.S. from the INF has limited the possibility of repairing the US-Russia bilateral relationship.

Another challenge lies in the Syrian conflict as Russia has been the main external support for the Assad regime since the conflict began in 2011. In 2019, U.S. troops withdrew from Syria and abandoned their alignment with the Kurds and the Kurdish-Turkish conflict is still ongoing after the American forces left. Russia and Turkey agreed on a ceasefire deal in Syria’s Idlib region on March 5th, 2020, but a ceasefire deal didn’t resolve the conflict. It’s a challenge for Russia to resolve the Kurdish-Turkish conflict since former ISIS fighters are being guarded by the Kurds now and the U.S. is no longer present to assist.

In addition to the U.S., the West also poses a challenge in the form of NATO. In 2014, NATO suspended cooperation with the Russian Federation. The Republic of North Macedonia became the latest country to join NATO, which had been encouraged by the situation in Georgia and NATO’s support. The West and Russia don’t have the same view of NATO, as Russia sees the organization as a threat to their influence while the U.S. sees it as a vehicle for guaranteeing security.

Future Opportunities

Despite the past history between the West and Russia, there are many opportunities for future cooperation. A great and crucial field for cooperation among the two is nuclear nonproliferation: stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and materials to states not recognized as nuclear powers. The U.S. retreated from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 2018 and the New START nuclear deal is set to expire in 2021. Although both countries are equally prepared to begin rebuilding their nuclear arsenals, the leaders of both countries, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, have expressed interest in ensuring that current security measures continue, as well as possibly expanding to include other countries, especially China.

          Russia and the U.S. also have a shared interest in combating terrorism, both foreign and domestic. As foreign terrorism has grown throughout Europe and Asia, Russia has been working, along with other organizations and countries, to increase security and thwart these attacks. The U.S. also helped Russia stop such an attack in St. Petersburg on New Year’s 2020. The U.S. and Russia have also been working to stop violent white supremacist groups and domestic terrorists that have been active in both countries.

          Finally, the West and Russia are both interested in bringing stability to the Middle East, an important area of resources to both. Their tactics and policies have differed as, for example, Russia supports Syria’s government to bring stability while the U.S. has supported regime change. A common interest of ensuring stability and security, as well as putting an end to human rights abuses, in the Middle East could one day lead to further cooperation.

The Way Forward

Through renewed cooperation with the United States with global terrorism, Russia would be able to show itself as a country built on values of global security and safety. Coupled with this, Russia and the United States should work together towards a new policy regarding nuclear weapons. Due to the sheer force of destruction that nuclear weapons possess, Russia would benefit by working with the U.S. to limit the use of such weapons, especially in regards to nuclear terrorism.

          Now the question arises, where does this approach benefit? The answer is the Middle East, where combined forces between the U.S. and Russia would help stabilize the region. Both countries have shown that they would prefer stability in the region, as evidenced by efforts in the Syrian conflict. An advantage that Russia has over that of the United States is their interconnected relationships with that of the Middle Eastern countries; while the U.S. has alienated most of the countries that reside in the region.

          Both the United States and Russia have had (to put it lightly) contentious relations since the end of the Cold War. However, in an effort for global peace and cooperation, Russia would not only be seen as the amicable partner, but a country dedicated to peace and stability if they extended a hand to the West in these conflicts.

Megan Burtis is a senior completing a combined BA/MA in Political Science with a co-major in Global & Intercultural Studies. She was responsible for researching a proposed policy approach for cooperation between Russia and the West.

Matt Klingbergs is a senior majoring in Diplomacy & Global Politics. He was responsible for researching the potential opportunities for the West and Russia to cooperate.

Ailin Luo is a senior majoring in Diplomacy & Global Politics. She was responsible for researching the challenges that may create obstacles to future policies aimed at cooperation between Russia and the West.

Jonny Maxwell is a senior majoring in Diplomacy & Global Politics and History. He was responsible for researching the history of Russia’s relationship with the West and providing context for future efforts at cooperation.

Brandon Sigars is a senior majoring in Political Science and History. He was responsible for researching a proposed policy approach for cooperation between Russia and the West.

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