Report

How the U.S.-Russia Relationship Got So Bad

And why its problems will outlast both presidents.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets Russian President Vladimir Putin.
U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet during the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16. Peter Klaunzer/Pool/Keystone via Getty Images

In 2014, when Russia illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula, the first major land grab in Europe since World War II, it pushed relations between Moscow and the United States to their lowest ebb since the Cold War. Somehow, with every passing year, further ruptures—including election interference, cyberattacks, and the U.S. withdrawal from a Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty—have caused the relationship to nose-dive further.

Wednesday’s summit in Geneva, Switzerland, between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin was seen as an important effort to place some guardrails on the relationship to prevent the world from seeing what rock bottom would look like. But beyond a joint statement agreeing nuclear armageddon is in neither country’s interest, little substance emerged from the summit. Now, both countries will try to lay the groundwork for future arms control talks, with a glimmer of hope for further talks on other contentious issues like cyberattacks and prisoner exchanges.

In 2014, when Russia illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula, the first major land grab in Europe since World War II, it pushed relations between Moscow and the United States to their lowest ebb since the Cold War. Somehow, with every passing year, further ruptures—including election interference, cyberattacks, and the U.S. withdrawal from a Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty—have caused the relationship to nose-dive further.

Wednesday’s summit in Geneva, Switzerland, between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin was seen as an important effort to place some guardrails on the relationship to prevent the world from seeing what rock bottom would look like. But beyond a joint statement agreeing nuclear armageddon is in neither country’s interest, little substance emerged from the summit. Now, both countries will try to lay the groundwork for future arms control talks, with a glimmer of hope for further talks on other contentious issues like cyberattacks and prisoner exchanges.

But realizing a breakthrough in relations is unlikely, the Biden administration has made stability and predictability the watchwords in its dealings with Moscow. Even that may prove a stretch in dealing with Putin, whose signature move is unpredictability. 

“Now we’re in a situation where Joe Biden … has got to clean up this huge mess, which has been building not just for the past four years but the past 30 years,” said James Schumaker, a retired foreign service officer who served as U.S. consul general in Vladivostok, Russia.

Much of the Western discourse about Russia zeroes in on the proclivities of Putin, who has sat at the helm of the country for 21 years, and recent amendments to the constitution give him the option of remaining in power until 2036. The increasingly disruptive foreign policy Russia has pursued, especially after Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 after a four-year hiatus, bears all the hallmarks of the former KGB officer: a reliance on aggressive intelligence operations, disinformation, and little green men. 

“Russia’s foreign policy is Putin’s foreign policy; there is only one national security decision-maker who has the privilege to define Russia’s national interests,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former diplomat who served at Russia’s embassy in Washington. “It has been heavily leveraged toward personal idiosyncrasies over the last 20 years of one man’s rule,” he said.

But U.S. problems with Russia are about more than just Putin. A one-time superpower, Russia has spent the last three decades trying to restore the power and prestige many felt were lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. 

“We need to take Russia seriously as a power, and that many of our interests that have been a conflict reflect enduring disagreements, and these disagreements will not end if Vladimir Putin ever exits the stage,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with the CNA, a think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.

The original sin in the relationship, as far as Moscow is concerned, is the expansion of NATO to include former members of the Warsaw Pact as well as Ukraine and Georgia’s ambitions to join the alliance. This would have caused tensions with the West regardless of who was in power in Russia. 

“The desire to have the West recognize that the post-Soviet space is a Russian sphere of influence, I think any Russian leader would probably have agreed with that,” said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University. “What you see in Putin is a restoration of a much more traditional Russian approach toward the United States.”

But it wasn’t always like this. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his U.S. counterpart, Bill Clinton, forged a close relationship, with each seeing the other as key to advancing their interests. Yeltsin was dependent on the United States’ backing to fend off political challenges at home. Clinton, eager to open up Russia’s economy to Western investment and to prevent stray Soviet nuclear weapons from ending up in the wrong hands, ignored electoral irregularities and rampant corruption, which would later pave the way for Putin’s rise. 

But as early as 1992, the contour of the Gordian knot that would come to plague U.S.-Russia relations was already apparent. In a dark speech to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia’s youthful reformist foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, warned the country would defend its interests in its former republics “using all available means” and accused NATO of meddling in Russia’s backyard.

The return to Cold War saber-rattling stunned diplomats; former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger would later say it gave him heart palpitations. Kozyrev quickly returned to the stage to underscore that the speech had been a hoax, an effort at shock diplomacy to warn Western leaders of what a Russian foreign minister would sound like if nationalist forces took hold in Moscow.

Kozyrev’s wake-up call was a prophecy eventually fulfilled by Putin after he became president in 2000. But it didn’t start out that way. Initially, Putin strove to find common cause with then-U.S. President George W. Bush in the early days of the war on terror as he waged his own brutal war against extremists in the restive North Caucasus. Russia shared intelligence to support U.S. operations in the early days of the U.S. War in Afghanistan and did not object to the establishment of a U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan, which Moscow considered to be within its sphere of influence.

“Putin really thought that now there’s really a moment when we can be allies and work together,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. 

It was to be short lived, however, as a variety of factors converged in the early 2000s to considerably darken Putin’s view of the West and stoke feelings of paranoia, starting with the George W. Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the anti-ballistic missile treaty in 2002. 

“That was a knife in the back for Putin, when he felt that all this fundamental basis of relations started to fall apart,” said Stanovaya. The matter is still raw: It was the first thing Putin raised during his press conference in Geneva on Wednesday in response to a question about his own unpredictable style of foreign policy. 

Next came the so-called “color revolutions” in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine a year later. Both were peaceful mass uprisings in response to rigged elections, but Putin thought he saw a Western hand at work. It instilled a lasting paranoia about popular protests and the West’s ability to tilt countries Moscow felt should be in its camp closer to the West. Putin’s fears of regime change were only compounded by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which he opposed.

“I think that did color his view of American power and what it could accomplish,” said Timothy Frye, professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University. 

Putin’s growing unease with what he saw as the United States’ dominant—and malignant—role was crystalized in a bellicose speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, where he excoriated U.S. foreign policy and warned that “almost uncontained hyper use of force—military force—in international relations” would plunge the world into an “abyss of permanent conflicts.” Just over a year later, Russia went to war with neighboring Georgia as it tried to reestablish control over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, further souring ties with Europe and the United States. Russia has poured money and troops into Georgia’s two breakaway regions, giving them de facto control over a quarter of the country’s territory and crippling Tbilisi’s NATO ambitions.

Even during Putin’s time as prime minister, those same fault lines continued to increase tension with the West. The United States and NATO, over furious Russian objections, intervened in Libya in 2011 and ultimately toppled Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi—another frightening portent, in Putin’s eyes, of Western proclivity for violent regime change. Putin is reported to have obsessively watched the gruesome video of Qaddafi’s murder. Those fears were hardly assuaged when he returned to the presidency in 2012 amid mass street protests in Moscow against election rigging. Putin accused then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for fomenting the unrest and would exact his revenge on her presidential campaign years later. 

Despite the Obama administration’s early efforts to pursue a reset with Russia during the interregnum presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s foreign policy took an aggressive and more confrontational turn when Putin returned to the Kremlin. In early 2014, Putin saw the specter of further Western encroachment in Russia’s near-abroad as Ukrainians toppled their Moscow-friendly government in favor of closer ties with Europe. Expanding on the playbook established in Georgia years earlier, Russia backed separatists in eastern Ukraine with its own military might and annexed the Crimean peninsula, sparking an avalanche of U.S. and European Union sanctions that further poisoned relations and hammered the Russian economy. Then, Putin intervened in the Syrian civil war to prop up embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, preventing a replay of what he felt was Libya’s disastrous endgame. Next came Russia’s attempts to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which led to further U.S. sanctions and an increasingly antagonistic relationship with most of Washington, if not with former U.S. President Donald Trump.

One of the enduring ironies of the Trump years is that for all of Trump’s puzzling affinities for his Russian counterpart, his administration toed a tough line on Moscow and levied further rounds of sanctions and diplomatic expulsions over Russia’s nefarious activity. Moscow’s meddling also hardened U.S. political and public opinion toward Russia, particularly among Democrats. 

With that backdrop, few believe Wednesday’s summit can do anything more than make modest improvements to Washington’s fraught relationship with Moscow. “Under the current regime, and I won’t personalize and just say it’s just Putin, … it’s hard to see any significant improvement,” said Stent, who was among a group of experts who met with Biden ahead of the summit. 

Some have accused the Biden administration of naiveté in its apparent hopes of patching up relations with Russia just enough to focus on what it sees as the principle strategic threat in China. But whether measured in nuclear weapons, conventional arms, or a capacity for cyber mayhem, there is little evidence Russia’s clout on the world stage is waning, Kofman said.

“The establishment has, to some extent, been telling itself the fairytale that Russia is on its way out as a power,” he said. “That’s simply an intellectual alibi in order to focus on China.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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