In October of 2014, the Carnegie Council put out an article titled Needs Work: A Troubled US-Russian Relationship in which they stated that “if there is one point of agreement between pundits in Moscow and Washington these days, it is that U.S.-Russia relations are at a post-Cold War nadir.” Fast forward nine months and that nadir looks to have been lowered even more by unproductive discussions on Moscow’s continuing attempts to stockpile missiles near Eastern Europe, continuing Russian involvement in Syria and Ukraine, and U.S. sanctions on Russian energy and tech firms.
When I lived abroad in Russia during the summer of 2011, U.S.-Russian relations were at a different, almost anticipatory interlude to the current breakdown in diplomacy and strategy between our two countries. President Dmitry Medvedev had one year left before the end of his first term, which was seen both inside and outside of Russia as a place-holder term for Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister of Russia at the time. I was curious and asked some of the Muscovites I met what their opinion of their current political situation was. The unanimous answer from several Russians was, as one person described it, “Putin’s Batman to Medvedev’s Robin.” The citizens of Russia, accustomed to their history of long-standing czars, prime ministers, and now presidents, already accepted the 2012 power swap for Putin and Medvedev.
Now, in the past four years since I studied abroad, there has been a stronger push in Russia’s main cities against the political killings, lack of fair political representation, and even the anti-gay laws that have defined Putin’s presidencies since 1999. With social media playing a key role in exposing other cultural movements going on across the world, it seems that Russia and her citizens are becoming more open to change than the modified one they accepted with their leadership in 2012. Whether this will encourage more aggressive government regulations on individual Russian liberties is yet to be seen, but it is my expectation that we will see more forceful social actions take place within the next three years against increasingly archaic governmental control internally.
With respect to the U.S.-Russian “Reset” button back in 2009, it is my opinion that relations between the two countries have hit the nadir mentioned by the Carnegie Council due to an inability within the U.S. government to firmly understand and appeal to a Russian superpower. Putin knows this and has adeptly managed Russian strategy in Syria, a central Russian ally in Mediterranean trade and military affairs, and the Ukraine, a former Soviet Union state, even with the inclusion of U.S. sanctions of which Putin described as leading the two countries into a “dead-end.” Obviously, it is not expected that concessions will be made on the behalf of either country, but the lack of understanding between these major powers is costing the world a lot of money and human life at this point in time.
Having lived in Russia as a student for a relatively small period of time, the only major recommendation for U.S.-Russian policy I could offer would be for both countries to promote more education and similarly related exchange programs between its citizens. We may not see a peaceful zenith between our countries for decades, if not centuries, to come but cultural understanding can only grow from actual experience between citizens of different cultures, which can certainly be fostered between our governments right now. However, if nothing changes and we continue to see an escalation between both sides with sanctions, troop movements, and diplomatic breakdowns abound, then we may one day look back on this Obama-Putin nadir as the ‘Golden Days.’
Alex Polivka is a graduate of the Ohio State University with studies in Security & Intelligence, Russian, and Economics and previously wrote on Russian/North Caucasus affairs with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington DC. He currently works within the financial industry as an Operations Account Principal in Columbus, Ohio.
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