The Year of the Snake: are US-Russia relations entering a new Ice Age?

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

In December 2012, Kommersant daily reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin was presented with a new concept of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation, which had been prepared at his request by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The document, which is yet to be made public, is expected to lay out Russia’s international agenda for Putin’s third presidential term. According to Kommersant, Russia’s major foreign policy objective will be economic and political integration in the post-Soviet space, with the Eurasian Union proposed by Putin a few months ago serving as the principal “glue” for such integration. Second on the list of priorities was Russia’s relations with the European Union. Russia’s relations with the United States came third. As reportedly stated in the concept, Russia will be insisting that the U.S. provided “formal legal guarantees that the planned missile defense system will not be targeted against Russian nuclear defenses” and that the U.S. “not meddle into domestic affairs of other countries.”

It is fair to say that U.S.-Russia relations enter 2013, the Year of the Snake, in a state of deep uncertainty. On the one hand, the re-election of Barack Obama to the second term as U.S. president would seem to promise a healthy dose of predictability in the bilateral relationship. Russia too was visibly pleased with the news that the all-important position of U.S. Secretary of State has been offered to Sen. John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts), a seasoned foreign policy expert and someone Moscow thinks it can do business with. Although Kerry still faces Senate hearings, he is widely expected to be confirmed.

On the other hand, the end of 2012 was marred by U.S. Congress’ passing the Magnitsky Act, an amendment to a trade law that bans entry to the U.S. and freezes financial assets there of Russian officials suspected in human rights violations.

In response to the Magnitsky Act, which Moscow considers blatantly anti-Russian, Russia’s parliament promptly passed the Federal Law 272, named after a Russian toddler, Dima Yakovlev, who was adopted by American parents and later died in a tragic accident. At its core, the Dima Yakovlev law mirrors the Magnitsky Act by banning entry to Russia of Americans responsible for the violation of human rights of Russian citizens. Yet the Russian lawmakers added two provisions that made the law much more than a purely “symmetric” retaliation. First, they made illegal U.S. funding of Russian NGOs allegedly engaged in “political activities.” Second, in a highly controversial move, they put immediate stop to the adoption of Russian orphans by American families.

There is no doubt that both laws will have a chilling effect on U.S.-Russia relations in 2013 and beyond. Yet there is one significant difference between the two pieces of legislation. The adoption of the of the Magnitsky Act reflects the presence of a strong anti-Russian lobby in U.S. Congress eager to have some type of “leverage” against Russia now that the notorious Jackson-Vanik amendment has been finally repealed. At the same time, the White House opposes the Magnitsky Act and has enough tools at its disposal to mitigate its consequences. In contrast, the Dima Yakovlev law has full support at every level of Russian government: it was reportedly initiated in the presidential administration (deputy head of the administration Vyacheslav Volodin was named as the principal driving force behind the law) and it was backed by all political forces represented in the State Duma and Federation Council. Characteristically, Putin expressed his support for the bill well before he saw it.

The adoption of Federal Law 272 therefore serves as an unfortunate indication that the anti-American campaign initiated by Putin a year ago was not meant to be a short-term election tool. In fact, anti-Americanism is rapidly becoming the mainstream of Russia’s foreign policy discourse. Having finally recognized the amount of damage Putin’s return to the Kremlin has caused to Russia’s reputation in the world, Russian political elites have concluded that they had nothing to gain from improvement in U.S.-Russia relations. Rather, they seem to believe that the continued propagation of the “enemy at the gates” image will better serve their needs by slowing down the erosion of public support for the regime.

Nor could the Kremlin miss the fact that its domestic critics by and large supported the Magnitsky Act and opposed the Dima Yakovlev law. This gives the Kremlin an additional reason to toughen Russia’s stance vis-à-vis the United States: the worse Russia’s relations with the U.S., the easier it for the Kremlin to paint the opposition as “paid foreign agents.”

An Ice Age in U.S.-Russia relations might seem as a small price for the Kremlin to pay for maintaining the proverbial stability it is so keen about. There is, however, a profound danger in this approach. The “bunker mentality” characterizing Moscow’s current attitude toward Washington may rapidly spread, as a metastasis, to other aspects of Russia’s foreign policy. Should this happen, no single objective articulated in the new foreign policy concept will be achieved.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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22 Responses to The Year of the Snake: are US-Russia relations entering a new Ice Age?

  1. marknesop says:

    Hi, Eugene;

    I don’t know if I’d say “Putin’s return to the Kremlin has caused [damage] to Russia’s reputation in the world”. Certainly it was extremely unpopular in countries that wanted Russia to be weakened or even to collapse, and believed replacement of Putin was essential to that goal, by which I mean chiefly the United States and the UK. The reaction of the rest of the world was actually fairly pragmatic, because it is not in their interests for Russia to fail, for various reasons. Merkel of Germany – a strong trading partner of Russia – not only offered congratulations but a deepening of the “strategic partnership”, for example. The trouble is that people have become accustomed to receiving the opinions of the USA and UK as the voice of the world. And that’s probably not the wisest course, because comforting though that might be, both are in a serious and perhaps irreversible decline, economically and in terms of the influence they can exercise over the policies of other states. The rhetoric reflects no changes, but changes have indeed taken place.

    For example, The USA’s GDP dropped from 31.8% of global economic activity in 2001 to 21.6% in 2011. For the fourth year in a row, the USA dropped in the ranks of the Global Competitiveness Index in 2012 – which is not like the silly Corruption Perceptions Index in that it measures real indicators and is sponsored by the World Economic Forum, which has no agenda interest in unrealistically portraying American decline – and is now in 7th place. Switzerland took top honours, but the USA has fallen behind both the Netherlands and Germany.

    At a time when, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, corporate profits have not only recovered from the recession, but in the third quarter of 2011 reached a new record high of $1.97 Trillion…more than a quarter of American workers earn less than $10.00 an hour. Low-wage industries are growing faster than the rest of the economy.

    Median household income in America has fallen for four consecutive years, by a total of about $4000.00.

    It’s not my purpose to tear America down, but I think it’s only fair to point out that all or any of these indicators, if reported for Russia, would be used as substantiation for a conclusion that it was in decline, perhaps irreversibly.

    Therefore, a shift in Russia’s foreign policy toward anti-Americanism – which I also don’t see as much as I see rigidity and resolve in response to American meddling and social-engineering experiments; for example, American investment is not discouraged, nor is any other initiative which is not perceived as harmful for Russia – may owe as much to a perception that it is getting safer to ignore America than to any other factor.

    I would also point out that at least once in every presidential term, Putin spoke of wanting a “partnership” with America. I think it would be safe to say he never got it, on anything but the most cynical and counterproductive terms.

    Excellent and highly informative article. Best regards,


    • Eugene says:

      Hi Mark,

      A few things. First, I’m sure there are mad people both in the UK and US–and elsewhere– who want Russia to “collapse.” However, I’d venture to say that such people don’t occupy high government positions in either country, nor do they determine policies toward Russia. Unless and until you name at least one member of the Obama administration, for example, who wants Russia “collapse,” I’ll have this unpleasant felling that you’re fighting chimeras.

      Second, the more I read and think about recent Russian history, the more I doubt the Putin PR machine’s promoted story that back in 2000, Russia was on the brink of “collapse” and that Putin served as the Savior-of-the-Nation. Regardless, I see absolutely no signs that Russia was about to collapse in 2011 when Putin decided to come back to the Kremlin. Moreover, I strongly feel that with him him back in presidency, Russia is less stable–and also more poorly governed–than it was just a year ago.

      Third, Francois Jacob (?) once said (not a direct quote, of course): the fact that the genetic code is triplet doesn’t necessarily mean that a cat has to catch mice. In our case: the fact that the US has fallen behind other countries in some, however important, parameters doesn’t spare Russia from criticism. IMHO. By the way, Russia’s economic growth has recently slowed down too; it’s not Putin’s economic miracle anymore:

      Finally, I don’t find the “reset” being “cynical and counterproductive” offer that the US made to Russia. Characteristically, however, the “reset” was initiated by the US, and Russia only passively followed the American lead. And what do we see now? Obama is reportedly sending Tom Donilon to Moscow–apparently to make another “cynical and counterproductive” offer. And as always, Moscow is passively waiting what it will be offered. That’s the major problem with Russia’s foreign policy: it’s intrinsically reactive. I have my own explanations of why, but that’s a different subject.

      Best Regards,

  2. Dear Eugene,

    This is one of those occasions when I find myself in agreement with part of what you write but in (partial) disagreement with the other part.

    Firstly, my point of agreement: anyone in Moscow who believes that Russia can have good relations with the EU at the same time as its relations with the US deteriorate is being completely delusional. Anyone who knows anything at all about the structure of European politics knows that the dominant political constituencies within the EU are if anything even more passionately anti Russian than those in the US. This is especially so of the central European institutions: the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, all of which are bitterly hostile to Russia. Only a few weeks ago I received a report (I forget from where) that the European Commission together with the US embassy in Athens is actively lobbying the Greek government to prevent the sale of Greece’s public gas utility company to Gazprom or even to an alternative consortium set up by a Russian businessman even though these are apparently by far the best bids on the table. What makes the hostility to the second bid even more extraordinary is that the businessman in question is apparently a critic of Putin’s. However as was the case with the proposed Opel and Saab sales of 2009 the supposed importance of keeping European strategic indusrial assets out of Russian hands apparently trumps every other consideration. Any idea that Russia can therefore forge ahead with relations with the EU whilst being somehow in opposition to the US is a fantasy.

    Where however I take issue with your article is that it appears to put the blame for the deterioration in US Russian relations overwhelmingly on the Russian side. Here I have to say that I lean much more to Stephen Cohen’s view, that the fundamental obstacles to a long term improvement of relations between the US and Russia lie not in Russia but in the US.

    Was it really wise (let alone appropriate) for the Obama administration to try to play Medvedev off against Putin or (as I have heard) to send Biden to Moscow to warn Putin against standing again for the Presidency? Was it wise for the US to side so openly with the protest movement against Putin? Was it wise or even polite to delay for days before extending to Putin the routine courtesy of a message to congratulate him on his reelection? Is it wise to continue to demonise Putin to the extent that he is being demonised in the US by for example the likes of John McCain without this eliciting any form of put down from the US government? Why press on with the unbelievably provocative plan to install anti ballistic missiles interceptors in eastern Europe especially after Obama shortly after he became President gave the Russians a clear expectation that the plan at least in its more provocative form had been abandoned (and secured an arms reduction agreement in consequence) whilst refusing to give Russia even the most minimal legal guarantees that they won’t be used against Russia? Was the overthrow of Gaddafi so important that a Russian supported UN Security Council Resolution authorising only a no fly zone could be simply disregarded and Russian proposals for a negotiated settlement (that would surely in time have led to Gaddafi’s ouster) be ignored? Is overthowing Assad so important that similar Russian calls for negotiations between the parties can again be ignored? Was is it really necessary for Hillary Clinton to talk luridly of the Eurasian Union, in which Putin has personally and emotionally invested a great deal, as a sinister bid for “reSovietisation” and to say that the US would do its best to obstruct it?

    Not surprisingly all of this has led to a certain trend within Russia towards seeing the US as Russia’s adversary and this has in turn provoked an escalation in rhetoric and to certain counter moves. Most of the steps that have been taken in Russia that have been called anti American such as the NGO law, the closure of USAID and the adoption ban, all seem to me uncoordinated ad hoc responses to earlier American moves. The adoption ban (ill conceived as it was) and the wider Dima Yakovlev law were themselves responses to the unbelievably provocative Magnitsky law. It is important to say however that Russia has been careful to keep its response within definite limits and has shown far more restraint in what it has done than the US has ever shown. None of the actions Russia has taken seriously impinge on US interests or come close to matching the US actions that provoked them. At no point has Russia taken any truly dangerous or reckless actions such as for example responding to US anti ballistic missile plans by supplying sophisticated ballistic missiles and anti aircraft missile technology to Iran.

    At the end of the day the problem it seems to me is that the US always wants to deal with the Russia it wants to have rather than with the Russia it has got. It was not up to the US for example to decide whether Putin would or would not be the President of Russia. Making an issue of this was a huge mistake given that the US lacked the means (or the right) to prevent it and Putin’s political position in Russia was so strong that it was almost bound to happen if he willed it. If it has annoyed Putin and made him more hostile to the US then the US has no one to blame but itself.

  3. Eugene says:

    Dear Alexander,

    Thank you for your great comment. As a matter of fact, I agree with your long list of American “offenses” against Russia. I have absolutely no illusions that anti-Russian views in the US are strong, widespread and have deep roots. And, hopefully, I don’t have to tell you that I’m not a fan of the Magnitsky Act.

    My concern is different though. Showing to Putin Washington’s unhappiness with his return to the Kremlin was indeed very unwise. On the other hand, Obama made it very clear (“Tell Vladimir that I’ll have more flexibility after re-election”) that he was going to continue working with Russia. Besides, the Magnitsky Act wasn’t his brain child; he was forced to sign it. In contrast, the recent wave of anti-Americanism–including the anti-Magnitsky law–comes directly from the Putin’s office. Let me re-phrase it again: if the Magnitsky Act reflects the presence of anti-Russian forces in Congress, the Dima Yakovlev law reflects Putin’s personal position.

    And that’s fine: the proposed concept of Russia’s foreign policy places its relations with the US on the moderate third place. If Russia believes that it can live without good relations with the US, let it try. And if Russia believes that it can mitigate the threats posed by anti-missile defense by developing new weapon system, let it try too: hopefully, not all of the now plentiful defense money will be stolen.

    But let me ask you this: where do Russia’s foreign policy priorities lie? Not in the concept, but in reality. Can you name at least one Moscow’s relative foreign policy success over the last year? Relations with the US deteriorate; relations with Europe deteriorate (as the Merkel-Putin terse exchange in St. Petersburg clearly showed); Putin’s visit in India was a disaster; the much-talked-about Eurasian union is still but a talk (and recently Lavrov again failed to persuade Ukraine to join); and no matter what happens next, Russia will lose Syria as it lost Libya.

    And here is my major point: since Putin’s return, Russia has lost any focus in its relations with the rest of the world. Russia’s foreign policy stopped serving national interests; it now serves–in a completely vulgar way–short-term interests of the ruling elite. To me, this is a dangerous sign of power sclerosis. Given that I’m seeing the same signs of sclerosis in domestic governing–in chaotic lawmaking, among other things–I’m really worried about Russia’s future.


    • Dear Eugene,

      I said that I was in partial disagreement with you. I didn’t say I was in complete disagreement with you. I too am very critical of certain aspects of Russian foreign policy. In fact I would go further and say that except for odd moments for most of my lifetime (even before the Soviet collapse) I have not been able to discern much strategy behind Russian foreign policy at all. I sometimes wonder whether what Russia has can even be properly called a foreign policy, as opposed to an ad hoc reaction to outside events. Though I think the main initiative in disrupting US Russian relations came from the US as you know I absolutely do not think that the Russian side should not shoulder part (indeed a large part) of the blame. We have both discussed the shambolic response to the Magnitsky law. Going beyond that there was the failure to try to consolidate the reset by building bridges to power brokers within the US. We have discussed this at length and on this I think we both completely agree. All I would say is that it is particularly alarming that recognition of this failure inside Russia (or to be precise its elite) does not so far exist.

      Having said this, one should not I think underestimate the constraints under which Russia has to conduct its foreign policy. Russia is the weaker partner and the initiative is always and overwhelmingly with the US. If the US for whatever reason connected to its foreign or domestic politics decides that it is going to take a confrontational line with Russia then there is not very much Russia can realistically do other than wait for US foreign policy to change (as in the end it always does) and in the meantime do whatever it can to get the US to change its mind. In relation to the latter, given how difficult forging a stable relationship with the US has repeatedly turned out to be the one thing I think Russia should not do is take risks by compromising on its essential interests, for example by softening its opposition to Ukrainian membership of NATO. In the meantime it can do not more than forge such relations as it can. I do not see Russia’s position in quite the dismal terms you do. Russia did gain entry to the WTO. It has developed a close relationship (economic as well as diplomatic) with China, which is not to say that this relationship is without problems. For all the tensions that occasionally arise the economic and political relationship with Germany (as opposed to the EU as a whole) is stable. The Germans certainly do not want to put it at risk especially at a time when Germany’s own relations with the rest of Europe are so fraught. I think iyou go altogether too far to refer to Putin’s visit to India as a “disaster”. On the contrary it seems to me that relations seem to remain reasonably friendly. It’s just that the importance of each country to the other is much less than it was in the heyday of the Non Aligned Movement and the Cold War. I don’t think Syria like Libya was Russia’s to lose and I think the Russians in the meantime have clearly made their point and (judging from some articles in the Arab press I have read) have even earned in the process a certain grudging respect for their consistency in the Arab world. As for the Eurasian Union, obviously it is very much a work in progress which for all I know may never finish but I think it is unfair to say it is all just talk. The Customs Union at least seems to be successfully moving ahead. If it was simply a figment there would be no debate about the Ukraine joining it.

      Let me stress again, I am not giving Russian foreign policy a free pass or a good mark. When (as I firmly believe) the wheel in the US again turns towards a more conciliatory line towards Russia then it is vital that Russia does not again throw away whatever opportunity presents itself . That is where the work needs to be done so that the ground next time is properly prepared. One thing policy makers in Moscow also need to understand is that if they want good relations with the Europe then whilst the present balance of forces in the world remains as it is the road to this objective lies through Washington.

    • Fedia Kriukov says:

      I don’t really see why it matters who originated which anti-Russian policy. I think we can all agree that Russia’s relations with the US have been entirely reactive. I.e. the US does something meaningless and anti-Russian (and it doesn’t matter who is responsible for it, as far as Russia is concerned), and Russia either swallows it or does something anti-American in return. How is it the fault of Putin that relations are deteriorating? If Americans were interested in maintaining relations, would they engage in any of these anti-Russian provocations?

      You are right that currently Russia’s foreign policy lacks any discernible focus, but at the same time you have to admit that good relations with the US aren’t an option at this time, and the fault isn’t even mutual, it’s purely American.

      • Eugene says:

        I think one can be sophisticated enough to realize that there is no such a thing as “Americans.” There is Congress and there is the White House. And if Putin was responsible enough to put Russia’s national interest above his own emotions, he would have let the Duma to “symmetrically” respond to Congress’ Magnitsky Act–by refusing Russian visas to whoever deserves this. By there was no reason for him to openly support the adoption ban–a completely uncalled for “extra” to the Law 272–and complicate his relations with Obama who was against the Magnitsky Act in the first place and who wants to cooperate with Russia.

        Now, I fully understand why the concept of separation of power is so alien to the Kremlin–in Russia, you only have one Boss–but if they can’t get it by themselves, they should hire consultants.

        I’d be very reluctant to precisely spread the blame for worsening US-Russia relations–be it 50-50, 40-60, or 60-40–but I strongly disagree that the fault is “purely American.”

        • Fedia Kriukov says:

          I hope that you’re sophisticated enough to realize that the Russian gov’t (even the Kremlin itself) isn’t monolithic to avoid writing something that more properly belongs on the editorial pages of the Economist.

          Understanding or not understanding who pushes for worsening relations with Russia is besides the point. In the end, whatever Obama may want, the Magnitsky Act is passed and the relations are dealt another blow. I’m also very skeptical about your idea that Obama wants to “cooperate” with Russia. What specifically does that entail? What exactly is Obama willing to do for Russia? For that matter, has he done anything good for Russia… like ever?

          Now, if you agree that Russia should respond to the Magnitsky Act, why do you insist that the response be ineffective? The act itself is basically ineffectual, so its only purpose to convey a basic insult. You somehow think that only Putin takes it personally, but I imagine any patriotic Russian would take it just as personally. So a proper response should be an insult as well. A response symmetric in content was not found to be properly insulting, but the ban adoptions hit the mark, making the response truly symmetric (insult for insult without any real effect). That’s it, issue solved.

          In light of the above, Russia once again demonstrated a purely reactive policy. If Russia only reacts, how is the worsening of the relations the fault of Russia even by 1%? Sorry, I’m not an expert here by any means, I’m just trying to understand your logic. Do you not believe that Russia’s actions are purely reactive? Or do you believe that the side that is purely reactive can be at fault as well?

          • Eugene says:

            I am sophisticated and informed enough to know that the Russian government isn’t monolithic. There was a struggle between the “hawks” and the “doves” a few months ago, and the “hawks” have won. Putin sided with them, and now, many government decisions may be tracked to this decision.

            Obama isn’t a worldwide social worker who must do something FOR other countries, including Russia. In case you forgot, he’s president of the United States, and his responsibilities are to protect and advance US national interests. Obama has a pet idea: a world without nuclear weapons. One can be skeptical about the practicality of this idea, yet should Obama decide to make steps in this direction, he would need cooperation WITH Russia. By the way, Obama was initiator of the New START Agreement–which many, including myself, find beneficial for Russia–and he also helped pass the 123 Agreement, which IS beneficial for Russia. Now, what did Putin do good for the US?

            Coming back to the Magnitsky Act, it is a blow to Russia, yet its practical significance is nil. Russia did have to respond, and Articles 1 and 2 of the Law 272 (banning visas and property freeze) were quite appropriate and effective response to the Act. Yet adding the adoption ban was completely uncalled for and, not to mince words, plain stupid. Not only was it met with wide condemnation around the world; it actually split the Russian elites. If you call this EFFECTIVE, the burden is on you to explain the meaning of this world.

            If someone slaps you on the face, but you shot the offender to death, your behavior is reactive, yet you’ll be at fault. Any problem with this logic?

            • Fedia Kriukov says:

              Where did you find “hawks” in the Russian gov’t? If one side argues for no response to American provocations, I can agree they’re doves. If the other side argues for a response, they’re not hawks, they’re just smarter doves. Hawks would argue for initiating a provocation of their own. There are no such parties in Russia.

              It’s strange that you don’t believe that Obama should do something for Russia. If Obama wants something from Russia, then surely he has to give something in return. The two examples you provided are agreements based on mutual benefit, not one-sided favors. One-sided favors are what Russia has been specializing in, from closing down its bases to providing the US with a fig leaf of various UN resolutions for its attacks on other countries, and even direct assistance with letting the US into its Central Asian backyard. Syria is the first time Putin’s Russia is refusing to provide some kind of a fig leaf to the US.

              Speaking of burdens, shouldn’t the burden be on you to read what I write? I pretty much explained why I believe ban on adoptions made Russian response equivalent to the provocation, and why anything less would’ve been less than equivalent. You’re pointing out problems with the implementation of the response rather than pointing out flaws in my logic. We can discuss the consequences of the adoption ban separately, but first address the issue of equivalency. Mind you, equivalency in effect (i.e. insult), not specific content.

              Anyway, your logic for blaming Russia for the worsening of the relationship is understandable now. You agree that Russia is reactive, but you also believe that Russia overreacts, thereby leading to escalation. Is that correct? If it is, then could you bother to illustrate this with some factual content? So far you’ve mentioned the adoption ban, but it’s too recent and we’re currently in disagreement over it anyway. Is there anything else you can point to? In general, when do you think the relationship started to deteriorate, what was the trigger, and who was responsible for it? (You don’t have to answer the last question if it’s too much bother for you, I’m asking it only out of curiosity.)

              • Eugene says:

                No hawks? Then who was responsible for 25% increase in Russia’s military spending in 2013–with 3% cut in education spending–and 54% increase by 2015 (15% decrease for education)? Who’s going to spend about $700 billion by 2020? Chickens? Sparrows?

                Russia closed its military bases because it had no money to maintain them. A favor to the US? Why not Mozambique? And Russia let the US to Central Asia because it couldn’t maintain order in its own backyard. A favor? Are you doing a favor to an insurance company when insuring your house?

                To your last set of questions, I think that the breaking point in the relationship was US’ refusal to take into account Russia’s concerns about missile defense. At some point, a decision was made to have a military response to the threat, hence the massive boost in military spending. The MIC guys were predictably happy and since then, they have been having an upper hand in all important government decisions. Anti-Americanism comes as a natural consequence of this decision. It’s like during the Cold War era: you can’t justify such an insane military budget without having a threat, real or perceived, to national security. And the trigger, I think, was HRC’s criticism of the December 2011 Duma elections. All of sudden, everything fell in place. A fan of conspiracy theories may go as far as to suggest that the Kremlin actually wanted the Magnitsky Act to be adopted–to have a change to respond to a “provocation” (as you elegantly call it).

                The most prominent Russian hawks–alternatively, I call them hardliners–include Rogozin, a man in charge of military modernization and a possible Putin’s successor, Sergei Ivanov, who apparently completely controls Putin’s major public decisions, and Vyacheslav Volodin, responsible for domestic policy. There is naturally a bloc of folks from security services; you know their names.

                • Fedia Kriukov says:

                  I have to point out that we were discussing hawks vs doves in the context of relations with the US. If you want to define a hawk through military expenditures, then you’re making two mistakes here. The first mistake is that an increase in military expenditures is equivalent to a provocation of the US. If you don’t think they’re equivalent, then you have to admit that your example is not relevant in the context of Russian-American relations. Please provide a different example of Russian gov’t hawks vis-a-vis the US. Your second mistake is that you incorrectly equate increased military expenditures with hawkish tendencies. The first fallacy here is that you’re forgetting that a military can be an instrument of both offense and defense. Enhancing offensive capabilities can be considered hawkish, while enhancing defensive capabilities usually isn’t. The second fallacy is that that specifically in Russia’s case, the increase in military expenditures is necessitated by chronic underfunding in the previous 20 years. The Russian military is being brought up to modern levels qualitatively but not quantitatively. Quantitatively it is shrinking and will continue to do so. So I’m afraid you still haven’t managed to provide any examples of Russian hawkishness. More specifically, in the context of our discussion, we’re looking for examples of any Russian official initiating a round of worsening of Russian-American relations (needless to say, numerous such examples can be found in the American camp).

                  Your idea that Russia closed its bases because it had no money to maintain them is strange, to say the least. In the 90s, when Russia had significantly less money, it maintained them. Then as the federal budget grew, the money for those bases evaporated? Really? Certainly, those bases weren’t worth their cost, but it’s not like Russia was forced to close them. Russia could’ve extracted something from the US in return, and chose not to do so. Maybe it was simple stupidity, but the end result was still a one-sided favor to the US. I think you’re also misunderstanding the example of Central Asia. The US went there not in order to clean it up (which wasn’t required to begin with), but in order to wage war against Afghanistan. Russia could’ve extracted a payment for that as well, but didn’t. But I’m glad you’re at least not disputing Russia’s accommodating position at the UN.

                  Also, I’d like to come to some sort of a resolution about apportioning blame for the breakdown in relations. If we agree that Russia never initiated any worsening of relations, when did it at least escalate by disproportional response? And thank you for your opinion about the breaking point in the relations. I take it you mean the breaking point only in the post-“reset” relations? But shouldn’t the entire post-Soviet history be considered? I don’t think the “reset” completely wiped away everything that happened before and restored the relations to their default state. Personally, I think the real turning point was the NATO attack on Serbia. The relationship has been deteriorating steadily ever since, and the post-9/11 thaw and the “reset” were only pauses in the long decline (funny how both of these pauses provide examples of unilateral Russian concessions, but not the other way around). Clearly, there must be something fundamental behind it.

  4. Eugene says:

    Dear Alexander,

    I just love your comments regardless of whether you agree with me or disagree:).

    There is one more thing that I had in mind when writing this piece, but, given the RBTH charter, didn’t express explicitly. Until the Kremlin makes serious steps towards placing its own “house” in order–and by that, I mean serious steps at addressing the issues raised by the opposition–it will be increasingly difficult for it to design and maintain any coherent course of actions. The foreign policy will suffer the first–because it’s perennially reactive and because it’s impossible to maintain a coherent foreign policy course without having at least a modicum of a “national unity.” That’s how I feel.


  5. david t says:

    Dear Eugene,
    A modicum of national unity? You are pulling my leg. I saw a poll the other day that claimed nearly 80% of Americans have lost respect for the US congress, and how many hundreds of thousands demonstrated in France recently. Criticise Putin and his administration all you wish but try to do so constructively. Please don’t waste your breath telling me that the street opposition has much to offer. I notice that Fyodor Lukyanov says that many people he knows now say: “oh no,anything but these guys”. Let’s cut to the chase: for practical purposes there are just three sovereign states, and one of them, the exceptional one, thinks there should only be one. So life is not going to be plain sailing for Russia. When you feel desperate remind yourself that all governments make mistakes, and always remember that, no matter what the West thinks, it is not the world.
    Keep your pecker up,
    David T

    • Eugene says:

      Dear David,

      I hope your leg feels fine. I saw the same poll about respect for US Congress and I strongly feel that many problems in this country originate from the deep mistrust ordinary citizens have for their government. I just don’t understand why the existence of deep problems in one country should prevent me from discussing problems in others. You tell me.

      I’m not a fan of the Russian street opposition; yet its very existence signals the presence of a number of unresolved problems in Russia. Putin can ignore the opposition as much as he wishes, but he can’t ignore the problems. At certain point, he’d have to ask himself what the recent decrease in the GDP growth–along with his own popularity–really means.

      Now, the opposition may not have much to offer. But who does? Over the past few months, I’ve been struggling to understand what the Russian government has to offer. Just tell me in a few clear lines: what does Russian government–and Putin personally–have to offer to Russian citizens?

      Best Regards,

  6. iastreb says:


    Thanks for a clearly argued, and on the whole, convincing, presentation. It’s hard to disagree that many of Russia’s current problems are the result of the decision to return Putin to the Kremiln, followed by ill-advised policies designed to maintain support for a regime that mismanaged the transition and now needs to look good by comparison with enemies foreign and domestic. Yet, I wonder if the misgivings voiced by many of the commenters here could be contextualized and enlightened by a simple thought experiment. Let’s assume that there was no “castling”, and that Medvedev stood for election for a second term. The US-Russian relationship would probably be better, but would it be fundamentally better? First, would there have been protests in the wake of the Duma elections in November 2011? Perhaps not, since the liberal faction would have had nothing to gain by riling up the Bolotniki, as their place within the regime would have been secure. But then again, perhaps, since, as you have argued yourself, Churov is incapable of running a clean election even if he wants to, and chances that United Russia, headed by a Prime Minister Putin would have lost its parliamentary majority in a clean election was quite high anyway. And if there were protests, it would have tarnished Russia’s image abroad.

    Second, consider the post-election economic difficulties. Some of the capital flight that took place is attributable to investors’ heightened sense that Russia is misgoverned and unstable. But the major reason has to do with the sovereign debt crisis in the EU. President Medvedev could have done nothing to alleviate that. And combined with deep skepticism about Russian accession to the WTO and the renewed privatization campaign to cover some of the losses, which would also have been fueled by the (losing) silovik faction, the Kremlin would have no choice but to ameliorate nationalist sentiment. Which would have damaged relations with the West.

    Third, one of the key reasons (if not the single most important reason) for the chilling US-Russian relationship is Syria. Medvedev, as we know, had Russia abstain in the Security Council vote to intervene in Libya in 2011 – a position that was initially unpopular in Russia, and became moreso in the wake of Gaddhafi’s ultimate demise, and the progress of the Arab Spring in the subsequent year and a half. Most likely, President Medvedev would have had to veto the various Syria resolutions no matter what – a position which is supported by Lavrov and the Russian foreign policy establishment, and regarded as highly successful (see e.g. the latest article by Karaganov). If and when he did so, the reaction by the US and the Europeans would have likely been more vigorous than the reaction against Putin’s having done so, since Medvedev would have been expected to “play ball”.

    Fourth, Medvedev was considered to be more vigorous in diversifying Russia’s economic relations away from a dependence on energy sales to Europe, and to be more Asia-oriented. That may have caused more tensions in the age of the Obama’s “Asian pivot”, if the result was a tighter economic interlinkage with China.

    First, the relationship would have become more problematic in the wake of the various proclamations of the “shale revolution” last year. I say proclamations, because for the most part, I think the story is hot air. But it’s being trumpeted because it makes the US economy and its geopolitical position look better than it actually is. One of the main reasons why it is said to be the case is because it will allow Europe to break its dependence from Russia. This also would have complicated relations.

    Overall, the likelihood is that the relationship would have worsened no matter what. Because the old system of international relations is breaking down, the US relationship with nearly everyone is undergoing hard times. In fact, even the US/EU relationship became significantly worse last year because of the EU’s management of the Greek debacle. I think it would be great if the US-Russian relationship improved, and it appears that Brzezinski is advising Obama that it should be improved. He was very critical of the US reaction to Russia’s veto of the Syria resolutions, because he saw it as counterproductive to criticize Russia’s support of Assad without offering anything in return. Obama promised future flexibility. Perhaps he was more likely to have delivered in a world without “castling”. Certainly, US foreign policy is more proactive than the Russian in terms of laying out directions. But could Obama actually have followed through on anything? His own foreign policy, like the Russian, is currently in shambles – but given the difference in scale, it is a far bigger mess.

  7. Eugene says:


    Thank you for your comment. Your hypothetical “ifs” are really lovely and it’s my pleasure to address them with my own hypothetical “ifs.” How about the following as the alternative?

    First, Medvedev runs for re-election, fires Churov and replaces him with Alexander Veshnyakov (previous CEC Chairman fired for honesty). Veshnyakov, with his reputation of unbiased broker, makes election results credible and acceptable to everyone–no matter the outcome. No protests, no confrontation with the West.

    Second, Medvedev continues with his “moderization” agenda–including accelerated privatization–which improves Russia’s investment climate. Capital flight continues but its severity is softened by some incoming investments. “Deep skepticism” against WTO doesn’t materialize: it was due mainly to Putin’s own skepticism. With Medvedev loving WTO, everyone will love it too (it’s Russia, after all).

    Third, Medvedev negotiates with the US and NATO and demands–in writing–two things. First, no matter the outcome, Russia preserves its economic interests and the base in Tartus. Second, Russia approves–or doesn’t veto–only those UNSC resolutions on Syria that have an explicit support by the Arab League. This allows Medvedev to please both military and economic establishment and preserve Russia’s face, if not Assad, whom no one in Russia doesn’t really care about. And the US is (partly) happy because it’s primarily after Assad. No confrontation with the West.

    Fourth, the Obama’s “Asia pivot” is still at the same stage as Putin’s Eurasian Union, meaning at the stage of wishful thinking. Besides Obama has no leverage over Russia’s relations with China, and he knows that. Why would this spoil US-Russia relations?

    Fifth, like the fourth, I don’t understand your point. We talked about Europe’s “dangerous” dependence on Russian energy before Medvedev and even before Putin. Why would this reflect badly on Medvedev in his second term?

    Back to reality, yes there are many imaginable circumstances under which the relations would have worsened. Yet you seem to proceed with an assumption that Russia wanted to preserve the relations but it didn’t work out. No, my point is different: worsening relations with the US is exactly what Putin wanted. So, it’s not that I’m criticizing him for a bad job in pursuing a noble cause. I’m saying that he’s chosen the wrong cause.

    Best Regards,

    • iastreb says:

      My fifth point was referring to the fact that the US is positioning itself as a direct competitor to Russia as Europe’s energy supplier. Not terribly propitious for a harmonious relationship.

      On the “pivot”, the US helped exacerbate the crisis over the islands last year, and it’s moving new troops into the region (Australia and naval units). So it’s not entirely “wishful thinking”, and more support for China (by e.g. Russia) could be seen as problematic (I invoked Zbig because he specifically advocates a closer US-Russian relationship as a way of putting more pressure on China).

      On the Eurasian Union – perhaps that’s wishful thinking, too, but my contacts in Kazakhstan do nothing besides complaining about the higher prices resulting from the Customs Union, so things are happening. I suspect that in case of another economic downturn, more steps in the direction of closer integration with Russia will be taken.

      On the WTO – it’s not just Putin who’s skeptical. If Russia is to diversify and modernize its economy, it needs to encourage its own manufacturers, who are almost uniformly against the WTO. I understand it’s Russia and all, but to go against manufacturers and segments of the elite doesn’t seem to ensure political (or foreign policy) stability. Frankly, I’m not sure why Russia (and Putin, if he is a detractor) agreed to accession at this time – the economic performance of post-Soviet WTO member is, shall we say, not stellar. Perhaps they did it to lure Ukraine.

      On your post-election scenario, I have to tip my hat – you’ve outdone me in the fantasy department. Medvedev as a fully-fledged “guarantor of the constitution” who sets foreign policy? The US agreeing to submit “guarantees in writing” regarding the Ballistic Missile Defense System and Tartus? Like it’s giving Iran guarantees for 5% enrichment in return for dropping the sanctions? Bravo.

      Last – on your contention that it was Putin’s decision to worsen relations with the US: I know you address this point above, but I have to admit to becoming even more confused about your argument now. If Putin has made such a decision, that means he’s proactively making foreign policy. Perhaps, from your point of view, it’s a bad policy, but it’s not just a reaction. I’m not sure I agree with the assessment. Earlier this year, Putin cancelled a trip to Pakistan where a spate of deals on military and energy cooperation (including Russian investment in the Iran-Pakistan pipeline, which Washington opposes) were to be signed. He’s also done nothing to put pressure on the NDN. It doesn’t seem that he has decided to close the door on cooperation where it matters the most.

  8. david t says:

    Hi Eugene,
    Seriously, it would actually be a more useful exercise if you were to write down some positives of Putin’s rule than to ask me to jot down a few for you.
    Unlike you, I consider that the threat to Russia’s existence at the end of the 90s was real enough. I seem to remember a CIA report, which appeared in 2004, that predicted that the country might break up into 3 or 4 regions by 2015. Perhaps it was not the most serious piece of analysis, but I doubt that it was written tongue in cheek.
    I also think that the Russian economy is being managed pretty well. Peter Lavelle’s recent interview with Ben Aris, Jacob Nell (Morgan Stanley) and Yaroslav Lissovolic (Deutsche Bank) was very informative . These economists seem to be on the top of their brief, and were surprisingly upbeat about the Russian economy. I strongly recommend that you watch it. They make a number of interesting points, including the statement that, mid way through 2012, the Russian administration panicked because they thought the country was about to hit by another financial crisis, caused by external problems. The decisions that they took because of this led to a slowing down in the growth of the economy: they made the wrong call, but they seem perfectly competent, more so than most. The economists also made positive comments about Russia’s demographic improvement- shock, horror!
    There seems to be serious ongoing reform of the defence forces and defence industries, and there are grounds to hope that the police are not as corrupt. And there are other significant achievements. I am not a Russian scholar, and unlike you, I cannot read Russian, but have you read “Putin’s philosophy” by Paul Robinson, which appeared in the April 2012 issue of The American Conservative? It’s worth reading.
    At the end of the day, Putin was democratically elected. If he can make a significant dent in corruption during this term then he will have served his country very well. We’ll have to wait and see. You wouldn’t vote for Putin even if he were the Archangel Gabriel. But remember the old joke: if Gabriel were running for office then you wouldn’t be in his electorate.
    Finally, I cannot help myself, for this makes me angry. If the US of A was really concerned about Russia’s kids, then it would have cracked down on opium production in Afganistan. The Russian government has pleaded often that the Americans do this. (Recall that in the last year of the Taliban rule opium production was zilch.)

  9. Eugene says:

    Hi David,

    There was a Russian analyst, Igor Panarin (I wrote about him, who predicted that the US would decompose in pieces in 2010. Well, the US is still there, and I’m very sure Russia will be there in 2015. The only thing that Mr. Panarin and his CIA soulmates prove is that there will always be idiots willing to make idiotic predictions. This doesn’t prove, though, the existence of any plot to “destroy” Russia.

    Peter Lavelle is a good friend of mine, and having been on his program, I fully trust the competence of his guests:) I only wish Putin could see the program you mentioned. Otherwise, he would not have sounded so concerned about the state of Russian economy as he did a few days ago when meeting the economic bloc of the government. And I see his point: despite the target GDP growth of 5%, it was only 1.2% in November. Now, I see nothing catastrophic here, yet I’d question the conclusion of the above experts that Russian government made “mistakes.” I’m not an economist, but even I know that increased state spending doesn’t bode well with economic growth.

    I leave it to your conscience the statement that Putin was democratically elected. The real problem is that he turned to be surprisingly unprepared to take responsibility for the country. He has no real plan nor vision. That’s why one day they fight corruption, the other take care of Russian orphans.

    No matter what the US’ responsibility for the well-being of Russian kids is, the Russian government could take its share by making alcohol and tobacco less accessible to Russian youth. The strength of the corresponding lobbies in government notwithstanding.


    p.s. You are right: in March, I didn’t vote for Putin; I voted for another Archangel Gabriel:)

  10. david t says:

    Hi Eugene,
    Sorry, I think much of your reply is silly. My “conscience”? I have nothing to do with anything, but I can read opinion polls and I do have some understanding of weaknesses in the democratic process, including the US. Who’s being naive now? As another Russian commentator said: the West cannot have too much propaganda, and Putin cannot have too little.

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