The Limits of Partnership. US-Russia Relations in the 21st Century

Angela Stent’s 2013 book on U.S.-Russia relations opens with a summary of Russia’s view of the world: ‘Russia today sees itself as a great power and the guardian of traditional principles of maintaining the international status quo, absolute sovereignty, and noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries.’ Oh, the irony! This quotation should not suggest that Stent somehow ‘got it wrong’ with regards to Russia, however, but rather that Putin has little regard for principles or consistency.


If recent events have taught us anything, it is that partnership is indeed limited in scope and duration.The Limits of Partnership U.S.-Russia Relations in the Twenty-First Century, in which Stent provides a balanced narrative of the U.S.-Russia relationship, could not be more timely. Ultimately, partnership is limited when interests collide, as is the case in Russia’s perceived ‘sphere of influence’ and when domestic pressures limit a willingness, or perhaps ability, to cooperate.

Stent traces the U.S.-Russia relationship as a series of four ‘resets’, correctly identifying that the Obama policy was not particularly novel in that sense. The first ‘reset’ occurred with the collapse of the Soviet Union; the second when Clinton took office and struck up a friendly relationship with Yeltsin, involving asaxophone; the third following 9/11 when the two countries collaborated in counterterrorism activities; and the most recent ‘reset’, though it was mistakenly titled an ‘overload’. According to Stent, the relationship can be characterized by six key areas: nuclear weapons and arms control, nonproliferation, the former Soviet-space, Europe and NATO, responding to the Arab Spring, and Chechnya.

Where Stent’s narrative truly excels, however, is in presenting the Russian side of the story. It does not fall victim to the understandable temptation to mock Yeltsin or Putin, but rather treats Russia as a U.S. partner with legitimate grievances. This is a particularly worthwhile contribution as analysis of Russia often falls victim to what Adam Ulam referred to as ‘sins of omission.’ In short, the United States perceives that ‘a weak Russia is amenable to acquiescing to a U.S. agenda. By contrast, they have created a visceral Russian determination not to be treated as the United States’ junior partner.’ This Russian desire to reestablish itself as a global leader following the shame of the ‘90s and its fear of being a ‘junior partner’ can certainly be seen in the few short months since the release of Stent’s book.

By this point, there is little that hasn’t been said on Ukraine, but if you need talking points, you can gohere. One aspect that has not been fully examined and where Stent contributes is not only in inadvertently highlighting Russian hypocrisy in its actions compared to policies, but also linking this to Vladimir Putin’s personality and preferences. For Putin, events in Ukraine are an albatross, ‘After all, if Ukrainians could take to the streets and overthrow their governments, so could Russians.’ Eerily, Stent wrote this in reference to the 2004 Orange Revolution, which is both a precursor and explanation for current events. Putin has personally backed Yanukovych throughout his political career and many political shifts in Ukraine subsequently are ‘a personal challenge to him [Putin]).’ One is left to wonder, is Russia’s current incursion in Ukraine driven not only by Putin’s ties to the ousted leader, but also by a personal vendetta to claim revenge for the Orange Revolution?

Putin’s role in Ukraine was not just about personal preferences, however. He was also representing the view of many Russians that the United States was competing with Russia within its spheres of influence and the ‘Freedom Agenda rhetoric (was) part of its Realpolitik strategy.’ This zero-sum game mentality is not ‘Cold War thinking’, but rather Russian thinking and that did not change with the collapse of the Soviet Union. One is reminded of the glorious Mark Twainism, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’ Current events in Ukraine are a Russian rhyme of the Soviet era, all in the same key of selfinterest. It is also a harsh reminder that ‘the role of force remains formidable’ in international affairs and as a tool in Russia’s pursuit of that self interest.

Stent reveals numerous factors about Russia that are not likely to change in the near future: its realist approach to geopolitics, its desire to reassert itself as a great power, and Vladimir Putin. Where does that leave us with regards to Ukraine? It’s a reminder that Russian policy should always be treated with a degree of skepticism, but this should not preclude the possibility of partnership in the future. Second, Russia’s view of the world and its relationship with the United States are significantly different from those of its partner. And finally, Stent comes to the same conclusion as the paramount Russia expert, George Kennan: ‘the United States should pursue a long-term, consistent policy of engagement with Russia- but not expect any breakthroughs.’ Ukraine, therefore, is but one piece of a much bigger relationship.

Heather Williams (King’s College London)

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