US-Russia Relations Part II: Not Quite the End of History


Previously, our series on the historical relations between the United States and Russia covered major events during the height of the Cold War. The previous post focused on the forms of espionage both countries used to undermine each other and the occasions where both countries publicly displayed their rivalry. This week, part two will focus on the easing of relations between the United States and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the gradual decline of relations again after Vladimir Putin ascended to  Russian presidency.

Statue of Lenin taken down in Riga |  World Kanno Travel Blog

Statue of Lenin taken down in Riga | World Kanno Travel Blog

Soviet Collapse

The Soviet Union was a shell of its former self by the 1980s, with its institutions and structures significantly weakened due to economic hardship. The Communist Party was beginning to look like a gerontocracy as well, as many of the party’s elite members were well into their 70s. Political dissent was growing domestically and in Soviet satellite states, as one idea always stood out to their residents: life in the Western Bloc was evidently better. In response, the party appointed Mikhail Gorbachev, an aspiring official who was open to reform, as General Secretary in 1985.

    The leadership of Gorbachev brought tremendous change to the Soviet Union. He initiated two landmark policies known as glasnost (openness) and perestroika (radical reform). Glasnost pushed for lenience on the press and freedom of expression, plus increased transparency in government operations. Perestroika advocated for the democratization of the Soviet Union, the privatization of businesses, and fought corruption within the party. Gorbachev also scaled back the aggression of Soviet foreign policy, easing control of Soviet satellite states and working with US President Ronald Reagan to reduce nuclear weapons of both countries. The newfound willingness to negotiate between American and Soviet leaders signified the end of the Cold War.

The effects of glasnost and the new Soviet foreign policy were instantaneous, as political dissent was widespread in Warsaw Pact countries. In 1989 alone, the Solidarity movement won elections in Poland, elections were held in Hungary for the first time, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Velvet Revolution swept through Czechoslovakia. In 1990, the Baltic states declared independence in the Singing Revolution, and the Soviet republics in Central Asia demanded greater autonomy, further weakening Soviet uniformity.

Perestroika then created a democratically-elected congress in Russia that was independent of the Communist Party. A rivalry between the Russian Soviet Republic and the Soviet Union as a whole emerged. Individuals like Boris Yeltsin supported an independent Russia, while people like Gorbachev supported keeping the Soviet Union, but with a more decentralized and federal structure. Gorbachev’s efforts were unsuccessful, and in 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved into 15 separate republics, and leadership of the newly independent Russian Federation was passed to Yeltsin.

The fall of the Soviet Union led to new forms of thought in political theory. Some believed that the development of global politics had reached its apex, where a western, capitalist, liberal democracy was the ideal government for every country. In his text, The End of History and the Last Man, American scholar Francis Fukuyama went so far as to declare liberal democracy the final form of government in the world.

Boris Yeltsin dancing in a pre-election tour in Rostov, 1996 | Viktor Korotayev,  Reuters

Boris Yeltsin dancing in a pre-election tour in Rostov, 1996 | Viktor Korotayev, Reuters

Clinton and Yeltsin

During the early years of the Russian Federation, Yeltsin kept most of Gorbachev’s internalized foreign policy, so Russia was rather quiet on the world stage. Concurrently, the American economy under President Bill Clinton prospered and its international engagements did little to hinder Russian interests. In this period of time, US-Russia relations were one of the most cordial in history, marked by many friendly visits between the two presidents.

However, their easygoing relations did not last long. At the end of the century, the Russian economy took a nosedive due to shock therapy reforms applied by Economic Minister Egor Gaidar, resulting in uncontrolled hyperinflation and privatization, and Yeltsin’s administration was plagued by corruption. Russia also suffered from ethnic conflict domestically, and the Chechen War that started in 1994 further decreased public confidence in Yeltsin. Yeltsin resigned in 1999 due to overwhelmingly low approval ratings, and was succeeded by Vladimir Putin. Sensing the distrust Russians had in the government, Putin reasserted aggression in Russian foreign policy, and his leadership eventually came into conflict with American interests again. 

Bush and Putin

Upon taking office, Putin became increasingly authoritarian in his leadership. Historian Dmitrii Furmanov labelled his government as a “planned democracy,” in which democratic processes still took place, but their results were already known ahead of time. Putin recovered the economy that was aided by rising oil prices, demanded more coordination between federal and subnational governments, and ended the war in Chechnya. Proponents of Putin praised him for restoring stability in Russia, while his critics denounced him for reviving machtpolitik (power politics) in regional politics, the realist form of international relations that was prominent in the 19th Century.

Putin’s policies slowly put Russia at odds with the United States again, which just elected George W. Bush into a new presidency. After the September 11 attacks in 2001, Bush immediately ordered US military action in Afghanistan. His administration believed that the only way terrorism could be quelled was through American influence and democratization, and that an individual either supported or opposed the United States, with no grey area in between. This new form of politics, known as neoconservative thought, made American foreign policy towards the rest of the world especially hawkish. This did not sit well with Putin’s government, as they were interested in establishing a Russian sphere of influence in its neighbouring regions too.

Putin initially supported the operation in Afghanistan, but when the United States invaded Iraq, he denounced the action as a form of American imperialism. He also criticized the growth of NATO when former Warsaw Pact countries were integrated into the organization, as he believed the United States was trying to act unilaterally on the world stage. The two countries’ relations soured even more when the United States announced plans on building missile defence systems in Poland, which the Americans justified as protection from Iranian or North Korean nuclear threats. The political aftermath of the announcement involved both countries threatening to increase military presence in Eastern Europe, with Putin even comparing the situation at hand to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Dmitry Medvedev was elected Russian President in 2007, and immediately named Putin as his Prime Minister after taking office. Tensions continued in the Georgian War of 2008. The war involved the self-proclaimed republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that wanted to succeed from Georgia, supported by Russia. The United States supported Georgia in asserting its sovereignty but ended up losing the war. Russia defended its actions by stating the Georgian invasion was to prevent NATO expansion.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and US President Barack Obama meet at a business forum in 2009 | White House Photograph

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and US President Barack Obama meet at a business forum in 2009 | White House Photograph

Obama and Medvedev

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected US President. In the opening days of his presidency Obama and Medvedev worked to restore good relations again. Such initiatives included a new treaty to again reduce the nuclear weapons of both countries known as New START, replacing older agreements that were made in the Cold War. The United States also supported Russia in finally becoming a member of the World Trade Organization in 2011. But the attempt to reconcile was short-lived once more, as in the same year Russians took to the streets to protest fraud in the previous election, and Prime Minister Putin accused the US State Department in inciting the demonstrations. His comments marked another breakdown of relations between the two countries.

Putin Returns

Putin controversially ran for a third term and was reelected in 2012, and US-Russia relations deteriorated further. Over this period of time, Russia and the United States introduced legislation that attacked each other's’ foreign interests, accused each other of violating arms treaties, and practiced provocative military drills. In 2013, Russia aggravated the United States by granting Edward Snowden asylum after he leaked a slew of documents detailing the public surveillance programs of the NSA. That same year, along with many members of the international community, the United States denounced Russia for enacting the gay propaganda law, which banned the promotion of LGBT rights in public. In response to the legislation, many considered a boycott of the upcoming 2014 Olympics.

But the stories above were petty politics compared to the ongoing crises in Syria and Ukraine, the focal point of strained relations between Russia and the United States due to their opposing stances. In the Syrian Civil War that broke out since 2011, the United States backed the rebel forces, while Russia, a long-standing ally of Syria, supported the Assad government. The conflict has escalated within the past year, with many considering the current situation one of the worst humanitarian disasters in history, and talks for peace have been futile. In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, citing a referendum that was mostly rejected worldwide. In response, the Obama administration slammed Russia with a series of economic sanctions. Russia was also suspended from the G8 for its annexation of Crimea, and the country later announced that they planned to leave the G8 for good.

A Second Cold War?

For now, current US-Russia relations still hovers in this troubled state, and many scholars have opined if a new Cold War had already emerged out of these tensions. In 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the 2016 US Presidential Election, running on a reactionary campaign that heavily praised the Putin government for his authoritative policies. Trump went on to win the presidency, with many accusing that Russia had played a significant role in securing Trump’s election. But even with the mutual appreciation between Putin and Trump, the future of their relationship remains a big question mark.

To conclude, Russia and the United States began to normalize relations after the Soviet Union’s collapse, but those efforts were cut short when Russia leaned towards an authoritarian government again. Tensions were reignited further when Russia and United States both pursued an aggressive foreign policy, which also revived the distrust and rivalry the two nations held during the Cold War.

Next week, the series will focus on US-Russia relations during that election, the American accusation of Russian involvement in the election results, and how these events will shape their relations in the future.

A lot of points from this article regarding the collapse of the Soviet Union were cited from The Soviet Experiment by Ronald Grigor Suny. Check out the text for more detailed analysis on the topic, it is a really interesting read.