Once more, the circle in U.S.-Russia relations is complete. The Clinton administration took office in 1993 promising a “Bill and Boris” strategic partnership between the two countries, and ended with recriminations over the Kosovo operation, with Gen. Wesley Clark prepared to start World War III to block the arrival of Russian peacekeepers in Pristina. George W. Bush left the Ljubljana summit with Vladimir Putin in summer 2001 promising a qualitatively different U.S.-Russia relationship, which seemed to bear fruit in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but concluded his term dealing with the Russian incursion into Georgia with calls from his own party, especially in Congress, for a forceful U.S. response. Barack Obama was going to reset relations with Russia, and now, in the weeks remaining in office, is facing demands from his own State Department and Department of Defense for drawing a line in the sand in Syria against Russian airstrikes on a besieged Aleppo—even at the risk of a face-to-face confrontation between American and Russian forces.
At various points in these pages over the past twenty-five years, serious voices—C. Fred Ikle, Robert Legvold, Henry Kissinger, Graham Allison and Dimitri K. Simes, and Robert Blackwill, to name a few—have called for a sober evaluation of U.S.-Russia relations and a concerted effort to work through the irritants and roadblocks in the U.S.-Russia relationship to find a way to concentrate on the advancing the agenda of shared interests between Washington and Moscow. Yet in both the Capitol and White House and in the Kremlin, matters have deteriorated to the point that such advice now falls on deaf and uninterested ears. Each side has a well-rehearsed litany of complaints and accusations—cyber attacks, Syria, Ukraine, human rights, NATO enlargement, color revolutions, duplicity over Libya, and so on and so forth—that makes dialogue almost impossible.
In 1992, 2000 and 2008, the expectation was that following the U.S. elections, the page would be turned. A new effort, we were assured, would be undertaken to improve relations. Candidates Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were all critical of the engagement efforts of their predecessors on the campaign trail, and then, within six months of taking office, sought a fresh start with the Kremlin.
Now I believe that things are going to be different. Very different.
Russia is indeed expecting a period of distraction and lack of reaction while the United States sorts out its presidential future. However, the Kremlin is not waiting passively to see who the next occupant of the Oval Office will be, but working to establish facts on the ground. It seems clear that the Russian government wants to present the new U.S. administration with the following: an Aleppo largely back under Syrian government control, with Bashar al-Assad having outlasted the Obama administration which demanded his departure and predicted his overthrow; a whole host of new capabilities—from new cruise missiles to drones to cyber tools—to suggest that U.S. predominance in these areas may be ending; putting Iskander missile systems in Kaliningrad to undermine recent efforts to reassure NATO’s eastern flank; extensive civil defense efforts at home; and diplomatic efforts aimed at attenuating Washington’s ties with traditional allies on both the western and eastern ends of the Asian continent (Turkey and the Philippines) while seeking to reestablish Soviet-era bases in Cuba and Vietnam.