Russia and America Are Once Again at Odds

The bitter back-and-forth between the two governments over Syria strikes underscores the longstanding dysfunction in the relationship.

Marko Djurica / Reuters

“I imagine [Donald will] fall out with his new friend Vladimir pretty quickly.” That’s what Fiona Hill, a Russia expert now serving on Donald Trump’s National Security Council, told me shortly after the 2016 election, when she was working at the Brookings Institution. At the time, when the Russian president and American president-elect were busy heaping praise on each other, her prediction was hard to accept.

Now, after Trump’s bombing of an air base used by the Syrian and Russian militaries, it is hard to deny. The Russian government has denounced the strikes, intended to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people, as an unlawful, aggressive act against a sovereign nation and as a boon to terrorist groups in Syria. It has promised to suspend a communications system for preventing unintended conflict between U.S. and Russian aircraft flying over Syria, pledged to strengthen Syrian air defenses, and dispatched a warship armed with cruise missiles to the Syrian coast. The U.S. government, for its part, says it’s investigating whether Russia was involved in the suspected sarin-gas attack. Judged by the tortured history of U.S.-Russian relations, the war of words so far has been pretty mild. But we’re still a long way from the talk of Vlad and Don teaming up to fight terrorism.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, my colleague Julia Ioffe writes, the “Trump administration, for which it had such high hopes, [is] now like every American administration in recent memory: using the guise of human rights to circumvent the UN and intervene against what Russia considers legitimate governments,” in this case against a longtime Russian ally to boot.

Hill’s argument was that while Trump’s campaign rhetoric had been more pro-Russian than that of any U.S. presidential candidate in living memory, and while Vladimir Putin had allegedly interfered in the U.S. election to assist Trump, the deep structural tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship were more powerful than the will of any one or two political leaders. Russia has “always been an expansionist power—on the go all the time, not one to give up anything and concede anything—pretty much like the United States,” Hill told me. “It wants to have a veto, just like the United States has in its view, on international treaties and various issues. … I think it will come down to what it’s always been—where the Russians will get all giddy with expectations, and then they’ll be dashed, like, five minutes into the relationship because the U.S. and Russia just have a very hard time … being on the same page.”

Then, of course, there was the potential for friction between the two leaders themselves. Yes, they seemed smitten with one another. But both Trump and Putin were quick to take offense. Both sought advantage in international affairs by acting as the unpredictable, risk-taking rule-breaker among predictable, risk-averse rule-followers. And each man was much more concerned with making his country great again than with making Russia and the United States friends again.

Ever since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Russia scholar Angela Stent writes, “[p]eriods of dialogue, progress, and optimism have been followed by tense periods, standoffs, mutual criticism, and pessimism.” Bill Clinton played the saxophone and talked democratic reform with Boris Yeltsin, only for relations between the two countries to sour over NATO’s expansion in Central and Eastern Europe and military intervention against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War. George W. Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul (and—sound familiar?—a partner in the fight against terrorism), only to later look at Georgia and condemn a Russian invasion. Barack Obama sent Hillary Clinton to Russia with a “reset” button, only to sanction Russia for undermining American democracy as one of his last acts in office.

The persistent dysfunction in the U.S.-Russia relationship, Stent notes, derives not just from the legacy of the Cold War, but also from the countries’ different worldviews and values:

Russia’s geopolitical situation straddling Europe and Asia, its large nuclear arsenal, and its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council give it enduring leverage. It can support or hinder the pursuit of key U.S. national security interests. Similarly, America can influence how successfully Russia can pursue its goal to restore its position as a global player. Russia and the United States share significant interests ranging from counterterrorism and counterproliferation of [weapons of mass destruction] to working together to stabilize Central Asia and contain the spread of radical Islam, and dealing with challenges from new frontiers, such as the Arctic. Despite these common interests, however, the two countries subscribe to very different views about their respective roles in the world.

Moreover, the relationship is constrained by the two countries’ divergent value systems, in particular their contrasting views of the purposes and means of acceptable state behavior at home and abroad. The ideological antagonism between international communism and capitalism has disappeared, but 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. The United States, by contrast, supports the United Nations’ principles of the responsibility to protect, humanitarian intervention, and, if necessary, regime change in cases of violent interstate conflicts or civil wars that threaten populations. It also remains rhetorically committed to global democracy promotion, an increasingly neuralgic issue for Russia.

The bitter back-and-forth between the U.S. and Russian governments over the Syria strikes underscores this dysfunction. Yes, Russia and America both want to fight jihadist terrorism in Syria. But each also wants to assert its influence in the Middle East and the wider world, and contain the other’s—Russia by insisting on the sovereignty of nations, and the United States by invoking humanitarian and human-rights concerns. The current quarrel over Syria might merely be a setback on the way to warm relations between Russia and the United States. But history strongly suggests otherwise.