Focusing on the Bigger Picture


The Russian media has been overwhelmed by expert (and not so expert) predictions over the past few days about who will win the U.S. presidential elections and how the results will affect U.S.-Russia relations. Both candidates have their fair share of supporters and detractors in Russia.

From the outside, it would seem that current President Donald Trump is generally more popular, despite the fact that relations between Washington and Moscow have hardly improved over the past four years. The Russian people appear to be somewhat apprehensive of the Democratic candidate Joe Biden, believing that he could adopt a stricter stance (in particular concerning human rights) and even expand the already extensive range of U.S. sanctions against Russia.

Obviously, these lines of reasoning are mostly speculative in nature right now and are typically dictated by the political leanings of the person giving their opinion.

At the same time, one cannot help but notice that, when talking about the future of U.S.-Russia relations, these political analysts talk almost exclusively about U.S. approaches to Russia. That is, they are concerned with what a Trump or Biden presidency will mean in terms of the United States’ behaviour towards Russia.

However, almost no one is talking about Russia’s approaches to the United States.

What policy towards the United States should Russia pursue? That is the question.

Russia claims to be an independent and equal partner of the United States. If this is the case (and it has to be), then, in terms of its long-term foreign policy strategy, Russia needs to clearly formulate the main priorities and objectives of its policy towards the United States. What is more, given U.S. clout on the international stage, these priorities should not be opportunistic in nature. Rather, they should be stable, although this does not rule out the possibility of tweaking these priorities depending on the changing international situation.

What should Russia’s U.S. policy focus on in the coming years?

First of all, we should proceed from the fact that, despite its domestic problems and regardless of who the next president will be, the United States will remain the world’s leading power.

While the political, military and economic might of the United States may no longer be sufficient to dictate its terms to the rest of the world unilaterally, it is certainly enough to influence the course of world events significantly.

It would be no exaggeration to say that none of the key problems in the world today can be resolved without the participation of the United States, much less against its interests. This is especially true of security issues.

There are a number of objective and subjective reasons — some rooted in the past, others dictated by modern realities — why the United States and Russia cannot and will not become full-fledged strategic partners in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, relations between the two countries will remain adversarial for a long time to come, with cooperation being restricted to a few narrow areas.

With this in mind, it is in Russia’s interests to try and build a relationship with the United States that would reduce the risks and costs that are inevitably associated with such a rivalry.

Russia’s approaches to the United States should allow it to focus its attention and resources on resolving its own developmental problems while at the same time not harming its national security interests.

We are currently witnessing a profound reformatting of international relations and an intense struggle for spheres of influence among the world’s leading players. In these conditions, Russia needs to avoid direct clashes with the United States as much as possible. Let us not forget that Washington currently has the means to inflict serious political, economic and other damage against Russia, more so than Russia does. The only possible exception here is in the military sphere.

In terms of security, it is in Russia’s interests to resume the strategic dialogue on a wide range of contemporary issues.

The dialogue should be ongoing in order to expand areas of mutual understanding, come to agreements wherever possible and help improve the general atmosphere in bilateral relations. Dialogue is useful, even when the chances of achieving a speedy agreement are slim. Without dialogue, the sides will be unable to restore the trust that is so desperately needed in order to move forward.

If bilateral channels prove unproductive, then multilateral mechanisms should be used, as it is often easier to find mutually acceptable solutions in multilateral formats than in bilateral ones.

It is imperative to reduce the level of criticism of the United States in the Russian media. In its current form, this criticism incites anti-American sentiment in certain social groups, which may meet the domestic interests of some, but ultimately complicates Russian foreign policy activities, and not only with regard to the United States.

It is in Russia’s interests to maintain active cooperation with the United States where possible, be it in the Arctic, space, nuclear non-proliferation, joint research, education, cultural exchanges, interaction between civil society institutions, etc. By holding onto these admittedly modest areas of mutual interaction and trust, the sides can hope that there will be a time when the accumulated positive experience will be in demand in other, more sensitive areas.

From our partner RIAC

Igor Ivanov
Igor Ivanov
President of the Russian International Affairs Council. Professor of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) of the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs (RF MFA). Russian Academy of Sciences Corresponding Member. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation.


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