Russia-U.S. Relations Are Bad, But They’re About to Get Worse

August 14, 2013

Russia-U.S. relations have gone from chilly to frigid, as the cancelled bilateral presidential summit has led to concern that a new Cold War is on the horizon. While those fears are unrealistic (and have been dismissed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov) things are not about to warm up any time soon, as Russia will sign a deal to support new Iranian nuclear facilities, continues to support Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and resists U.S. missile defense system on its borders.

While it seemed that granting NSA leaker Edward Snowden asylum led to the summit’s cancellation, the decision was unsurprising given the recent deterioration of Russia-U.S. In the view of the U.S., Russia has failed to work with Washington on priority issues of missile defense, Syria, and Iran. At the same time, human rights violations, flawed elections, the harassment of the U.S. Ambassador, the ban on American adoption of Russian children and other issues have aggravated the relationship from the American perspective.

From the Russian perspective, the U.S. has failed to be cooperative as well. The passage of the Magnitsky Act, which prevents Russians who have committed human rights abuses from entering the U.S., sent shockwaves through the Russian government — particularly as it was appended to the breakthrough Jackson-Vanick repeal, which normalizes trade relations between the two countries.

But an understanding of the decline in Russia-U.S. relations must take into account Russia’s national priorities, which continue to center around multi-polarity. Russia does not see the U.S. as the world’s single great power, but as one of several, including itself and China. In the last few years, Russia has increasingly sought to demonstrate its power to act independently against Western geo-political trends and pressure. This is motivated in part by Russia’s strategic interest and in part by its desire to telegraph its power, which gives rise to the perception that Russia is anti-American for the sake of being anti-American.

Russia also continues to subscribe to the idea that each great power has its own sphere of influence, or regional authority. In Russia’s case, this region includes Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. Though Russia will cooperate with the U.S. on issues in this region, Russia will always react badly to American attempts to strong-arm policies or interventions there, just like the U.S. would react badly if Russia began intervening in Mexico.

This brings us back to those three priority issues for the U.S.: missile defense, Syria and Iran.

The U.S. plan for a missile defense system to combat threats from Iran and North Korea has been controversial for years. Russia objects to the deepening of U.S. military presence in neighboring countries like Poland and Georgia, with which Russia has had tense relations since the 2008 war. Missile defense was high on the agenda of the 2+2 meeting, but Russia remains concerned that the system would target its nuclear facilities and an agreement is unlikely in the near future.

On Syria, Russia continues to obstruct a resolution to the Civil War, as it has doggedly supported Assad since the conflict’s inception. Protecting lucrative arms deals, and fear at an unstable and possibly Islamist successor government in their backyard have all been offered as explanations for Russia’s support of Assad. But recently, Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan reportedly offered Vladimir Putin an arms contact of $15 billion and a possible guarantee that no Persian Gulf country would export gas across the Arabian Peninsula, which would ensure Russia’s dominance as natural gas supplier to Europe, in exchange for Russia ending its support of Assad and its obstruction of UN Security Council resolutions on the conflict. Russia’s rejection of this offer on August 9 implies that some other geo-political calculus is at work, likely an interest in defending a sovereign government from unnecessary international intervention, even when it has lost support of its populace. It also indicates that Russia has no plans to cooperate on Syria.

Most critically, Russia is strengthening its ties with Iran. Moscow and Tehran are poised to sign a deal supporting the construction of a new nuclear power plant in Iran — a move that runs counter to the U.S.’ most crucial security objectives. The deal would allow Russia to further diversify its hulking energy sector with a country with which it has strong historical ties. Announced by Ali Akbar Salehi, Iranian foreign minister, on Sunday, the deal is expected to be signed at the September 13 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, just days after the close of the much-hyped G20 summit in St. Petersburg. The timing of this sure-to-be controversial deal indicates that, for Russia, regional dominance and working with powerful, nearby partners remains more important than global cooperation.

How much will Russia be willing to cooperate with the U.S. on these issues in the next months and years? That remains to be seen. In the meantime, it’s essential to recognize that one of Russia’s non-negotiable foreign policy priorities is dominance in its sphere of influence, and it won’t respond to what it sees as bullying. Like every country, Russia acts in what it believes to be its own best interest, and for the foreseeable future, those priorities seem to run counter to what the US wants.

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.