May 25, 2016
By Dmitri Trenin

The arrival of a new U.S. president in the White House will not improve U.S.-Russian relations – Barack Obama’s successor is likely to act tougher toward Russia. The fundamentally differing views of their respective roles in global affairs mean that reconciliation between Moscow and Washington is unlikely in the medium term.

Russia-U.S. relations have entered the third year of confrontation. The good news is that over the last year, this confrontation has stabilized, becoming a “new normal” for the relationship. The bad news is that the state of confrontation is long-lasting, and, more recently, it has acquired some of the characteristics of military-political confrontation in Eastern Europe, combined with an unfolding arms race.

Despite the partial stabilization of the situation in eastern Ukraine and local cooperation in Syria, the danger of direct confrontation between Russia and the U.S. remains. It should be borne in mind that, in contrast to the Cold War, the current confrontation is clearly asymmetrical. The obvious disparity of forces in favor of the U.S. requires Russia to compensate for its weakness by increasing the stakes, a willingness to take more risks and sudden actions that put an opponent at a disadvantage.

On the other hand, this inequality, combined with a sense of moral superiority, is pushing the U.S. to an underestimation of Russia as being “in a state of increasing decadence,” the perception of Russia’s actions as a bluff, and a further ratcheting up of pressure. In such circumstances, there is a high risk of incidents. A collision between Russian and U.S. aircraft or an aircraft and a warship in the Baltic or Black Sea regions could escalate the confrontation to more dangerous levels.

Cooperation does not eliminate competition

The hopes that emerged in the last couple of months of easing the tensions between the U.S. and Russia were dashed from the very beginning. The confrontation is fundamental. It is not born of the parties’ misunderstanding or specific errors, but of a clash of exceptionalisms between the U.S., which does not see anyone in the world as its equal, and Russia, which insists on equality with the most powerful. It therefore comes to the world order, the role of the U.S. in it, and the status of Russia.

It is clear from this conclusion that even the presence of obvious common interests – such as preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and the fight against Islamist extremism – cannot fundamentally change the situation. The very conditions of cooperation are the subject of intense struggle. There is no point in hoping for a warming of relations as a result of the arrival of a new U.S. president in the White House. Most likely, Barack Obama’s successor will act tougher toward Russia than the current president.

It is unlikely that the hopes of those who are awaiting the easing and even the lifting of Western sanctions against Russia will be fulfilled soon. U.S. sanctions are for a very long time, but also the E.U. sanctions, despite the desire of some politicians to cancel them, will remain in force for a lengthy period of time.

This is not just transatlantic solidarity. By linking the lifting of sanctions with the implementation of the Minsk agreements in conditions when Kiev simply cannot do this without fatal damage to the stability of the current government, Berlin and Brussels make the lifting of sanctions unrealistic in the foreseeable future. The blame for the failure of the Minsk agreements will be then laid at the feet of Moscow.

The end of Pax Americana

The mid-2010s saw the end of the quarter-century period of Pax Americana – U.S. global domination which was not seriously contested by anyone. Now, the world powers – the U.S., China and Russia – have entered a period of rivalry.

In response to this change, the U.S. has altered its global strategy. From an emphasis on universalism (the stimulation of globalization, the promotion of democratic values in the world), Washington is moving to strengthen the position of the enlarged West and actively deter countries that challenge the United States.

Under these circumstances, it is too early to look for a way out of the confrontation. The Russian leadership has been active, but the maximum that can be obtained through such tactics is to buy time. The crucial question is whether Moscow is able to use this time to support its bid for the place and the role of one of the leading world powers through a substantial strengthening of its economic, scientific and technical as well as cultural and informational power.

As for relations with the U.S., they will focus on the management of the confrontation in the short and medium term. This is primarily the prevention of incidents involving soldiers of the two countries; an effective freezing of the conflict in the Donbass and, finally, the maintenance of permanent and reliable contacts with influential U.S. officials to avoid the misrepresentation of certain actions by Moscow and Washington.

Dmitri Trenin is the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.