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Why US and Russia Keep Blowing Hot and Cold
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By Yu Sui


The Russia-US relationship is one of the world's most closely watched bilateral ties between two major powers.


Relations were good at one time then turned bad at another and have kept alternating back and forth. Relations are now cold and awkward after a love fest some years back. This Russia-US relationship has its inherent logic for being inconsistent.


First of all, the short-lived love affair was the victim of expediency. Today's Russia-US relationship has evolved from the Soviet era. At that time it was a relationship between two superpowers.


However, as Russia's national strength went downhill, the relationship became one between one of the big powers and the only superpower. That means Russia is now an underling. That said, with its enormous potential with ambitions to match, Russians won't be looking up at America forever.


Towards the end of his years in power as Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin began to turn his foreign policy from totally West-looking to multi-directional, while the West still believed he was sticking to the pro-Europe and US-style democracy he had chosen.


When Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin, he made it clear he would not follow the Euro-American trail but rekindle the Russian spirit. As the political mindset formed over recent history could not make an immediate turn around, the Russia-US relationship remained passionate in the early years of the Putin administration.


This warm relationship was for all to see when the leaders of the two nations exchanged visits in those years.


During his US visit in November 2001, Putin and President George W. Bush inked a joint communiqué sealing the new bilateral ties. The message was that Russia and the US "have overcome the remnants of the Cold War and no longer consider the other an enemy or threat".


During his visit to Moscow in May 2002, Bush signed a joint communiqué with Putin on the reduction of offensive strategic force and a "new strategic relationship".


The communiqué states that Russia and the US "are committed to the principles of developing our bilateral relations on the basis of friendliness, cooperation, common values, trust, openness and predictability". And it specifically says both sides "wish to promote the stability, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations" in Central Asia and the Caucasus.


Bush went so far as to tell Putin he would push Congress to abolish legislation that restricts bilateral trade growth, recognize Russia as a market economy as soon as possible, and help Russia join the World Trade Organization. Putin said Russia-US ties were entering a new era.


Russia-US relations had already experienced a new high in 2001 after 9/11, when Russia lent a hand in America's war on terror. Russia needed to court the US as part of its national rejuvenation strategy, but Moscow learned that Washington was not dependable.


As Putin pushed forward his pragmatic reform policy, especially after he adopted the so-called "manageable democracy" to maintain the country's stability, the US became increasingly uneasy about what Putin was doing. Washington openly faulted him for turning back on the road to democracy, pursuing autocracy and trying to bring back the Soviet era.


The US repeatedly instigated and supported the "color revolutions" in former Soviet lands. The political changes weakened Russia's geopolitical advantages and chilled the Russia-US relationship along the way.


Though Russia sought to maintain a lasting bilateral relationship with the US, the expedient nature of this relationship was too obvious to miss.


The Russia-US relationship was destined for a roller- coaster ride. The cooling down of Russia-US relationships have a lot to do with the fact that the US became the sole superpower in the world, with the relentless advance of economic globalization headed by developed Western countries, and with the waning and then resurgence of Russia's national strength.


While Washington, hell-bent on making sure it was the undisputed leader in key international affairs, played its power game to the hilt, Russia refused to be intimidated. It proceeded to show that it had a say in weighty matters where its interests and esteem were at stake.


But Russia knew its limits when it came to world influence. Compared with the US, it was still a military giant but with a dwarf economy. So it put equal emphasis on both economic and military security. It replaced the idea of military might as representing national strength with that of comprehensive national strength. Its security strategy became part of its development strategy.


In foreign affairs, it tried to make as few enemies and as many friends as possible, improve its diplomacy, and avoid being isolated again. Its fundamental principles are: Never allow any of the former Soviet republics to become beachfronts for anti-Russia moves; thwart at all cost Western allies' efforts to complete their encirclement of Russian one way or another; and make sure the country is not threatened by nuclear proliferation.


Russia pulled out all the stops to navigate among various power centers very carefully and around the US in particular, in a bid to build a favorable balance of power for itself at minimum cost. Putin used his velvet-gloved iron hand and moved first whenever possible in foreign affairs to win a bigger share of whatever would benefit Russia.


Russia's premises to achieve national rejuvenation were to secure national unity, economic acceleration and political stability, while the US' Russian policy was designed to undermine these safeguards. As Russia's economy improved with its pillar energy industry holding strong, its ability to counter and rival the US noticeably increased.


Russia does not have the kind of long-term cooperation mechanism in political as well as military affairs with the US that the US has maintained with its NATO allies nor the kind of economic cooperation it has developed with China.


Russia and the US also hold different views on the threat posed by terrorism, hence their varied focuses on anti-terror actions. All this illustrates the relative weakness of the basis for the Russia-US strategic partnership.


Nevertheless, their relationship, warm or cold, has survived because of its pragmatism. When mutual assistance takes priority, their cooperation and coordination shine. But when conflict and rivalry come to the fore, they focus on kicking each other out of the way.


Over the years, their strategic cooperation has managed to find common ground even when their relations turned cold.


Looking ahead, factors such as national interests, major power status and worldwide repercussions will decidedly influence Russia-US relations. That means the two countries will likely elbow more than assist each other.


The US has been trying to nurture a weak but stable Russia that adopts American values. Given the fact that Russia is a huge Eurasian country, it cannot help being a major country for the US to guard against whether the US strategic focus remains on Europe or extends toward Asia. Russia has been talking about going back to its European roots, but still remembers it is a big Eurasian country.


Russia plans to develop the Asian part of its vast territory and is paying more attention to the Asia-Pacific region. Particularly noteworthy is Russia's strategic partnerships with China and India and its extensive cooperation with the two Asian giants. This to a significant degree has drawn US attention to Asia.


But Russia-US cooperation can be expected to continue no matter how cool their relationship becomes. For instance, Russia and the US launched a new bilateral cooperation mechanism, a dialogue on strategic security, in September 2006.


And two months later, when Bush made a refueling stop in Russia on his way to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Organization summit in Vietnam, Putin met with him at the airport for an hour.


That meeting was followed by the November 19 signing of an agreement between the two countries on Russia's World Trade Organization membership. This removed the largest obstacle in Russia's way to the international body.


The Iraq War has not only brought more of Europe's grudges against Washington to light but also given Russia an opportunity to play the role of cross-Atlantic mediator.


The Russia-US relationship is indeed complex. Even with forces favoring pragmatic cooperation, it is probably next to impossible for the two to become strategic partners in the real sense of the term.


(The author is a researcher with Beijing-based Research Center of Contemporary World.)


(China Daily January 23, 2007)

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