Troubled US-Russian relations cast a long shadow, but some stability is still possible

Kate Backshall | United States Fellow

It’s been 30 years since the Iron Curtain fell, yet many issues which plagued US-Russian relations still persist: concerns over weapons proliferation, democratic values, sovereignty, NATO’s role and each other's influence in proxy wars. U.S. President Biden and Russian President Putin met mid-June, returning dialogue to frosty relations and giving diplomatic attention to some of these familiar concerns, alongside a few contemporary disagreements.


The relationship has been classed as ‘at its lowest since the Cold War’ after several recent tit-for-tat actions. These include an escalation along the Ukrainian border, Putin declaring the US an ‘unfriendly country’ while expelling diplomats, Russia ending the ‘open lands’ agreement after the US formally ended the ‘open skies’ treaty, and Biden upping sanctions over cyberattacks. These are just a snippet of a longer trend of deterioration and speaks to a wider challenging of power dynamics; as America’s hegemony has shown signs of weakness, Putin has increasingly chastised the US for trying to contain Russia. Despite this, opportunities to collaborate still exist and they share an interest in pursuing ‘strategic stability,’ but Russia undoubtedly will continue to be a thorn in US plans and vice-versa with the complexity of their relationship.


Ukraine Border Tensions


After 9/11, US-Russia relations had enjoyed a period of increased cooperation on areas of mutual interest, but the relationship corroded after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, remaining antagonistic ever since. Again, to the alarm of Ukrainians, Russia has militarised their shared border and conducted hostile behaviours in the Black Sea such as blocking access to two Ukrainian ports. The US responded by sending two warships and since, the border troops presence has somewhat scaled back. The Kremlin insisted these were military exercises, but it appeared more likely grey zone tactics – these are pressure tactics that can be aggressive or coercive while skirting under traditional definitions of warfare. Here, these tactics could have been intended to pressure the untested US Administration, NATO or Ukraine; what is clear is these tactics are proving to be challenging for Western governments to respond to.


Cyber Threats


Another prominent grey zone tactic is cyberattacks, with the US recently experiencing a myriad of Russian-originating attacks. Some incidents have hit critical infrastructure, like the Colonial Pipeline attack in April. Others have been serious information breaches, seen in the December SolarWinds hack thought to be carried out by Russian intelligence. Further, the Kremlin was accused of collecting information to create disinformation and voter division, which interfered with the 2016 election. This space remains an area of considerable risk and blurs the line of what is considered an act of war. Considering the potential for damage, even loss of life, when critical infrastructure is targeted, and that non-state actors could commit these acts, it’s unsurprising that discussing more effective rules of engagement was important to both leaders at the Summit.


Proxy Wars and Human Rights


The US and Russia have contested each other’s interests in numerous proxy wars, like in Afghanistan, which has a long history of being their physical and ideological battleground. The recently announced US withdrawal is a potential point for US-Russia cooperation as both seek stability in Afghanistan in their absence. This is, however, hardly the only proxy the two have vested interests in. Libya and Syria are two more examples where their competing interests have acted as spoilers of de-escalation at the expense of civilian populations. While Biden has insisted the US is now centring human rights in their foreign policy, actively opposing Russia on this front is no simple task, which was highlighted in the US muted response to chemical weapons attacks in Syria. There is no shortage of challenges looming on the human rights front either, like the Kremlin supporting Myanmar’s military Junta or the poisoning of Russian Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny. Post-Summit, in response to the Navalny situation, Putin deflected by listing the US’ human rights shortcomings and made asymmetrical comparisons to penalising the US’ January 6 rioters.


Conclusion


There are more contentious issues between the two powers, but the US is also preoccupied with China, thus reducing tensions with Russia and avoiding unwittingly strengthening Sino-Russian ties will be front of mind for policymakers. Areas of likely collaboration include non-proliferation, defining clearer cyberattack boundaries, climate, counter-terrorism and managing conflicts such as Afghanistan.


As relations have soured, scores of Russian diplomats have been expelled from NATO countries as consequence for incidents like the Salisbury poisonings in the UK. Closing communication lines has downsides, but suitable statecraft tools are limited when combatting grey zone tactics. Although channels for understanding one another have shrunk, the Summit allowed for dialogue and the reinstatement of Ambassadors. Balancing the US’ moral positions with the realpolitik demands of keeping civil channels with Russia open remains delicate work.


Kate Backshall is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs