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The Past and Future of Russian-American Relations

by Robert W. Warden on Dec 10, 1997

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian-American relations, if not close, have been tranquil. This calm is unlikely to prevail indefinitely. It is vital that we not react to growing Russian assertiveness by opening a new Cold War or renewing the old one.

We should not panic if Russia, in the short-term, becomes more antagonistic toward Western values and interests. First, Russians have good cause to be upset with the United States, due to the disappointing results of the privatization that Western governments, institutions, and advisors demanded. Touted as the road to prosperity, it has produced little so far but corruption, crime, and economic chaos.

Second and more important, the current round of reforms is part of a complex and ongoing process of assimilation and rejection of West European cultural influences characteristic of Russian history. Depending upon the needs of the times and the course of events, the balance between acceptance and dismissal of foreign influences shifts. Geography and shared cultural traditions (notably Christianity) suggest that Russia is definitely part of Europe, though in the short-term, rejection of aspects of the West may prevail.

Russia’s relations with Western Europe follow a pattern. Russian rulers from Ivan the Terrible in the fourteenth century to Mikhail Gorbachev in our own time have looked to the West for the technologies and ideologies needed to compete in European international politics. In the usual course of events, the government aggressively introduces changes, which adversely affect society and eventually create a backlash. The administration reworks or curtails the innovations, but does not reverse them. Russia’s leap into the market is likely to adhere to this pattern, and we must not overreact as Russia digests these enormous changes.

Peter the Great’s reign as Tsar (1696-1725) is the best example of this process. Peter sought to gain territories in the Baltic to shorten trading links with Western Europe. To do this, he needed a reformed military and government to fight the technologically superior Poles and Swedes. He imposed compulsory education in the latest military, naval, and administrative techniques upon Russian nobles and required their service as officers and civil servants. Upon Peter’s death, his successors heeded the pleas of the nobility and lessened the rigor of his system while retaining its essentials. The state reduced the term of service for nobles (originally for life) and eventually made service optional. Nevertheless, the Russian army and state remained organized and trained on Western lines. The burden of taxes, conscription, and serfdom upon the peasants, however, remained heavy.

Russia is undergoing a similar process today. To compete in the modern global economy, the Soviet Union needed industrial reorganization and updated technology. Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika (“restructuring”) began to do so. Yeltsin dramatically intensified this process, increasing the popular dissatisfaction evident today.

So we should not be shocked when Russian policymakers take actions against Western interests in the Middle East, or when Russian intellectuals and politicians whip up anti-Westernism. It is both a legitimate reaction to immediate problems and part of the continuing adaptation by Russia of useful (if vexatious) foreign ways.

Presently, anti-Westernism is unfocused, as no one on the Russian left or right has yet made use of the discontent created by privatization. Misgivings about market reforms did bring Communists and nationalists seats in parliament, but neither has articulated any real alternative policies, and reformists still dominate economic policy.

Whoever eventually uses this discontent is likely to appeal to the Soviet past. The stability and international influence enjoyed under Brezhnev in the 1970’s appeal to those hurt by reform. But a return to Stalinism is high unlikely. For all of its problems, too many have tasted the fruits of social, economic and political liberalization for a reversion to Stalinism to be possible. As Neil Young once sang, “Once you’re gone, you can’t go back.” 

With Russia’s military suffering badly from an acute shortage of funds, aggressive expansionism and a rerun of the Cold War are nearly impossible. Yet even without ideological conflict, Russian and American geopolitical interests do not coincide. Both states will pursue policies to their own advantage, creating tension between the two nations. France has long pursued a foreign policy independent of the United States, yet we count it as a friend and ally. Surely Russia can do the same and remain at least a friend. Our overreaction, dictated by memories of Cold War fears, will turn a weak and troubled rival into a formidable and irreconcilable enemy.


Robert W. Warden is a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh specializing in Soviet and Russian history, and a writer for the History News Service.