Dialogue staff writer Patrick Schnecker discusses the ever-changing relationships between the leaders of the largest country in the world and the largest economy in the world.
The relationship between Russia and the West has always been a complicated one, marked by moments of cooperation, yet most often overshadowed by ones of conflict. From the ‘Red Scares’ of the 1920s and 1950s, to President Truman’s ‘red button’, and the fall of the Iron Curtain, the West’s relationship with Russia has been tremulous, to say the least. At the heart of this geo-political relationship there is a personal one between leaders, which has often played a decisive role in shaping the course of events.
Throughout the past 50 years, the world has been able to observe the abrupt changes in relations between Russia and the West, mostly as a direct consequence of the leaders in charge. During the 1980s, following approximately 45 years of an uninterrupted Cold War between the Soviets and the West, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev offered a reset in the relations between the two spheres of influence. Did this mark the beginning of an elongated period of peace and harmony between the US and Russia? Not exactly. There have been some positive signs of unity and progress between these two nations, such as after the September 11th terror attacks. In the fallout of the tragedy, President Putin expressed his support for the US and worked with George W. Bush to pass the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty in 2002 followed by the establishment of a joint counterterrorism center in 2003. However, towards the end of Bush’s Presidency, arguably fueled by Russia’s annexation of Georgia in 2008, the incendiary sense of tension and hostility soon returned.
When Barack Obama became president in 2009, he sought to reset the United States’ relationship with Russia, envisioning an extended period of cooperation between the two countries. Obama held several meetings with Dmitry Medvedev, who replaced Putin as the Russian President between 2008 and 2012, and signed a series of agreements, ranging from nuclear arms reduction, to trade and closer ties. All of which was aimed at improving cooperation between the two countries.
For a time, it seemed as though the so-called “reset” had been successful. Yet, despite the two leaders managing to sign several bilateral agreements in regards to nuclear arms and sanctions against Iran, this phase of working in close liaison with each other was short-lived, and tensions between the two countries rapidly began skyrocketing once again.
The personal relationship between the leaders was yet again a significant contributing factor to the breakdown in US-Russian relations. When Vladimir Putin returned as Russian President in 2012, Obama’s stance on Russia suddenly changed. While Bush had enjoyed a relatively warm relationship with Putin, Obama, per contra, was seen as a more skeptical and critical figure. This tension was evident during their meetings, where the two leaders often appeared to be at odds with one another.
Tensions between Russia and the West reached a new height in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Many argue that this military intervention dictated by Putin was a direct ramification of Obama’s flawed relationship with the Russian President, ultimately weakening the United States’ global image and overall influence it may possess over Russia. This sparked a new round of sanctions from the West, which further soured relations between the two parties.
As per the pattern in the relationships between Russian and American leaders, when Donald Trump became US President in 2016, it was speculated that US-Russian relations were bound to improve. Trump’s general relationship with Russia and Putin was characterized by mixed signals. On the one hand, Trump pursued diplomatic efforts to improve relations with Russia, such as the Helsinki Summit with Putin in 2018. Conversely, Trump ordered his administration to maintain economic sanctions on Russia and further support NATO expansion in the Middle East.
Even on personal levels, Trump’s portrayal of Putin often varied throughout his Presidency. During the 2016 Presidential election, Trump repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin throughout his campaign, leading to an abundance of accusations of having ties to Russia, and Russian interference in the election was widely reported. Simultaneously, Trump was also known for his strong rhetoric, and he did in fact make a number of statements that could be seen as somewhat threatening to Putin, labeling him as a “competitor”, and constantly expressing his opinion that the US needed to be respected by Russia.
President Trump’s relationship with Putin was reflected in the general bond between the US and Russia, where complexity and controversy were accentuated. This lends itself to the endless foreign policy debate within US Politics between two diplomatic directions. Should the President adopt a harsher stance on Russian leaders, verbalizing the notable military and economic advantages that the United States holds over Russia? Conversely, is compromising and giving Russian leaders more diplomatic possibilities the most effective method of preventing further Russian aggression or expansion?
Today, the relationship between Russia and the West, particularly after the most recent invasion of Ukraine, remains strained. The personal relationship between Vladimir Putin and President Joe Biden is marked by a deep level of mistrust and suspicion, but could be equally as accurately labeled ‘non-existent’. Both sides continue to engage in a war of words, with accusations and counter-accusations flying back and forth. Biden and Putin have yet to meet in person since the former Delaware Senator began his Presidency. Many wonder whether adopting a more engaged approach towards Russia, where Biden would lead direct negotiations and talks with Putin, instead of repeatedly denouncing each other’s leaderships publicly, would somewhat stabilise US-Russian relations.
So, what does this mean for the US-Russian relationship in the coming years? Unsurprisingly, with the United States presidential elections of 2024 nearing us, it isn’t hard to speculate a continuity in the cycle of fluctuating relations between American and Russian leaders. If Joe Biden loses the election and a new US President takes office in 2025, there are several possible scenarios for how this relationship could evolve.
One possibility is that the new administration takes a more confrontational stance towards Russia, seeking to challenge Russian aggression in Ukraine whilst containing and limiting its influence in the region. This would follow in the footsteps of the Trump administration, where the 45th US President, although at times sought to build a more positive relationship with Putin, often offered the Russian leader uncensored warnings, emphasizing the potential power of the United States. As of 2025, this could also involve increasing sanctions, military aid to Ukraine, and working more closely with NATO allies to moreover solidify a united front against Russian actions.
Alternatively, a new US president may seek to engage with Russia and find common ground where possible. This could involve exploring areas of mutual interest, such as arms control or counterterrorism, and seeking to reduce tensions in areas where the two countries are at conflict. However, this approach would most definitely carry tremendous political risks, as any perceived concessions to Russia could be portrayed as weakness by domestic critics or allies. Looking at it from President Biden’s personal perspective he may be considering the potential political benefits of taking a harder stance on Putin and Russia even if it may not lead to geo-political progress. Being a tenacious Commander-in-Chief has always been popular amongst most Americans – from Truman launching the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to Reagan’s historical “Tear Down this Wall” speech addressed to Gorbachev, and George W. Bush’s unyielding response subsequent to the September 11th terror attacks. Thus, it would not be unprecedented if Biden uses this tactic to his own personal advantage as a way to augment his terrifically low approval ratings as we near the next presidential election.
The next logical step in US-Russian relations, if it follows the pattern that has been occurring uninterruptedly for the past couple of decades, would give more credibility to the second approach mentioned, where diplomacy and cooperation are prioritized above competition and isolationism. Yet, with Vladimir Putin leading Russia’s foreign policy, and carrying out cynical strategies that threaten not only Ukraine and its Eastern European neighbors, but the whole world’s order to expand his own hegemony, a tactful approach from Western leaders may not be entirely viable.
At the heart of this endless cycle of cooperation and conflict are the personal relationships between leaders. Whether it is the close relationship between Putin and Bush or the strained bond between Putin and Obama, these connections have always played a critical role in shaping the relationship between Russia and the West. Whether this cycle continues or not, it seems highly unlikely that the two sides will be able to find a way to work together in the near future. Would achieving peace require the removal of Putin entirely? Or would a less benign American foreign policy conclude further Russian aggression?
Regardless, like for the end of the Cold War, it takes only a select few to end this seemingly infinite cycle of rancor, and render Western and Russian relations a complete