I personally feel there is ample evidence to show that there have been many opportunities missed by the US to establish new connections and interaction with Russia

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Rethinking Russia continues interviews on the topic relations between Russia and the West. This time Rethinking Russia spoke with Matthew Crosston, Miller Endowed Chair for Industrial and International Security, Professor of Political Science, Director – The International Security and Intelligence Studies Program, Bellevue University, USA.

Rethinking Russia: What are some of the reasons you would give for the political tensions
between Russia and the state you reside in?

Matthew Crosston: The simple reality is that there is a ‘Cold War residue’ that mentally still plagues too many decision-makers within both the Russian Federation and the United States. I personally feel there is ample evidence to show that there have been many opportunities missed by the US to establish new connections and interaction with Russia, but that mental residue proved too strong on the authorities in power. Keep in mind this is not me being overly idealistic or utopian: those new relations might not have ended up friendly, but they would have been based upon more modern factors that truly left behind legacies of past empires and history. This would have been progress, in my opinion, even if adversarial or skeptical relations continued between the two countries.

RR: What groups of state and non-state actors would you say benefit from tense relations between the USA and Russia, cultivated both in the
political elite and the general population? Why do they benefit from this tension?

MC: Given what I said above, it is clear that the intelligence communities, defense industries, and military-industrial complexes of both countries benefit from a failure of the US and Russia to reconstitute their relationship and cultivate new understanding. This is not to say they want actual war between the two. Indeed, simply remaining tense and adversarial keeps the relevance, profitability, and primacy of these organizations quite high. In addition to this, in America certainly, an entire sub-industry has been developed and maintained around this continued animosity, based on literally dozens of think tanks and intellectual analytical centers. In a media age of complete and constant saturation, conflict sells much more than peace. How we overcome that as a society, quite frankly, remains a mystery.

RR: What groups of state and non-state actors propagate this tension in
the political sphere? In society as a whole? Would you say that these groups cooperate to propagate tension with Russia?

MC: I’ve answered this to a degree above, but it is important to add that the political party system in the United States as a whole, Democrat and Republican, is at the moment de facto accepting the status quo. That is, new members of Congress come in basically understanding that Russia and the United States are rivals, will always remain rivals, and any maneuver performed by Russia is one aimed at propagating misunderstanding and tension. In some ways it can be argued that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, where we create the very atmosphere we publicly declare to be lamentable. Ironically, however, I do not believe in coordinated and purposeful ‘cooperation’ to maintain this animosity, if that implies a conspiracy-like effort to keep the two countries apart. Alas, reality is almost worse: it means the acceptance of animosity between the two countries is seen almost as an organic process, innate to current politics, and immune to change.

RR: Would you say people in the USA are generally weary of Russia?
Why? Where do you think this weariness originates from? Do you think this weariness renders peoples’ choice of the media they read/watch selective? Do you think a negative opinion of Russia amongst people has an impact on your state’s decision-making?

MC: In this case you cannot really get around the totality of information inundation that happens within the United States, as it concerns ‘maintaining a single narrative.’ What I mean by that is if a relatively unaware and uninformed public only gets a single argumentation, a single line of reasoning, regarding another state’s perspectives, attitude, and purpose, and that argument is resoundingly negative, then ‘Russia-fatigue’ becomes a fait accompli – a foregone conclusion. As a specialist who often focuses his work on Russian-American relations, it can be quite disturbing how often we find ‘strong’ opinions here in America about Russia, but then follow-up questions reveal that strong opinion to be founded upon very skewed or extremely limited and partial information. There is a challenge in the intellectual community, I believe in both countries, to produce louder voices, with more compelling arguments, about the need for change and attitudinal innovation. At this point, those voices, unfortunately, are rare and largely quiet.

RR: Has the perception of Russia by the politicians in the USA changed since 1991? What about popular opinion? If yes, why has this opinion changed on both levels?

MC: An entire generation has passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I was a college student, spending an entire year abroad in a formerly closed city of Tambov in 1991, completely by myself in order to intensify the immersion experience, becoming the first American ever to study in that city. When I think back to those days, at all of the hope, the presumptive positivity about what the future would hold for Russian-American relations, it is difficult to not shake my head in disappointment today. Mutual decisions made on both sides entrenched old thinking so that whenever one country misstepped, the responding counter-reaction was amplified in a negative way. It seems now that it would be fair to say our hope was misplaced because neither side was truly ready to change its thinking fundamentally. Thus, we were rather naïve and perhaps ignorant. What is the famous quote about insanity? To do the same thing over and over again but expect a different result. That is what best explains relations between the United States and Russian Federation since 1991. Our thinking, on both sides, continued in the same light, over and over and over, while the authorities kept publicly expecting the dawning of a new day. Perception changes, especially when it comes to states that are long-time rivals and adversaries, with a dutiful attempt to alter thinking even when political action is fairly limited. There has to be a first step with an acceptance of doubt and skepticism but within an atmosphere of hopeful progress. For the most part, the major thinkers on these relations since 1991 have never sincerely tried to change their own thinking while demanding major political action and change. This goes a long way in explaining why we have only seen distrust and cynicism increase in the new millennium.

RR: Do you think cooperation between the USA and Russia is desirable?
Is it viable? What forms should this cooperation take? Do you see any impediments to cooperation? Which ones? What groups of state and non-state actors would you say
benefit from a cooperation relations between your state and Russia?

MC: I have long been in the very small academic camp of contrarians that believes cooperation between the United States and Russia is not only desirable and viable, but deeply necessary across a number of important global security issues. The problem with the current state of affairs is that we look at this relationship process in a binomial way: it is either 1, signifying perfect cooperation, or 0, signifying total absence of any connectivity whatsoever. This is unhelpful. Indeed, it also ignores the complicated and multi-layered reality that is global affairs. The United States and Russia have too many common security and political interests across the global stage to think they should not be striving to achieve new levels of interaction that ultimately lead to sustained cooperation. It is not contradictory to ‘get along’ on some issues while being stridently ‘opposed’ to each other on other issues. This is simply the nature of international relations. It always has been. It always will be. And yet, for some reason, there has always been a reluctance to let American-Russian relations follow this same structure. It is incredibly frustrating to an expert who thinks the benefits of even partial cooperation far outweigh any supposed risks of engagement. Overall, we need to stop waiting for total success if it means we are not allowing for the existence of small progress. It seems logical, given the great historical weight holding Russian-American relations back, groaning under the weight of negative legacy, that we need to move forward only by political and diplomatic ‘babysteps.’ In time, looking back, we will cover the same amount of ground as when we all stood around in 2016 waiting for some giant irrational leap of instantaneous progress.

RR: Do they benefit from cooperation in different spheres or only in
particular ones? Which ones?

MC: First and foremost, the singular most pressing security issue of our time, the fight against radicalism and terrorist extremism, is and always has been an obvious point of collaboration and camaraderie between the United States and Russian Federation. The fact of the matter is that the two countries above all others most interested in and most passionate about the elimination or constraining of radical Islamist terrorism are the United States and Russian Federation. And yet, despite this inarguable point of connection, the two have been incredibly limited on this issue. Perhaps on an even more important long-term peacebuilding front, greater collaboration and synchronicity in terms of economic engagement could have far-reaching effects on Central and Eastern Europe and the greater Caspian region. For example, if Russia and the United States (or its closer diplomatic geographical cousin, the EU) had better understanding and better ‘trust cache’ between each other, then would the events of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea even have come about? Ukrainian activism notwithstanding, it is quite possible the very need for Maidan would have been severely undermined. Pushing better and more cooperative economic interdependence will not just help Russian-American relations in specific but will release so much tension that presently exists across many smaller regions in general.

Interview by Nora Kalinskij

Photo by ImageFlow

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