Russia and the US: Cold War Mentality is a Major Factor

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Rethinking Russia continues interviews on the topic relations between Russia and the West. This time Rethinking Russia spoke with interview with Michael Slobodchikoff, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Troy University, USA.

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

Michael Slobodchikoff: Cold war mentality is a major factor. There is a history of animosity between Russia and the US, a history of competitiveness that is hard to move beyond. It takes more than a generation.

In the 1990s, there was an idea prevalent in the US that the West won the Cold War. There was a sense of euphoria, of post-history, a sense that there was no need to worry about anything. Attention moved to other areas of the world than Russia, which went on, in the eyes of American politicians, to being a regional entity that was a poor power at best. Russia was certainly no longer seen as a great power. Russians resented this attitude, and rightfully so.

Mistakes were made with NATO expansion. Among its drives are the security concerns of post-Soviet Eastern European states. They perceive membership in NATO as protection against potential Russian expansionism. The US did not expect a resurgence of Russia in the 1990s, but Eastern Europeans did.

We must not forget that there were some cooperation initiatives between the US and Russia in the 1990s in terms of disarmament, within the UN… The Russians participated in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 for example.

RR: What groups of state and non-state actors would you say benefit from tense relations between the USA and Russia? Why?

MS: The military-industrial complex undoubtedly benefits.

Eastern European states that are weary of Russia also benefit: NATO conducts more exercises in the Baltics for example.

Unfortunately, one must also recognize that think tanks benefit: some people have made their livelihood on cold war tensions. It is much harder to put a face on terror than it is on a state.

RR: Would you say people in your state are generally weary of Russia? Why?

MS: It is important to separate elites and non-elite.

The masses are not necessarily weary of Russia in general, though anti-Russian sentiment has been rising as a consequence of the Ukraine conflict. The public has forgotten most of the Cold War rhetoric, the branding of Russia as the ‘empire of evil’.

Elites, on the other hand, are very weary of Russia. They are concerned about Eastern Europe. European elites push the US ones to have this attitude. Furthermore, some elites in power in the US still belong to the ‘cold warrior’ generation.

I would like to note that Russian Studies at university level has taken a strong hit in the US since the 1990s. Europe is light-years ahead in the study of current Russian politics.

RR: Is the divergence in attitudes towards Russia amongst the elite related to the split between political parties?

MS: No, the differences in attitude towards Russia cannot be mapped on the divergence between Democrats and Republicans.

The attitude of the American elite towards Russia is becoming increasingly related to the ‘personal’. The state of the president-to-president relation heavily influences attitudes towards Russia. Clinton and Yeltsin got along well together for example, which corresponded to a de-escalation of tension.

However, change is slow-coming. Whether Clinton or Trump win the election this year, tensions with Russia are unlikely to deescalate. A change of elite structure in Russia could yield more rapid change in relations. Putin has been more conciliatory towards the West recently.

Elections in the US are won on questions of domestic policy. Foreign policy is fairly constant from one president to another. Obama tried to temper anti-Russian elites during his mandates.  General Breedlove, for example, pushed for stronger anti-Russian policies than those that were actually adopted.

RR: Is the relatively stable line of foreign policy from president to president related to business interests of the lobby in Washington?

MS: There were certainly oil and gas interests that played a role in the US policy concerning the Ukraine question. US businesses now are however likely to push for détente in relations with Russia: they are afraid to lose out their share of the market to European business.

RR: How has the perception of Russia by the politicians in the USA changed since 1991? What about popular opinion? Why has it changed?

MS: Change has been cyclical. In 1991, Russia was a major concern. First, it was a former enemy that the US was weary of. Second, there was the issue of nuclear weapons that quickly needed to be addressed. However, Russia rapidly moved off the radar. In 2008, US policy makers were taken by surprise by Russia’s actions in Georgia, which brought back the idea that Russia is trying to assert itself. A concern of policy makers was that Russia was trying to recreate a Soviet Union. This was an easy slogan to adopt for politicians.

RR: Do you think cooperation between the USA and Russia is desirable? Is it viable?

MS: Cooperation is both viable and desirable.

It is desirable for example in the field of security. Following 9/11, there was cooperation between US and Russian secret services against terrorist networks. This is a wonderful resource. Russia is better suited to deal with some states than the US, as a heritage of Cold War.

RR: Do you see any impediments to cooperation? Which ones?

MS: Amongst the groups that are trying to prevent cooperation we can find states that would not want more cooperation, in particular the Eastern European states that have a trust issue with Russia. Likewise, the business interests of the military-industrial complex may try to discourage cooperation. There is a general distrust of Russian actions inherited from the Cold War.

RR: What form could cooperation take? What would it be based on?

MS: More cooperation between intelligence services can be developed in the context of the Syrian conflict against terrorism. Cooperation can also be developed further in space exploration, as well as in a limited manner in Arctic exploration. Future crises can also be opportunities for limited cooperation.

One field where we are unlikely to see close cooperation in the near future is trade. The mechanism is not there yet to develop trade between Russia and the US. Russia is looking towards China to diversify its export destinations. An increase of trade cooperation between Russia and Europe, is, on the other hand, likely, based on the already existing trade network.

Interview by Nora Kalinskij

Photo by StrelaStudio

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