Can the U.S. and Russia Bury the Bones of Contention?

The two countries have some cooperation in counter-terrorism, arms control and maintaining global strategic balance, which would make restarting the Cold War difficult.

Even before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to explore possible areas of cooperation with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Iceland on the sidelines of the Arctic Council ministerial meeting on May 20, a lot of damage had already been done to the traditionally fragile bilateral relationship. As recently as in April, Lavrov said in a state television interview that Russia’s relations with the U.S. are now even worse than during Cold War times because of a lack of mutual respect.

He was echoed by Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, who said, “During the recent years, the relations between Russia and the U.S. have actually moved from rivalry to confrontation. In fact, they have returned to the era of the Cold War.”

Tensions between the two countries intensified recently over several issues. They included the U.S. reaction to the Russia-Ukraine standoff, with Blinken saying in early May that the U.S. could increase security assistance to Ukraine in response to the increasing Russian military deployments near the Ukrainian border.

Another bone of contention is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project that would deliver natural gas directly to Germany from Russia through the Baltic Sea, with the U.S. branding it a “Russian geopolitical project” to divide Europe and weaken its energy security. In March, Blinken even threatened to sanction the companies involved in the project. In addition, accusations of espionage and assassination bids against Russia and military exercises have seen tensions escalate in the recent months.

The U.S. action

U.S. President Joe Biden sees Russia as a major “spoiler” that seeks to “thwart the West’s plans” with its every move. In keeping with the traditions of his Democratic Party, Biden professes that reviving “democracy” worldwide is key to U.S. national security. He has called Russia the enemy of democracy and the United States’ greatest competitor.

During his first 100 days as president, Biden called for the release of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was jailed in February for an earlier fraud case after the authorities accused him of violating probation conditions. In March, a new report issued by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence alleged extensive interference by Russia in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. elections. Supposedly in retaliation to the interference, the Biden administration expelled 10 Russian diplomats and announced broad sanctions against Russian officials and entities. And now it has talked of providing both military and economic support for Ukraine.

One of the worst gaffes by Biden was when he called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a killer” during an interview, which triggered angry reactions from Russia. If Washington wants to mend fences with Moscow, riling Putin is not the right way to go about it. Especially in view of the possibility that Putin could remain president till 2036 since a new law signed into effect in April allows him to run for power for two more terms.

The U.S. moves demonstrate that Washington is trying to counter Russia’s leverage on international affairs through tools such as intensified interference in Russia’s internal affairs, economic sanctions, an arms race and information warfare.

The U.S. global hegemony cannot be sustained without the support of its European allies. So the Biden administration is making efforts to repair transatlantic relations by returning to multilateralism and giving priority to rebuilding alliances.

The U.S. and the EU have resumed dialogue on some international issues and even reached a consensus in principle. Biden’s speech at the special virtual edition of the Munich Security Conference in February stressed that the U.S. will work closely with its EU partners to meet “shared challenges.” The joint statement issued by the Group of Seven foreign and development ministers’ meeting in May said member states “nevertheless will continue to bolster our collective capabilities and those of our partners to address and deter Russian behavior that is threatening the rules-based international order.”

Some EU countries have seized the chance to intensify anti-Russian deployments. Central and East European countries, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, have always viewed Russia as a threat. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania have expelled Russian diplomats in what they said was an act of solidarity with the U.S.

Lavrov has said that Moscow would be ready to sever ties with the EU if the bloc hit it with painful economic sanctions.

Russian reaction

In April, during the annual state-of-the-nation address, Putin said Russia has shown restraint and often refrained from responding to “openly boorish” actions by others. He also warned the West against encroaching further on Russia’s security interests, saying the response will be “quick and tough.”

In tit-for-tat actions against the U.S. and its European allies, Russia recalled its ambassador to the U.S. and expelled diplomats from those countries. It also banned a string of top officials from the Biden administration from entering Russia. Finally, on May 14, it designated the U.S. and the Czech Republic as “unfriendly states.”

Since March, Russia has increased its military presence along the Ukrainian border, and normalized military exercises in the Black Sea near the Crimean Peninsula to counter growing NATO military activity. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russian armed forces were ready for all-out war.

The U.S., however, is trying to avoid a military conflict with Russia. On April 13, Biden told Putin in a phone call that he wanted to normalize bilateral ties and to establish stable and predictable interaction on pressing issues such as strategic stability and arms control, Iran’s nuclear program, Afghanistan and climate change. He also proposed holding a summit in the coming months. Then the U.S. canceled the deployment of two warships in the Black Sea, trying to defuse the situation.

The way out

The seeds of mutual distrust go back in history. The completely pro-Western policy during the time of President Boris Yeltsin from 1991 to 1999 saw Russia face social and economic upheavals with national development receiving a severe setback. It turned out to be a bitter lesson for Russia.

There is also a structural conflict between the long-term strategic goals of the two countries. Russia is a strong defender of its own geopolitical and economic interests. At the same time, once a global power, it is reluctant to accept its relative decline in the international landscape and is striving to remain a major player.

The U.S., on the other hand, regards Russia as a declining power and one of its key policies has been to prevent Russia’s revival.

Due to the lack of strategic mutual trust and weak economic ties, it is hard for a quick turnaround in Russia-U.S. relations. The U.S. will continue to implement its policy of containing Russia, and the disputes in areas such as NATO’s expansion, currently the centerpiece of U.S. security policy toward Europe, and missile defense are hard to resolve.

Upholding the “America First” policy, former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned several major arms control treaties, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in 1987, in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to eliminate all ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km.

However, the two countries have some cooperation in counter-terrorism, arms control and maintaining global strategic balance, which would make restarting the Cold War difficult.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, extended on February 3, will be in effect till February 5, 2026. The renewal of the sole arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia just 48 hours before it was to expire is also critical to prevent a new nuclear weapon race.

It remains to be seen what comes out of future bilateral interactions and a possible Biden-Putin summit.


Han Lu is a researcher with the China Institute of International Studies.