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U.S.-Russian Relations: The Problem Is Not Resolving the Relationship’s Core Problems

photo Russian and American flags

By Gordon M. Hahn

At the recent NATO summit in Antaliya, Turkey several senior NATO officials indicated during a media briefing that “NATO will attempt in its bilateral relations with Russia to prioritize issues on which the alliance and Moscow can see eye to eye, rather than focusing on issues of contention” (Ivan Nechepurenko, “Kerry Brings Cautious Signs of Russia Detente to NATO Meeting,” The Moscow Times, 14 May 2015). This is precisely the wrong approach to the West’s relationship with Russia. It leaves untouched the very contentious issues that over the last decade and more have created the overall dynamic of deterioration in the relationship and driven a growing frequency of Russian-U.S. conflict, increasing the risk to international security in Europe and Eurasia.

The only way to salvage the NATO-Russian and larger Western-Russian relationship is to begin working and developing mutual compromises on the most difficult issues, most notably the European-Eurasian security architecture, NATO expansion, and mutually exclusive approaches over spheres of influence. Unfortunately, it may already be too late for either side to make the compromises necessary to avoid further destabilization and conflict over the long-term.

The basic problem of an approach focused only on areas of agreement and leaving unresolved more contentious issues in the relationship is that it allows difficult issues to fester, to be stealthily contested, and then explode in conflict under the weight of events and the parties’ opposing policies. This is what happened in the runup to both the 2008 Georgian war and the present Ukraine crisis. Western support for color revolutions and the primarily nationalist and anti-Russian, though semi-democratic regimes in both countries – along with the 2008 NATO summit’s declaration that both countries would someday be NATO members – sparked two wars in no less than six years.

This mistaken approach has a somewhat long pedigree. It first surfaced with a report published by a series of writers in 2007 recommending to whatever incoming U.S. administration would be in waiting in 2008 that America’s Russia policy focus on issues such as arms control. This in effect left all the serious post-Cold War issues in purgatory and reverted the relationship to something like the Cold War era’s détente’ which centered precisely around arms control issues. As I noted in a 2008 report for the Gary Hart-Jack Matlock Working Group on U.S.-Russian Relations for then new Barack Obama Administration, a better approach would be to focus on the core issues of a new post-Cold War European-Eurasian security architecture and an end to NATO expansion. One way to establish a foundation of trust and confidence in the relationship I proposed was to negotiate a maximally robust U.S.-Russian and larger Western-Russian regime of cooperation in the war against jihadism, including NATO recognition of, and cooperation with the CSTO and even SCO. From there, the core issues could move to the center of further negotiations (Gordon M. Hahn, U.S.-Russian Relations and the War Against Jihadism, Century Foundation Hart-Matlock Russia Working Group Paper, May 2009, http://old.tcf.org/publications/2009/5/pb688).

The easy-issues approach continued with the ‘reset’, which was based on precisely this idea. Thus, there was initial progress in U.S.-Russian relations on issues such as nuclear arms control, U.S. missile defense systems in Europe, and even trade. However, the issues that truly vex U.S.-Russian relations were swept under the rug, and the policies that drove disagreements in these areas persisted.

Now we see this approach potentially being applied to the very problems it created in places like Georgia and Ukraine. Some argue that not only Russia but the West as well may be willing to accept a long-term impasse over Ukraine – read: unresolved conflict in Ukraine. This is not only potentially fatal for Russian-West relations, it is almost certainly unsustainable for Ukraine. With a permanent threat of the civil war’s renewal in the east, investors will not invest, Ukrainian neo-fascists will not be excluded to the periphery of Kiev’s politics, and the threat of a neo-fascist takeover or an additional civil war between neo-fascists and moderates of the Maidan regime will continue to hang over the country.

The only way to salvage the relationship is to begin working on the most difficult issues, most notably the European security architecture and NATO expansion, with both sides making compromises on them. Unfortunately, it may already be too late for either side to make the compromises necessary to avoid further destabilization and conflict over the long-term.

As Secretary of State John Kerry noted in his press conference after meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Putin: “From the Geneva communique to the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons, I would emphasize that we have seen what happens when Russia and the United States work together. It is clearly possible to make real progress and make important things happen.” As never before, it is time for Russia and the West to cease the struggle for spheres of influence and work together more often and, most importantly, not just outside but also inside the post-Soviet space. It is precisely there that tensions and conflicts between the U.S. and Russia – east and west – threaten cooperation in other regions posing more real and fundamental threats to both countries, most notably the rising global jihadi revolutionary movement.


Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.


  1. This approach assumes that the US really wants a stable relationship with Russia. Empirical evidence suggests, strongly, that a bad relationship with Russia (and others, such as China, N.Korea, Iran) provides the continuing rationale for pumping Trillions of Dollars into our insatiable defense industry and justification for NATO to continue to exist. As a child of the Cold War, I grew up observing US policy makers trying to remove missiles from Europe. Now, it is my country trying to put them back in? We are party to toppling a legitimately elected government in Ukraine. And, then we talk about democratic values and peace? Hypocritical and shameful.

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