U.S.-Russian Relations in the 21st Century

February 14, 2014—Russia’s attempt to win its own “geopolitical gold medal” after winning the rights to host the 2014 Olympics is failing, according to Professor Angela Stent, author of The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.

“U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest level since Russia became an independent nation in 1991,” said Stent, a 2004–06 national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. Stent is a professor in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service, and she also served as an advisor on U.S.-Russian relations to former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Her book was recently published by Princeton University Press.

“The objective [after winning the rights] was to show that Russia was back from the chaos and weakness of the 1990s,” she continued. “There have been four efforts to reset—improve relations—since 1991. In each case, high hopes have given way to disillusionment and distrust.”

Stent says Russia is sending a much different message as the Olympics begin and “defining itself as a unique civilization, different from the West, with different values.”

“That message has become garbled in its execution,” she said. “With hotels incomplete and facilities still under construction, Sochi also demonstrates the challenges Russia faces—from inadequate infrastructure to corruption,” she continued.

Stent, who also directs Georgetown’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, says the last effort at resetting U.S.-Russian relations began at the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009.

“But relations hit bottom when Russia gave asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden in 2013, and Obama, in turn, canceled a long-planned summit meeting with [President Vladimir] Putin,” she explained.

Stent wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed about a 2007 dinner at President Vladimir Putin’s Sochi mansion. Putin said hosting the 2014 Olympics was “vital proof that Russia was back and that he had restored his country to its rightful role in the world.”

This objective—restoring Russia’s great power status—has been a driver of his foreign policy, she emphasizes in The Limits of Partnership.

“Realism, not resets, [is] what’s required for U.S.-Russian relations,” Stent explained. “The differences will remain across a host of issues, including on the current upheaval unfolding in Ukraine. For Russia, Ukraine is almost a domestic issue. But the two countries have a host of common issues where they need to find common interests—from Iran and Syria, to terrorism.”

The Limits of Partnership, informed by extensive personal discussions with former and current Russian and American officials and annual meetings with Putin, calls for a fundamental reassessment of the principles and practices that drive the U.S.-Russia relationship.

The bottom line of the current U.S.-Russia relationship may lie in a quote from Putin in the book on his relationship with Barack Obama:

“I don’t agree with his arguments and he doesn’t agree with mine.”