How to warm US-Russia relations
The US should drop its schoolmarmish attitude and cooperate.
Russia is a difficult country to deal with, but deal with it America must.Skip to next paragraph
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The Obama administration has an opportunity to salvage the troubled relationship. But Washington's going to need a new approach. Drop the schoolmarmish lectures about democracy and forget about grand intellectual strategies: What's needed here is some principled pragmatism.
Rather than ignoring Russia until disputes get ugly, the United States could be looking for new pathways to engagement. Laid step by step through areas of common ground (take cooperation on global health, space, and renegotiated arms treaties for starters), these pathways could then give us more room to maneuver when we negotiate our real conflicts.
At the moment, the Russian bear is wounded. The crash in world commodity prices has created acute financial pressures for which the Kremlin had not prepared.
Russia then cut European natural gas supplies to bully Ukraine into paying higher prices, ostensibly demonstrating that it's still the biggest kid on the bloc. Bullies are usually insecure and Russia is no exception.
Worsening economic troubles are stoking fears that societal discontent is growing. Protests with the faintest whiff of political opposition have been shut down by riot police.
A pending law that broadens the definition of treason confirms Moscow's anxiety.
Injured animals are dangerous, and need to be approached carefully.
Russia will remain a strong country determined to protect its sovereignty and interests. It expects the US to do the same. Harping on Russia's lost superpower status and political instability while extolling the benefits of democracy will get us nowhere. It would be more productive to view Moscow as a partner with whom we share some areas of common ground. While not ignoring tricky topics such as NATO expansion, focusing on common interests whenever possible – because they are of genuine interest to both sides, not because we self-righteously believe Russia should follow our lead – would already change the tone of our relationship.
We may wince at Russia's bullying tones, but from Moscow's perspective, America's belief that it deserves to be the world's only superpower is offensive and arrogant. Humility would benefit both sides – and open the door for cooperation and problem-solving based on mutual respect. In this way, Russia is not so very different from other countries with which we have troubled relationships. Building a record of cooperation would make it that much easier to engage constructively when faced with the next crisis or conflict.