Russian-American relations historically develop in the form of a spiral. Since the first contacts between the representatives of the Russian Empire and American settlers to the times of Cold War and the beginning of the 21st century, the states have primarily been cooperating during the periods of global and regional challenges and dangers. Throughout relatively calm periods the states were supporting business relations, optimal for each other, yet they were never seeking to be maximally involved in commercial, cultural, and military sectors.
The present system of cooperation can be explained by a few factors. The political thought of the USA historically differs by the ideas of messiahship and global superiority. Moreover, Washington is still relying on the principles of classical geopolitics in terms of its strategic planning. It provides the division of the world into two types of states: maritime and land ones. Due to such geographical division, states automatically lose a chance to build their foreign policy in such a way that they could cover both territories. But the present concept has been rethought by the American political elite and has been used to represent a system of balance of powers, that is, the distribution of the global power between key players, but under a mandatory supervision of Washington.
The said above found its expression in the so-called Monroe Doctrine declared by the fifth US President during his annual address to the Congress in December 2nd, 1823. The major Monroe’s thesis stated that the Western Hemisphere is an exclusive zone of the national interests of the United States, European countries should not interfere in, and Washington will not meddle in the internal concerns of European countries in its turn. Being based on the ideas of messiahship, hegemonistic thoughts, active development and expansion of the United States, the Monroe Doctrine has quickly gone beyond the Western Hemisphere, and future US presidents, in particular, T. Roosevelt, W. Wilson, G. Truman, have implemented it around the world.
The assessment of Russia through a lens of world leadership does not leave space to Washington for maneuvers to build its foreign policy. Thus, having squeezed itself into the rigid frames of deterministic political thinking, the American establishment interprets almost any actions of Moscow as a priori trampling on US national interests, even if there are no grounds for such conclusions.
Despite this, the present crisis in Russian-American relations cannot be named a Cold War as there is no opposition of two political and belief systems, but a conflict of national interests. The problem is that after the collapse of the Soviet Union Washington paid too much attention to the implementation of Pax Americana in practice, they failed to realize in good time that the world order was changing rapidly: Russia regained its status of great power and became actively involved in international processes, and China was able to become the second economy of the world, which apparently worries Washington. Such participants in the world system as intergovernmental organizations have become more involved in the world political processes which are beyond the control of states.
In 2009 a new phase of Russian-American relations began which significantly deteriorated by the end of the first term of the presidency of George W. Bush (and V.V. Putin at the same time). At first, a pragmatic proposal for interaction led to success. In 2010, the New Start Treaty was signed; Moscow expressed its consent for the use of its territory for the redeployment of the American military contingent in Afghanistan; the White House and the Kremlin even agreed that Iran’s nuclear program should be reviewed by Tehran. At the same time, the issue of NATO expansion to the East became a matter of less concern, and in 2011, Russia, in fact, supported the United States and its allies, abstaining during a vote in the UN Security Council on the adoption of a resolution introducing a no-fly zone over Libya.
In the future, relations began to deteriorate. Firstly, the White House strongly criticized the actions of the Kremlin in terms of the individuals disagreed with the results of the parliamentary elections in Russia when mass protests taking place mainly in Moscow caused detentions and arrests of persons named in Washington “active oppositionists” or “political prisoners”. Secondly, the next step was the so-called Magnitsky Act superseding the Jackson-Vanik amendment in 2012 and intending to “respect the human rights and rule of law”. Within this act, the USA imposed sanctions against some officials and persons of Russia allegedly related to the death of auditor Sergey Magnitsky and violation of human rights and liberties in general.
A significant stumbling block in Russian-American relations has been Ukraine, and ground zero of the current Russian-American crisis – joining of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 (“annexation” as Washington officially calls it). Since then, the United States has imposed the most stringent sanctions on Russia, which led to retaliatory sanctions on the Russian side and so on. Syria can also be named some sort of the site where two superpowers are enforcing their regional policy in the best tradition of Cold War through the support of their adherents without direct military confrontation between the Kremlin and the White House.
However, the history of Russian-American relations features many positive moments demonstrating that the states are able to conduct dialogue and cultural exchanges. For example, the Russian Empire supported the North in the American Civil War, sending two military squadrons under the command of rear admirals Popov and Lesovsky in the summer of 1863. Considering cultural cooperation, it is worth mentioning the theatrical tours of the Russian ballet that took place at the beginning of the 20th century, the famous “Russian Seasons”, which greatly influenced the formation and development of the American ballet school.
Furthermore, Moscow and Washington have a mutual interest in countering international terrorism, combating interregional criminal groups, solving environmental and climate problems, and much more. To put it differently, in view of the lack of mutual interests, the Kremlin and the White House cooperate on the basis of common threats.
Despite the extremely complex coordination of actions to combat terrorism directly in the centers of its spread and formation, the cooperation in countering terrorism explicitly in the territories of Russia and the US continues to take place. The FBI and CIA exchanged the information on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, within which the Russian party provided all necessary data on the future terrorist, unfortunately not taken into account by the American party and having caused deaths during the terrorist attack in Boston in 2012. In its turn, Washington helped Moscow to prevent terrorist attacks in St. Petersburg in December 2017, for which Vladimir Putin personally thanked the American President over the telephone conversation.
Even with constant accusations in “collusion with the Russians”, Donald Trump does look for ways to find contact with Moscow that is demonstrated in the US President’s personal initiatives like, for example, the congratulation of Vladimir Putin on his winning the presidential elections, contrary to the recommendations of Trump’s advisers.
The past summit of the Presidents of Russia and the United States in Helsinki has confirmed that there is a need for stable communication at the personal level between the Kremlin and the White House. An important aspect is that the initiative to organize the meeting came from the American side. This looks logical, given that Moscow has always been open to dialogue, despite the harsh rhetoric on the part of Washington.
The main achievement during the meeting between Putin and Trump has been the restart of the dialogue at high level. Two leaders directly stated their positions. It’s important to use this moment, especially for the administration of Trump who has been under a high pressure on the part of the American establishment from the very beginning that has not yet tried to break away from the captivity of the logic of Russian-American relations it has formed.