According to the co-authors of “International Threats 2016,” Russia and the U.S. need to take a broader view of geopolitical decision-making in order to understand each other better.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during the latest news conference in Moscow. Photo: AP

Events in Ukraine and Russia’s military campaign in Syria have greatly fueled the debate on Russia and its role in global affairs, with the West consistently pushing the narrative about the Russian threat. This might undermine attempts to understand Russian foreign policy and the rationale behind it, including Russia’s national interests and goals.

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Some experts argue that the lack of rational analysis of Russian foreign policy deepens the current differences between Russia and the West. In an attempt to increase the understanding of Russian foreign policy, well-known Russian pundits presented a report “International Threats 2016” at the Valdai Discussion Club last week. During their presentation, the authors explained why, from their point of view, the West is struggling to understand Russia.

Andrey Sushentsov, Valdai Club program director and head of the Foreign Policy analytical agency, argues that a great deal of uncertainty is not uncommon for the modern world, and this is one of the major obstacles for any state to come up with a consistent foreign policy. In addition, it prevents experts from coming up with accurate forecasts.

Uncertainty is actually everywhere in global affairs and the main task is how to reduce the degree of uncertainty and what tools to use to achieve that,” Sushentsov argues.

According to him, the major goal for states is not to overreact and to avoid too high expectations. Doing so would allow them to be more flexible in the desicion-making process.

At the same time, Sushentsov believes that current U.S.-Russia relations have been relatively improved and an effective diplomatic dialogue between Moscow and Washington started [as indicated by a recent visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow and their joint agreement on Syria ceasefire – Editor's note].

“There is no basis for significant deterioration or improvement in relations between Russia and the U.S.,” Sushentsov argues.

Meanwhile, Andrey Bezrukov, a former undercover Russian agent in the U.S. who is currently an associate professor at Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO-University), explains why U.S.-Russia differences have absolutely an objective foundation to exist.

The U.S. has constructed the global system, which serves their interests and guarantees their survival and success. Anyone who is able to undermine or affect the existing system is perceived as a threat. That is why Russia and China are seen as a threat,” Bezrukov said. “They think: If we cannot control the entire world, then, let’s contain others and control what we can in our realm.”

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According to Bezrukov, one fundamental contradiction between the U.S. and Russia stems from the fact that Washington aims at preserving the existing system while Russia wants to conduct independent policy. This leads to the types of differences between two countries. Bezrukov uses the example of the Ukrainian crisis to support his argument. The U.S. interest of containment overlaps with the Russian interest of engagement in Ukraine, which has resulted in the conflict, he argues.

According to him, uncertainty, including paradigm shifts, the subjective role of political figures and different incidents, is one of the most significant drivers for U.S.-Russia relations today. 

First, there are enough intransigent politicians in the U.S. and Europe, who believe that the West won the Cold War and see Russia’s current foreign policy as an revanchist attempt to reclaim its previous geopolitical clout.

Meanwhile, Russia's political elites are reassessing the implications of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Secondly, some representatives of the U.S. political elite have come from former Soviet bloc countries, Bezrukov said, assuming that their negative perception of Russia is partly based on their historic experience. And finally, the U.S. elite identifies itself as exceptional, Bezrukov adds.

At the same time, Sergey Markedonov, an associate professor at Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, claims that Russian and American experts as well as media are lacking high-quality, substantial analysis on Russia. He outlined three main reasons of this.

First, many global challenges like the terrorist threat and U.S.-Russia relations are presented to the public in the U.S. as sort of an entertaining show. Second, Western media and experts analyze Russia and its foreign policy as a personal affair of its President Vladimir Putin, ignoring the country’s national interests.

Such approach is misleading by its nature, according to Markedonov. He claims that it results in a failure to understand the real drivers behind the decision-making process in Russia. This is why, he concludes, experts need to take into account the national interests of a state, not to oversimplify.

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“There are a lot of different processes taking place in different regions of the world and we need to understand the interconnection and interdependency between them,” argues Markedonov. “This gives more room for maneuver and allows to obtain a strategic view which is not limited just on the resolution of a single issue.”

Both Russia and the U.S. suffer from what Markedonov calls “discrete problem resolution”: If Moscow and Washington resolve the Syrian crisis, it doesn’t mean that another challenge, the Ukrainian crisis, will be automatically resolved. So, Russia and the U.S. need a different approach of how to deal with international problems together.