As 2015 comes to an end, Russia Direct reviews the 10 most important events influencing U.S.-Russia relations over the past 12 months.
Left-right: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and Secretary of State John Kerry during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, October 30, 2015. Photo: AP
The dynamics of U.S.-Russia relations changed dramatically in 2015 as part of a major shift in global international relations that occurred throughout the year.
Just compare the situation now to where we were just one year ago. In 2014, the triumphant Sochi Winter Olympic Games were followed by Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests, the coup in Kiev, Russia's annexation of Crimea, and the beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Simultaneously, U.S.-Russia relations, as well as Russia's rapport with the West in general, were deteriorating fast.
Read the Q&A with Stanford's Kathryn Stoner: "US-Russia relations should be seen beyond the immediate agenda"
Although all these negative events passed onto this year, the global situation and U.S.-Russia relations in particular are now vastly different. In 2015, one can observe the tendency towards shifting from full-on confrontation to partial, but limited, cooperation. So what issues can be deemed the most significant for bilateral relations?
1. Russian military campaign in Syria
The beginning of the Russian military operation in Syria quickly changed the balance of power in the Middle East and the perception of Russia's role in global politics.
Apart from that, Moscow's actions, including the refusal to give up the President of Syria Bashar al-Assad, reflect Russia's attempts to challenge America's leadership and make people inside the U.S. question the effectiveness of Washington's policies in the Middle East.
On the other hand, the Kremlin's involvement in the Syrian conflict pushed the U.S. to take Russia's position into account and try to restore partial cooperation, at least in the areas where Moscow and Washington see eye to eye, such as the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and peace and stability in the Middle East.
Recent meetings of Russian and American diplomats, such as the meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American colleague Barack Obama at the G20 Summit and Paris Conference on Climate Change, support this claim.
On the other hand, Russian participation in the Syrian conflict resulted in Turkey downing a Russian Su-24 bomber. The U.S. adopted a rather ambiguous stance regarding this incident, which further complicated bilateral relations.
2. John Kerry's diplomatic visits to Russia
The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visits to Russia in 2015 are extremely important and give a reason to be cautiously optimistic, even though they cannot have a dramatic positive effect and overcome the present stalemate situation.
If nothing else, they manifest that both parties are trying to keep the dialogue going and maintain the channels of communication for the discussion of such issues as Syria and global terrorism. First, Kerry officially visited Sochi in May and then came to Moscow in the beginning of December. The resolution of the Syrian conflict has been one of the main items on the agenda of the U.S. leadership and diplomatic corps.
Diplomacy in action: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft, out for a walk along the Old Arbat in Moscow, interacting with everyday Russians. Photo: U.S. Embassy in Moscow
Clearly, the U.S. and Russia are both interested in working together: at his news conference, Putin repeatedly stated that Russia was interested in and, most importantly, ready for dialogue and cooperation. It is important to point out that, following Kerry's visit to Moscow, Putin's rhetoric did not feature anti-American overtones, which is definitely a good sign.
All these developments do not quite signify a breakthrough in bilateral relations, but are unequivocally welcome changes for the better.
3. Obama’s and Putin’s speeches at the 70th UN General Assembly
Putin’s September visit to New York to attend the 70th UN General Assembly was very important, marking the first time in ten years that the Russian leader had come to speak at the UN General Assembly and his first full-fledged meeting with Obama since the start of the Ukrainian crisis.
However, Putin’s UN visit proved that Moscow and Washington are still in a mode of deep confrontation. It clearly demonstrated that Russian and American leaders have failed to understand each other and this problem has still not been resolved despite the fact that Russia seems to have succeeded in persuading the West to see it as a key global player after the start of the Syrian campaign.
Likewise, Kerry’s visit to Moscow has not become a significant game-changer. The obvious lack of personal chemistry and understanding between Obama and Putin at the UN General Assembly turned into an exercise in mutual finger-pointing and persistent attempts to promote their own positions. And this trend continues to persist heading into 2016.
4. The beginning of the U.S. presidential election campaign
2015 marked the start of the U.S. election campaign, which brought on a spike of criticism towards Russia. This time both Republican and Democratic primaries have a few of candidates competing in the reach of their promises to “punish” Russia.
Nonetheless, the current campaign has another atypical trait, which is the candidates' strong disapproval of American policies in Syria and suggestions on re-starting relations with Russia. From this perspective, Donald Trump, the billionaire Republican presidential candidate, occupies a special place in the development of bilateral relations.
He sharply criticizes U.S. policies in Syria, calls for a reevaluation of al-Assad's regime, and speaks highly of Putin, which definitely affects American public opinion.
He also influences other candidates (for example, Ted Cruz) who also start questioning the feasibility of American actions in the region. It is hardly surprising that the Russian leadership is genuinely interested in the outcome of the American election campaign. Putin openly demonstrates that he is favoring Trump. The benefits of such support may be rather questionable for the candidate, but it is quite remarkable anyway.
5. The law on undesirable organizations and the approval of a patriotic stop-list in Russia
In May, Putin signed the so-called Law on Undesirable Organizations, which targets foreign organizations in Russia. Both human rights activists and heads of some non-government organization (NGOs) saw the law as an attempt to clamp down on the activity of certain groups.
Moreover, the Russian authorities announced an initiative that could produce a chilling effect on foreign NGOs in Russia: the so-called “patriotic stop-list” of undesirable organizations proposed by the head of the Federation Council, Konstantin Kosachev, former head of Russia's agency on soft power.
The list included primarily Western organizations from the U.S. and Europe, including Freedom House, Open Society (the Soros Foundation), National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and even the MacArthur Foundation, a prominent U.S. nonprofit that provides support to young researchers and activists.
Following the adoption of the “patriotic stop list” for foreign NGOs and the adoption of the law on foreign “undesirables,” the Kremlin officially banned NED, a Washington-based NGO mostly funded by the U.S. Congress.
In late November, the Kremlin’s campaign against organizations deemed “undesirable” gained momentum. On Nov. 30, Russia's Prosecutor General updated the list of undesirable organizations to include the Soros Foundation, which used to operate in 30 countries worldwide. According to the Russian authorities, the organization undermined the foundations of the Russian constitutional system.
Read the interview with Transparency International's Elena Panfilova: "Does the 'undesirables' law fight those who make life in Russia better?"
Clearly, this act does nothing to improve bilateral relations. The increasingly negative attitude towards many NGOs that are working with the West, as well as labeling them "undesirable" or plainly shutting them down, reduces the room for cooperation and casts a major blow to public activities, including research and humanitarian missions. Such actions lead to the escalation of tensions within the Russian society and the authorities' further crackdown on its opponents.
6. ISIS threat in Russia, Europe and the U.S.
ISIS claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in Russia, Europe and the U.S., and that seemed to have made a difference in Russia-U.S. relations.
While experts do not believe that an anti-ISIS coalition will be formed and Moscow and Washington will be fully cooperating on the fight against global terrorism, the very understanding of the gravity of the threat may serve as a reason for partial, albeit limited cooperation.
7. The closure of the American Center in Moscow
Another blow to bilateral relations was dealt in September when the Kremlin's decided to shut down the American Center at the Russian State Library of Foreign Literature in Moscow. Even though officially it was a simple matter of passing the control of the Center over to the Library, the Center was de facto closed and had to move to the U.S. Embassy where it is now working on its cultural and educational programs.
U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul taking the floor in the American Center in Moscow on Martin Luther King Day in 2013. Source: Courtesy U.S. Embassy in Moscow
"This happened after 22 years of the Center working in the sphere of bilateral cultural exchanges and shortly after the death of Ekaterina Genieva, a famous librarian and cultural critic, as well as former president of George Soros’ Open Society Institute in Russia, who did her best as the director of the Library to prevent this move," wrote Victoria Zhuravleva, a professor of the Russian State University for the Humanities with extensive experience in working with the American Center in Moscow.
"Since 1993, the American Center has been promoting U.S history and culture. It organized cultural and educational events and gave the floor to many American academics, politicians of different political affiliations, actors and writers," she added.
However, even after the Center was shut down some state-owned TV channels would not leave it alone. Pro-Kremlin NTV aired a conspiracy report about U.S. exchange program graduates gathering at the U.S. Embassy's American Center to meet with the U.S. Ambassador. Reporters called it a "secret" meeting.
Obviously, such approach harms Russia-U.S. relations and undermine the relationship of the two countries. In spite of Putin's proclaimed desire to work together with the U.S., such strategy is not likely to facilitate a friendly dialogue.
8. A multilateral agreement on Iran's nuclear program
The agreement on Iran's nuclear program also plays an important part in the relationship between Russia and the U.S. It proves yet again that diplomacy actually works.
The agreement improved U.S.-Iran relations and allowed for backroom negotiations on joint operations in Syria and Iraq. The deal could not but influence U.S. relations with Russia as well, especially since the latter brought a lot to the table.
The agreement may have a positive influence on the region, but it can also make oil prices plummet on the global markets, and that would be a grave economic problem for Russia. However, it is not likely to have an adverse effect on bilateral relations.
9. The signing of the second Minsk Agreements by the Normandy Four
The agreement on implementing the set of measures for the fulfillment of the Minsk Agreements was effected on Feb. 2015. It aimed to de-escalate the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine and was signed by the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia under the Normandy format and the contact group made of representatives of Ukraine, Russia, and the unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics.
The signing of the agreement also influenced U.S.-Russia relations in the context of the Ukrainian conflict. Even though there were no breakthroughs, the conclusion of agreements and confirmation of the parties' positions was important for the de-escalation in Donbas and, consequently, in relations between Russia and the U.S.
At the same time, the implementation of the second Minsk Agreements exposed major (albeit currently contained) differences in the E.U. and U.S. approaches to resolving the Ukrainian crisis and further conduct towards Russia, which, in turn, heightened the criticism of Russia for failure to fulfill the terms of the agreement and had a negative impact on the relations between the U.S. and Russia.
10. Extension and widening of U.S. sanctions against Russia
In the second half of December, a week after Kerry's visit to Moscow, the U.S. Department of the Treasury broadened the sanctions against Russia for its stance on Ukraine. The new list features 34 individuals and legal entities that, according to the U.S., "facilitated Russia's interference in Ukraine."
Although the U.S. Department of the Treasury emphasized that it was elaborating as opposed to strengthening sanctions, the Russian authorities are of a different opinion and promise an analogous response. This course of action also does nothing to improve the relations between the two countries.
Looking ahead to 2016
2015 marked the return of Russia and Vladimir Putin to the global political arena. Unfortunately, it was not easy for Moscow. To a great extent, the return was facilitated by the escalation of global tensions and the need to come together against the forces that are a threat to all. It is possible that ISIS will create a new type of totalitarian regime, and the world remembers too well the price it paid for defeating its 20th century predecessor.
The fight against international terrorism and environmental and economic problems urgently requires intensive global cooperation and the exchange of information. Still, this past year keeps reminding us that the resolution of international issues is greatly influenced by internal political struggles, the legislation of a given country and ambitions of actual politicians.
Thus, it is necessary to consider the possibility of direct provocations perpetrated by ambitious and irresponsible third-world leaders striving to drive a wedge between Russia and the U.S. The events that led to the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, the downing of the Malaysian plane over Ukraine in 2014, and Turkey’s shooting down the Russian bomber all serve as serious reminders that the threat is real.
Therefore, the return to regular dialog and stepping up bilateral cooperation should be seen by both Russian and American politicians as an investment into national security.