Russia Direct sat down with Vladislav Zubok, a professor from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a fellow of the Wilson Center, to understand what U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin get wrong about each other.


United States President Barack Obama, right, and Russia's President President Vladimir Putin at the Sept. 28 bilateral meeting during the 70th United Nations General Assembly. Photo: AP

Signs that the current confrontation between the U.S. and Russia could lead to a new, full-fledged Cold War appear to be increasing by the day. The latest source of tension is a report from high-profile U.S. military and intelligence officials claiming that Russia’s submarines and spy ships appear to be operating near undersea cables that carry up to 95 percent of the world’s Internet communications.

Moreover, Russia’s direct military involvement in Syria and the intransigence of both sides about the future of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad only aggravate the situation, with the chances for effective cooperation in the Middle East now fading away. 

Amidst this background, Russia Direct sat down with Vladislav Zubok, a professor from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a fellow of the Wilson Center, to discuss the U.S.-Russia relationship in the context of the events in Syria.

In addition, Zubok shed light on mutual misperceptions between Russia and the United States and explained what specifically U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin get wrong about each other. At the same time, he warns Russia against waking up what he calls the “demons” of American democracy. 

Russia Direct: What are the most important events that have had a significant impact on U.S.-Russia relations in 2015?

Vladislav Zubok: The most dramatic event in 2015 is by far the appearance of the Russian military in Syria. It is hard to top that event, because it shifted attention in Russian-American relations from Ukraine (which dominated headlines and preoccupied everyone during the previous year) to the Middle East. This is a different geography, a different history.

Vladislav Zubok, a professor from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a fellow of the Wilson Center. Photo: Russia Direct

And that came as a surprise to the United States. Yet, now if you think about it, it shouldn’t be such a surprise. I think that the United States falls victim to its own conception of what Russia can and cannot do. So, no wonder, their first reaction was: “Oh, they can do it.” Then came the reaction: “Oh, how dare they do it?”

And then they began to give all kind of advice from their own recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan: “Don’t do it, Russians: You will find yourself in a quagmire and will get killed.”

So, that [Russia’s direct military involvement in Syria] kept U.S. experts busy since the end of September. I cannot think of anything comparable to it, because, after all, the Middle East remains the most important strategic priority, though such a headache, for the United States, despite their pivot to China. I would say it is even much more important than Ukraine, although Ukraine remains a major preoccupation.

RD: What is your assessment of the impact of Russia’s direct intervention in Syria on Moscow-Washington relations?

V.Z.: It is clear that, from what Putin says at the Valdai Discussion Club, he keeps prodding the United States to reconsider the context for U.S.-Russia relations. For instance, he raised the issue of a missed opportunity for U.S.-Russia cooperation at the end of the Cold War or after the Sept. 11 terror attack in 2001.

For me, it is really important. After all, we are still living in an era, where at least Russia has been grappling with the consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. From the start, the Russian leadership expected to play a role of allies or partners of the United States, while the U.S. was not prepared to give that role to the Soviet Union and then to Russia. They were not ready and, most importantly, were not willing.

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So, gradually, the obvious gap between Russia’s perceptions and American’s intentions came to the fore. Under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, tensions between the two were growing in 1999 over Yugoslavia, Kosovo and the Belgrade bombing. And President Vladimir Putin came to power. The first years of his presidency was an attempt to return to that idea: “Let’s be important and equal partners.” But then, gradually, Putin got disappointed and frustrated.

We focus too much attention on personalities and the change of personalities, but here we have a very important structural and contextual issue in the Russian-American relations: the inability of Russia to achieve the desired status of a partner of the United States as a leader.

RD: So, Russia’s campaign in Syria should be interpreted as a signal to the West that Russia should be seen as an equal partner of the U.S., right?

V.Z.: Yes. At least, it should not be seen as a subordinate power or as a declining regional power, the way Obama described Russia immediately after the crisis in Ukraine erupted. This irritated the Kremlin.

RD: Obama’s presidential term is coming to an end as well and there is a lot of talk about his foreign policy legacy. What did Obama get wrong and right about Russia, from your point of view?

V.Z.:  I think Obama gets many things right when he said that Russia is a declining regional power from the point of view of demography, economy and even finance, which were pretty good until recently. And he is right in the sense that whatever the Russian military can do in Ukraine has only tactical, not European implications, in pure military terms. However, he doesn’t know very much about Russian history and I don’t think he wants to know about the depth of that history going back. That explains something you cannot calculate: those imponderable things about Russia’s ambitions and Russia’s frustration, when all these ambitions are dashed and shattered.

That’s why many Russians came up with that feeling that, no matter what we do, the United States is unhappy with a strong Russia and happier with a weak Russia. And this perception is very strong and very difficult to shatter for various reasons. It has been building for decades, or even more.

So, Obama should have paid more attention to that. Being Obama, he avoids issues he cannot resolve. He focuses pragmatically on very difficult issues that he can resolve, including Cuba and so on. He simply does not see right now how he can make Russia happier, how he can go in this direction without heavily undermining his own political positions in his own party vis-à-vis the Republicans, who keep blaming him for being weak against Putin.

So, American politics tends to personalize bilateral relations to a ridiculous degree: It is a contest between a macho and ex-KGB Putin versus “who knows what kind of man Obama is.” So, it is always a question of machismo that comes forth. And Obama knows it pretty well and, basically, he decided to pass this problem to the next administration.

RD: What about Putin: What does he get wrong about the U.S.?

V.Z.: I can only speculate. Looking at how Putin operated lately, even though I don’t exactly know, I dare say there might be one fundamental problem with Putin’s understanding of the United States: He perceives Obama as weak and indecisive, which may be actually true as far as his foreign policy is concerned – after all, Republicans say the same thing (laughing).

What Putin should take more into account is two important foreign policy trends in U.S. history: Wilsonianism [President Woodrow Wilson’s view of the world that advocates for more rigorous promotion of democracy, capitalism, and interventionism] and Jacksonianism [named for U.S. president Andrew Jackson, the Jacksonian model encourages defending national interest abroad, abiding by commitments, standing with allies, fighting to win or not fighting at all, respecting only those opponents that fight by the same rules as the U.S. does – Editor’s note].

In the Jacksonian tradition, the United States just comes out and smacks its opponents very, very brutally in a very, very hard way. This is a part of the American logic of trying to integrate someone. And when they decide that a guy [they try to integrate] is just a fraud or such a disappointment, so they cannot deal with this guy, they might propose a radical measure: destroy him. And if this guy leads the country, let’s destroy the country that is behind him.

And this is an extremely dangerous trend in America’s perception of the world, because, inherently, Americans are half-Wilsonian and half-isolationists: They want to fix the problem and if they cannot do it through negotiations and integration of a country or making it more democratic and peaceful, then they just come out with all their force and do a lot of damage.

And this is what I am afraid we see today. If I were Putin, I would not tease the United Sates too much. The right approach to the United States is not to wake up the demons that exist in American democracy: One has to be careful in that.     

RD: What would you recommend to the next American president: How to deal with Russia?

V.Z.: However difficult it is, you have to start with summitry and personal contacts with the country’s leader which, I suspect, will be Vladimir Putin. They need a realistic approach and limit their expectations of what the opposition can do to Putin. Americans limited these expectations quite substantially, but they still keep their own rhetoric about Russia’s moving in the wrong direction, although they themselves inadvertently contributed to that direction during the last 25 years.

And even sanctions definitely contributed to various fatal changes to Russia’s policy and economy that takes Russia further away from the development of small business, a prosperous middle class and democracy. So, it is always difficult to advise: But I would recommend to give it a little bit more time, there shouldn’t be any pressure right now to solve any issues.

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In this sense, Obama is doing the right thing by not prioritizing Russian-American relations, because in the current climate if you are prioritizing the relations, then the pressure from Washington is likely to be tough. So, we have to take a step back. The question of sanctions, of course, comes up and the Putin government increasingly desperately wants to get rid of those sanctions. And it is a very, very tricky issue, because it is connected to the question of Ukraine for obvious reasons. So, it is important for the next leadership to show much more clearly whatever America does is not against the Russian people.

RD: Do you believe in a new “reset” and how do you assess the first “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations?

V.Z.: I was very skeptical about the reset from its very start, because it addressed, primarily, the one issue that America was interested in: nuclear arms control. It didn’t have an impact on the issues that Russia was interested in very much. So, the agenda of the reset was created in Washington and presented with the wrong language, peregruzka (“overcharge” in Russian). So, the Russian response was highly skeptical and for obvious reasons it could not include the issues that Russia cared about, such as its relations with Ukraine.

RD: What should we expect in U.S.-Russia relations in 2016?

V.Z.: More surprise that come from Moscow. If you interpret its logic for the last two years, Putin reacted to an unexpected situation in Ukraine, which was completely unexpected for him and for everyone. And then the status quo has been shattered. Now this is the crisis with potentially dangerous moves from the other side. And in this crisis Russia is much weaker than the other side. Russia is put in a position, when it cannot afford a kind of Cold War attrition, or a sort of confrontation, when financial and economic levers are in the hands of the West, when Russia is denied access to financial capital, for instance.

So, in this situation, the Kremlin has to design a proactive game — using a chess metaphor— to move figures on the chessboard in such a way as to accelerate the game, not to prolong the game, to create a new combination somehow where the West will have to deal with Russia and lift the sanctions. And I would say, according to some experts, events in Syria [and Russia’s participation in the conflict] diminished the unity of the Western states about the prolongation of sanctions on Russia.

If it is not enough, then we can expect something new from Putin. I don’t know what else we should expect. So far, Putin tries several obvious things: he tried to turn to China and tried to play on the Syrian ground.

RD: Well, when should we expect U.S.-Russia relations to be in better shape?

V.Z.: The better question to ask is: When were U.S.-Russia relations ever in good shape? During the last 25 years, or if you’d like, the past 45 or 55 years? Can we find such a moment? I don’t think there was such a moment.

If you now would say that Moscow-Washington relations were in excellent shape in the early 1990s, when U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush were friends with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, while Boris Yeltsin was on friendly terms with Bill Clinton, then people would tell you it was exactly because the Soviet Union was collapsing and Russia was in a vulnerable position, being dependent on the U.S.

It was an unequal relationship. When one can point to an equal partnership with a good relationship, I cannot give you such an example. And this is troubling.