At a recent talk at the Carnegie Council, Stephen Cohen, author of Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, discussed some of the key features of his book as well as assessing Obama’s policy toward Russia. (You can also watch a video of Cohen’s talk or listen to the audio.)
In Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, Cohen’s argues that beginning during the Clinton administration and continuing through the George W. Bush’s presidency the narrative of the U.S. as victors of the Cold War took hold and caused new tensions to emerge between the U.S. and Russia. NATO expansion, disrespect toward Russia, missile policy, and other U.S. policy decisions have allowed for what some see as a new “Cold War.”
Some of Obama’s decisions and policies have reduced tension, and establishing a friendly relationship with Medvedev and a rhetoric of cooperation have improved relations. Most important, reviving the arms-control process, abandoned by Bush, have made U.S.-Russian relations in a much better state than when Obama took over in 2009.
However, on other issues of policy and rhetoric Obama has fallen short in ways that have done nothing to ease tensions between the two countries. The U.S. continues to meddle in Russian internal affairs and view Russia as a weak power that is not deserving of being a foreign policy priority. NATO expansion also remains a very difficult sticking point between the two nations.
Interestingly, as Cohen argues, Russia is also looking beyond the United States. Increasingly China and Germany, and not the United States, are at the center of Russian foreign policy. Cohen writes:
What matters for Russia? Berlin, Beijing. These are the two most important emerging bilateral relationships in the world, and I don’t think anybody told Washington. It’s called the Eurasian policy. Russia sits in Europe. Russia sits in Asia. Beijing is in Asia. Berlin is in Europe. This is what we do.
America is not a European country or an Asian country. America doesn’t have a policy; it has mood swings when it comes to Russia. Therefore, there’s nothing we can do about it. We have to manage the nuclear problem with them, but what do we need them for? They are not even a trading partner of any consequence with us.
There is still the post-Soviet American conceit of the 1990s that Russia cannot have a legitimate national interest that is different from America’s national interest. Where we see this most vividly is in the case of Iran. Russia does not want Iran to become a nuclear country. For one thing, Iran might be able to develop short-range missiles that could hit Moscow. It probably would be years before it could put a warhead on a transatlantic missile. They are more worried about it than we are.