US-Russia relations have had a turbulent history, to say the least. But when Obama assumed the presidency in 2009 – less than a year after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, which threatened to plunge the US and Russia into a new cold war – he was eager to press the reset button and defrost relations with Moscow. It was important to get the old adversary on board for a number of reasons: the US needs Russia if it is to fulfil its vision of a nuclear-free world, China’s rise would be better managed by bilateral co-operation, and the challenges of terrorism and disorder in the Middle East are central to both superpowers’ foreign policies.
By 2011, however, the relationship had grown frosty. Putin was incensed by Clinton’s remarks at a meeting of European leaders in Lithuania, where she castigated Russia for holding parliamentary elections where voter fraud and intimidation had been alleged. “The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted. And that means they deserve free, fair, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them”, Clinton said, on the eve of Putin’s campaign to retake the presidency. Crowds poured onto the streets in anti-government protests, and in Putin’s eyes she was encouraging a second Russian revolution.
Although Russia had towed the line on the UN’s Iran sanctions and signed an arms control agreement with the United States prior to Clinton’s remarks, the seeds of discontent were already being sown. Russia felt antagonised by NATO’s military intervention in Libya – Muammar al-Qaddafi had long been a Russian ally – and had broken with Washington over another ally, Syria, by channelling arms to Bashar al-Assad and thwarting efforts to sanction him in the UN Security Council.
With Putin about to reassume the presidency, the period of relative goodwill under Dmitry Medvedev was on its way out. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 outraged Clinton, who compared it to Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1930s: a statement designed to provoke the Russians, whose efforts in World War II played a critical role in legitimising the Soviet Union. Russia’s recent presence in Syria has also driven an immovable wedge between the two nations.
America’s problems in Syria are manifold. Aside from defeating ISIS – which will likely require Russian co-operation – their aim is to remove Bashar al-Assad from power, ideally without the use of US ground troops. However, the window for arming moderate rebel groups is gone. In the summer of 2012 Clinton supported funnelling weapons to moderate Syrian rebels to change the outcome of the civil war, but Obama had strong reservations. As a result, the vacuum left by the inability of the moderate opposition to coalesce as a fighting force has opened the door to the Islamic State. Since 2015, when Russia entered the war on Assad’s behalf, the remnants of moderate anti-Assad rebels have been almost wiped out.
Syria has thus become a stalemate. In order to instigate regime change, the US needs to overcome Russia, which is prepared to forcefully back Assad to ensure that he cannot lose. Strategically, Syria is far more important to Russia than it is to the US – it is Putin’s last remaining ally in the Middle East, and hosts Russia’s only warm water port in the region – so Moscow is likely to risk much more for its desired outcome than Washington would ever be prepared to match.
With regime change looking ever more unlikely, the US wants to bring humanitarian aid into Syrian cities like Aleppo, rebel-held and besieged by the regime. This is a major problem for the United States, as they risk coming into direct confrontation with Russia, which is intent on bombing hospitals and preventing humanitarian assistance in order to convince the civilians of Aleppo to ‘submit or starve’. Currently the West is looking on helplessly, but Hillary Clinton has argued (since 2015) for a no-fly zone in Aleppo to prevent the atrocities. However, this risks provoking a major escalation with Russia. What if a Russian plane flies in that no-fly zone? Will the US shoot it down, and if so, what happens next?
This is the dilemma that Hillary Clinton will face if elected into the Oval Office. Clinton’s foreign policy is a more muscular, interventionist brand than Obama’s, and her advocacy for the no-fly zone suggests that she may take a more confrontational approach towards Russia than her predecessor. The Kremlin’s disdain for female diplomats is thinly veiled – Clinton was once described as “a lady with balls” by a Russian official, and their behaviour has often been aimed more at flustering and humiliating her than achieving any headway on foreign policy.
Ultimately, Russia sees itself as a great power, still reeling from the humiliation of the end of the Cold War. Russia has always wanted the United States to treat it as a geopolitical equal – Obama previously described Russia as no more than a “regional power” – and is very wary of Western powers encroaching on its sphere of influence*. Meanwhile, the United States sees an expansionist Russia under authoritarian leadership as a destabilising force, and is looking to contain its re-emergence while upholding the principles of democracy and human rights.
There is no love lost between Clinton and Putin; as the recent hacked emails demonstrate, they both seem intent on actively sabotaging each other. Their worldviews are poles apart, and until these can be reconciled it is likely that relations between the superpowers will get worse before they get better.
*From Russia’s perspective, the EU and NATO’s influence in Eastern Europe is like the Soviet Union parking weapons in Cuba, on the doorstep of the United States.