U.S.-Russia Relations: The U.S. Just Can't Quit Its Bad Habits

With all the disagreements and indignant rhetoric of late between the U.S. and Russia, observers have suggested the onset of a new Cold War. But it doesn't matter if we give this chill in relations the tired label of "Cold War" or not. What does matter is that our leaders in the administration and Congress who are charged with developing a productive relationship with Russia are repeating the same diplomatic mistakes that have made Russia resentful of U.S. interests for decades.

The latest cringeworthy moment in U.S.-Russian relations emerged from the drama surrounding NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Instead of recognizing Russia’s valid reasons for avoiding getting too involved in the Snowden case by physically apprehending him at the Moscow airport, the U.S. turned the event into yet another melodramatic dispute. Rather than successfully convincing Russia to extradite Snowden, all the U.S. accomplished was inviting Putin to dismiss the administration's demands and accusations as "drivel and nonsense."

Moreover, the rerouting of Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane to Austria when Snowden was believed to be on board prompted a similarly reproachful comment from the Russian Foreign Ministry — “Russia calls on the international community to comply strictly with international legal principles.” Not to mention that the incident will likely be a sore spot for relations with the U.S.’s South American neighbors for the foreseeable future, another unnecessary obstacle resulting from misguided U.S. actions.

But the U.S.’s poor handling of the Snowden affair is not the only embarrassment of late. In June, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) led a delegation to Russia for the purposes of investigating the Boston Marathon attacks. Most of the delegation’s meetings with Russian security officials and lawmakers were made possible by actor Steven Seagal, rather than the U.S. Embassy.

The delegation found nothing new or substantial about the bombings. In retrospect, it served two purposes: first, to demonstrate how feeble the U.S. diplomatic presence in Russia must be if the delegation relied so critically on Seagal’s personal involvement, and second, to give Rohrabacher yet another opportunity to make ignorant statements about “radical Islam at our throat.” Congressional delegations are rare in these days of sequestration, but Rohrabacher and his colleagues clearly did not feel compelled to make the most of this valuable opportunity to build solidarity with their Russian counterparts.

This is not to say that the participation of actors or leaders in other creative industries is inconsequential to maintaining amicable relations with foreign countries — quite the opposite is true. But ultimately, what reason does Russia have to take the U.S. seriously when it allows washed-up action stars and xenophobic politicians to spearhead its diplomatic efforts in the wake of a terrorist attack? Add to this mess the Magnitsky List sanctions — which looked more like playground name-calling and finger-pointing than a measured attempt to marginalize human rights abusers — and the impotent back-and-forth over intervention in Syria, and you can forget all about Obama’s “reset” in relations (if you hadn’t already).

When interviewed by former Foreign Policy Editor-in-Chief Susan Glasser, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a perfectly reasonable assessment of Russia’s foreign policy attitude: “We have more domestic strength…And we feel the change. And Russia feels more assertive – not aggressive, but assertive.”

Lavrov’s statement epitomizes why the U.S. is on a path to nowhere with its current methods of diplomacy. Nothing will change the acrimony between the U.S. and Russia until our leaders accept that there is really nothing wrong with Russia's defiance of U.S. influence. The U.S. is arguably the only nation left that wants and actually expects the rest of the world to embrace its ideological tenets, and look at what damage that arrogance has caused so far.

U.S. officials need to stop crying foul at every move Russia makes to assert its independence and power, as if any disagreement with U.S. policy is somehow an affront to humanity. Additionally, the leaders representing U.S. interests in Russia should be knowledgeable and intellectually curious about the issues affecting Russia, not politicians who perpetuate stereotypes and a Cold War mentality. Otherwise, the U.S. will keep sending all the wrong signals to Russia, and the relationship will keep treading backwards.

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Alex Shaheen

Alex Shaheen lives in Washington, DC, working in the international development sector. She graduated from Vassar College in 2012 with a degree in Political Science and a concentration in Russian Studies.

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