By: Vatsala Toprani, SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of Law
It is no secret that there has always persisted ideological differences between the United States of America and Russia, former USSR. The former Soviet Union pursued the modified version of communism as introduced by Vladimir Lenin. This ideology proposed the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat led by a revolutionary vanguard party, as the political prelude to the establishment of communism. It believed in one party dictatorship.
The United States on the other hand was a capitalist nation state where people could own land and businesses and compete for themselves. This resulted in a glaring inequality in the distribution of income and wealth among the people. U.S.A believed in liberal democracy, with the people electing their own ruler. The Bill of Rights of the US Constitution spells out the individual rights of the American citizens in relation to the government, e.g., freedom of speech, press, religion, etc.
Even today the situation in present day Russia is no different from what it was in the beginning of the birth of USSR. From his early days as president, Putin sought to dominate the media in Russia, putting not only the state media but also the privately owned broadcast media under the Kremlin’s supervision. His concept of media is a far cry from the First Amendment of the US Constitution; whoever owns the media controls what it says. Only patriotically minded people were to be the head of state information resources to uphold the interests of the Russian Federation.
In the Russian Revolution of 1917, when communism took over, U.S.A and UK were apprehensive that they might befall the same fate. Thus, commenced the fight against communism or Russia. As a matter of fact, the United States did not even acknowledge the communist government up until 1933.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1990s led to a rise in corruption and crime in all the republics that made up the former USSR. This was coupled with a breakdown of the economy and trade. In the span of 2 years (1989-1991), the gross national product in the newly independent states (CIS) fell by a whopping 20 percent.
Boris Yeltsin took away socialist security and replaced it with rampant capitalism and corruption thereby putting an end to the Soviet Superstate. Russia’s average per capita income fell by 75 percent and went to the extent that citizens had to stand in line and literally fight for a loaf of bread. The masses have never forgiven him for taking away Russia’s “fear us” status.
On the other hand, the dismantling of the USSR increased the United States’ supremacy as a global power leaving it to be the only true world superpower, free of any whisper of a threat from any rival. This granted the U.S. government a free pass to interfere militarily or otherwise in nation states without fear of serious retaliation.
Of the people: Vladimir Putin.
President Vladimir Putin is a nationalist who sought out to restore the Russian influence supremacy in eastern Europe and central Asia. Under his direction, the Russian Federation has become a centralized, authoritarian state and has re-surfaced as a global power, competing with the United States for global supremacy. While the U.S has had an upper hand economically as well as militarily, the Russian Federation has managed to intervene all over the globe to thwart U.S. interests.
Born to a celebrated war veteran and factory worker, Vladimir Putin was interested in working for the KGB security and intelligence even before he completed school. It was only on completing law college that he worked for 17 years as a mid-level agent in foreign intelligence.
In 1998 he quickly climbed up the ladder and was named the head of the FSB, the agency that succeeded the KGB, by Boris Yeltsin, the then President of Russia. In August 1999, Yeltsin appointed Putin as the Prime Minister of Russia. Unexpectedly, Yeltsin stepped down and named Putin the acting President in December 1999. Thereafter, Putin won the election in March. His tough childhood and the fact that he earned his way up the ranks appeals to masses that he is one of their own. Besides restoring widespread national pride, during his term, Putin had encouraged the middle class to emerge and prosper and scored political points for keeping Russia relatively stable after the post-communist chaos of the 1990s. Surveys even suggest that 48% of Russians would like Putin to remain as President beyond 2024.
The Feared Alliance.
In fact, in 2019, the Chinese President Xi Jinping described his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, as his “best friend and colleague”. The “partnership” between China and the Russian Federation is built on the three pillars of a peaceful boundary, trade expansionist policy and a communal scepticism of America’s intentions.
Russia’s increasingly close relationship with China in spite of the underlying tensions between the two exemplifies an ongoing challenge for the United States. The three pillars on which the relationship stands are not as sturdy as they may seem but are grounded with a view to keep a check at USA’s growing monopoly.
At this moment there is not much that Washington can do to draw Moscow away from Beijing, as they seem inseparable, USA’s recent policies such as the trade war with China and rafts of sanctions against Russia have resulted in pushing the two countries closer together.
The anti-Russian sanctions have proved counter effective as the trade between China and Russia has doubled to more than $108 billion. Russia’s central bank has increased its Chinese currency reserves from less than one per cent to over 13%, and China has bested Germany as the primary supplier of industrial plant and technology. These economic positives appear to augment what is seen by US and European countries, as a growing strategic convergence. The added coordinated engagement in multilateral forums, increasingly sophisticated joint military exercises, and activities with third countries such as Iran, have reinforced the western beliefs about their relationship morphing into an alliance.
Biden’s presidency: The beginning of a new chapter.
The newly elected President Joe Biden has not shied away from voicing his disapproval of the Russian autocracy and corruption by making disparaging comments about the Kremlin. He even went to the extent of outrightly calling President Putin a “dictator”. Biden’s aversion to Putin’s proscriptive practices was epitomised by his statement in 2011 asserting that Putin should not run for a third term and was finally culminated when he allegedly told Putin, “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul”.
Donald Trump’s presidency consisted of unpredictable foreign policy decisions which aggravated the relations further. The foremost crucial blow to U.S-Russia relations was Moscow’s cyber interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign. A troll factory in St. Petersburg worked incessantly to use social media to aggravate and intensify the political polarization that thrived in the American society, casting doubts among the citizens about the legitimacy of their own democracy. Thereby they used such platforms to generate support for Donald Trump as President over Hillary Clinton, as described in the 2019 Mueller Report. Russia also allegedly attempted to penetrate the election machines in some states, questioning the likelihood of it changing the outcome of future elections. The election interference via social media has persisted into the 2020 election campaign.
Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war in 2015 backing Bashar al-Assad created severe tensions with the United States, who was supporting groups contested against Assad. Thereon to prevent unanticipated collisions, Washington and Moscow have had to deconflict their air operations in Syria. After U.S.’s partial withdrawal, Russian troops occupied the former U.S. bases and supported Assad’s brutal assault on the Idlib Province, which resulted in the displacement of around a million refugees and worsened the relations.
USA has subsequently strengthened ties with Ukraine, Russia’s neighbouring country and part of former USSR, following Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, in apprehension of Moscow’s expansionist policies.
21st century Cold War.
US President Joe Biden has recently signed an executive order imposing anti-Russian sanctions. The 2020 Democratic victory had anyways sunk the Russian Rubble to unprecedented lows and the recently mandated sanctions have not improved the situation.
The Biden administration has prohibited US financial institutions from acquiring bonds issued by Russia’s central bank and other Russian financial institutions. By driving down bond prices, and pushing the interest rates up, it is going to make life difficult by making it more expensive to keep the country running.
Sanctions were imposed against sixteen legal entities and sixteen individuals allegedly involved in meddling with the US elections. Eight individuals and legal entities were blacklisted for “the ongoing occupation and repression in Crimea”. Apart from that, the United States is expelling ten Russian diplomats from the Russian embassy in Washington, alleging that there were “representatives of Russian intelligence services” among them.
In rejoinder Russia plans to expel ten US diplomats and initiate the procedure that disallows the practice of hiring citizens of Russia and third countries for US diplomatic missions in Russia.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also announced that Moscow will restrict entry for eight “incumbent and former US high-ranking officials and figures, who have been involved in working out and implementing the anti-Russian policy.” These include the US attorney general, the FBI director, the director of National Intelligence, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated that Russia has decided to commence terminating the agreement with US by which the US diplomats are obligated to present straightforward notifications for preparing for long trips in the host country. US diplomats are said to completely ignore this standard for the most part and now Moscow has decided to not let it slide. Any trip made beyond the 25-mile zone around the general consulate’s host city would require prior permission.
Russia is also set to shut down all US funds and US non-governmental organizations that openly and directly interfere with Russia’s internal policies. According to the Foreign Minister, Russia is ready to take as many measures as possible to make US struggle but would like to keep them in standby.
Russia seems to talk a big game but knows when to withdraw as seen withdrawing its reinforcements from the “defensive exercise” carried out near Crimea, in the Black Sea. This withdrawal was seen a couple of days after UK had sent in two warships to the area as well. While UK, USA and especially Ukraine were relieved by this withdrawal, Moscow cannot be dismissed as a threat.