A Letter to John: Where Are U.S.–Russia Relations Headed?

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Andrey Kortunov



In the decades I spent working with the United States, I acquired quite a large circle of contacts in Washington. Collectively, they represent the so-called American establishment. Today, I’d like to address these Washingtonians as one individual, whom I’ll name John for the sake of simplicity.



Dear John,


My letter is full of grief, which you probably share. U.S.-Russia relations are deteriorating with each passing day, and we still can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Yet another desperate attempt to reverse the negative trend in bilateral relations has yielded no result. It’s clear that we’re in for even tougher times that may last for quite a while.


Apparently, U.S. pressure on Moscow will only intensify on a broad range of issues in several spheres. Cooperation, if it is still possible, will be selective, tactical, and situational. Your flamboyant president, who opposes you and your colleagues practically on his own, will keep losing battle after battle — at least on the Russian front. For Trump, Russia is a “toxic asset,” as you like to say in the United States.


I don’t want to start debating how we got here and which side is more at fault—this debate might be endless, and we’re unlikely to agree. If I may, let me ask you another, more relevant question.


John, what do you think the end result of all of this should be? As far as I can tell from Moscow, no tactical compromise from the Kremlin will change the overall vector of American policy. The United States has made a firm and long-term strategic choice, and last year’s sanctions law is a clear and unequivocal indication of that. If Vladimir Putin makes slight concessions on Syria, he’ll be asked to abandon his partnership with Iran. If he is more flexible on Donbas, the issue of Crimea will be raised.


From now on, you’ll be putting all the blame on Putin even if it has little to do with him. And we all know that Putin doesn’t like to cave under pressure—be it foreign or domestic. So, there is no chance for some lasting compromise—at least one recalling the détente of the 1970s—even in the medium term.


How do you envision the preferred endgame for our current geopolitical contest? What will the “ultimate” U.S. victory in the twenty-first century Cold War look like, in your view? Let’s look at some options.


John, you are certainly aware that many in Washington would prefer some variation of the 1991 scenario—that is, regime change in Moscow and the revision of Russia’s foreign policy. Almost no one discusses this option publicly, but you and I have long since learned to read between the lines.


So, let’s talk regime change in Moscow, say, in 2024 or even in 2030; better late than never. Without discussing how realistic such a scenario is in the context of the outcome of Russia’s latest presidential election, I’d like to remind you of two things.


First, Soviet history—still recent—clearly tells us that intensifying external pressure on Moscow only hardens the Kremlin’s resolve. Remember our lengthy conversations in Moscow, shortly before the start of perestroika? I think you won’t deny that Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative wasn’t what sounded the death knell for the Soviet Union. The country’s demise was ushered in several years later, when Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev jointly stripped the USSR of its adversarial image, which had fortified the Soviet political and administrative system for decades.


It appears then that current American policy brings Washington away from, not nearer to, its goal of regime change in Russia.


Second, let’s assume that a miracle did occur, and that Russia followed the Soviet path out of existence. Be honest, John, are you able to predict the concomitant global and regional risks, the risks for U.S. interests and security?


We both remember well that the world was fortunate in 1991 to avoid violent turmoil in a nuclear superpower state. Let’s leave the question of why the 1991 events unfolded the way they did to historians. It’s not at all obvious that the same thing will happen next time. Won’t you agree that the current Russian military-security establishment somewhat differs from the old Soviet nomenklatura and will hardly acquiesce to collective political suicide?


Let’s continue. While regime change in Moscow is merely a theoretical scenario, continued cooperation between Russia and China looks far more realistic. John, for ten years you and your colleagues have been saying that the Russian-Chinese partnership is built on a fragile foundation, increasingly asymmetrical, and practically exhausted in terms of the potential for cooperation. Evidently, you would very much like relations between Russia and China to fail.


One doesn’t have to be Halford Mackinder or, say, Henry Kissinger to draw a simple conclusion: further consolidation of the Russian-Chinese alliance would lead to the geopolitical configuration that the United States has been trying to prevent since at least the early twentieth century. Under this configuration, Eurasia would have a power center that would oppose the United States, exceed it in both population and resources, and potentially overtake it economically.


Will you take comfort in the fact that Moscow will be the junior partner to Beijing under this configuration? A slight consolation that is, don’t you think? It might satisfy pathological Russophobes, but you, of course, aren’t one of them.


Another possible option is Moscow’s international isolation, its relegation to the political and economic sidelines, and the imposition of a technological and financial blockade, all of which would gradually turn Russia into a pariah state.


But Russia will never become just another pariah state. If you drive Moscow into a corner, it will most probably take a leadership role in the international fraternity of such pariah actors, both state and non-state ones. It will certainly find itself capable of leading such a cause, and there will be more than enough pariahs in the world to go around in the foreseeable future.


John, we have known each other for many years. You know I am not your dyed-in-the-wool Kremlin propagandist. I am very critical of Russian foreign policy and never thought that Washington shoulders all responsibility for the current deplorable state of Russian-American relations. I can easily imagine that Washington may see Russia as a complicated, obstinate, intransigent, irritating, unpleasant, unreliable, or untrustworthy partner.


I’ll also note that I don’t agree with the demonization of the American establishment that is taking place in Russia today. I personally know many representatives of this establishment whom I regard as highly professional; these people don’t just unconditionally love their country but also consistently support cooperation with Russia. Believe me, my laundry list of questions to Moscow political analysts, and especially to pseudo-analysts, is much longer than the one to you and your colleagues.


So, what’s been happening to us all, John? When did we in Moscow and you in Washington go from producing expert analysis to creating political propaganda? When did we substitute trying to hurt the other side as much as possible for solving problems? When did we lose our knack for strategic thinking? And where did our intolerance of dissent and unconventional thinking come from?


I am not urging you to take pro-Kremlin positions, forget about fundamental differences between Moscow and Washington, and mechanically turn the current page in our relations and begin writing a new chapter. I am not saying that you should betray your moral principles when evaluating the policies of the current Russian government. But let me allude to Max Weber, whose works you probably read in college.


When contemplating the relationship between ethics and politics, Weber divided ethics into two categories—ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility. Ethics of convictions implies the unyielding pursuit of moral principles regardless of the results, costs, and casualties to which it may lead. In contrast, ethics of responsibility calls for considering the specific situation one is in, focusing on a policy’s consequences, taking responsibility for the predictable outcomes of one’s actions, and being ready to prevent a greater evil even if it means resorting to a lesser evil.


Nowadays, ethics of conviction dominates in both Washington and Moscow. I don’t even want to go into how adequate these convictions are for the needs of today’s world. I’ll simply point out that both capitals are thoroughly lacking in ethics of responsibility.


We have role models to whom we can look up. Our generation still remembers brilliant intellectuals of the bygone years—among them, George Kennan and Yevgeny Primakov, William Fulbright and Georgy Arbatov, Marshall Shulman and Anatoly Dobrynin. They taught us ethics of responsibility. These people were thinking in terms of eras and generations rather than election cycles and bureaucratic squabbles. Now these people are no longer with us; some left us sooner, others later. The last representatives of this illustrious cohort are crossing the Great Divide right before our eyes.


But we are not so young anymore, either, John. Our time is also running out. What intellectual legacy are we going to bequeath to those who will come after us?


Good luck to us all!


Andrey Kortunov





This article was originally published by the RIAC and is reproduced with their kind permission





Andrey Kortunov

Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

Andrey Kortunov graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) in 1979 and completed his postgraduate studies at the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1982. He holds a PhD in History. Dr Kortunov completed internships at the Soviet embassies in London and Washington, and at the Permanent Delegation of the USSR to the UN.

In 1982–1995, Dr Kortunov held various positions in the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies, including Deputy Director. He taught at universities around the world, including the University of California, Berkeley. In addition, he led several public organizations involved in higher education, social sciences and social development, such as the Moscow Public Science Foundation (1993–2001); the Information, Scholarship, Education Center (2002–2017); and the New Eurasia Foundation, (2004–2017). Dr Kortunov has been the President of the New Development Technologies Autonomous Non-profit Organization since 2015.

Since 2011, Andrey Kortunov has been the Director General of RIAC. He is a member of expert and supervisory committees and boards of trustees of several Russian and international organizations. His academic interests include contemporary international relations and Russian foreign policy.

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