US-Russia relations since the Cold War

cold war legacies
Russian leader Vladimir Putin is very much a creature of the Cold War

The United States and Russia, the Cold War’s two main protagonists, have had a turbulent relationship since 1991. Despite the end of the Cold War, relations between the two superpowers remained tense and problematic in the first two decades of the 21st century. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 reduced US-Russian relations to their worst level since the mid-1980s and revived Cold War fears of Russian expansionism and nuclear war.

The US today

Despite the rise of China, the US remains the world’s largest superpower, both economically and militarily. Despite the 2008 global financial crisis, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic and other problems, the American economy is the largest and wealthiest in the world.

The US government remains the world’s preponderant military power, with around 1.2 million full-time military personnel and 800,000 reservists. Washington spends more than $US600 billion per year on defence, almost three times that of China, nine times that of Russia and more than the next eight nations combined.

The US remains the most influential member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) which, since 1991, has continued to operate and expand, despite the end of the Cold War. Russia, in contrast, has been significantly weakened by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It remains an important regional power with a nuclear arsenal and powerful military – but it has surrendered its global superpower status to the US and China.

From USSR to CIS

The Cold War was ended by the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991. The USSR was replaced by a new entity called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). It was formed to collaborate and coordinate policies on issues such as free trade, finance, security, immigration and crime prevention.

Unlike the Soviet Union, the CIS is a loose confederation with no formal power over its member-nations. The CIS had 11 founding member-nations, all of which were former Soviet republics (Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan). Georgia joined the CIS in 1993 but has since withdrawn, along with Armenia and Ukraine.

Russia remains the most powerful member-nation of the CIS and in many respects, its de facto leader. Despite the organisation’s lack of coercive power, Moscow has often been accused of determining CIS policy unilaterally or exerting undue pressure on other member-nations of the CIS.

Separatist movements

post-cold war world
Chechen separatist fighters during the 1990s

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, combined with heavy-handed Russian policies during the 1990s, gave rise to several nationalist and independence movements within the former USSR.

The most violent of these separatist groups was formed in Chechnya, a small region in the North Caucasus, in 1991. Chechen separatists spent the next decade battling Moscow for independence. Their struggle included two full-scale wars (1994-96 and 1999-2000) that claimed more than 100,000 lives, including around 10,000 Russian soldiers.

Chechen separatist violence continued into the 21st century and included acts of terrorism such as the Beslan school siege (September 2004) which claimed the lives of 186 children. Russian forces eventually gained control of Chechnya, eradicated separatist and terrorist groups and imposed a pro-Moscow regime.

From honeymoon to tensions

Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton after an amicable meeting in 1995

Diplomatic relations between the US and Russia improved through the 1990s. Both nations signed an arms control treaty in January 1993, trade links were increased and Russian president Boris Yeltsin began a cordial relationship with his American counterpart Bill Clinton.

US-Russia relations began to deteriorate in the late 1990s, for several reasons. In 1997, NATO offered membership to Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. This expansion into eastern Europe by NATO was viewed by many as provocative to Russia and its interests.

In 1999, NATO forces intervened in the Kosovo War by bombing Yugoslavia, a move opposed by Russia and undertaken without United Nations (UN) backing.

Bush and Yeltsin

The election of Vladimir Putin (1999) and George W. Bush (2000), followed by the September 11th terrorist attacks (2001), triggered pivotal shifts in Russian and American foreign policy.

In December 2001, Washington outraged Moscow by announcing its intention to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, one of the Cold War’s most significant arms reduction agreements. A further provocation arose in 2007 when the US began constructing missile defence systems in Poland.

Tensions eased somewhat between 2009-2012 under the presidencies of Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. In April 2010, these two leaders negotiated and signed a new treaty reducing strategic nuclear weapons.

Recent years

post-cold war
The US-Russia relationship under Putin and Trump has been mixed

Since then, Moscow and Washington have drifted apart due to disagreements over several issues and policies. These include ongoing disputes over American missile and defence systems in Poland; conflict over Western and Russian influence or interference in Ukraine and Georgia; anti-democratic reforms and human rights abuses within Russia; and, most recently, Russian intervention in the ongoing civil war in Syria.

In 2016, the Russian government was accused of actively interfering in the US presidential election through a campaign of Internet hacking, propaganda and social media disinformation. Some believe Russian interference in the election contributed to Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, possibly as ‘payback’ for Clinton’s 2011 remark that Russia’s own elections were “neither free nor fair”.

Donald Trump’s decision to launch two missile strikes against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, a Putin ally, has further inflamed bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington. Trump’s own critics claim he is too sympathetic to or closely aligned with Putin.

A new ‘cold war’?

us-russia putin
A Western cartoon criticising Putin’s foreign policy

This breakdown in US-Russia relations has prompted some commentators to claim the two countries have entered a new cold war.

Many historians and political scientists consider this term inappropriate for the modern context. The phrase “cold war” suggests similarities or analogies with the geopolitics and conditions that existed between 1945 and 1991. The current situation is much more complex – and according to some experts, considerably more dangerous.

Vladimir Putin is a nationalist whose policies seek to restore Russian influence in eastern Europe and central Asia. He views the United States as an aggressive imperialist power that threatens Russia militarily, by placing missiles in Poland and expanding NATO. Washington has also inserted itself into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence by supporting pro-Western ideas and policies in Ukraine and Georgia.

Many in the US, in contrast, see Putin as an anti-democratic and authoritarian ruler who models his leadership on that of Joseph Stalin. They view Putin as a treacherous autocrat still using underhanded methods from the Cold War, such as arming separatist movements, deploying mass campaigns of misinformation and ‘fake news’, and ordering the murder of political opponents, journalists and whistleblowers.

A changing world

Evaluating the current situation should also look beyond individual leaders and perceptions of government. Regardless of their leadership, both the United States and Russia have endured considerable economic and structural change in the past generation.

The US has undergone significant de-industrialisation, shedding or scaling down labour-intensive industries such as car manufacturing, shipbuilding and coal mining. The US today is more focused on retail, technology, communications, healthcare, light manufacturing and service-based industries. The American economy remains the largest in the world, with a gross domestic product in excess of $US18 trillion, though it is carrying a national debt in excess of $US21 trillion.

Russia has also de-industrialised significantly since the Cold War. Moscow now relies on its vast natural reserves of oil and gas to drive the Russian economy.

Both the US and Russia are confronted with significant challenges in the medium to long-term. Among these challenges are population change, ageing infrastructure, resource depletion, an increasing reliance on imports and growing inequalities of wealth and income. Both nations will also wrestle with external conditions, such as the growth of China and the effects of climate change.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

us-russia relations
In this propaganda video, Ukrainian soldiers warn invading Russian soldiers of their fate

In the past two decades, Russia under Vladimir Putin has had difficult relations with Ukraine. Since the end of the Cold War, Ukrainians have been divided on whether to retain political, economic and cultural ties with Moscow, or forge new links with the West, such as membership of European Union (EU) or even NATO.

By 2013, the majority of popular opinion in Ukraine appeared to favour Europe rather than Russia. When Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to formalise partnerships and trade agreements with the EU, it sparked a series of large demonstrations known as the Euromaidan or Maidan. This led to the impeachment of Yanukovych, who fled the country and was dismissed by a unanimous vote of Ukraine’s parliament. Russia declared this an illegal coup and refused to recognise Ukraine’s new leaders.

In 2014, Russian troops annexed the Crimean peninsula, an autonomous province of Ukraine, and installed a pro-Russian government there. Internecine fighting also erupted in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where three-quarters of the population speak Russian, with Moscow supplying arms and tactical leadership for the Donbas separatists. There was international outrage in July 2014 when a Russian-operated missile team in eastern Ukraine shot down a civilian airliner, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing 298 people.

In February 2022, citing the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian government and claims of genocide in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin ordered a large-scale military operation in Ukraine, launching attacks on major cities including Kyiv and Kharkiv. Putin’s attacks sparked widespread global outrage and attracted the harshest package of economic sanctions ever imposed on a single nation since World War II. Putin responded by placing his nuclear weapons teams on high alert, reviving the worst fears of the Cold War.

A politician’s view:
“Our relationship to Russia ought to be among our closest. We both are committed to reduction of weapons of mass destruction. We both have immediate interests in combating terrorism. Russia stands on the border of five significant Islamic republics and shares concerns with us regarding stability in the Balkans and the Black Sea region. Russia possesses immense natural resources, supplies many of our allies in Europe, and offers an alternative source to precarious Persian Gulf supplies. Russia has world-class scientists, physicist, and mathematicians. We use Russian rocket propulsion systems to launch space missions and cooperate on manned space missions. Russia offers a vast market for American and Western products and services, an opportunity more appreciated by European enterprises than American ones. Further, Russia can be of considerable help to us and our allies in venues as disparate as Iran, North Korea, and the Middle East. In each of these cases, they stand to lose at least as much as we do, if not more, from war in these regions. We should treat the Russians as partners, not subordinates.”
Gary Hart, former US Senator

cold war us-russia relations

1. Almost 30 years after the Cold War, the United States remains the world’s largest superpower. Russia, in contrast, is a significant regional power, though no longer a global superpower.

2. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 gave rise to separatist or independence movements, terrorist groups and civil wars in places like Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine.

3. US-Russia relations enjoyed a honeymoon period in the 1990s, as Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin negotiated cordially and signed trade and arms reduction agreements.

4. Relations then deteriorated as both nations adopted unilateral foreign policies. The expansion of NATO is one factor in worsening bilateral relations between the US and Russia.

5. Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and invasion of Ukraine in 2022 have revived many of the fears and tensions of the Cold War, particularly the dangers of Russian expansionism and nuclear war.

Citation information
Title: “US-Russia relations since the Cold War”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: September 19, 2020
Date revised: March 1, 2022
Date accessed: November 26, 2022
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