Irreconcilable Differences. Analysing the Deteriorating Russian-US relations


  • Märta Carlsson
  • Mike Winnerstig

Publish date: 2016-06-15

Report number: FOI-R--4276--SE

Pages: 58

Written in: English


  • Russia
  • United States of America
  • geopolitics
  • great power identity
  • superpower identity
  • NATO
  • missile defence
  • spheres of influence
  • Cold War
  • Vladimir Putin
  • George W. Bush
  • Bill Clinton
  • Syria
  • Edward Snowden
  • Barack Obama
  • appeasement
  • domestic politics
  • armed forces
  • nuclear weapons
  • disarmament
  • rearmament
  • regime change
  • colour revolutions


Just after the end of the Cold War, Russia and the United States embarked upon a road that, in the minds of leaders in both countries, would lead to partnership and generally friendly relations. In 2015 Russia and the United States essentially and in effect agreed that they were each other's adversaries for the first time in over 25 years. The aim of this study is to analyse the causes behind this shift. To do this we focus on three sets of underlying or driving factors of the relationship: geopolitical, values- and identity-related factors, and domestic political factors. Our analysis suggest that all these sets of factors deeply affect the bilateral relationship, but in different ways in each country, respectively. Geopolitically, Russian policy tries to promote a world in which the United States has lost some of its international leverage while Russia has gained some. Russia aims to constrain US influence and change international rules, which in the Russian perspective at present are dominated by, and designed to benefit, the United States. Hence, Russia's foreign policy goals and their fulfilment are in many ways not possible to reconcile with a friendly relationship with the United States. Explicit geopolitical motives aimed at countering Russia are harder to find in the official US policy. However, the US administrations covered in this study have started out underlining their desire to create a partnership while eventually ending up in a geopolitical confrontation with Russia. Currently, the US relationship with Russia is actually more adversarial than it has been at any time since 1991. This is also obvious in the practical measures taken by both countries: in response to Russia's actions in Ukraine the United States has increased the amount of prepositioned military materiel and the number of soldiers in Europe to bolster its military posture in Europe, and to reassure the European NATO members of its commitments regarding the defence of its allies. Furthermore, it seems obvious that there are a number of gaps, in terms of understanding, expectations and values, between the two actors. Russia expects the United States to understand the sensitivities it has regarding its self-identified "sphere of influence" and its perception of being cornered by NATO and the US ballistic missile defence systems being deployed in eastern Europe. The United States, on the other hand, expects Russia to understand that these Russian views are illiberal and illegitimate and will thus not be allowed to affect US foreign policy.