The following webinar was conducted at the Faculty of World Studies in Tehran University and was live on Instagram.
Dr Sanaei began his talk with a brief overview of the historical relations between Russia and the United States, calling it tense both in the Soviet and Russian eras. He continued by naming two periods in the last three decades during which tensions were alleviated.
The former Iranian ambassador to Russia spoke of a number of dialogues which have taken place in Russian foreign policy over the past three decades: The Euro-Atlantic discourse in the late 1990s during the tenure of Andrei Kozyrev at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, followed by the Yevgeny Primakov discourse after a period of depression entitled “The balance of power and multipolarity ”. Of course, the concepts of Eurasianism and the great power ambitions were other Russian foreign policy discourses which were always present, but have also returned to the surface recently.
Dr Sanaei noted that Russia’s approach under Putin was the “new realism” which is a combination of balance of power, nationalism, and Eurasianism, some of the principles of which can be cited as observing economic principles in foreign policy, emphasis on orientation towards Europe, the concept of great power, and efforts to normalize relations with the Western world. The paradox of the approach was highlighted further with the Western boycott of the 2014 Olympic Games and the annexation of Crimea by Russia followed by repeated sanctions imposed on Russia, thus reviving some the Cold War era literature.
This Professor of Russian Studies said that the Russian and American narratives were worlds apart in the narrative of Russian-American relations, but pointed out that Russia has always retained its relations with the US, even in worst case scenarios, and has never sought to replace the US with Europe in its foreign policy: “Relations with the US have always been the most important part of Russian foreign relations.”
Despite efforts to improve relations with the US, the Russian account speaks of continued US attempts to take advantage of Russia's weaknesses. Even the US offer to Russia in the 1990s to join NATO was more symbolic, because it came at the same time as the Kosovo war, the Missile Defense Project, and NATO's expansion to the east. The US has led a dual policy towards Russia.
Dr Sanaei continued by saying that Putin's first term in office was a period of peace and cooperation with the US, and quoted Putin: I did my best to establish a balanced relationship with the United States. Russia showed reserve even after the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and began to cooperate with the US to develop strategic relations in the fight against terrorism after the events of 9/11. Russia had both intelligence cooperation with the US and cooperation in the transit of equipment to Afghanistan through Russia. It even shut down its radar base in Cuba and signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in May 2002 to reduce the production of nuclear weapons.
This process was disrupted to a certain extent from 2002-2008. The deployment of missile defense shields in Eastern Europe was revived. Color revolutions took place in Georgia and Ukraine with the visible hand of the US behind them, and serious tension erupted over the transfer of energy from Central Asia and the Caucasus over US monopolization. The tension reached its height in Putin's 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, where he announced that he had no hopes of establishing ties with the US and Europe and accused them of unilateralism and disruption in the joint security system. The outbreak of war in Georgia in 2008 only added fuel to the fire.
Under Dmitry Medvedev, another effort to improve relations with the US began in 2008 and became known as the Reset Program . After START expired in 2009 and a new START was signed, Hilary Clinton and Lavrov, the then foreign ministers of the US and Russia, began drawing official red lines in the Trieste Program. Despite Russian cooperation over Libya and passing a UNSC resolution, the missile defense program was revived once again and things went as far as a flexible personality like Medvedev threatening the US. Ties between the two countries were strained once more.
After the legislative elections in 2011, Hilary Clinton officially sided with Russian protesters. On the verge of Putin’s return in 2012, the Americans demanded directly and indirectly that Putin not return to power. From here on, the two countries returned to a period of tensions. This time, unlike the Libyan case, Russia prevented the Security Council from issuing a resolution to attack Syria. The Magnitsky sanctions regime was announced against Russia by the US. Russia passed a law banning US citizens from adopting Russian children. In 2013, Russia allowed Snowden, a CIA subcontractor, to enter Russia. Thus, a series of developments took place, escalating tensions between the two countries.
It was during Obama’s second term in office when Russia granted asylum to Snowden and a meeting between the leaders of the two countries, Obama and Putin, was canceled for the first time in 50 years. As a result, their relations is currently close to zero and there is no bilateral agenda between the two countries. The main sanctions regime on Russia was imposed in recent years. Forty-six packages of sanctions were enacted or reinstated against Russia during Trump’s tenure in office alone.
Controversy in the US over Russia has escalated to the point that, with Democrats concerned about possible Russian interference in the 2020 election, the US has left two Russian requests to host the summit meeting in January 2020, a meeting on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the G7 summit, and the Persian Gulf Security Initiative meeting unanswered. Republicans have also concluded that any Russian initiative would become a major controversy inside the US.
According to Dr Sanaei, analysts in Russia do not deny that they are more inclined towards the Republicans who are less likely than Democrats to interfere in domestic affairs and human rights issues. At the same time, Russian media has allocated no space to supporting Trump in the 2020 election, while this was clearly evident in the last election. Trump was even more popular in Russia than he was in the US on the eve of the last election. Although Trump was keen on establishing ties with Russia, the Democrats and House representatives had been the initiators of many of the sanctions and put pressure on Trump.
In explaining the views of the Russian elite on the US election, Dr Sanai pointed to an article entitled “Will America stand until 2024 ?” which refers to an article by Dr Charles King, Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University called “How a Great Power Falls Apart”. This article mentions Soviet professor Andrei Amalric’s article in 1970 which asked fifty years ago “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” pointing to the transfer of the gap from the elite to the people. The article simulates the situation in today’s America with the Soviet Union at that time. King adds: It is the weakness of the great powers which become narcissistic and self-deceived and are unable to see the gaps in a new way.
Dr Sanaei also pointed to the article by Richard Haas “Will the US election lead to the collapse of Russia?” quoting Georgy Arbatov who said: The US election is a bad time for good policies and a good time for bad policies. But gaps in the US indicate that this has spread to cover the entire four year period. The important question is whether this gap in the US is only at the level of the elite or has it reached the people too? The text then refers to the problems in the American social and racial structure and its discriminatory nature, which is not at the level of the elite but lies in American ideology. Dr Sanaei went on to point out to an 80% economic loss inflicted on Americans by globalization.
Dr Sanaei described recent debates between the two 2020 US presidential candidates as a kind of absurdity in US foreign policy.
In expressing Russia's preference over Trump or Biden, the Professor of Russian Studies said: “Russia’s top experts in foreign affairs and international relations have addressed this issue and tried to answer the question.” To the question of which one is better, he referred to Stalin's statement in the view of some Russian analysts, adding: “Both are worse” and there are no hopes of better relations between Russia and the US. Dr Sanaei also referred to some of Trump's positive remarks on Putin as well as Putin's remarks on Trump, which had no effect on improving the two countries ties. He reiterated: “Trump's expectations of Russia in the run-up to the election are not traditional issues, such as Syria, Ukraine, and a missile defense, but to distance itself from China.” Russia is not at the center of focus for Trump. He sees China as the main enemy, because he has an economic outlook rather than a geopolitical one and is not threatened by the Russian economy. The only positive aspect of US-Russian relations over the past four years has been the volume of trade between the two countries which has increased despite all the disputes.”
On the other hand, it is believed that Biden and his supporters are more hostile towards Russia and have an ideological problem with it. So, there may be a difference in appearance between Biden and Trump, but in practice, nothing will improve relations between the two countries because of the bipartisan US system and the fact that Russia has become a domestic issue.
Whether Biden gets elected or Trump, Russian analysts believe there will be no serious dialogue between the two countries, but it will affect other areas. US relations with Europe, China, India, the Arab world, and Iran, will affect international relations following the US election and, therefore, it will also affect US-Russian relations.
According to Dr Sanaei, Russian analysts believe that US foreign policy will change, but not in the near future. When it does, Russia will talk to the US from a different position. He stressed: “Predicting the future and calculations are based on what we see in the present, but unforeseen events may occur and there may be changes in policies and approaches, especially with the fluid order we are witnessing in the international system, where there is no order at all. Currents must be constantly monitored and problems and crises overcome. The role of regional equations and the role of countries on the international stage, including Iran, are increasing.”
Dr Sanaei’s concluding observations were on Putin’s recent remarks on 7 October on his birthday in answer to a Russian reporter's question about what Biden had said to Trump during a debate: “You… are Putin’s puppy”. Putin also reacted by saying that this is an internal US issue, adding: These interpretations indicate a decline in US political culture. Referring to the last four years of Trump's presidency, Putin spoke of two areas of success with the US: in trade ties and cooperation in energy market stability. Putin also noted the negative points of the Trump administration in establishing relations with Russia under circumstances where the most sanctions were imposed on Russia during this time (46 packages of old and new sanctions). Trump also left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and announced that it is in the process of withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty between the two countries.
Putin's remarks about Biden and the Democrats show that there is also a mentality in Russia that the election result may not be in Trump's favor. According to Putin, despite the anti-Russian fervor among US Democrats, Russia is looking to establish good relations with the country, no matter what the outcome of the election.
Dr Sanaei looked for common ground between Russia and the Democrats in Putin's speech, where he adds: “The main Democrat focus is on liberal values. But, in the current position of the party in the US, it pays special attention to socialist policies, and Putin points to his membership in the Communist Party and its history in Russia. Justice, equality, and fraternity are slogans which go back a long way in Russia. Putin pointed out that African-Americans are one of the main problems in the US today and that the Soviet Union has a very long history of working with people of African origin. Putin stressed on the importance of Russia being ready for any president elected by the American people, citing the two as common ground between Russia and the Democrats.
Dr Sanaei believes: “The points in Putin’s interview were very close to the views of prominent Russian analysts and scholars. But the fact, that Russia should keep away from emphasizing on US in it's foreign policy, is not seen in his words. This indicates that the US will continue to remain at the center of gravity of Russia's foreign policy.”