2014 marked a new historic cycle in U.S.-Russia relations. Here are the most important events that will influence relations between the two countries for years to come.
A traditional Russian Matryoshka wooden doll depicting U.S. President Barack Obama, second from right, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, center, U.S. President George W. Bush, second from left, and Leader of the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until 1953 Joseph Stalin, left, and right. Photo: AP
2014 was a momentous year for U.S.-Russia bilateral relations. This was the year that finally ended the achievements of the so-called “reset” policy started by Moscow and Washington to improve their relations. However, the reset became a victim of U.S.-Russia confrontation over Ukraine, which in turn led to what some have referred to as a new Cold War between Russia and America.
What events preceded and accompanied this new Cold War? What did Russia and the U.S. lose and achieve? Here is a list of the most significant events in relations between the two countries.
1. U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul’s resignation
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s announcement of his resignation on Feb.4 came as a big surprise for the media and policy experts. His decision to step down was met with concern among those who believed in the reset policy.
“After more than five years working in the Obama administration, it is time to go home,” he wrote. Even though he said that his primary motivation is to rejoin his family in California, both Russian and American experts agreed that he was disappointed in the events in Russia and had lost any momentum to continue the reset policy in Russia under Putin.
2. John Tefft appointed as new U.S. Ambassador to Russia
The news that highly experienced professional diplomat John Tefft would become the next U.S. Ambassador to Moscow broke on June 30 from the Russian daily Kommersant. Tefft was seen as one of the most eligible candidates because of his diplomatic heft and experience.
He was Deputy Ambassador of the United States in Russia from 1996 until 1999, the U.S. Ambassador in Lithuania from 2000 to 2003, and the U.S. Ambassador in Georgia from 2005 to 2009. Most recently, from November 2009 until August 2013, Mr. Tefft was the U.S. Ambassador in Ukraine.
Given that the appointment of Tefft came during the Ukrainian crisis and a time of increasing confrontation, the Kremlin and Russia’s pro-government media were very leery of him, describing him as an expert in “color revolutions.” Meanwhile, experts had been pinning hopes on him because of his diplomatic competence, while remaining realistic about his potential. Pundits admitted that his appointment didn’t mean a new start in U.S.-Russia relations.
3. Sanctions on the Kremlin
In March, April, July, and then again in September, the U.S. (as well as the EU and some other countries) imposed sanctions in response to the Kremlin’s policy in Ukraine and the so-called “annexation” of Crimea.
Afterwards, these nations broadened the list of the Russian individuals and companies whose travel and transactions were restricted. The list included several top Russian officials and businessmen, as well as such companies as Rosneft and Vnesheconombank.
Initially not biting, the Western-led sanctions finally hit severely Russia’s financial sector and restricted the country from importing cutting-edge technologies used in the energy and military sectors.
Eventually, these sanctions fueled fears and rumors that Russia might be rejected from the SWIFT international banking system. In addition, there were also discussions about Russia’s potential withdrawal from the Visa and Mastercard payment systems.
4. Russia’s food “counter-sanctions”
In response to the Western sanctions, Russia imposed its own “counter sanctions” that initially included travel bans against certain American officials. Since August, these counter-sanctions have included a ban on food imports from the United States and EU countries that had imposed sanctions against Russia. In particular, Russia has banned fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, milk and dairy imports from the U.S., the EU, Australia, Canada and Norway. With experts viewing these measures as a form of “trade war”, this response exacerbated the confrontation between Russia and the U.S.
5. Crackdown on educational programs in Russia
2014 has also seen an extensive blow delivered to bilateral educational exchanges. Several programs of scholarly and educational exchanges were closed during the year by the initiative of either Russia or the U.S., including the Kennan Institute’s Moscow office (closed in spring by officials in Washington), and the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program, which provided the opportunity to Russian schoolchildren to spend a year in the United States (closed in the fall by Russian authorities).
The U.S. explained its decision to shut down the Kennan office in Moscow with a lack of funding and an attempt to optimize financial resources. However, many experts saw the move as an indication of the U.S. losing interest in Russia. This was before Crimea’s accession to Russia and the civil war in Eastern Ukraine – two major events that revived U.S. interest in Russian Studies.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin cancelled the FLEX program in October. According to Russian children's rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov, Russia is withdrawing from the FLEX program because an American host family violated its commitments in regard to one of the Russian high school students and legalized guardianship over this student.
Likewise, Russia’s government alleges that the American side created the situation in which Russian students, adopted by American host families, stay in the U.S. under their jurisdiction. The statement from Russia’s Foreign Ministry suggests that such a practice contradicts the Russian legislature, including the so-called Dima Yakovlev law banning the adoption of Russian orphans by American families.
6. The intensifying war of words between Obama and Putin
In response to American moralism, the Kremlin came up with whatabotism. Photo: AP
Regular political rhetoric between the Russian and American presidents mirrored the steep decline in U.S.-Russia relations in 2014. While Obama listed Russia as one of the primary threats to the world – in addition to Ebola and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) – in his UN speech in September, Putin publicly accused the U.S. of instigating civil war in Ukraine and interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries.
7. The tragedy of Malaysian flight MH17
If there was one event that symbolized the steep divide in how Russia and the U.S. view the world, it was reaction to downed flight MH17. While the U.S. clearly saw the tragedy as the direct result of Moscow’s funding of insurgents in Eastern Ukraine, Russia saw the event as the direct result of U.S. interference in Ukrainian affairs. The worldwide uproar caused by the downing of the flight eventually led to an expanded set of sanctions against Russia.
8. High-profile arrests of Russian citizens
The decline in U.S.-Russia relations was also highlighted by several arrests of Russian citizens. The son of State Duma Deputy Valery Seleznev, Roman Seleznev, was arrested in the Maldives in July, extradited to the U.S., and accused of bank fraud, damage to a protected computer and aggravated identity theft. Russian officials called the case a “kidnapping.”
In addition, Vadim Mikerin, CEO of TENAM Corp., the Russian company subsidiary of Atomenergoprom, was arrested in the U.S. under charges of a “kickback scheme to obtain contracts to transport Russian nuclear fuel to the U.S.”
9. Space program cooperation
Among positive events in U.S.-Russia relations was ongoing cooperation in space exploration despite several attempts to politicize this cooperation. This development of one of the most successful examples of cooperation is important because it shows that U.S.-Russian relations are able to withstand the surrounding political turmoil in certain areas.
In early April, NASA sent an internal memo to its employees announcing the suspension of its projects with the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, as a response to the Ukraine crisis. Employees were told that travel to Russia, bilateral meetings, and teleconferences with their Russian counterparts would be suspended.
The only project to survive the cut was the International Space Station (ISS). In fact, the blanket suspensions mentioned in NASA’s memo now appear to have been overstated. The suspensions were later revoked. Despite ongoing tensions between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine, NASA and Roscosmos are preparing for the next stage in their 40-year-old space collaboration.
10. The Bolshoi’s historic visit to America
The performance of the Bolshoi Ballet at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York in July was not just a symbol of rapprochement, it was the symbol of how both the U.S. and Russia might have a dialogue beyond political differences. This was the role such cultural exchanges played during the Cold War, and could once again serve as a template for “another” type of U.S.- Russian relationship.
What to look for in 2015
Obviously, 2014 was not the best year for U.S.-Russian relations. Hopefully, however, the events of the past year will provide important lessons for political leaders in both countries in 2015.
Many events in the U.S.-Russian relationship in 2014 were direct and indirect consequences of the Ukrainian crisis and the Russian acquisition of Crimea. Economic sanctions, travel bans, the tragedy of Malaysian flight MH17, the harsh rhetoric of officials from both countries towards other side, the journalistic war of words – all put the bilateral relations into the center of the world’s attention. However, the energy of the mutual accusations between Russia and the U.S. is too high to last long. Some observers call the situation the return of a new Cold War, but that is an exaggeration. The crisis is not as deep as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. There are no competing ideologies or division of the world into two major camps, while the global economy is interdependent as never before.
In 2015, it will be important to resist the temptation to reduce every dimension of the U.S.-Russia relationship to a political matter. We can find mistakes made by politicians, and we can see the objective clash of interests, but there are many more spheres of cooperation and dialogue between the two nations that should be taken into consideration.