The Special Relationship: United States-Russia

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A special relationship between the United States and Russia existed during the period 2001–2002, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. However, this relationship of cooperation quickly became adversarial and competitive because of diverging strategic interests. As the only country with the capacity to destroy the United States with its nuclear stockpile, Russia plays an important role in international politics, particularly in such areas as terrorism, energy resources, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and relations with countries such as Iran, North Korea, and China. To better analyze the U.S.-Russia special relationship and its deterioration, we must understand the historical relationship between these two countries from World War II to the Cold War and beyond.

World War II

Prior to the twentieth century the United States and Russia did not have significant relations except for isolated events, such as the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867. With its growing presence on the world stage, the United States cooperated with Russia when the strategic interests of both countries coincided, as in the 1900 Boxer Rebellion and World War I (1914–1918). Strategic interests continued to direct U.S.-Soviet relations, with President Franklin Roosevelt formally recognizing the Soviet Union in 1933 because he feared the rise of German and Japanese power. After the United States was attacked by Japan in 1941, the United States and Soviet Union forged an alliance during World War II (1939–1945) that defeated the fascist powers.

Cold War

As the world’s two superpowers after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union started an ideological rivalry between democracy and communism across the globe that became known as the “Cold War” (1947–1991). The Cold War’s most dramatic moment was the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), when the Soviet Union tried to establish nuclear weapons in Cuba. After this humiliation over Cuba, the Soviet Union embarked on a military buildup that achieved parity in nuclear forces with the United States. With the United States seeking to withdraw from the Vietnam War (1955–1975) and both nations wanting to prevent a nuclear war, President Richard Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev pursued a policy of détente: Both countries would compete with each other within their prescribed spheres of influence. The crowning achievement of détente was the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I and II in 1972 and 1979, respectively), which produced the Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) that regulated the use of nuclear weapons.

However, détente was cast aside when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. president in 1980. The United States embarked on a dramatic military buildup, which included the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which would intercept Soviet missiles aimed at the United States. Confronted with a stagnating economy, the Soviet Union was unable to match the U.S. military buildup. Led by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union entered the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START I and II in 1991 and 1993, respectively) to reduce nuclear and conventional weapons. Intermediate-range nuclear weapons also were abolished in Europe by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty (INF) in 1987. Gorbachev withdrew the Soviet military from Afghanistan in 1989 and stopped financial assistance to the eastern European communist states, which effectively destroyed the Communist Party rule over these countries. Weakened, Gorbachev did not object to German reunification (1990) and supported the U.S. coalition against Iraq in the Gulf War (1990–1991). When the Soviet Union collapsed on 31 December 1991, the Cold War was over.

Post-Cold War Relations

The Soviet Union was succeeded by the Russia federation, ruled by President Boris Yeltsin, who sought a partnership with the United States because Russia was in dire need of economic assistance to restructure its economy. In order to obtain Western economic aid, Yeltsin had to demonstrate his credibility as a ruler who supported democracy and a free-market economy—objectives that coincided with Yeltsin’s desire to destroy the still-influential Russian Communist Party. With the election of Bill Clinton as U.S. president in 1992, Yeltsin had a genuine partner to reform Russia’s political and economic system.

During this era both countries also cooperated to prevent further nuclear proliferation. However, in spite of this shared objective, domestic and international factors played a significant role in preventing a complete partnership between the United States and Russia. Yeltsin was confronted with anti-Western and nationalist parliaments elected in 1993 and 1995 and had to collaborate with Russian criminal organizations to be reelected as president in 1996. Furthermore, Yeltsin’s economic reforms of “shock therapy” created economic hardship for millions of his citizens, who saw Western financial assistance as a way to keep Russia weak. Finally, the fear of a further breakup of the Russian federation led to the Russian invasion of Chechnya to suppress its independence movement from 1994 to 1996 and from 1999 to today. These domestic factors made Yeltsin adopt a more nationalist approach to foreign affairs, which sometimes conflicted with U.S. strategic interests.

This shift to a nationalist foreign policy was manifested in Bosnia (1993–1996) and Kosovo (1999), where Russian public support of the Serbians prompted Yeltsin to criticize the campaign of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the former Yugoslavia. Yeltsin also objected to the expansion of NATO to the former communist states of eastern Europe and to U.S. expansion into the oil- and gas-rich region of the Caspian Sea. Continuing U.S. trade restrictions on Russian exports and U.S. complaints about Russia’s weapons agreements with anti-U.S. regimes also cooled U.S.-Russian relations.

Special Relationship

With the election of Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush as the respective Russian and U.S. presidents in 2000, relations between the two countries changed drastically. During the 2000 U.S. presidential election, one of the issues raised was “Who lost Russia?” in that Putin began to suppress dissent movements and the press in Russia. However, Bush changed his attitude after he met Putin in June 2001, when Bush declared that he had “stared into Putin’s soul” and found him to be “an honest, straightforward man.” In spite of this personal relationship between the two leaders, the U.S. declaration of intention to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, the implementation of the second round of NATO enlargement, and Russia’s second war in Chechnya created some strain in the relations between the two countries. It would take the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to change the relationship between the United States and Russia into a “special” one.

Putin was the first foreign leader to call Bush to offer his condolences after the September 11 attacks. As the United States planned to invade Afghanistan in October 2001, Putin promised logistical and intelligence support and had no objections to temporary U.S. military bases being installed in central Asia. In exchange for this support, Putin asked Bush to consider Russia’s war against Chechnya as part of the global war on terrorism, to keep the United States in the ABM Treaty, and to ask for Russian consultation on political but not military matters in NATO as the alliance expands to the borders of Russia. Soon after this agreement, U.S. businesses invested in Russia, particularly in the oil, gas, and mineral industries, while Putin expanded Russian oil output to undercut quotas of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). For the first time since 1945, the two countries faced a common threat and managed to align their strategic interests.

Diverging Strategic Interests

However, as the strategic interests of the United States and Russia started to diverge, their special relationship reverted to an adversarial and competitive one. After its expulsion of the Taliban government from Afghanistan in 2002, the United States attempted to establish a permanent military base in central Asia, which not only is rich in natural resources but also is a place from where the United States could closely monitor Russia and China. Both Russia and China have called for the United States to set a date for the withdrawal of its military from central Asia and, to underscore this point, conducted their first joint military exercise in 2005. The United States has ignored both Russia’s and China’s demands, and, after the Uzbek government quelled riots by a mass killing of its citizens, the United States did not withdraw its military bases but instead tried to establish new ones in Kazakhstan.

U.S.-Russian relations also became strained when President Bush announced that the United States would withdraw from the ABM Treaty in order to test antimissile defense systems and that such technology would be placed in Poland and the Czech Republic. When the United States aided the democratic revolutions in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova in 2004–2006, Russia objected to Western meddling in regions that Russia historically had controlled and influenced. Russia’s support of North Korea and Russia’s $300 million arms trade agreement with Iran, along with promises to help Iran develop nuclear technology for civilian use, increased tensions between the United States and Russia.

Iraq War (2003)

All these diverging strategic interests came to the forefront at the United Nations (U.N.) when the United States sought authorization to invade Iraq. In February 2003 Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov proclaimed that Russia would use its veto in the U.N. Security Council on any resolution that sought to resolve the Iraqi problem by the use of direct or indirect force. Besides the cited differences between the United States and Russia, Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, had long-standing military ties with Russia and had made secret oil agreements with Putin. The upcoming December 2003 parliamentary elections and 2004 presidential elections also played a crucial role in the calculation of Putin’s opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Options for the Future

Although Bush and Putin have close personal ties, these ties were unable to translate into an effective foreign policy between the two countries. After September 11, 2001, Bush’s foreign policy priorities do not include Russia with his focus on Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Islamic terrorism, and the growing power of China. The U.S. support of democratic values in Russia’s neighboring states, its military bases in central Asia, and its unwillingness to remove U.S. trade restrictions on Russian exports have increased tensions between the United States and Russia. In return Putin has embraced an anti-Western, nationalist foreign policy empowered by a strong, oil-exporting economy. Confronted with domestic terrorism, the war with Chechnya, and the suppression of human rights and the domestic media, Russian leaders have resorted to a Cold War rhetoric that denounces Western values while seeking an alliance with China as a counterweight to U.S. hegemony (influence).

As Russia continues its slide into autocracy and expands its imperial ambitions, the United States is confronted with several options to repair its relationship with Russia. One option is an aggressive containment of Russian power and influence; a second option is to isolate and ignore Russia because of its lost status as an international power; a third option is to offer cooperation with Russia on strategic matters while criticizing Russia’s abuse of democratic principles. Although its power is diminished, Russia, with its ties to Iran, North Korea, and China and its stockpile of nuclear weapons, still can thwart U.S. strategic objectives. In spite of their recent disagreements, the United States and Russia share several threats, from terrorism to the proliferation of WMDs to illegal narcotic trafficking and possibly even China. Whether the United States and Russia will cooperate against these common threats remains to be seen.


Further Reading

Dmitri, T. (2006). Russia leaves the West. Foreign Affairs, 85, 87–96.

Gorodetsky, G. (2003). Russia between East and West: Russian foreign policy on the threshold of the twenty-first century. London: Frank Kass.

LaFeber, W. (2006). America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945–2006. New York: McGraw-Hill.

MacLean, G. A. (2006). Clinton’s foreign policy in Russia: From deterrence and isolation to democratization and engagement. Burlington, VA: Ashgate.

McFaul, M., & Goldgeier, J. M. (2005, October-November). What to do about Russia. Policy Review, 135: 45-62.


Also available are “Enemy Images, Evidence, and Cognitive Dissonance: The Cold War As Recalled by Michiganders“; “The American Perspective of the Cold War: The Southern Approach (North Carolina)“; “Soviet Perspective on the Cold War and American Foreign Policy“; “The Polish Perspective of American Foreign Policy: Selected Moments from The Cold War Era“; “The Netherlands During the Cold War: An Ambivalent Friendship and a Firm Enmity“; “The U.S. Foreign Policy Establishment’s Perception of Poland (1980-1981)“; “Soviet Attitudes Towards Poland’s Solidarity Movement“; “After the Cold War: U.S.-Ukrainian Relations (1991-2000)“; and The Paradox of Solidarity from a Thirty Years Perspective.”

This essay was originally published as “Special Relationship – U.S.-Russia,” in Global Perspectives on the United States (Berkshire Publishing Group, 2007)

Lee Trepanier

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Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).