Illustrated image of the US Eagle and Russian Bear
(Credit: Robert Neubecker )

It may very well be the most dysfunctional relationship on the global stage, if not the most discussed. Yet, when many talk about Russia and the United States, the discourse can quickly devolve into schoolyard taunts and superficial portraits that belie the depth of the issues in play. To bring more clarity to the topic, we asked six faculty experts to tell us what concerns them most about the state of U.S.-Russia relations in the world today.

Having grown up during the Cold War and been trained as a Soviet specialist, I vividly recall the enemy images that dominated media coverage in both countries back then. Yet, during that very dangerous era, decision makers in Moscow and Washington recognized that some issues transcended the prevalent Cold War rivalry. In particular, following the nearly disastrous Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. and USSR began to cooperate in preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons.

Today, there is no longer a sense of any shared interests or respect for or understanding or trust of the other side. We therefore face not only a world in disarray, but one in which there is a much greater chance that nuclear weapons will be used by accident, by miscalculation, or out of spite. The next generation of nonproliferation specialists we are training at MIIS is our last, best chance to avoid this existential threat.  —William C. Potter, Director, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar Professor of Nonproliferation Studies

My concerns about the state of U.S.-Russia relations are multifaceted yet interconnected. I’m worried that hostile American rhetoric toward Russia—combined with Western sanctions—will strengthen the nationalistic and anti-Western base of Putin’s supporters. This could turn Russian youth away from the West while also increasing pressure on the Russian government to give up on trying to engage the United States in resurrecting joint efforts in arms control. A new arms race would redirect funds that must be invested in the modernization of Russia’s infrastructure, education, medical services, and international efforts in slowing down consequences of global warming

At the same time, in the United States, I see a degradation of media discourse on Russia that I find reminiscent of the McCarthy era. This leads to an exaggeration of the “Russian fear factor” in American domestic politics, which distracts the American public and politicians from addressing the modernization of education, infrastructure, and improving quality of life in the United States. If the U.S. continues to paint Russia as an evil country, a permeation of fear will increase, leading to groupthink that is hostile to necessary contacts between scholars, students, and journalists—not to mention diplomats—of the two countries.

Anna Vassilieva, Professor of Russian Studies and Director, Graduate Initiative in Russian Studies

I am most concerned with what the U.S.-Russia relationship leaves out—rampant discrimination and xenophobia against millions of labor migrants in Russia. For example, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Kyrgyzstan, including my close family members, live and work in Russia in response to demand for low-skilled jobs there. It is heart-wrenching to hear their firsthand accounts of how they are treated with contempt and discriminated against. This happens at every step of the way—from using public transportation to experiencing frequent law enforcement raids in their cramped rentals simply because they have darker skin. Offenders are not just far-right groups but also police and other public servants. I stopped traveling to and via Russia because I, too, have been discriminated against, although this is nothing compared to what labor migrants who live and work there have been experiencing for over a decade. Non-U.S. media has been covering this problem to some extent. Sadly, I believe the United States has ceased to be a human rights champion at home, let alone globally. —Mahabat Baimyrzaeva, Associate Professor of International Policy and Development

What concerns me is the fact that the United States (at least its leadership and the mainstream media) does not seem able to entertain the possibility that Russia may have legitimate interests of its own, which do not have to be aligned with America’s goals or directly oppose them. As a result, every Russian success is decried as a threat, and every problem Russia faces is hailed as a welcome challenge to the “regime.” This zero-sum-game mentality prevents meaningful cooperation between the two countries and reduces the complexity of the world’s affairs to a simplistic, albeit convenient, “us vs. them” standoff. —Dmitry Buzadzi, Visiting Professor of Translation and Interpretation

I’m most concerned about the impact of U.S.-Russian relations on the position of the Baltics and other “Westward”-looking Eastern European countries. Mainly, will the U.S. guarantee their safety and honor its prior commitments to these nations?

            Also, I believe that there is such an imbalance between the two countries when considering language skills and cultural understanding. There are so many more people in Russia who understand English and American culture than there are Americans who really understand Russia and Russian. The American ideology of “we can get by anywhere with English” puts the United States at a decided disadvantage in listening to and convincingly arguing our positions to Russians in their own words and their own ways of understanding. —Thor Sawin, Associate Professor of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages/Teaching Foreign Languages

What concerns me most is both quite simple and profoundly unsettling: the seeming inability for the two countries to reach each other on a human level. This job is first and foremost about relationships, and there was a time—back in the early 2000s after 9/11—that the United States was able to work relatively closely with Russia on chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation issues. We had some hope of that happening again these past few years related to Syria, but that obviously didn’t materialize. Around the offices at CNS, I’m continuously reminded that such relationships are possible, but on the international stage I’m not seeing it. —Richard Pilch, Director, Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies 

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Eva Gudbergsdottir