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U.S.-Russia Relations Lowest Level Since 1991, Says Georgetown Expert

February 6, 2014 – Russia’s attempt to win its own “geopolitical gold medal” after winning the rights to host the 2014 Olympics is failing, according to Georgetown professor Angela Stent, author of The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.

“U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest level since Russia became an independent nation in 1991,” says Stent, a 2004-2006 national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. Her book was recently published by Princeton University Press.

“The objective [after winning the rights] was to show that Russia was back from the chaos and weakness of the 1990s,” says the government and foreign service professor, who served as an advisor on U.S.-Russian relations to former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “There have been four efforts to reset – improve relations – since 1991. In each case high hopes have given way to disillusionment and distrust.”   

Garbled Message

Angela Stent speaks to an audience from a podium.

Angela Stent

Stent says Russia is sending a much different message as the Olympics begin and “defining itself as a unique civilization, different from the West, with different values.”

“That message has become garbled in its execution,” she says. “With hotels incomplete and facilities still under construction, Sochi also demonstrates the challenges Russia faces – from inadequate infrastructure to corruption.”

Stent, who also directs Georgetown’s Center on Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, says the last effort at resetting U.S.-Russia relations began at the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009.

“But relations hit bottom when Russia gave asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden in 2013 and Obama, in turn, cancelled a long-planned summit meeting with [President Vladimir] Putin,” the professor notes.

Realism, Not Resets

Stent wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed about a 2007 dinner at President Vladimir Putin’s Sochi mansion in which he said hosting the 2014 Olympics was “vital proof that Russia was back and that he [Putin] had restored his country to its rightful role in the world.”  

This objective – restoring Russia’s great power status – has been a driver of his foreign policy, she emphasizes in The Limits of Partnership.

“Realism, not resets, are what required for U.S.-Russian relations,” Stent says. “The differences will remain across a host of issues, including on the current upheaval unfolding in Ukraine. For Russia, Ukraine is almost a domestic issue. But the two countries have a host of common issues where they need to find common interests – from Iran and Syria, to terrorism.”

‘Comprehensive and Sober’

The Limits of Partnership, informed by extensive personal discussions with former and current Russian and American and annual meetings with Putin, calls for a fundamental reassessment of the principles and practices that drive the U.S.-Russia relationship. 

The Financial Times calls Stent’s book “the most comprehensive and sober – as well as sobering -- assessment of relations across the past two decades.”

The bottom line of current U.S.-Russia relationship may lie in a quote from Putin in the book on his relationship with Barack Obama: 

“I don’t agree with his arguments and he doesn’t agree with mine.”