Russian History


The United States

Relations with the United States have been a central concern of Soviet and Russian foreign policy since World War II. The United States gained unique stature in the Soviet Union when it emerged from World War II as the ultimate guarantor of European security against attack from the east and the top military power in the NATO alliance. A crucial factor of Soviet-United States relations was the mutual nuclear threat that arose in the 1950s as the Soviet Union developed first a nuclear capability and then a nuclear strategy. The nuclear threat and the underlying potential of "mutually assured destruction" created a chilling presence for the rest of the world. A high point in Soviet-United States relations was the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) that resulted from the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) of 1972. This agreement was an early achievement of the détente, or easing of tensions, that prevailed between the superpowers through most of the 1970s until the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The early 1980s were a time of tense relations and confrontations. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan brought trade and cultural embargoes from the United States and highly visible gestures such as the United States boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. In Europe the superpowers publicly traded threats and took actions such as the deployment of advanced nuclear weapons while they exchanged compromise positions at the negotiating table. Several events of 1983--the downing of a South Korean civilian airliner by the Soviet air force, the United States invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada to evict a Marxist regime, and the exit of the Soviet delegation from arms control talks--kept bilateral tensions high.

By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union had resumed talks on intermediate-range nuclear forces and strategic arms reduction. During that period, Soviet leadership underwent a major shift from Leonid I. Brezhnev, who died in November 1982, to Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who became general secretary in March 1985. The accession of Gorbachev ultimately ended a period of strident Soviet propaganda against United States president Ronald W. Reagan, whom Russia blamed for prolonging Cold War tensions because of his staunchly anticommunist positions.

In 1985 Reagan and Gorbachev began a series of annual summit meetings that yielded cultural exchange agreements, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty--see Glossary) in 1987, and less tangible benefits. The sight of the "cold warrior" Reagan consorting with his Russian opposite number combined with the instant popularity that Gorbachev gained in the United States to again warm relations. In the mid- and late 1980s, the Soviet Union also stepped up media access and contacts. Soviet spokesmen began appearing regularly on United States television, and United States journalists received unprecedented access to everyday life in the Soviet Union.

In the early 1990s, relations with the United States lost none of their significance for Russia. Russia viewed summitry with the United States as the mark of its continued status as a great power and nuclear superpower. Presidents Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush declared a United States-Soviet strategic partnership at the summit of July 1991, decisively marking the end of the Cold War. President Bush declared that United States-Soviet cooperation during the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990-91 had laid the groundwork for a partnership in resolving bilateral and world problems. For Russia, the closer relations of the early 1990s included a broad range of activities, including tourism and educational exchanges, the study of United States institutions and processes to adapt them for a new "Union of Sovereign States" (one proposed title for a new, nonideological Soviet Union), and the beginning of United States aid to Russia.

During this period, the Soviet Union and subsequently Russia supported the United States on several international issues. In the UN Security Council, the Soviet Union and Russia supported sanctions and operations against Iraq before, during, and after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990; called on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) to abide by safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); supported sending UN observers to conflict-ridden Georgia and Tajikistan; and supported UN economic sanctions against Serbia. The Soviet Union cosponsored Middle East peace talks that opened in October 1991.

In its cooperation with the United States on strategic arms control, Russia declared that it was the successor to the Soviet Union in assuming the obligations of START, which had been signed in July 1991. The Supreme Soviet ratified this treaty in November 1992. Presidents Bush and Yeltsin signed the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II) in January 1993. The United States ratified that treaty in January 1996, but the much more problematic ratification by the new, nationalist-dominated State Duma was left until after the midyear presidential election. In September 1993, Russia acceded to the Missile Technology Control Regime, reaffirming an earlier decision not to transfer sensitive missile technology to India.

However, Soviet and Russian parliaments often opposed policies that they deemed helpful to the United States. The Supreme Soviet, which was less supportive than the Gorbachev government had been of international actions against Iraq, condemned United States air strikes in 1993. The Supreme Soviet approved START I in November 1992 with some conditions and after some delay, but then successive parliaments conducted hearings and debates on START II, without ratifying the treaty, from 1993 through mid-1996 (see Nuclear Arms Issues, ch. 9).

Beginning in 1993, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued statements critical of United States actions and policies. Some United States observers interpreted them as part of a more assertive Russian foreign policy that insisted on protecting nebulous Russian vital interests. Other observers saw such statements primarily as rhetoric designed to mollify hard-line critics of Russian foreign policy in the parliament and elsewhere. Events corroborating the former interpretation included Russia's opposition to NATO membership for Central European and Baltic states, Russian military moves in Georgia that raised questions of its intentions in the near abroad, and Russia's insistence on selling nuclear reactor technology to Iran, as well as doubts about Russia's adherence to chemical and biological weapons bans, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE Treaty), and other arms control pacts. Another blow to United States-Russian relations came in 1994 with the United States arrest of Aldrich Ames, a longtime Soviet and Russian spy.

These events led some in the United States to question Russia's commitment to bilateral cooperation and the soundness of continued United States aid for Russia. Nevertheless, many elements of bilateral cooperation, including most United States aid programs, continued in 1995. From its high point in September 1993, when the United States Congress approved US$2.5 billion in aid to Russia and the NIS, the amount had declined to less than US$600 million for 1996. Only about one-third of the 1996 NIS appropriation was earmarked for Russia. In 1995 Congress placed several conditions on providing aid to Russia, such as requiring that Russia reduce assistance to Cuba. The United States also censured Russian behavior such as nuclear energy agreements with Iran (see Latin America; The Middle East, this ch.).