Event Summary: The Future of US-Russia Relations: Implications for the Middle East
On Tuesday, August 18, 2020, the SETA Foundation at Washington, DC hosted a virtual panel of experts to discuss ‘The Future of US-Russia Relations: Implications for the Middle East.’ The discussion featured Angela Stent, Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University, and Mark Katz, Professor of Politics and Government at George Mason University. The panel was moderated by Kadir Ustun, Executive Director at SETA DC.
At the outset of the discussion, Stent highlighted the fact that US-Russian relations are worse now than at any time since Gorbachev came to power because Russia is such a toxic topic in the US. She believes that the countries are facing two major issues: arms control, evident in the imminent expiration of the New Start Treaty, and sanctions by the US Congress. But, Russia’s turn to the Middle East remains one of the major successes of the Putin regime as it has garnered the ability to communicate with all sides. In Syria, Russia has filled the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the US, and she wonders what Russian and Iranian interests will be once the civil war winds down. She also made it clear that the Middle East will continue to see a Chinese presence, and noted that another success of Putin’s foreign policy has been his rapprochement with China. On another note, if Trump is reelected in November, Stent anticipates more of the same policies in the Middle East: toughness on Iran, support for Saudi Arabia, and encouraging Gulf states to mobilize relations with Israel. A second Trump administration will serve as a mandate for him to pursue better relations with the Kremlin. She encourages the US to rethink how productive its sanctions are in changing Russian behavior and believes that extending the New Start Treaty is the minimum in terms of arms control.
Katz took the time to explain that at the beginning of every new American administration, there is an effort to reset relations with Russia. Despite these honest attempts on both sides to pursue a better relationship, it always seems to turn sour. These disagreements are mainly borne out of disagreements over other countries. Both Trump and Putin thought that they would foster a better relationship with one another, but the last three years have shown something different. He described the Middle East as a region where one might not, in fact, see US-Russian tensions play out. There are very few issues in which the two are directly opposed. Russia wants to encourage countries like Turkey to move further away from the US and the West, but at the same time will not concede anything to them. Putin has perfected the art of supporting both sides of a conflict simultaneously, partially because there is fear that if a state does not work with Putin, he will support their opponents. To deal with Russian aggression, the US must develop a more cohesive sanctions policy, explaining that sanctioning US allies like Turkey is not a recipe for great foreign policy. If Trump is reelected, Katz does not expect any changes to the current US-Russian relationship, but if Trump is ousted by Biden, he strongly anticipates a return to the New Start Treaty.