America and Russia are not part of one “civilization” with common cultural values and congruent national interests. They are incompatible global powers whose relations will remain adversarial as long as Russia remains an autocratic neo-imperial power seeking to dominate its neighbors and undermine America’s alliances. Three core principles lie at the root of the U.S.-Russia rivalry: contrasting identities, incompatible systems, and antithetical interests.
American identity is based on inclusive non-ethnic citizenship, in which civic status transcends all others, whether ethnic, national, regional, religious, linguistic, or class. It is successful in integrating all nationalities because it is not constructed around a single dominant ethnic category.
In marked contrast, Russia’s identity is grounded in the predominance of the Russian ethnos, founded upon Tsarist and Soviet imperial conquests and maintained through colonization, russification, and the subjugation of neighbors. This process breeds resentment among diverse ethnicities, particularly during times of economic distress and political repression. The revival of distinct non-Russian identities ultimately undermines the stability of the neo-imperial state.
While the Communists failed to create a durable non-ethnic Soviet identity, Putin’s regime is unable to establish a civic identity because this is widely viewed as camouflage for assimilation into the dominant Russian ethnos. The lesson for Washington is that a state that coercively constructs an ethno-national identity is not only autocratic but also inherently unstable and a danger to its neighbors, including U.S. allies and partners.
In the political domain, American and Russian systems and the ideologies and policies that sustain them are incompatible. The United States is a genuine federation with significant autonomy and self-determination among all fifty states. In addition, central government power is separated between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, in which each state and its electorate have a voice.
Russia is federal in name only. In practice, it is a centralized state in which local governors of the 85 federal units are appointed and supervised by the Kremlin, including the two occupied Ukrainian territories of Crimea and Sevastopol. In this increasingly obsolete empire dozens of nationalities and regions resent being tethered to Moscow and their proportion of the population is growing. Given America’s support for the independence of all states that emerged from the Soviet Union, escalating regional turmoil inside Russia and the potential fracture of the state will present serious new challenges for Washington.
The key reason that Russia remains an adversary for the United States is its antithetical interests on global and regional levels. While both states have their “spheres of influence” the distinctions between them are stark. American administrations respect the right of each country to choose its alliances, while Kremlin officials seek to impose security arrangements on their neighbors. Countries enter NATO voluntarily because membership reinforces their national security. States are induced into the Russian orbit as a result of Moscow’s threats, pressures, and corruption.
While the United States promotes cordial relations between its own allies and Russia, Moscow foments division and conflict. Washington supports bilateral ties between the Central European countries and Russia because this can generate regional stability and lessen the need for delivering U.S. security guarantees. The Kremlin does not support closer relations between Ukraine or other post-Soviet republics and the United States, NATO, or the EU calculating that this deprives Moscow of its political leverage and could be the harbinger of economic and security alliances with the West.
Russia promotes regional conflicts for the United States or seeks to capitalize on disputes between Washington and third parties because this can weaken American influence in various contested regions. For instance, the Kremlin works against U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, as this would marginalize Russia’s position in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. It does not seek a permanent resolution of the North Korean dispute, as this would further sideline Russia’s role. It prefers to see the United States bogged down indefinitely in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, as this serves to distract Washington’s attention from Russia’s aggressive moves along its borders.
U.S. policy should not be based on a form of “realism” that resembles superpower neutrality, in which American and allied security is sacrificed to appease Moscow in the forlorn hope that Russia can become a genuine partner. It needs to be firmly rooted in reality, in which Russia’s actions that impact negatively on America’s foreign and domestic interests are neutralized. If a U.S. ally is threatened, subverted, or attacked by Moscow, then it benefits the United States to strengthen its defense commitments and bolster transatlantic security. And if America’s democracy is violated by Moscow, then it is the obligation of the United States administration to implement policies that would preclude any future offensives.