Russia’s decision on giving political asylum to Edward Snowden was widely expected—certainly after what had happened to the Bolivian presidential plane en route from Moscow to Quito. So, too, was the negative reaction in Washington, from the White House to Congress to the media. U.S.-Russian relations are more strained than at any moment after the brief Russo-Georgian war, fought exactly five years ago this month. Snowden is the tip of the problem which runs deep and was not addressed at all by the policy of the reset, even in its heyday.

The problem is how to construct equal relations between two countries which are very unequal in terms of national might and international power. The United States expects deference; Russia insists on independence. For Washington, partnership with Moscow means Russia helping the United States on the U.S. agenda; for Moscow, it means splitting the difference. (This, by the way, is one reason why much-promised cooperation on Syria has failed.) For many in the United States, Russia’s authoritarian political regime is the chief obstacle for normal relations; for many in Russia, it is America’s intrusive foreign policy. Russia prides itself in being the one major country in the world that has the nerve to stand up to the United States, but the United States does not consider it a worthy opponent.

There is something in the political cultures of the two countries which militates against harmony. Curiously, the United States’ relations with its real main rival today, China, are far less contentious. Americans and Chinese seem to operate in different dimensions, and avoid direct clashes. The Snowden affair itself, where Beijing first managed to draw benefits for itself and then succeeded in handing off liabilities to Moscow, without as much as a scratch in its relations with Washington, is most telling. Washington, too, is courting Beijing, with the latter’s much harsher brand of authoritarianism, while vehemently protesting against democracy deficit in Russia.

Whether President Obama travels to Russia this fall or not is not the real issue. The issue is whether the United States and Russia continue to believe that the other country is in permanent decline, and tend to dismiss this other country—often against their own best interests.

  • Dmitri Trenin