Strained Relations- U.S. and Russia Part II

By Rachel Rochford (’23)

With a new administration, policies, reactions, and events, it would be fair to say that relations between these two nations are shakier now than they were last time this column covered them. We last discussed the U.S.-Russia relationship whilst Trump was still in office. At the time, there was tension over the Solar Winds hack which probed into U.S. government systems and was believed to be the work of the Russian government. The U.S. response was fairly muted for the scale of the attack and, publicly at least, not much was done. With the Biden administration has come a more vocal reaction to Russian actions that do not align with U.S. values.

In the past few months, there was a bit of a flare-up when Biden called Putin a killer. Along with this were the accusations that Russia has been paying the Taliban to kill Americans in Afghanistan. Rumors of this have been present for years, but the proof has always been inconclusive. Still, during his presidential campaign, Biden treated the matter as a fact, saying, “I don’t understand why [Trump] is unwilling to take on Putin when he’s actually paying bounties to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan,” during the October 22nd Presidential Debate. 

Recently, the White House released a report stating that analysts could only corroborate these rumors with “low to moderate confidence.” Press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the reason for this rating on the intelligence was that some of the information had come from Afghan detainees and that Afghanistan was a difficult environment to operate in. This is especially frustrating for the U.S. as it is forced to admit its inability to prove these accusations. Russia may perceive this as resemblant of a vindication since the report clearly acknowledges that the U.S. cannot conclusively state that the Taliban bounties are true. And perhaps the nation would be happier about this had the report not been attached to recent sanctions placed on it by the United States. 

The report was added to the sanctions to make it known that the allegations of Russia’s misdeeds in Afghanistan were not a reason for the sanctions. If not over these questions then, why has the U.S. placed sanctions on Russia? Well, current issues mainly concern two things: the Russia-Ukraine situation and the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. 

 The Russia-Ukraine situation follows something of a tumultuous history between the two nations. In 1991, Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union. Following this, relations appeared to normalize a bit. Then, in 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, which was part of Ukraine. Since then, things have certainly not been friendly. Recently, Russia has begun to move troops internally, positioning them quite close to the Ukrainian border. The U.S. and many other NATO countries have responded critically to this to which Russia has stated that it is free to move troops within its own borders however it pleases. This back and forth comes as Russia also handles an internal conflict. 

Alexey Navalny is a Russian opposition leader, lawyer, and anti-corruption activist and he is causing quite a stir in Russia. Putin has been in control of the nation for some time but Navalny represents a threat to that. He has released a number of anti-Putin videos and gathered a following of young Russian citizens hoping for change. Last year, Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. He was treated in a German hospital and remained there for five months before he was able to return back to Russia. 

Upon landing though, Navalny was arrested for failing to appear to face charges of money laundering from 2014 and subsequently imprisoned. Protestors took to the street and demonstrations commenced. In prison, Navalny has not been allowed to see his personal doctor and has taken to a hunger strike as a means of protest. His condition has recently deteriorated because of this, and fears that he will die in prison have arisen. The U.S. has warned Russia that there will be consequences should the opposition leader die in prison,  a message the Russian government likely did not appreciate. 

Along with these new issues exists older anger over Russian interference in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election and the Solar Winds Cyberattack which the U.S. government attributes to Russian intelligence services. With all of these issues taken into account, the recent U.S. sanctions against Russia are not all that surprising. 

The U.S. expelled 10 Russian diplomats and sanctioned 32 individuals and organizations. Russia responded with its own expulsion of 10 U.S. diplomats and the blacklisting of 8 U.S. officials. The seriousness of this diplomatic tit-for-tat recently increased as John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Russia announced that he would be flying back to Washington for consultations following calls by the Kremlin for him to do so. 

In all honesty, this is the most contentious that U.S.-Russia relations have been in several years. It is not so much any one issue that sends this over the edge, rather it is the culmination of a host of problems and a lack of mediation between the two nations. As things were ramping up, but before they became this serious, there was talk of a summit between the two countries to discuss pressing issues. This would be a good first step toward the cooling of current tempers. 

Still, even if a summit were agreed to, and that is a very big if, the issues that the two countries would need to address are all quite complex and very much rooted in the deep distrust each nation feels toward the other. At some point, a solution must be found for the contention that exists between these highly powerful and influential nations- one can only hope that it will be sooner rather than later.

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