Towards the beginning of this month, I attended a talk given by Dr. Jeffery Mankoff, an OU alum who is now an expert in U.S. political relations. This specific lecture focused on the bilateral relations between the U.S. and Russia. One appeal for me to attend this presentation was that I was able to take one year of Russian language classes during my senior year in high school. I personally find the Russian culture and language to be a fascinating subject to study. I appreciated the insight I was able to gain from someone who has been actively involved in international discussions. Although I was a bit late for the talk, I found that the speaker was very organized and clear in expressing his arguments. Therefore, I was able to jump right in what was being discussed.
When I was settled and ready to take notes, the topic at hand was U.S. efforts to work with the Russian government to promote democracy in their country. One major frustration for the Russians, however, was that they felt the U.S. failed to provide the same attention they gave to the western European countries at the end of World War II. Various efforts were implemented there as aid to the recovering nations, but no such equivalent was seen for Russia. The focus then shifted to the various presidential administration of the U.S. and began with the belief that the Bush administration lacked the knowledge of Russia in general in order to promote rapprochement between the two nations.
Vladimir Putin was the first head of a nation to express condolences after the tragic events of 9/11 and openly offered any support necessary, a fact that is perhaps not widely known. The U.S. government did take advantage of this offer and received Russian intelligence concerning sensitive knowledge pertaining to Afghanistan and its surroundings. As a result of this unprecedented exchange of information, Putin initially appeared to have a pro-western attitude in his policies, yet it became quickly apparent that this would not last. In fact, Putin soon exhibited signs of attempts to consolidate control over the entire Russian political system. A major aspect of this shift in policy were major crackdowns that begun during this time with takeovers of big Russian businesses.
Even with the turmoil that began to ensue from the restriction of free trade, the U.S. continued to attempt to strengthen deeper economic ties with Russia. Around this time in history, popular protests began throughout various former Soviet Union constituent nations. Georgia began with the Rose revolution, Ukraine has its own Orange revolution, and all of the movements were collectively knows as the color revolutions. Russia’s first instinct was to identify the U.S. as the main supporter of these efforts to undermine Russian influence in its bordering regions.
Many of the newly reformed countries from the color revolutions had a great interest in membership in NATO, the primary bulwark in preventing Russian expansion at the time. The fragile situation in Georgia did not help the intensifying situation either. The new Obama administration thus began with attempts to improve relations, promote nuclear nonproliferation, and dealing with the growing Iranian nuclear program. A further area of interest was to strengthen societal links between Russian and U.S. citizens, but already worsening relations were quickly joined by a lack of interest of individual to actually carry out these efforts. A bilateral presidential commission was the main proposed solution that was attempted.
After Putin reclaimed his position as president of Russian in 2012, a newly forming middle class began to demand greater political power and government without Putin in the bigger picture. Continued U.S. support in the Middle East also helped to make Russian nervous about its authority in the region. Additional situations arose with the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood. Russia allowed the U.S. to protect civilians in Libya, but was not content when the U.S. expressed their goal of removing Gaddafi from power.
In summary, the speaker felt that whatever new administration is chosen by the American people will not use a “reset button” in terms of relations with Russia. His opinion is that any of the possible candidates will not believe that Russia will be willing to contribute to U.S. efforts and they lack a will to restore relations on the other side as well. He described relations with Russia as a mixed bag from now on as far as he could tell.
Although I really enjoyed the talk, the opinions that were expressed seemed to dominate the entire discussion. I thought that the speaker could have given a bit more of the Russian side of the thought process, but I certainly appreciated his neutrality when it came to proposing his ideas concerning the matter at hand. I always enjoy listening to individual arguing for one side of a discussion, and I have found myself more willing to evaluate the opinions that I hear the more I attend these interested lectures. I definitely look forward to attending more talks to help broaden my perspective on all sorts of topics!