In his article, Thomas L. Friedman argues that Putin’s continuous intervention in the United States’ political affairs is a cause for the dilemma.1 However, due to lacking military and economical capabilities, the United States does not need to regard Russia as a major opponent.
In this paper, I will demonstrate that the United States will continuously regard Russia as a threat due to reasons of the security dilemma, perceptions of identity and security, and implication of human rights and justice.
Friedman emphasizes that Putin is becoming a problem for the United States due to recent discoveries of infiltration in key technology companies and governmental affairs.2 While Trump’s relation with Putin was on friendlier terms, Biden’s and Putin’s relation is one of conflict. Since the end of the Cold War, Friedman argues that Russia is not a major competitor nor poses a threat to the United States.
The constant meddling in United States’ important internal affairs, however, is the main cause of the dilemma. He maintains that, in comparison to China, Russia’s current capabilities do not account for any form of threat due to lacking military and economical capabilities.3 Therefore, due to Russia’s obsolete status, the United States does not need to take a drastic military approach or even enter into trade agreements with Russia due to the lack of benefit.
Friedman instead suggests that the United States prioritize the people of Russia who are victims of Putin’s corrupted nature. Thus, the US should consider using low-cost military deterrence and a more diplomatic approach when dealing with Russia with regard to their current conflict.
Realists Lens: Security Dilemma
From a realist perspective, due to this idea of an anarchic world, all states rely on power to secure themselves against other states.4 In this sense, the United States is currently a regional hegemonic power and has made achievements by ensuring that it is not infringed by other states. However, due to the reasons of unpredictability, states like Russia constantly feel insecure about the United States’ status.
With this assumption, Russia’s actions of continuous interference in the United States’ political affairs constitute it as a revisionist state, seeking to upset the status quo power.5 Therefore, Freidman’s argument of Russia not constituted as a threat to the United States fails as Vladimir Putin has made numerous claims of anti-American sentiment and the desire to re-establish Russia as a major competitor.
Additionally, through the realist’s theory of security dilemma, United States poses a major threat for Russia due to its more conventional military capabilities, enlargement of NATO, and promotion of democratic regime changes within Russia.6 It is important to take note that the initial reason for the creation of NATO was to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
While the threat of the Soviet Union does not currently exist, the enlargement of NATO is seen as a cause for Russia’s insecurity. In contrast, for the United States, Russia’s emphasis towards nuclear weaponization, intervention in the American political affairs, both in 2016 and 2020, violations towards neighboring states such as Ukraine (Crimea), support towards Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian civil war, and current alliances with China constitute causes for insecurity.7
As theorized by Stephen Walt, through the combination of aggregating offensive power with aggressive intentions, this conceptualizes the idea of threat for both states towards one another.8 Consequently, this will further deteriorate the interrelations between the two states, which may lead to increased military intervention or enhancement of homeland security through means of power.
Furthermore, due to Putin’s prolonged reign, the potential for conflict between the two states is greater than it has been in the past three decades despite achieving some stability during the post-cold war era. This can be noted as Putin’s and Biden’s current relations are of constant friction.9 Therefore, Friedman’s argument of Russia or Putin “not being very important” for the United States does not stand.
United States vs Russia: Identity and Security
In the Constructivist’s theory, the world is not predetermined but built on social constructs and interactions that states and their actors have with other states. Consequently, the idea of an anarchic world is a social construct due to the interactions of states with one another, which is mostly based on threat and insecurity.
Some interactions between states can result in conflict or cooperation, depending on how they have interacted with one another.10 In this view, it is important to consider how the concept of identity affects the interaction between states and their actors. For example, as the US and Russia have identified one another as long-standing foes, their actions are to enhance their security against one another.
The US and Russia have a long history of conflict, competition, and some cooperation, which have made great contributions to their power dynamics, economy, and internal state affairs. For example, after the end of the Cold War, while the US achieved to be a unipolar power that promoted its own universal norms, values, and ideas, the Soviet Union was divided into 14 new states, in which Russia was the most prominent and powerful state in the region.
However, due to the rising unemployment and low wages that impacted all post-Soviet states at the time, this transition led to an economic crisis in Russia.11 Therefore, this crisis created the narrative around anti-American sentiment among the Russians. The long history of hostility and rivalry between Russia and the United States has internalized mutual suspicion toward one another.
This is noted when US political actors use the rhetoric of insecurity and attack on democracy from the authoritarian and illiberal Russians, while Putin makes use of anti-American sentiment by instilling the belief that Russia’s sovereignty, economy, and culture is under constant threat by the Americans.
Furthermore, the US tends to exemplify itself as a “liberal democracy”12 and Russia presents itself as a more traditional society in world affairs. Therefore, the long-standing hostility, insecurity, and competition between the two states have constructed this idea of “the other”13 and identifying one another as “enemy”.
Consequently, Freidman’s suggestions towards using diplomatic means or military deterrence are unlikely due to these patterns of mistrust. Hence, similarly to the Cold War, unless there is a change in the narrative of how the two countries view and interact with one another, an increase of militarization or armed conflict is very likely.14
Constructivists: Justice & Human Rights
While Freidman makes important claims of Putin’s corruptive nature due to his mistreatment treatment towards his own people as well as his opponents, he makes references to the realist view by giving importance to Putin’s exertion and display of power.
However, if we were to change our view of state interactions based solely on power dynamics of military and economic capabilities, and consider social impacts such as human rights and justice, then the concept of threat is different. In this context, the violations of several human rights by Putin’s regime constitute a great threat for other states and institutions.15
For example, the European Union strongly condemned Putin for poisoning Navalny as an assassination attempt, terming the act as a violation of human rights. In addition, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for an independent and impartial investigation of this incident.
Therefore, from a constructivist view, when states and institutions prioritize the narrative of human rights and justice, the definition of threat is different from Freidman’s notion of threat. In this case, Putin is given importance because he poses a threat to mankind and should be held responsible for his actions.16
As Friedman mentioned in his article, the United States should give priority to the Russian people. However, this cannot be achieved through means of diplomacy as suggested in his article. To ensure justice towards the Russians, the US should use its power through military intervention or universal institutions such as the United Nations to offset Putin’s governance.
This will once again establish cordial relations with the Russians and undo the notion of insecurity and threat posed by Putin’s governance. This can be achieved by the US creating a narrative around the Russian people as they are the victims of the ongoing conflict between the US and Russian state affairs.17
Putin’s desire to re-establish Russia as a global competitor against the United States has implicitly affected neighboring states and the Russians. Poisoning Navalny is just one of the many corruptive measures taken during Putin’s regime. Various other actions include the suppression and prosecution of state activists and organizations, the forcible recruitment of Crimeans into the Russian army, and the ongoing Syria-Russian military alliance, which continuously attacks and invades civilian infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, and shelters.18
Plus, the current alliance with China’s Xi Jinping, also well-known for his totalitarian treatment of his own people and the violations against the Uighurs, is glaring enough.19 In the United Nations, it is agreed that all member states have the responsibility to intervene, help and protect the rights of people that are attacked or threatened by their own state.20
Therefore, in this view, the US and other member states have the responsibility of bringing justice to the people implicated by Putin’s actions. As a result, this will change the cost and benefit approach countries tend to adopt by prioritizing social matters of human rights and justice in global affairs as well.
To conclude, Friedman’s argument for Russia not constituting much of a threat nor given much consideration on a global scale has some appeal if we limit ourselves to comparing states on the basis of military and economical capabilities. However, the interactions between states are not limited to these cost and benefits approaches of power dynamics.
It can be seen through the concept of security dilemma that the US-Russian state relations transcend and are based on security threats that have been established through their various interactions. Therefore, for the US to change its perception of Russia as an important opponent, it needs to reconsider its views on the Russians.
As noted during the Cold war, it was only when both states no longer viewed one another as rivals or foes that stability was achieved.21 Furthermore, due to Putin’s violations of human rights, this signifies a great deal of threat that cannot be resolved through means of diplomacy but by the united universal effort of global political actors.
1 Thomas L. Friedman, “Vladimir Putin Has Become America’s Ex-Boyfriend From Hell,” New York Times, Feb. 2, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/02/opinion/vladimir-putin-russia-america.html.
2 Friedman, “America’s Ex-Boyfriend From Hell,” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/02/opinion/vladimir-putin-russia-america.html.
3 Friedman, “America’s Ex-Boyfriend From Hell,” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/02/opinion/vladimir-putin-russia-america.html.
4 Kenneth N. Waltz, “The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 4, (1988): 615–628, accessed April 22, 2021, https://doi.org/10.2307/204817.
5 Charles E. Ziegler, “A Crisis of Diverging Perspectives: U.S.-Russian Relations and the Security Dilemma,” Texas National Security Review 4, no. 1 (2021): 11-33, accessed April 22, 2021, http://dx.doi.org/10.26153/tsw/11708.
6 Ziegler, “A Crisis of Diverging Perspectives,” http://dx.doi.org/10.26153/tsw/11708.
7 Angela Stent, “Why are US-Russia Relations so challenging?” April 27, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/why-are-us-russia-relations-so-challenging/.
8 Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Cornell University Press, 1987).
9 Stent, “US-Russia Relations,” https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/why-are-us-russia-relations-so-challenging/.
10 Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics,” International Organization 46, no. 2 (1992): 391–425, accessed April 22, 2021, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2706858.
11 Valdir da Silva Bezerra, “Constructivism Revisited: A Case-Study on Russia and Moscow-Washington Relations.” Conjuntura Global 8, no. 1 (2019): 15-31, accessed April 22, 2021, https://doi.org/10.5380/cg.v8i1.67226.
12 Bezerra, “Constructivism Revisited,” https://doi.org/10.5380/cg.v8i1.67226.
13 K. M. Fierke. “Constructivism,” in International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity, ed. Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith (Oxford University Press, 2021), 163-181.
14 Bezerra, “Constructivism Revisited,” https://doi.org/10.5380/cg.v8i1.67226.
15 “World Report 2021,” Human Rights Watch, accessed April 22, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/russia.
16 “World Report 2021,” https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/russia.
17 Fierke. “Constructivism.”
18 “World Report 2021,” https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/russia.
19 Michael Clarke, “How China Is on the Verge of Totalitarianism 2.0,” accessed April 13, 2021, https://www.newamerica.org/weekly/how-china-verge-totalitarianism-20/.
20 Eric Neumayer, “Do International Human Rights Treaties Improve Respect for Human Rights?” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 49, no. 6 (2005): 925-953, accessed April 17, 2021, https://www.jstor.org/stable/30045143.
21 Bezerra, “Constructivism Revisited,” https://doi.org/10.5380/cg.v8i1.67226.
- Bezerra, Valdir da Silva. “Constructivism Revisited: A Case-Study on Russia and Moscow-Washington Relations.” Conjuntura Global 8, no. 1 (2019): 15-31. Accessed April 22, 2021. https://doi.org/10.5380/cg.v8i1.67226.
- Clarke, Michael. “How China Is on the Verge of Totalitarianism 2.0.” Accessed April 13, 2021. https://www.newamerica.org/weekly/how-china-verge-totalitarianism-20/.
- Fierke, K. M. “Constructivism.” In International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity, edited by Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith, 163-181. Oxford University Press, 2021.
- Friedman, Thomas L. “Vladimir Putin Has Become America’s Ex-Boyfriend From Hell.” New York Times, Feb. 2, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/02/opinion/vladimir-putin-russia-america.html.
- Neumayer, Eric. “Do International Human Rights Treaties Improve Respect for Human Rights?” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 49, no. 6 (2005): 925-953. Accessed April 17, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30045143.
- Stent, Angela. “Why are US-Russia Relations so challenging?” April 27, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/why-are-us-russia-relations-so-challenging/.
- Walt, Stephen M. The Origins of Alliances. Cornell University Press, 1987.
- Waltz, Kenneth N. “The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 4, (1988): 615–628. Accessed April 22, 2021. https://doi.org/10.2307/204817.
- Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization 46, no. 2 (1992): 391–425. Accessed April 22, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2706858.
- “World Report 2021.” Human Rights Watch. Accessed April 22, 2021. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/russia.
- Ziegler, Charles E. “A Crisis of Diverging Perspectives: U.S.-Russian Relations and the Security Dilemma.” Texas National Security Review 4, no. 1 (2021): 11-33. Accessed February 24, 2021. http://dx.doi.org/10.26153/tsw/11708.
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