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Relations between Washington and Moscow are dynamic: sometimes they are allied, other times they are in conflict

Piotr Zychowicz

Between 2009–2013, the United States pursued a policy of reset with Russia. Currently, it is pursuing a policy of confrontation with Russia. They are supplying Ukraine with weapons, impose economic sanctions on Moscow and isolate Putin on the international stage.

The shift in American policy towards the Russian Federation has sparked peculiar reactions in Poland. “Finally the Americans see things clearly”, we can hear. “Finally, they started to listen to us and realized what Russia really represents. They realized what a nasty regime this was. So, we, Poles, were right!”

Publishers of similar theories may feel satisfied. The anomaly of the US-Russian reset is now just a memory. Everything returned to its place. The world is simple and orderly again. Russia is bad. America is good. And we – as always – are on the side of good. Bravo Poland! Bravo Americans!

Such thinking seems a bit naive to me. It is based on a misunderstanding of the mechanisms underlying international politics. As a global superpower, the United States knows perfectly well what is in its interest and what foreign policy it should pursue. Americans are really not naive children who were lost wandering in the fog until they listened to the Poles.

America’s change in policy towards Russia did not occur because they “saw the light”. And even more so not due to “admitting” that the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, who “have always warned against Russia” were in fact right. America has not changed its global strategy under the influence of Polish pressure and arguments. And it was not from Poles that the Americans learned that Putin was violating human rights. The world doesn’t work that way. It is the great powers that dictate the policy of small and medium-sized states. Not the other way around. We are the customer of the United States. Not the other way around. Thus, when some Polish commentators admonish and patronize Americans, it is a rather ridiculous attempt.

What happened then? Quite simply, the decision-making circles in Washington between 2009–2013 recognized that good relations with Russia were in the interest of the United States. And now decision-making circles in Washington have recognized that it is in their best interest to stop the Russian march to the West. Foreign policy is a dynamic game, not a static one. It is a game in which there are no permanent friends and enemies. Only the current balance of forces matters. As Adolf Bocheński taught us: “Yesterday’s enemy may be our ally tomorrow, and yesterday’s ally may be our enemy tomorrow”. It is no coincidence that the political thought of Adolf Bocheński was not treated (and is still not treated) with great admiration in Poland. In fact, some of our compatriots are ready to consider such statements as a kind of heresy, because they understand politics in idealistic, and not realistic terms.

On the other hand, for American statesmen, Bocheński’s words are “as clear as day”. To understand this, it is enough to turn to historical analogies. Let’s take a look at the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.

Various approaches of the USA

In 1917, the Romanov empire fell into ruin and its territory was taken over by the Bolsheviks. Civil war broke out. And the democratic powers conducted a military intervention to support the whites.

There were also Americans among the intervention forces. Troops fighting under the Star Spangled Banner appeared near Arkhangelsk. More American troops were transferred to Vladivostok.

The intervention was unsuccessful. The case of the whites had collapsed. The Bolsheviks triumphed. America has not come to terms with such a decision. The United States was the last power to recognize the Soviet Union. This happened only in 1933.

Anyway, can you imagine more clear opposites? On the one hand, the state of freedom. On the other hand, a state of terror and oppression. On the one hand, capitalist prosperity. On the other hand, socialist poverty and economic depression.

And yet, already in the 1930s, relations began to visibly cozy up.

(…)

In June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and in December of the same year Hitler declared war on the United States. Thus, Moscow and Washington found themselves in one camp.

The alliance with the Soviets lasted four years. The Americans – under the Lend-Lease Act – provided massive amounts of weapons and equipment for the Red Army. Planes, trucks, cannons, jeeps, and even canned goods and shoes. The benefits were mutual. American supplies saved the Soviet Union from imminent defeat. The fierce struggle between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht allowed the Americans to spare the precious blood of their own soldiers. The US gained time to prepare for the showdown. As is known, American troops landed in Europe only in 1943.

The US-Soviet alliance had tragic consequences for Poland and the entire Central and Eastern Europe. As early as in the spring of 1939, Władysław Studnicki warned that if there was a pact between the Anglo-Saxons and the Soviets, our fate would be sealed. Stalin would have to be paid for participation in the war with Hitler, he argued. This payment would be Poland. And so it happened. In Yalta, the United States placed the interests of Poland (and the entire region) on the altar of an alliance with Moscow. As a result, we had to wait more than four decades to regain independence.

Let us return to the Washington-Moscow Pact. This arrangement lasted as long as both sides had common enemies, and thus common interests. As Germany and Japan capitulated, interests diverged, and the global geopolitical system was reversed again. The Cold War began.

Almost overnight, yesterday’s friend – the Soviet Union – became a deadly enemy. And yesterday’s enemies – the Germans and the Japanese – became the closest friends in Europe and the Pacific. It was supposed to stay that way until the end of the Cold War. In fact, it has remained so until today.

Thus, we have reached the main issue. The United States is an ultra-democratic state. American politicians must take public opinion into account, so they pursue a real policy, but present it in the clothes of idealistic politics.

In other words – the United States pursues its selfish national interest, but declares that it acts for the good of all mankind. They argue that they are the universal Empire of Good. According to this narrative, Americans are always “the good guys” and their current opponents are always “the bad guys”. Like cowboys and Indians in the old western movies.

Unfortunately, many Poles take this at face value. That is why the US-Soviet alliance in World War II causes such moral intensification among many of our countrymen. That is why so many of our compatriots do not understand how such a strange thing as the reset with Russia during the presidency of Barack Obama could have happened.

(…)

Two options

In this way, we return to the present situation. The United States continues to hold its position as a global superpower. However, at least two countries are trying to challenge it and make the unipolar world we live in since 1991 once again a multipolar world. I am talking about Russia and China, of course.

While Russia is the greatest threat from Warsaw’s perspective, China is the greatest threat from Washington’s perspective. This is Washington’s number one challenge and it is obviously due to the scale. Russia is a dwarf in comparison to the Chinese giant.

As such, Americans – as it has been throughout their history – are facing a dilemma. They have two options: try to stop both powers – Russia and China – or ally with Russia against China.

Currently, fortunately for Poland, Washington is dominated by the supporters of the first option. And Russia, to put it mildly, is not particularly keen on such an arrangement. In the Russian view, America and NATO are enemy forces.

Overseas, however, there are many experts and politicians who argue that in the long run the United States should seek an agreement with Russia to break the sinister Beijing-Moscow axis. According to them, only in this way will it be possible to cut off China from Russian resources flowing in a large stream from Siberia. And thus closing the encirclement and the economic blockade of the Middle Kingdom from the north.

Supporters of the next reset are also pointing to historical analogies. In the four previous wars fought to defend the balance of power (against Napoleon, William II, Hitler, and Emperor Hirohito), Moscow fought alongside the Anglo-Saxons, not against them. America has never waged a true full-scale war against Russia.

This reasoning has its weaknesses. During these historical armed conflicts, Moscow was an attractive ally for the Anglo-Saxons because it was strong. The war in Ukraine revealed the incredible weakness of the modern Russian Federation and its armed forces.

This makes Washington’s sinister vision of an agreement with Moscow now seemingly unlikely. Sounds like science fiction. Especially when Ukrainian soldiers are destroying Russian tanks with ammunition from American M777 howitzers.

It is in Poland’s interest that the present geopolitical system should remain in place forever. The question is whether, in the long run, it will also be in America’s interest. One can only hope.

This article was published in May 2022 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.