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The Russo-U.S. National Identity Gap and the Indo-Pacific in 2021
Published July 30, 2021
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The start of the Biden administration demonstrated how far Russo-U.S. relations had sunk. On the heels of the massive cyber-hacking of U.S. government files, attributed to Russia, hearings for Biden’s appointees showcased harsh accusations. These were compounded by the arrest of Aleksey Navalny on his return to Moscow from convalescence in Germany after a near fatal poisoning in Russia, arousing severe rebukes in the U.S. Meanwhile, Russian officials and news sources attacked Biden personally as senile or a figurehead, a flawed U.S. system of democracy as a farce and dysfunctional, and U.S. plotting through Navalny as aimed at taking down Putin. Mutual accusations intensified in mid-March 2021 when Biden responded to a query whether he considered Putin a killer by saying, “I do,” which reverberated in sharp retorts by Putin and from many in Russia. In late April, as Russia massed troops on Ukraine’s border, Biden placed new sanctions on Russia, and Russian language grew even more threatening, relations had sunk even further. If there was no direct focus on the Indo-Pacific in such vitriolic exchanges, that can be seen elsewhere, especially in a further tilt toward China in a reputed “strategic triangle.”

The Indo-Pacific is where relations between Moscow and Washington have the most potential, spared of the quandaries of NATO expansion and Soviet nostalgia over a sphere of influence or Middle East intrigues leading to shifting alliances. Many in Washington thought that a win-win scenario could be achieved if Moscow accepted integration into a dynamic region, a balance of power welcoming Beijing’s rise but preventing it from domination, the denuclearization and stabilization of Pyongyang, and breakthroughs in bilateral relations with Tokyo and Seoul. All of these objectives appeared consistent with Russian aspirations in the early 1990s, but they were thwarted by the national identity that was being reconstructed in the following quarter century, especially under Vladimir
Putin from the mid-2000s. Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific proved to be a casualty of Russian thinking toward the United States, most of all, but also toward China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and India. The Russo-U.S. identity gap has widened further in 2021. As Dmitry Medvedev wrote on January 16, the relations of Moscow and Beijing with the new U.S. administration are likely to remain extremely cold after years in which the trajectory of relations between Washington and Moscow had already been heading steadfastly downhill.

Russo-U.S. bilateral relations and conflicting agendas in Europe and the Middle East draw avid interest, but the Indo-Pacific appears to be an inconsequential factor in their sharp rivalry. Nor do their differences in this region appear to have much significance for the development of the area, where China casts a broad shadow and U.S. alliances and partnerships are being renewed. To argue to the contrary leads one down several possible pathways: 1) this is the one promising arena for rebuilding relations; 2) Russia has a special role to play, distinct from China’s, due to its ties to India, North Korea, or ASEAN; 3) continued strengthening of Sino-Russian ties adds an element of concern for U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific; or 4) Russia’s animus toward the U.S. may find an unexpected outlet in this region. Whichever pathway is explored, it is important to grasp how Russians perceive this region and its various sub-regions, while keeping in mind the context of the broader clash of national identities severely affecting the Russo-U.S. relationship.

In this chapter, I offer an overview of the Russo-U.S. identity gap, turn to Russian thinking about the Biden administration, review Russian national identity, focus on aspects of Sino-Russian ties and their identity gap, subsequently shift to how Russians have viewed other parts of Asia of late, and conclude with an assessment of the prospects for Russo-U.S. relations in the region.

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