Background and Readings

Lasting roughly from the end of World War II in 1945 to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was marked by extreme political and military tension. The 1990s saw a more cooperative, if unbalanced, relationship during which the Russian Federation struggled to transition to a market economy and a democratic system. Despite the influence of U.S.-driven reforms and monetary aid to Russia, the new asymmetry of power in the bilateral relationship, combined with Russia’s political turmoil and ongoing economic crises, created fertile ground for tension and misunderstanding. In 2014, Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its encouragement of pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine heightened these tensions further, raising questions about the prospects for potential U.S.-Russian cooperation in the future.

Are Russia and the United States now adversaries? Can the two countries overcome the lack of trust between them—and must they do so for the sake of geopolitical stability? How do interpretations of the post–Cold War period influence our understanding of U.S.-Russia relations today? In our globalized world, Russia and the United States could do much together to counter common threats; but must the two countries “trust” each other to work together? What does trust between countries look like, anyway?

The Working Group on the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations has published several joint reports, and its members have written extensively on the bilateral relationship. These materials can help students explore these questions before or after watching the videos. Several are highlighted below:

Stepping Past the Cold War’s Shadow (Alexandra Vacroux, 2012)

This short article outlines perspectives characteristic of post–Cold War U.S.-Russia relations. Why might notions of the United States and Russia as part of a “zero-sum” game, in which victory for one nation signifies loss for the other, persist and how might they be overcome?

U.S.-Russia Relations in Post-Soviet Eurasia: Transcending the Zero-Sum Game (Samuel Charap and Mikhail Troitsky, 2011)

This paper examines in greater depth how the dynamics between the United States and Russia can be identified and transformed. During the Cold War, the two superpowers saw their struggle as a “zero-sum game.” Have we returned to zero-sum thinking, or can we imagine cooperation despite tensions? The sources and solutions described here are building blocks for thinking about how trust-building and cooperation might happen.

Russia-Ukraine Conflict 101

This Huffington Post summary of a talk by Matthew Rojansky provides a useful overview of an urgent issue in present U.S.-Russia relations. For a longer reflection on Cold War dynamics and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, see “Consequences of a New Cold War,” by Samuel Charap and Jeremy Shapiro.