Russia has never been a friend of the U.S.–as opposed to a somewhat opportunistic and valuable temporary ally–usually in reaction to the bellicosity of Germany. In the past, when German is divided, impotent, recovering from war, or integrated within Western Europe, Russia is likely to be estranged from or irrelevant to the U.S. When Berlin is ascendant in a provocative fashion, then Moscow and Washington somehow find convenient and ephemeral common interests.
In normal times, Russia’s age-old geostrategic rivalry over Eurasia with America’s European partners, its relative isolation from the currents of U.S. immigration and cultural heritage, and its embrace of authoritarianism have all precluded close relations. That it is a huge country with unlimited natural potential has traditionally excited futurists, dating from the 19th century, who predicted a shared Russian- and American-run world.
After the Cold War, no such bipolarity proved to be the norm, not only because we have few genuine commonalities, but also due to the fact that constitutional government has never worked well in Russia. Indeed, by Western standards, it is now a near failed state–demographically, politically, and economically.
Will that change? There are certainly in the present some avenues of common concern–the threat of radical Islam especially. Germany has not yet translated its huge financial clout into political, much less military power, but nothing is forever, and it may do so in the decades ahead. Nuclear non-proliferation should be another joint worry, given that Russia has all sorts of unstable nuclear powers near or on its borders, from North Korea and Pakistan to China and India. It surely does not need a proximate nuclear Iran.
Unfortunately the Obama administration combines the two most unfortunate attributes in any foreign policy of dealing with Vladimir Putin and the present Russian authoritarians–loud nagging lectures about human rights married with a weak profile abroad. It seems almost a Russian national characteristic to despise foreign do-gooders who posture without power. Putin does not like lecturers and does not like weaklings. Obama is both. Putin would probably deal in a more constructive fashion with an American president who kept quiet and kept strong, even if reminding Putin to keep out of others’ business abroad, and by tacit agreement to mind his own at home as well.
Our policy should be to let Russia be Russia where it is in our interests–if organizing a sort of Orthodox league in the eastern Mediterranean to help Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and the Balkans to buffer Turkish and Islamic power, or to be a counter to China at opportune times. Otherwise, we should stay strong and quiet and do not boast about wanting something done that we cannot or will not do ourselves.