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From 1922 to 1991, Russia was the largest part of the Soviet Union. Through most the final half of the 20th Century, the United States and the Soviet Union (known also as the USSR) were the principal actors in an epic battle, referred to as a Cold War, for global domination. This battle was, in the broadest sense, a struggle between communist and capitalist forms of economy and social organization. Even though Russia has now nominally adopted democratic and capitalist structures, Cold War history still colors U.S.-Russian relations today.
World War II
Prior to entering World War II, the United States gave the Soviet Union and other countries millions of dollars worth of weapons and other support for their fight against Nazi Germany. The two nations became allies in the liberation of Europe. At war's end, countries occupied by Soviet forces, including a large part of Germany, were dominated by Soviet influence. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described this territory as being behind an Iron Curtain. The division provided the framework for the Cold War which ran from roughly 1947 to 1991.
Fall of the Soviet Union
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev lead a series of reforms which eventually lead to the dissolution of the Soviet empire into a variety of independent states. In 1991, Boris Yeltsin became the first democratically elected Russian president. The dramatic change led to an overhaul of U.S. foreign and defense policy. The new era of tranquility that ensued also led the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to set the Doomsday Clock back to 17 minutes to midnight (the farthest away the clock's minute hand has ever been), a sign of stability in the world stage.
The end of the Cold War gave the United States and Russia new opportunities to cooperate. Russia took over the permanent seat (with full veto power) previously held by the Soviet Union at the United Nations Security Council. The Cold War had created gridlock in the council, but the new arrangement meant a rebirth in U.N. action. Russia was also invited to join the informal G-7 gathering of the world's largest economic powers making it the G-8. The United States and Russia also found ways to cooperate in securing "loose nukes" in former Soviet territory, although there is still much to be done on this issue.
The United States and Russia have still found plenty over which to clash. The United States has pushed hard for further political and economic reforms in Russia, while Russia bristles at what they see as meddling in internal affairs. The United States and its allies in NATO have invited new, former Soviet, nations to join the alliance in the face of deep Russian opposition. Russia and the United States have clashed over how best to settle the final status of Kosovo and how to treat Iran's efforts to gain nuclear weapons. Most recently, Russia's controversial annexation of Crimea and military action in Georgia highlighted the rift in U.S.-Russian relations.