Downward Spiral of US-Russia Relations

Downward Spiral of US-Russia Relations

Why the relations between Cold War rivals are deteriorating?

The relationship between the two Cold War rivals – the United States and Russia – has plunged to a new low, following the imposition of sanctions on Russia, and expulsion of its nearly 60 diplomats from the United States, and over 30 of those from across Europe, as well as closure of Russian consulate in Seattle in response to the ex-spy poisoning case. Trump-led US administration is, reportedly, seeking to slap further sanctions on Russian businesses, organizations and politicians. The ties between the United States and Russia have remained strained over the years in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, Syrian war, and alleged Russian interference in the US presidential election of 2016. The current developments are likely to fuel the fire of confrontation and discord.

It is believed that Russia’s foreign policy has seen a drastic paradigm shift as the country seems to have abandoned the principle of reintegration with the West – something that was construed as a major goal in the post-Soviet era. Instead, it is now seeking to secure co-equal political status in the US-dominated international arena.

The recent sanctions have come as a punitive measure to teach the ‘mischievous’ Kremlin a lesson in order to stop it from conspiring to sabotage the Western democracies. However, more than one implication underlies them. The sanctions freeze assets held by the Russian individuals or entities in the United States. Accordingly, the US citizens are debarred from conducting any business with them even if the latter may be associated with international companies. However, a potentially more serious implication of the sanctions is that they discourage the international financial institutions from transacting with them. Quite interestingly, even the non-Americans are explicitly warned of imposition of sanctions on them for undertaking or facilitating any enterprise with the blacklisted Russian people or companies. On the other hand, senior Trump administration officials maintain that the sanctions are never aimed at Russian people; rather, they are designed to throttle the hitherto insulated elites and oligarchs “disproportionately profiting from the corrupt system.”

However, it does not go well with some of the political analysts. Recession will do the much-needed service for Russia’s Putin to heighten Russian sphere of influence in what Mariya Omelichev, a professor of political science at University of Kansas, termed “near abroad”. Even though Russia’s recession will have a distressing economic impact on Russia’s neighbours, it is apt to provide Kremlin with an opportunity to strengthen its political influence in these states. The Russian leadership repeatedly says that it stands for political stability above everything and that despite Russia’s financial crisis, it is willing to provide military and security guarantees to regimes in the post-Soviet space.

It may be noted here that President Trump has kept from directly hitting out at Russia. Instead, he reiterates his willingness to see Putin, and tries his utmost to better relations with Russia – something both criticized and taken with a pinch of salt by the Americans. The notoriety of having engineered the 2016 election by Russia surrounds Mr Trump as a frightening apparition. The narrative of “collusion” began to be circulated following the US presidential election in which Trump’s win was attributed to the Russian interference.

Both United States and Russia can get on board to touch upon issues such as Ukraine, Syria, cyber intrusion and beyond. However, breaking ‘what is an inexorable slide into a deeper freeze’ appears to be shaky. Because, thaw now seems very distant; the strains are deep; deeper now than they were a year ago. The Russians are not delusional about the odds of ameliorating relations with Washington. Russian euphoria about Trump is also fading. According to Andrew Weiss, a former director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for Russia and Eurasia, the Russians have begun to increasingly see the Trump administration as a lost cause. Trump is making merely nice utterances about Russia with his national security cabinet holding mainstream views of Russia as an enemy. Therefore, Trump’s impotence to move things forward is visibly disenchanting. No unanimity in the American establishment worsens the problem while foiling attempts to get things right with Russia.

According to Holly Ellyyat of CNBC, the situation in the international arena is now more volatile and less unpredictable than it was during the Cold War. Russia has projected itself as a resurgent global power. A rattling confident Russia is far more unpredictable now. The West is figuring out as to ‘where its foreign policy is headed’.

Russia is seeking to project its “post-West order” narrative, a term that means replacement of the western ethos with the eastern one – or to be specific, indigenous – to undermine the US-led global order. Likewise, it presents itself as part of the European civilization – “geographical and cultural space that includes Russia, Germany and France,” not America; while de-linking any ties with the West.

The trust factor needs to be weighed in while making an appraisal of the US-Russia relations. Trust deficit in this relationship has deepened into mistrust. To add fuel to the fire, the so-called Ukrainian crisis swept away altogether whatever residual trust remained between Moscow and Washington. It is further compounded by a problem of perception and intellectual empathy. Each side views the other through its own lens. According to Mark Galeotti, Professor of Global Affairs at New York University, “Neither of them understands each other at all.” Their respective establishments hold a very sceptical view of each other; mis-perceiving each other’s intentions. NATO enlargement, for instance, goes as a siege of its national security to Russia, while in Russia the top-ranking US military officials see an existential threat to itself, and to its allies in Europe. Their bilateral relations are also disrupted by their disagreements over a number of regional conflicts, say, for example, the Ukraine crisis.

Russia and Putin symbolize ‘evil’ to the Americans. Putin comes to be increasingly viewed as a ruthless authoritarian who jails and persecutes his opponents. He is someone who mourns erstwhile Soviet Union and is impatient to revive it. Milking the fissures of western democracies, he has resolved to bruise American standing in the world.

Huffington Post recently reported that if Trump and Putin are yoked together in entente, it will bolster the efforts against ISIS and radical Islamist terrorism. Consider otherwise, if the US and Russia continue to be at daggers drawn, it will bode well for neither side, nor for the world at large. There would always be a likelihood of a belligerent alliance consisting of Russia, Iran, North Korea and China, in conflict with the US and NATO nations.

Interestingly, in their research paper “SWOT Analysis of US-Russia Relations,” Alexander and Valery employ the framework of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis in the treatment of the bilateral relations between the United States and Russia. They identify key strengths and weaknesses as well as opportunities and threats in their fickle relationship. They point out that both the countries have a huge cooperation potential, and there have been times when they have really actualized it developing forward-looking strategies. The paper concludes the debate with a cautiously optimistic note affirming the possibility of genuine bonhomie provided that confidence-building measures (CBMs) are taken to ensure dispelling of their respective concerns. Both the powers need to frame comprehensive policies toward each other. At present, they lack a strategic vision. It is unrealistic, therefore, to anticipate any thaw in their relationship in the near future.

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