The New US-Russian Confrontation: Reasons, Prospects and Implications for the International Order

Putin Obama Talk Syria

The New US-Russian Confrontation: Reasons, Prospects and Implications for the International Order

Dmitry Suslov
National Research University - Higher School of Economics

The following lecture was delivered by Dmitry Suslov (HSE) as part of the inaugural Consortium Module, hosted by the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.

Let me start with the definition of the US-Russia relations today.

Throughout the Post-Cold war period they were remaining ambiguous and locked in a vicious circle model. Each attempt to build sustainable partnership (there were 3) failed and resulted in another crisis – 1999 around Yugoslavia, 2008 around Georgia and today around Ukraine. However, Russia and the US were neither friends not foes for each other.

Today this ambiguity is gone. The Ukraine crisis threw the US-Russia relations to their lowest point since the early 1980-s (not even end of the Cold war – since the previous peak of the Cold war) and launched a new period of their relations – the period of the new systemic, although limited, confrontation.

I do not like the definition “a New Cold war”, because it implies the features that are simply impossible today. There is no bipolarity. Instead, we have a polycentric international system, and the abilities of great powers, including the US, to determine results and control events, are very limited. There is not just a tectonic power shift going on in the world (from the traditional West to the non-Western powers), but also power diffusion, which makes regional players, smaller states and non-state actors increasingly powerful, and great powers increasingly dependent on them. Look upon Syria. There is no ideological animosity (the very existence of Putin’s Russia is not really a threat to the US and vice versa). Finally, there is globalization and global crisscross interdependence, which was absent in the time of the Cold war. The world is globally interdependent, and there are common threats and challengers for Russia and the US – such as international terrorism and Islamic extremism. The recent Putin-Obama meeting at the UN General Assembly, our commitment to at least to avoid direct military clash in Syria, the visit of the head of the Russian FSB (former KGB) to Washington counter-terrorism summit in January this year, and our cooperation on the resent Iran nuclear deal – are the best illustrations that this is not a New Cold War.

Still, the relations are confrontational, and this is a systemic confrontation.

Both sides perceive the nature of the other side, internal state of each other, as the cause of the problem.

George Kennan, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, Foreign Affairs, July 1947. Today we have the same kind of analyses.

Since the US links the Russian behavior to the state of its domestic regime (Putin’s problem), the consensus that the US can’t have normal/constructive relations with Russia until current political regime stays in power and President Putin is the Head of State has been built in American foreign policy community.

Russia reciprocates as well, and promotes a myth, according to which the US conduct a deliberately malevolent policy towards Russia and deliberately produce “chaos” in many regions of the world, such as Middle East, so act as a strong destabilizing force is the International system, and do so because of their pursuit of global leadership, which in its turn is caused by “American exceptionalism”.

Remember Putin’s article in New York Times on September 11, 2013 “A Plea for Caution from Russia”, in which he explicitly addressed the “exceptionalism” problem. So, the narrative goes, exceptionalism makes the US cling for Global Leadership. But as it is no longer possible in a multi-polar world by “normal means”, the way to achieve it is containing and undermining those powers, who don’t accept this leadership, and multiplying chaos in many of the world’s regions.

Thus, the sides consider each other as adversaries. The US and Russia eager to weaken each other’s positions where they intersect the most - primarily in the Post-Soviet Space and in Europe. They lessen their interaction on the issues of shared interests. However, the sides do not exclude cooperation whatsoever. The US and Russia do not proceed to a full-scale military and political confrontation of the Cold War type; and do not make structural adjustments in their foreign and defense policy in accordance with the logic of such confrontation.

Washington has no intention to enter into a full-fledged confrontation of the Cold War type in military and political spheres; to unleash a massive arm race; let alone to undertake commitments fraud with an escalation up to direct military conflict with Russia. In this vein, Ukraine’s accession into NATO is excluded in a foreseeable future (in the period of Obama administration) as well as an idea to deploy even symbolic contingent of US forces on the Ukrainian territory. Moreover, the US is not even willing to give Kiev a little bit serious financial and economic assistance. Washington also has no plans to deploy major combat formations on NATO’s eastern borders, their presence in Poland and in the Baltic States likely will have a symbolic character. Finally, the US tries to avoid a military clash with Russia in Syria, which could also spark an unnecessary escalation.

How did we get here? How did it happen, that 25 year since the end of the Cold war Russia and the US found themselves in a new confrontational relationship? This is the major question of Consortium for the current year. Why didn’t the US-Russia “reset” under Obama and Medvedev prevent the current deterioration and helped to overcome the vicious circle model of US-Russia relations, which I mentioned before?

Is there any chance of improvement? What could be areas of cooperation?

Finally (if I have time), what are the global implications of the new US-Russian confrontation?

These are the questions I would like to address today...

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