The simultaneous decision by Russia and the U.S. to suspend cooperation in such vital areas as nuclear security and the Syrian conflict highlight their alarming willingness to revive Cold War thinking.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry before a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Hangzhou, China. Photo: RIA Novosti
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move to suspend cooperation with the U.S. on the joint disposal of weapons-grade plutonium, an agreement that has regulated Russia-U.S. collaboration in the sphere since 2000, marked the latest move down the slippery slope of progressively deteriorating relations between Moscow and Washington.
Justifying the move, Moscow listed a number of steps on the part of the U.S. that, according to the Kremlin, infringed on Russia’s national interests. In short, Moscow perceives that these measures from the U.S. were allegedly meant to undermine the economic and security interests of Russia.
The suspension of cooperation in the nuclear security sphere was immediately followed by the U.S. State Department’s announcement on the suspension of bilateral Russia-U.S. negotiations on the Syrian conflict in an unprecedented gesture of mistrust and discontent on the part of Washington.
“The United States is suspending its participation in bilateral channels with Russia that were established to sustain the cessation of hostilities [in Syria]… We felt that we came to the point with Russia where we were not reaching the same goal,” said U.S. State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau on Oct. 4. Russia responded with its own allegations about the U.S., arguing the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama lacked willingness and ability to sustain the detailed Syrian talks.
“U.S.-Russian tensions have reached the most dangerous point since the height of the Ukraine conflict in 2014-15. [They] need to step away from the brink,” Carnegie Moscow Center's Dmitri Trenin wrote in his Facebook post amidst the increasing confrontation between Moscow and Washington.
A few days before these latest events in the ongoing sequence of Russia-U.S. antagonism unfolded, experts on Russia, speaking at the International Valdai Discussion Club in Moscow on Sept. 30, advised the leaderships in both capitals to refrain from antagonizing one another due to the risk of reaching a point of no return in bilateral relations.
Professor Emeritus at Columbia University Robert Legvold joined former UK ambassador to Russia Roderic Lyne (2000-2004) and former UK Defense Minister Desmond Browne (2006-2008) to discuss the roots and potential fallout from the break in U.S.-Russia relations.
With the term “mistrust” prevailing in the discussion, the experts went as far in their assessment of the current U.S.-Russia relations as to refer to the Syrian conflict as a “proxy war” between Russia and the U.S.The most alarming thing, however, is that only a few days after this meeting in Moscow, the U.S. and Russia managed to cut the few remaining ties the pundits identified as having the potential for recovering the damaged relationship.
The deterioration of trust
Cooperation in the nuclear security sphere, according to the pundits, represented one of the few spheres over which Russia and the U.S. could have maintained a certain level of cooperation without threatening each other’s interests.
Lyne, who served as the UK ambassador to Russia from 2000 to 2004, recalled his visit to a facility stationing Russian nuclear submarines as part of an effort to promote nuclear security cooperation between Russia and the West.
“I went there with my military attaché in full uniform, accompanied by officers of the FSB and GRU, one of whom held a camera and took a picture of me, which I think was in breach of Russian Federation law, with nuclear cruisers and submarines behind [me],” said Lyne. [The GRU is the Main Intelligence Directorate of Russia, also known as the military intelligence service – Editor’s note].
The following day, the former ambassador published an article in a Russian newspaper highlighting the effort Russia, the UK and the U.S. were making to overcome the mistrust remaining from the period of the Cold War and to construct positive relations in the sphere vital for all the participants.
“We were doing it because it was absolutely in our common interests and it was involving people who have been diametrically opposed to each other during the Cold War,” said Lyne, expressing his concern over the inability of Russian and Western policymakers to formulate and pursue common interests today, with the Cold War period being long gone.
The Cold War’s comeback
Indeed, pundits argued that the current level of mistrust between the policymakers in Russia and the West is as low as it was during the tensest periods of the Cold War.
“Relations between the U.S. and Russia enormously deteriorated [and became] as bad as any time since parts of the Cold War,” said Legvold.
According to the expert, key features of the Cold War have recently resurrected and now characterize the current state of U.S.-Russia relations. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union blamed each other for every crisis breaking out around the globe, and they did so with reference to the flaws of their opponent’s system (i.e. Capitalism vs. Communism).
This trend is now gaining a new momentum in the U.S.-Russia relations, according to Legvold. While Moscow blames the U.S. for its alleged support for regime change around the world, Washington blames Russia for its allegedly undemocratic regime.
Experts warned that prospects for improvement in bilateral relations remain very distant if the political elites in Washington and Moscow maintain this stance, which is reminiscent of the Cold War. If the sides fail to address this problem, however, it would be essentially impossible to make any progress unless the leadership changes radically in either of the two countries, which is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.
Moscow’s decision to halt cooperation with the U.S. on joint disposal of weapons-grade plutonium and the following announcement by Washington on suspension of the Syrian dialogue with Russia are troubling signs precisely because they fall into the grim picture the experts warn against.
In an atmosphere of overwhelming mistrust, characteristic of the worst periods of the Cold War, Russia and the U.S. seem to be losing interest in maintaining contact with one another - even in the spheres where such contact would yield practical benefits for both sides. If such distorted thinking prevails in Russia and in the West, it will only be a matter of time before the world might have to face numerous consequences that it would rather not have to consider.