Russia and the United States need to have the presence of mind to look beyond short-term tactical victories and defeats and consider the long-term consequences for the wider world.
A large screen shows a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and U.S. President Barack Obama during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day in Ouistreham, western France, Friday, June 6, 2014. Photo: Reuters
Never have post-Cold War relations between Russia and the U.S. sunk to such a nadir. Bilateral contacts in almost all spheres and at all levels are either frozen, suspended or sluggish at best. The two sides are competing to best each other by their hostile rhetoric, while the mutual suspicion and negative perceptions have moved beyond the political elites towards shaping the public mood in both countries.
You can argue long and hard about the who, how and why — that conversation is bound to take place sooner or later. But it is more important at this juncture to understand what such poor Russian-U.S. relations hold in store for the two countries and the world at large.
First up in that regard should be the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
The acute political crisis in Ukraine has been the focus of international politicians, experts, and journalists for more than six months now. On the face of it, the dramatic situation there should act as a powerful incentive for a critical rethinking of modern European and global policy, for new approaches to international security, for major conceptual breakthroughs, and for a firm rejection of outdated doctrines. After all, any major crisis is a time for renewal and a catalyst to replace the prevailing intellectual and political paradigms.
Unfortunately, in the case of Ukraine, this general rule does not seem to be working. Such a conclusion is unavoidable on observing the discussions on Ukraine in the U.S. For all the pluralist views on the causes, dynamics, and likely consequences of the Ukrainian crisis, U.S. political and expert opinion is almost exclusively centered on two points: first, the sanctions against Russia — their scope and consistency, mechanisms to apply them, and the potential impact on the Kremlin; second, the apparent and rather blinkered belief that the U.S. is quite capable of solving major international issues without Russia, of which the U.S. political and intellectual elite is trying to convince itself and its partners.
The debate in Washington is remarkably similar to the one in Moscow.
On the one hand, Russia is repeating over and over to itself that sanctions will not hurt, and indeed, that the West is unlikely to take any action that could backfire. On the other, newspaper and TV headlines endlessly proclaim that America is not the only pebble on the beach, and that Russia would not lose much were it to minimize cooperation with the U.S. and shift the focus of foreign policy to other countries and regions.
In this so-called polemic by correspondence (since meaningful contact between Russian and U.S. experts, politicians, and journalists is limited) it is difficult to find fresh ideas and innovative proposals to resolve the crisis. At the same time it is becoming very easy to spot Cold War-style propaganda clichés and stereotypes, which just a few years ago seemed hopelessly archaic and eternally obsolete.
The revival of the phantoms and phobias of this bygone era could be ascribed, on both sides of the conflict, to the heightened sense of emotion inherent in any serious international crisis. But the worry is that such negative political rhetoric has an unpleasant tendency to morph into political practice. Already we see that Russian-U.S. cooperation is slowing, contacts at different levels are breaking off, and the edifice of bilateral interplay between Russia and the U.S., fragile at the best of times, is now crumbling. This dangerous trend is fraught with trouble for both sides and the wider world, too.
First of all, the idea that during a crisis contact should be minimized is simply absurd. On the contrary, it is in times of crisis that dialogue is needed more than ever, since without dialogue no agreement can be reached, not even in theory. And dialogue is required not only between presidents and foreign ministers, but between lower-level officials from a wide range of departments and agencies on both sides.
Dialogue is necessary at the level of parliamentarians, independent analytical centers, media, civil society, and the private sector. Such intensive dialogue has the ability not only to dampen the political tensions and stem the flow of radical sentiment; across various platforms it can also engender practical solutions that often elude government leaders and ministers during their inevitably short meetings and phone calls.
As for the claim that Russia can survive perfectly well without the U.S., and vice versa, there is an obvious need to clarify what is meant by the phrase “survive perfectly well.” Economic ties between the countries are not the be-all and end-all for either. And it goes without saying that a lack of strategic interaction between the Kremlin and the White House will not automatically lead to nuclear war. And it is long understood that the new polycentric world does not rotate around the Moscow-Washington axis like in the second half of the last century.
Nonetheless, there is hardly anyone who would deny that the moratorium on Russian-U.S. cooperation jeopardizes the solution of a wide variety of international issues, while other problems will prove insurmountable. This applies to regional crises and nuclear non-proliferation; to the fight against international terrorism and drug trafficking; to the management of natural resources and global migration; to space exploration and international cooperation in the Arctic; to the reform of international organizations and the creation of new international regimes, and to other highly acute problems facing the global community today.
Despite the seriousness of the Ukrainian crisis, it is by no means the only one on the global agenda. And to hang the entire spectrum of bilateral Russian-U.S. relations on just one — albeit very dramatic — international event would be shortsighted, to say the least.
It is sometimes held that to continue dialogue in a time of crisis is a sign of weakness. A readiness to talk supposedly sends out the wrong signal to the other side and implicitly demonstrates a willingness to make concessions. As a diplomat with ample experience, I can state with certainty that this is not so. The very fact of being open to dialogue does not signify readiness to give ground. On the contrary, only through dialogue is it possible to persuade the opposing side to change its position, by laying out the logic of one’s argument and the clarity of one’s vision. History shows that winding up contacts and slapping on restrictions and sanctions rarely leads to a successful resolution of crisis situations.
Any crisis is a test for all concerned. Will the sides have the presence of mind not to burn bridges or succumb to rushes of emotion, but rather, to look beyond short-term tactical victories and defeats towards the long-term consequences? It is sincerely hoped that Russia and the U.S. will survive this test with minimal losses to themselves and the rest of the world.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.