Talk of a ‘new Cold War’ once seemed alarmist, but today it is fast becoming rooted in a new reality, a new mentality of great power confrontation that is eerily reminiscent of a previous era.
A recent editorial in the Washington Post arguing that Russia and US are “on the road to a new Cold War” has been one of the loudest to sound the alarm.
A new package of US sanctions targeting Russian business interests in Europe was followed by a series of diplomatic spats, including the expulsion of American diplomats from Russia and the closure of the Russian consulate in San Francisco, and this tit-for-tat exchange looks set to continue. Unless concrete action is taken to change the trajectory of relations, the two nuclear superpowers appear stuck in a ‘death spiral’.
The aircraft that has carried the complex and fragile cargo of Russian-American dialogue through the turbulence and storms of the last quarter century is plunging downwards. It may have made U-turns over the Atlantic at the height of political turbulence, but on prior occasions it has always regained both its balance and its pace.
Much has been said about how the two nations got here and the role each side has played in bringing circumstances to this point. The narratives of recent events from either side diverge so greatly that it is incredibly unhelpful to respond by laying the blame at either door. The West may wish that Russia was to blame for all its ills, but that is far from being a credible analysis of either recent events, or, indeed, the country’s actual capacity.
It is obvious today that Russian-American relations can no longer be studied apart from the broader international context. Over the last year, this has included Brexit, and the unexpected outcome of the US election, which highlighted tensions within American society and also brought about discord within the transatlantic community over issues like climate change and new sanctions on Iran and Russia. The international context has also seen marked turbulence within the European Union, as reflected by the Polish-German dispute and the attempts to isolate the Hungarian prime minister. Attempts to isolate Russia may have strengthened its ties with its Eastern partners, namely China and India, but they have also influenced the Russian economy and burdened European manufacturers. Going a step further, the question arises as to what extent executive powers can influence the aforementioned developments. The new sanctions against Russia were supposedly put forward by the US Congress against the will of the Trump administration and whilst under fire from major American media outlets. So who should be addressed in order to restore dialogue?
Russia and the United States are very different countries, with very different histories. Yet Moscow is a long way from being the trigger-happy sparring partner that some seem so keen to rouse.
Moscow’s fiercest criticism has historically been over moves by Washington that it sees as direct threats, such as NATO’s eastward expansion. Criticism over Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Belgrade, has been relatively muted.
Russia delayed its response to the expulsion of Russian diplomats and the seizure of Russian diplomatic property in the US in late 2016, in order to give the new administration a chance to consider and formulate its position. This was both the rational and the sporting thing to do.
The current crisis promises to be a long-lasting one, because the sanctions on Russia will have a long-term impact and cannot be reversed overnight.
The two countries have different histories; they do not border each other geographically, and they have a relatively low volume of bilateral investment and trade, in comparison to respective relations with Europe or China.
The differences between the two countries are such that despite all the obvious benefits of cooperation in areas like the fight against terrorism, political relations risk remaining deliberately strained for years to come. It is easy to win dividends in terms of public approval, and simultaneously to inspire hostility, with reference to somebody who does not live next door to you. But this is a grave mistake, because any prolonged hostility at the political level will inevitably weigh down relations more broadly and risk impacting relations between ordinary people. Ordinary people’s lives, fundamentally disrupted for generations by the Cold War, remain largely unaffected so far. This is both a valuable asset and a source of leverage that should be used to restore dialogue.
I believe that Moscow and Washington are fully cognisant of the gravity of the present situation.
What concrete steps can be taken to break the deadlock? They can be found in five possible areas.
Firstly, we could work towards establishing a credible US-Russia civil council that would mediate, and suggest ways to de-escalate current tensions. This would be a new non-governmental organisation empowered by both sides to mediate and to be able to advise both governments. Presidents Putin and Macron proposed such a civil forum for Russia and France, and this model has worked well in the past with the French-Russian Dialogue Association as well.
Secondly, and most urgently, the two nations can work together against terrorism through information-sharing under the auspices of the NATO-Russia council. Launching such a mechanism to ease communication regarding shared threats, such as IS fighters returning from Syria, would improve cooperation at the level of the military and intelligence services.
We could also accelerate academic ties, especially in the political and social sciences. Our research has found that the number of US doctoral studies on Russia peaked in the 1970s and then dropped fourfold – which is indicative of a decline in regional expertise. Launching new double-degree programmes is an ideal response to this troubling trend.
Fourthly, we could revisit major projects like the TTIP or seek practical ways to expand the Lisbon-Vladivostok transport corridor to Alaska. Our research shows that shared long-term infrastructure projects may halve the risk of a major conflict between the parties involved. Such projects are extremely complex and consume both time and investment, but just think of the history of the Eurotunnel, which was first conceived back in the nineteenth century and was implemented just a couple of decades ago. Where there is a will, there is a way.
Finally, we can identify areas of clear mutual interest in other parts of the globe – such as the de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and work together towards those ends.
In the cool light of day, the US does not want to see Russia collapse like the USSR, or fragment like Yugoslavia. Neither is today’s Russia ready to bring down a new iron curtain, to isolate itself in the manner of the North Korean model. There are hardly sufficient grounds for a grand ideological confrontation between the two nations, and there is no reason why they should not learn to coexist in a new multipolar world.
It is time we embraced a new pragmatism, engaged in dialogue, and learned to compromise, because too much is at stake.