Many European politicians see the ascending trajectory of quarrels between the USA and Russia as worrisome and unhelpful for upholding security and stability in Europe. At the same time, they keep asking for a firm US leadership in countering and containing Russia’s military pressure and unconventional aggressiveness. Concerns about President Donald Trump’s eagerness to embrace President Vladimir Putin blend with fears of pushing the Kremlin too far with the ever-tightening sanctions to produce a peculiar mixed feeling about hidden drivers of US policy-making towards the defiant Russia. Providing that the completion of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation soon after the November 2018 midterm elections would not inflict a severe damage to the Trump’s presidency (which is a big IF), it is still hard to expect any de-escalation of tensions, so that the spasmodically progressing degeneration of relations is set to become a new norm.
The risks associated with such sequence of rows need to be carefully and constantly evaluated, but the proposition that the deterioration of relations has gone too far cannot make a useful point of departure. The task of setting various “track-two” channels of communication that presumably could contribute to better mutual understanding of the current predicament appears important to many European and US think tanks, but the output of these efforts is invariably disappointing. It is hard to internalize for many sincere advocates of a new détente that for Moscow such talks are merely means for stimulating discord in the Western camp that has managed to produce greater solidarity in containing the rich spectrum of new threats than the Kremlin had believed possible. This solidarity is based on the combination of deterrence and dialogue, but it is essential to understand that the Russian leadership finds value in the latter only insofar as it weakens the former.
It is indeed far more difficult than it appears to the true believers in the benefits of engaging Russia to find meaningful content for the high- or working-level dialogue, particularly in the US-Russian format, where economic matters are barely present. The usual menu of arms control, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and cyber-security may seem rich but is in fact very low-yield. For instance, the no small cohort of arms control experts is united in the appeal for extending the New START Treaty, which is due to expire in early 2021. President Trump’s demonstrative lack of interest in this easy step is seen as a part of his emotional rejection of all achievements by President Barack Obama. In fact, however, the limits on delivery systems and warheads established by this treaty are not going to be broken after its expiration because neither the USA nor Russia has any plans for increasing their numbers. Weapon systems that really need attention, such as the nuclear-propelled missiles and under-water drones advertised by Putin in the 2018 address to the parliament, are not covered by this outdated treaty.
More difficult is the problem of possible collapse of the INF Treaty (1988), from which the US administration threatens to withdraw due to grave Russian violations. Moscow counters these accusations with counter-claims, which are not without technical soundness, and shows no intention to return to compliance. It is frustrating for European politicians to have no say in the matter of preservation of the treaty, which can be discarded by Trump’s team without due consideration of consequences for security of allies. Russian leadership believes that it is ready for the breakdown of this ban on intermediate-range missiles, while NATO is not. It also expects that the deployment of new Russian cruise and ballistic missiles might provoke a political crisis resembling that in the late 1970s, when public protests against US missiles reached a high peak in the UK and other European states. The Kremlin fails to see, however, that NATO doesn’t need to bring in new US missiles and nuclear warheads and can produce a range of efficient responses relying on new technologies.
Russia was remarkably unhelpful during the escalation of the crisis centered on the North Korean nuclear and missile programs in early 2018, and has remained a passive observer of the de-escalation of this crisis by the combined efforts of USA, South Korea and China. This inability to play a role in managing a crisis on its borders shows scant prospects for engaging Moscow in talks on non-proliferation matters. The EU might find it useful to coordinate with Russia on the evolving problem created by the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, but there are hardly any options for fruitful discussions of this issue between Washington and Moscow. Russia’s commitment to sustaining partnership with Iran is underpinned by their engagement in Syria, where Russian troops and bases depend upon support from pro-Iranian militias. The mechanisms of de-conflicting between Russian and US forces work above expectations, but the Syrian war doesn’t make a promising topic for US-Russian discussions or military-to-military contacts.
The new confrontation between Russia and the West is different from the Cold War in many ways, including the deep asymmetry of economic power between the antagonists. This weakness means that Russia cannot engage in a “peaceful coexistence” with the West, because it is the designated loser in such non-forceful struggle – and the Kremlin knows it perfectly well. It may ascribe to the opponents all sorts of malignant “Russo-phobic” intentions, but it understands the imperative to attack Western unity and solidarity with every available means.
Similarly, Putin may find it useful to attribute the steady tightening of the US sanctions regime and the breakdown of arms control talks to the escalation of party-political struggle in the USA, and there is an element of truth in this. He knows, however, that efforts aimed at countering Russian “hybrid” offensives is one of the few issues of consensus in the US Congress. After the midterm elections, the intensity of domestic political battles in the USA may grow yet further, but no relaxation of the readiness to put more pressure on Russia is going to happen. Putin cannot count on exploiting flaws in the US political system whatever zigzags the Trump presidency may experience.
* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)