WASHINGTON, DC – With Ukraine in turmoil and the United States and Russia warily eyeing each other’s every move, the world seems to be on the brink of a prolonged confrontation similar to the Cold War. But is it?
Russia, accusing the West of supporting a coup d’état by “fascists” and “terrorists” in Kyiv, has annexed Crimea, tested an inter-continental ballistic missile, and reserved the right to intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine to protect the Russian population there. The US has sanctioned Russia and called Crimea’s annexation illegal. But it has also called for cooperation to resolve the situation peacefully and declared that Ukraine should pursue productive ties with both Russia and the West. So far, the Russians have dismissed those sentiments.
Yet this is not the start of Cold War II, and Russia is not America’s antagonist. But nor is it an ally. The two sides disagree on a wide range of questions. Yet there are critical international issues – such as Iran and Syria – on which progress is not likely without some cooperation. The challenge is not to try again to “reset” bilateral relations, but rather to find – once the Ukrainian crisis abates – a basis on which the two sides can collaborate where their interests overlap.
But we have to be realistic. Every US President since 1992 has sought to refashion the US-Russian relationship and move it beyond the ideological and military competition of the Cold War. But each attempt, while producing some results, ended in disappointment. A key reason is that the US and Russia have fundamentally different understandings of what an improved relationship would look like.
In reviewing these efforts, one constant stands out: the US has made the most progress on issues where Russia has felt that America respected its interests. The first diplomatic reset, at the end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, took major steps toward defusing the nuclear dangers resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, Russia remained the only nuclear state in the post-Soviet space, while legislation pioneered by then-US Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar helped to secure nuclear sites, scientists, and materials.
The second reset, under President Bill Clinton, was more ambitious: a full-fledged effort to create a partnership that promoted substantial US involvement in Russia’s economy and evolving political system. It also involved persuading a reluctant Russia to support two NATO interventions in the Balkans. But the second war over Kosovo in 1999 led to the collapse of that reset.
The third reset came at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initiative, when he offered Russian assistance in the campaign in Afghanistan after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. But the expectations of George W. Bush’s administration were very different from Putin’s. Russia sought an “equal partnership of unequals,” especially US recognition of Russia’s sphere of influence in its neighborhood.
Instead, Russia had to deal with the Iraq war, NATO enlargement to the Baltic states, pro-Western revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, and the Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda” aimed at global democratization. The Kremlin viewed with great apprehension the specter of regime change, especially in its neighborhood. By the time this reset ended in the rubble of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, the US had come to view Russia as a global spoiler.
The Obama administration’s reset – the fourth since the Soviet collapse – was the most successful, at least during the president’s first term in office. With more realistic expectations, it achieved results: the New START arms control treaty, tougher sanctions on Iran, cooperation on transportation to and from Afghanistan, and Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization.
But this reset was largely facilitated by the personal ties between Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, who served as President for four years before Putin returned in 2012 for a third term. When Putin blamed the US for the opposition demonstrations that accompanied his return, the relationship began to deteriorate. With the Kremlin’s decision last August to grant temporary asylum to the former US intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden, the reset ended.
The ideological antagonism of the Cold War may be gone, but Russia now defines itself as an alternative civilizational and social model. Pointedly, Russia claims that it is a status quo power, contrasting itself with the US, which it calls a “revisionist” power seeking to destabilize the world by promoting regime change, especially in the Arab world. The Kremlin also views the US as a source of instability in the former Soviet space and blames the West for the Ukrainian unrest.
Nonetheless, the US-Russia relationship has always been compartmentalized, and there are pressing multilateral issues on which the US must work with Russia, particularly Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan (where the US will withdraw its troops this year). Whereas the US and Russia disagree about how to end the Syrian civil war, they have cooperated in disarming Syria of its chemical weapons. Similarly, neither side wants to see Iran develop a nuclear-weapons capability.
The past two decades of bilateral great expectations, followed by serial disappointments, suggest that, once the Ukraine crisis is resolved, more modest and realistic US goals toward Russia are in order. Unless and until both countries move beyond the legacies of the Cold War, the 1990’s, and today’s crisis, any reset – regardless of whether it originates in the White House or the Kremlin – can at best manage more effectively what will remain a limited and trying relationship.
For the US, this means recognizing Russia for what it is: a large, still-important country with a hybrid political system and serious domestic economic, demographic, and political challenges. Russia’s post-Soviet evolution is a matter of many decades and will not occur in a linear fashion. Its worldview is sharply at odds with that of the US and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But a cold peace is preferable to a cold war.