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.