The Eagle & The Bear: US-Russian Rivalry

How over is over?  Or are Russia and America doomed to be rivals? 

Since the Arab Spring started, particularly in Syria, tensions between the United States and the Russian Federation have appeared.  But did they ever truly go away?  The Soviet Union formally ceased to exist on 26 December 1991, although it had broken up gradually over the previous two years or so following the tearing down of the Berlin wall. For the last 22 years, East-West relations have been relatively good, with minor exceptions, until now.

In a 2011 report, the American Task Force on Russia and U.S. National Interests Report, identifies the areas, which for both states, are considered gospel of their own national interest.  The report looked at the relations between the US and Russia and how to improve relations.  It identified various areas where the two countries could and should co-operate, where there should be room for manoeuvre, and areas where there is a conflict of interest that cannot be reconciled but should be subject to bi-lateral talks.  It identified the key areas where Russia’s conduct would impact on American interests, these are:

•Nuclear weapons



•Geopolitics, including managing China’s emergence as a global power



•International finance, in the G8 and the G20

•Strategic geography

These are the main issues regarding relations, but as we have seen in the last weeks and months, there is still a lot of cold-war politics and tactics going on.  With the passing of Magnitsky Act into law with Obama’s signature in December 2012, and the counter-act in Russia.  The Act bars any Russian suspected of complicity in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky from traveling to the US. In retaliation, the Russian parliament passed the Dima Yakovlev Law preventing any American suspected of breaching human rights of Russian citizens from traveling to Russia, stopping the adoption of Russians by US citizens, and suspends any political NGO that receives funding from the US.  These tit-for-tat political manoeuvring, tensions that had begun to re-surface due to Syria came to a head.  Now, with the arrest and expulsion of the alleged CIA spook, Ryan Fogle, tensions are worsening.

This is just one of many failures of attempts by Presidents Clinton, George W Bush, and Obama to ‘reset’ relations between the two countries.  Part of the reasons for this is, however, the difference in culture and histories.  Also contributing to this, is the mutual distrust between the two leaderships and the inability to break this down.  Lastly, differing national interests, such as Syria, also harm the relationship and are a big obstacle to increasing bilateral co-operation.  If two countries have a major difference of national interests there is little that can be done to fix the issue.

443px-Bush&Putin33rdG8Before the Fogle incident, however, ties on all fronts appeared to be easing.  Evidence of warming of relations is the two sides’ agreement on nuclear disarmament.  A new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) entered into force in February 2011 and is to last until at least 2021.  This will reduce the number of active nuclear weapons both sides have and institute new inspection regimes. It does not, however, limit the number of inactive nuclear weapons that both sides have stockpiled, numbering in the thousands.  This agreement was not hard for either side to negotiate, but it was difficult for the US leadership to get ratified in Congress.  There was huge public debate, with mainly conservative individuals, media, and other organisations speaking against it.  They distrusted the Russians; much of this was due to mistrust built up during the Cold War.

Despite this, however, America’s Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system is an big worry for the Russian leadership.  Putin’s National Security Advisor Nikolai Patrushev has recently delivered a note to Obama on this issue and has even revealed its contents.  The letter was in response to one  delivered to Putin on Obama’s behalf and there was a ‘confidential briefing’ on it, its contents weren’t revealed.  In the letter it says that Russia sees the cancellation by Obama of America’s latest defence idea, 3 Block IIB interceptor of Phase 4 of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), is nothing more than “cosmetic alteration” of the Star Wars idea.   It goes on to say that the “political declarations on the absence of intentions to undermine the strategic deterrence potential of the other side are clearly insufficient.”  Also, despite an offer to sign a bi-lateral treaty on this issue, the contentiousness of the policy will not do anything to assuage the Russian leaderships concerns, especially those of its military.

Further evidence of easing tensions, and counter-terrorism co-operation, happened in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.  President Putin said publicly that Russia would do anything it could to help, and the Russian Security Service, the FSB, had even provided the FBI with information on the suspects over a year before.  In addition, they started to take a slightly tougher line on Syria with whom Russia has traditionally seen as an ally.  There are suggestions, in some circles, that influential supports of Putin have become worried with the closening of ties and it is to shore up support that he has started to take a tougher line.  Following this, it was announced last week that Russia is going to fulfil all its arms deals with the Assad-regime in Syria.  This will not be pleasant news to America and it may lead to Israeli attacks on Russian-supplied arms, not to help the rebels, but to stop these weapons falling into the hands of terrorist organisations.

The EU on Monday announced it was not renewing the arms embargo on supplying weapons to the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups.  In response, Russia has confirmed it will be sending weapons, to the Assad regime in order to prevent “some hotheads” from taking action.  Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov stated that the weapons were to be a “stabilising factor” in the region.  While it is the EU that has not renewed the ban, and it was America’s main 361px-Bashar_al-Assad_(cropped)European ally, Britain, with France who were pushing for the easing of sanctions, this can be seen as a warning to the US.  These weapons, according to the Russians, is in accordance with a contract signed several years ago.  Although France and the UK have independent foreign policies that sometimes clash with the US, they would not, realistically be able to take any action in Syria without, on some level, American approval.

This statement could be seen as escalating tensions in an area of the world where tensions are reaching breaking point, especially with Israel.  We have seen in the last few weeks increasing conflict and exchange of fire on the Israel-Syria border although it is not known if this is deliberate shelling or accidental, or by whom   The BBC are reporting that the Russians were holding out the weapons in exchange for an Israeli commitment not to do anything that could exacerbate the situation in Syria.

A sign of improving US-Russia relations is the push for and the agreement, at least in principle, to a peace conference in Geneva.  This, however, will not solve the situation as it does not look likely that the FSA will turn up.  Despite this indication of a thawing of relations, it could be considered to be a continuation of Russian Cold War-era policy.  They are playing both sides.  With Syria and Assad, they are providing ‘defensive’ weapons, while on the other; they are joining in with the US to push for peace.  This happened in Korea and Vietnam, although the Russians (Soviets) in both conflicts did not provide troops, they provided supplies to the Communists but also called for a negotiated peace.

In addition to Syria, the other main concern in the Middle East is the Israel-Palestinian Peace Process, with Iran taking a back seat due to its elections and Syria.  John Kerry has been in the Middle East attempting to get negotiations going again.  The PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, has acknowledged that both sides will have to take “tough decisions.”  This appears to be an improvement on the currently-strained relations, and Russian interests in Israel match those of the US.  Both countries are members of the Middle East Quartet (In addition to the EU and UN).  If Secretary Kerry and President Obama can get direct negotiations going then Russia will support them and offer its assistance, although for the since the last Quartet-sponsored direct negotiations broke down, they have been happy to stay out and let America do the leg work.

On the other issues raised by the report and highlighted above, there are many areas of co-operation, and much less reason for tensions to rise.  In terms of energy and economics, Russia could use American investment to build a better infrastructure and more supply lines through Europe and Asia.  Russia would be in a better situation, using American money to improve the living standards of those peoples living in impoverished regions, and stabilising them, gradually taking the impetus away from its various separatist movements, especially in the Caucasus.  Doing this, would then enable America to keep tensions in the area, especially with Georgia, in check and also, given enough time and money, with expansion into Asia, look at curbing the growing emergence of China which threatens the wellbeing of both America and Russia

Despite the Cold War officially having ended over 30 years ago, in the minds of many people it still hasn’t ended.  While both sides attempt to thaw relations and ‘reset’ them, there are still many issues for the leaderships of both countries too overcome. There are no issues that are too big to be overcome and, maybe, one day, they will call each other friends.  The big test for the two countries at the moment is Syria, and how they deal with it.  While the US is firmly in the camp of the FSA and the anti-Assad rebels (or terrorists as the regime calls them) Syria, in supplying weapons to Assad and arranging the peace conference has a foot in both camps.  Whatever happens in Syria, Russia is going to win.  It is America who need to tread lightly and hope the rebels win or a negotiated peace happens.  If not, then this will be yet another setback in a year of setbacks for US-Russia relations.

Alex Patnick


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