While both sides are trying to dispel such conclusions, there is little on the horizon for renewed collaboration and plenty of disputes to fuel further confrontation. Although Russia no longer has the capabilities to challenge the United States globally, it retains the capacity to undermine American and Western interests in several key regions. It may therefore be more accurate to describe the new relationship as one of “Cold Peace,” in which the bilateral political temperature continues to drop.
Disagreements and confrontations between the U.S. and Russia are driven by a range of disputes, including Putin’s support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the granting of political asylum to an American intelligence defector, and escalating violations of human rights inside Russia. When the U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act in December 2012 imposing sanctions on Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses, Moscow retaliated by banning American adoptions of Russian children.
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The Kremlin has also rejected any further cuts to its nuclear arsenal as its offensive military strategy is constructed around the use of nuclear weaponry to supplement any conventional combat. Obama’s efforts were rebuffed in the pursuit of further nuclear disarmament agreements, following the signing of the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) in April 2010 which reduced the number of strategic nuclear warheads and missile launchers. Some Russian analysts close to the Kremlin have proposed that Moscow pull out of the nuclear test ban treaty altogether and conduct a demonstrative nuclear test in the Arctic to show that Russia is prepared to use nuclear arms in case of any NATO threat to its borders.
Having realized the limitations of cooperating with the Kremlin, Obama decided to push for a military strike against the Bashad al-Assad regime in response to the chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. Samantha Power, the U.S. envoy to the UN, accused Russia of holding the UN Security Council hostage as it regularly blocked resolutions on Syria. Obama’s decision to bypass the UN provoked grave threats from Moscow. And Obama’s statement on the eve of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, that Assad cannot retain legitimacy in a country where he has killed tens of thousands of his own people, made Putin even more resistant to military action. Obama’s logic applies to Putin himself, as he is also responsible for the death of tens of thousands of Russian citizens through the carpet-bombing of Grozny and other atrocities in Chechnya.
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Moscow traditionally engages in hyperbolic threats when its strategic ambitions are challenged. Syria is Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East and vital for its power projection. Relations with the Bashad al-Assad regime have thrived under Putin, as Syria hosts the last remaining Russian naval base in the Mediterranean and Moscow has forgiven almost three-quarters of Damascus’s debt in order to lure lucrative weapons orders. In recent years, Russia has sold over USD 1bn in arms, including anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles as well as MiG 29/31 fighter aircraft.
Above all, the Kremlin views both Syria and Iran as important buffers against Western interests and America’s regional presence. The Kremlin is not only concerned that its key Syrian ally in the Middle East may be ousted but that Washington no longer views Russia as a relevant partner. Even though the planned military strikes against Damascus are unlikely to overthrow Assad, Russia does not want to be embarrassed by its glaring impotence, as it was over Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. Following the NATO intervention in Kosovo and the declaration of Kosovo’s independence, Moscow invaded Georgia and partitioned the country in order to demonstrate that it was still a major power. In the event of U.S. air strikes against Damascus, the Kremlin will seek new options to prove its credentials and damage U.S. interests.
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Moscow will not challenge the U.S. directly in any military sense, but it will endeavor to cause maximum political damage and extract optimum political advantages. In addition to lambasting the U.S. diplomatically and acting as the self-appointed leader of all independent states allegedly threatened by American imperialism, Moscow will need to undertake actions that will resonate in the White House.
In Syria itself Russia can buttress the government by selling more advanced weaponry and a missile defense system that would ensure the survival of the Assad regime. Moscow can also strengthen Iran, Syria’s chief ally in the region, through the sale of S-300 air defense missile systems while blocking any further UN pressure on Tehran regarding its nuclear weapons program. It will also look for alternative “soft spots” where the U.S. can be challenged and harmed without provoking a direct military confrontation.
In addition to the Middle East, three regions will test the temperature between Washington and Moscow: Central-Eastern Europe (CEE), the Wider Europe, and the Arctic. The Russian Foreign Ministry has stated that any Western intervention in Syria will seriously damage relations with all NATO countries, including those of CEE. But what could this mean in practice? All NATO-Russian meetings will probably be cancelled and the rhetoric will become more heated. Moscow can also reinforce the Zapad 2013military exercises later this month, rehearsing a war with the Baltic States and Poland, and thereby increase its threats against NATO members. Even more ominously, it may dangle the “Syrian precedent” in the former Soviet Union or the CEE region.
Mikhail Aleksandrov, head of the Baltic section of the Moscow Institute of CIS Countries, has proposed that the Russian government respond to “American aggression” against Syria by sending military units into Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. He also contends that Moscow must restore its military control over the entire South Caucasus. By deploying forces where Russia supposedly possesses strategic supremacy, it would make it clear that the West will pay a high price for any attack on Syria.
Such direct military actions are highly unlikely, as Putin will be unwilling to test the reality of NATO contingency plans for defending the newest members. Nonetheless, Moscow could increase various pressures to undermine the security of neighbors that it views as being too close to Washington. This can include positioning Iskander missiles and concentrating troops close to the Baltic borders, engaging in cyber attacks against national governments, aggravating inter-ethnic relations within the Baltic countries through its proxies among the Russian minorities, and scaling back its energy supplies. To underscore its more assertive military posture, Moscow is building a new air base in Belarus that will figure prominently in future military exercises and possible combat operations.
If any of these actions were taken, the U.S. would become involved. Vulnerable countries exposed to a more aggressive Russia will call for Washington’s assistance in defending their independence. Obama would need to respond and avoid sending any signal that Washington was unable to protect Europe’s newest democracies and NATO allies. CEE capitals will want more regular NATO exercises and the construction of modern and effective national anti-missile systems, in addition to the U.S.-integrated Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. While the latter will be installed against possible threats from Iran and other aspiring nuclear regimes, the former would be designed as a credible deterrent to Russia’s aggressive military posture.
The Wider Europe is the second arena for U.S.-Russia confrontation and some American congressional leaders want Washington to be much more ambitious. For instance, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have called for providing Georgia with NATO membership at the next summit in 2014. Although the Obama White House will not commit itself to such a decision, it will continue to develop military ties with Tbilisi and must enable the Georgian government to acquire the modern weaponry needed to defend itself against any future Russian military assaults.
Ukraine and Moldova will also be on the front line of future confrontations with Moscow. Moscow has increased pressures on Kyiv and Chisinau to terminate their ambitions to join the EU and enter the Russian orbit through the Customs Union. Moscow opposes any movement by post-Soviet state toward Brussels for three key reasons. First, it would undermine the project of Eurasian reunification under a Russian umbrella. Second, it would better defend these countries against Russian political and economic pressures. And third, it would challenge the Kremlin's opaque business interests, which are undergirded by corruption and criminality. In the case of Ukraine, Moscow will intensify its economic and energy blackmail as winter approaches. In the case of Moldova, economic and energy sanctions can be combined with outright support for partition through the formal recognition of Transnistria's independence, as was the case with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.
Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan recently declared that Armenia should join both the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union. Such a move would abort progress toward EU association, free trade and visa liberalization agreements. EU officials describe Putin’s pressure on Yerevan as “open blackmail” and a hostile move designed to sabotage the November 2013 Vilnius summit. There is also concern that Moscow’s success in Armenia could embolden it to try and replicate its policies in Ukraine and Moldova.
Washington may be faced with new demands to help defend the independence of European states that are wavering between democracy and authoritarianism, between integrity and partition, and between Europeanization and Eurasianism. Obama will be sorely tested on whether the U.S., NATO, and the EU can work more effectively together to strengthen the sovereignty of the remaining East European states. This would necessitate much greater Western political investment in security, democracy, and institution building in countries that are stranded along Russia’s borders.
Washington must also prepare for a new kind of Cold War in the Arctic, where rising temperatures will open up sea-lanes and access to fossil fuels, and simultaneously provide new potentials for conflicts. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 13% of the world's undiscovered oil and 30% of its untapped natural gas is in the Arctic. Shipping lanes could be regularly open across the Arctic as rising temperatures continue to melt the sea ice, thus raising the need for policing, border patrols, and military capabilities to enforce rival claims.
Military activities are rapidly increasing in the Arctic, with Russia, the U.S., and Canada having the biggest stakes. Russia, one-third of which lies within the Arctic Circle, has been the most aggressive in establishing itself as the regional superpower by rebuilding its Arctic military capabilities and increasing bomber and submarine patrols. Moscow’s moves have convinced other Arctic countries to resume regional military exercises that they had abandoned or scaled back after the Soviet collapse. In March 2012, Norway staged one of the largest Arctic maneuvers in history — Exercise Cold Response — with 16,300 troops from 14 countries training on the ice for everything from high intensity warfare to terror threats. The exercise near the Russian border was condemned by Moscow as a provocation and proof that NATO wants to strengthen its position throughout the Arctic. Since then, the U.S., Canada, and Denmark have also held major military exercises. The stage is being set for future confrontations with Russia, especially if Moscow chooses to pursue its far-fetched territorial and maritime claims.
The Obama administration has been pensive about employing Cold War phraseology for two main reasons. First, it does not consider Russia, unlike the defunct Soviet Union, as a major strategic challenger to the United States on a global scale. Russia can no longer project power on all continents, exert influence through numerous regional proxies, or pose as an ideological and political alternative to Western democracy and capitalism. And second, Washington believes that there will be areas of future cooperation with Moscow that should not be sacrificed because of the current cooldown.
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For these reasons, the White House will seek to avoid outright confrontation but without abandoning fundamental American interests. At times, it will simply ignore Moscow if it feels compelled to act, as did the George W. Bush administration. At other times, it will need to assert its authority to dissuade Russia’s destructive meddling. Hopefully, Washington’s new realism will not put too much faith in allegedly “shared interests” where Moscow sees anti-Russian conspiracies around almost every corner and acts to undermine NATO and the U.S.
There is an additional troubling component to Moscow’s foreign policy. Instead of dealing with Russia’s mounting economic, social, ethnic, and regional problems, the Putin administration is mobilizing anti-minority, anti-foreigner, and anti-American sentiments to stay afloat. The crackdown on free speech and independent organizations is part of a larger strategy to build support for Putin in Russia’s heartland, but it barely disguises Russia’s slide toward instability. In the coming year, foreign scapegoats could play an even more prominent role in the country’s unfolding political drama. Although Russia’s military capabilities do not match the Soviet era, the country could become a destabilizing presence if it undergoes new political turmoil and potential territorial fracture, a scenario that a growing number of Russian analysts are now openly debating.