UNITED STATES—At the close of 2018, Moscow’s US ambassador described Russia and the US’s relationship as “practically non-existent.” Vassily Nebenzia added that the situation was unlikely to improve while Donald Trump remained president. Allegations that Russia interfered in US elections in 2016 have ironically made negotiations between the two super-powers more difficult. As Russia is believed to be behind Trump’s election, with some even believing that the president is a Russian stooge, any signs of rapport between the nations will be seen in some quarters as a sign of collusion.
So where does that leave Russia-US relations in 2019? Nebenzia noted that Trump personally seemed to understand the need to cooperate, but US sanctions against Russia remain in place as a response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russian support for Ukrainian separatists, and the alleged poisoning of the Skripal’s in the UK. The US investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election has meant talks to end the sanctions have been put on hold. Meanwhile an escalation of military saber-rattling by both nations seems to be underway, with the possibility of more skirmishes breaking out over a series of flashpoints increasingly likely.
Putin stands firm
Vladimir Putin has made clear that he will not be changing his policy on Crimea or the Ukraine, as shown by the Russian coastguard’s seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea last November. Pressure from the West has actually improved Putin’s standing domestically, but this is reliant on the perception of him as a strong leader standing up to US bullying. Any compromise would be seen as a sign of weakness, and Putin also seems to believe that sticking to his guns is the only viable position to take.
Russia is determined to achieve its aims through shows of military strength designed to encourage fear and respect, while all the while claiming western provocation and insisting it is open to negotiation, but on its own terms. Developing impressive new weapons, including many with nuclear capability, and making sure that the world knows about them, is a key tactic in this policy. These include a hypersonic glide vehicle able to fly at 20 times the speed of sound, and an underwater drone armed with a nuclear warhead capable of triggering devastating tsunamis.
Escalating arms race
In January the US announced plans for a new missile defense system based in outer space that would form part of a more aggressive deterrent against threats from China, North Korea and Iran as well as from Russia. In February the US also announced that it was withdrawing from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. Russia responded by saying that it too would be suspending participation in the treaty, but the US claimed that Russia had already broken the terms of the deal when it announced the development of a new medium-range missile system. Russia in turn responded that the US had long been in violation of the pact.
The treaty, which banned ground-launched missiles with a medium 500-5500 km range, was originally signed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, and was a major step towards ending the Cold War. With both nations having suspended their obligations and the US planning to fully withdraw in six months’ time, the treaty has now effectively been scrapped. This opens the door to a new nuclear arms race, as well as escalating tensions and greater risk of a major incident occurring.
For a comprehensive overview of the current relationship between Russia and the West, one could do a lot worse than to look to the work of author and academic Angela Stent, an expert on US-Russia relations and Putin’s foreign policy in particular. A professor at Georgetown University’s Department of Government and School of Foreign Service, Stent directs the university’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies. She is the author of Putin’s World: Russia Against The West And With The Rest, considered one of the most authoritative books currently available on Russia-US relations.
Russia has supported the planned US withdrawal from Syria, which is seen as a victory for Moscow. Throughout the long and devastating war Russia has backed the Syrian government against the US-backed rebels. The Israel-Palestine conflict is another source of tension between the two countries. A peace plan proposed by the Trump administration has been strongly criticized by Russia, with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov claiming it could destroy all progress made on the issue to date.
Overall, US-Russia relations have worsened steadily throughout 2018 and 2019, and they seem almost as bad as they were at the height of the Cold War. Although Trump and Putin seem to have a cordial personal relationship, their much-hyped summit last summer was a PR disaster where little was actually resolved. A second meeting planned for December was cancelled after the Ukraine Navy incident. It is to be hoped, for the sake of the whole world, that a resolution of the disputes between the two nations will be found soon.