17 January 2022

Monday, 04:11



Meeting of the American and Russian leaders to melt the ice of the Cold War between Moscow and the West?



Confrontation between Russia and the West rapidly intensifies with the Joe Biden administration entering office in Washington. At the same time, no one dares predict the outcome of the confrontation. Indeed, despite the extensive coverage of the topic in media and active discussion on social networks, many of the nuances of the situation remain outside the public domain. There are also many unknown moments. Both rivals avoid direct conflict, but they continue the struggle by all possible means, hence the ongoing may in all seriousness be called the Second Cold War. The West believes that Russia violates the basic norms of international law. This is especially evident around the situation with Ukraine, attitude toward the Russian blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, various cyber attacks, which, according to the West, is overseen by the Kremlin. Conversely, Moscow strongly argues that the US and NATO are the most important threats to Russia's national security.


Western dualism

The current American approach to relations with Russia can be called ambiguous. On the one hand, one can hear constant calls and concrete actions to punish the Russian Federation, mainly through sanctions. On the other hand, Washington continues to declare its openness to dialogue and cooperation. It is clear that the West is not at all interested in exacerbating the situation to the level when Russia will be compelled to isolate itself behind yet another ‘iron curtain’. After all, this will automatically strengthen the power and consolidate the population in Russia. Not around an opposition figure such as Navalny, but against an external threat.

Perhaps this can explain why the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on May 4 at a joint press conference with his British counterpart Dominic Raab in London that the US wanted more stable relations with Russia. He added that this would largely depend on how aggressive would be the Kremlin’s moves. Dominic Raab noted that the door for positive relations and diplomacy with Russia was always open; this idea was shared by many NATO countries, but Russia's behaviour as a permanent member of the UN Security Council must change. Apparently, it is the same idea behind these considerations that made Joe Biden express his hope for a meeting with Putin, presumably in June 2021.

In fact, no one is optimistic about the possible outcome of the summit. It is not even likely that both leaders somehow express personal sympathies to each other after Biden called his Russian counterpart a ‘murderer’ in March. In response, Vladimir Putin seemed to laugh the statement off, saying that “whoever says that, he is”. There is little hope that the dialogue will be simple. Communication (and hence the preliminary preparation of a possible meeting) between the US and Russia is also complicated due to mutual expulsion of diplomats between the both states. As part of the new sanctions campaign, the US expelled dozens of employees of the Russian embassy, followed by Moscow’s identical response concerning the staff of the American embassy in Russia, as well as limiting the practice of short-term business trips to Russia for the staff of the US State Department. In addition, the activities of American foundations and NGOs "interfering in the internal political life of Russia" will be terminated on the territory of the Russian Federation.


Ukraine: Moscow's red line

So why are the Americans interested in this meeting, especially in such difficult times? Wouldn't it be easier and more logical to wait a little for some warming between the relations of both countries, while at the same time doing all the necessary homework to organise a dialogue? Apparently, there is something really important for both sides, which requires a personal conversation. There are certain issues in which the West finds it difficult to do without Russia, including the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, extension of the START III Treaty, nuclear agreement with Iran, and Ukraine.

If the Iranian issue is still on a standby, the situation in Ukraine remains the most problematic, given the recent threat of escalation in southeastern Ukraine. Moreover, on May 6, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his Deputy for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland paid a visit to Kiev, which they called ‘a productive pastime’. "We reaffirm unwavering US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression," Mr. Blinken tweeted after his visit. In turn, President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky, speaking about the conversation with Blinken, mentioned the possibility of signing a kind of a security agreement in the future, perhaps meaning something like a ‘road map’ that will allow Ukraine to receive a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP).

The Russian side regarded Blinken's visit as ‘inspection’, linking it with the so-called Ukraingate and reaffirming yet again that the US promised nothing specific to Kiev. Russia has ‘declared’ Ukraine as a special red line. Therefore, it is not that the West is willing to cross that line, but it at least can do this after serious reflection and calculation, only when it is confident in its own strategic and military advantage.

However, it seems that the West has none of these advantages. The 2021 Global Threats Report prepared by the Intelligence Agency of the US Department of Defense for the Senate hearings identified the Russian military as a potential threat to the existence of the US. It is noted that Russia uses its army to support its influence in the neighbouring countries along the perimeter of its borders, and that Washington views this as a challenge to its global leadership. The US, worried about Russia’s numerical superiority on its western borders, continues to build up its military presence along the Russian borders. In the coming months, the Pentagon will deploy two new units in Europe to “counter the Kremlin's aggression”. NATO's Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF) and Theater Fires Command (TFC) should should ensure advantage to the West in its potential conflict with Russia. NATO member states, for example, may hack the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) zones in Kaliningrad, which may trigger the use of the modern weapons on both sides, including high-precision long-range missiles, multiple launch rocket systems, hypersonic weapons, air-defense and missile-defense systems, electronic warfare, and cyber security. Earlier, the UK also named Russia as the biggest threat to its national security.


Collective pressure

Remarkably, amid some softening of the situation near the borders of Ukraine, the US is going to launch military exercises codenamed Defender Europe-21 in Europe on May 17-June 2–the largest in recent decades. They will be attended by 26 countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. The main venue will be the Balkans, but the goal is to test the "ability to quickly transfer NATO troops to the East". Manoeuvrers will take place in 12 countries with the participation of 28,000 troops.

It is obvious that the West sees only Russia as the main threat in this part of the world. After all, there is simply no other force capable of opposing NATO troops in the strategically important Balkan-Black Sea region. In addition to the military exercises, the US is going to upgrade its airbase in Romania, making it an important hub for NATO in the Black Sea region. Also, it is planned to increase the number of American troops in Germany. Americans also received the right to use the agreed areas for the deployment of forces and equipment specially created at separate Norwegian facilities for training, exercises and equipment maintenance. The latter, according to analysts, is associated with the growing influence of Russia in the Arctic, which in the US is recognised as extremely important for defense and "vulnerable to increasing competition."

Moreover, on May 3 in Warsaw, as part of the celebration of the 230th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (four of them are NATO members) signed a joint declaration. The document confirms the continuation of cooperation for the sake of "common security" in the face of "modern threats", the main of which being Russia. The Russian expert community immediately recalled all the hostile statements made in these countries, noting that they get instructions from Washington to increase tension on the border with Russia. For example, they noted the statement of the Minister of Defense of Estonia Kalle Laaneta, who is convinced that Moscow is ready to unleash a war allegedly because of the socio-economic problems in Russia. In addition, the EU has recently resuscitated plans to create a rapid response brigade for emergency assistance to foreign states, including in the non-EU member states, such as Ukraine.

Obviously, the collective pressure of the West on Russia has increased after the Biden administration took office in Washington. Interestingly, in mid-April, Prague accused the Russian special services of organizing an explosion at an ammunition depot in Vrbetica in 2014, which killed two people. The Czech Republic expelled 18 Russian diplomats, to which Russia responded with declaring 20 employees of the Czech embassy personae non gratae. Slovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, as a sign of support for the Czech Republic, also declares a group of Russian diplomats personae non gratae. Poland, Bulgaria and Romania also announced expulsion of Russian diplomats. In addition, Brussels expressed condemnation and rejection of Russia's actions via the respective statement of its foreign affairs service.


Cold War 2.0

Indeed, the constituent elements of the conflict are obvious: the influence of the US, the expansion of NATO and the EU against Russian plans and ambitions in Syria, Libya, in the former USSR, as well as the Kremlin's Eurasian project. At the same time, the West acts in the old proven way, trying to create difficult economic conditions for Russia and isolate Moscow through the constantly expanding financial and economic sanctions, pressure on the Nord Stream 2 project, and provoking diplomatic crises. It is also trying to involve Russia in a new arms race by demonstrating its military potential via military exercises and various other acts. Remarkably, Russia consistently falls into these traps, because it simply has no other choice. It is impossible to survive alone in a world where all economic and financial relations are tied to the West. Also, the Kremlin is left with no choice and has to keep the bar militarily. In addition, it continues to deny  accusations regarding human right violations, which is clearly demonstrated in the situation around Alexei Navalny.

However, compared to the previous Cold War, the current one has new elements. It is not yet known how they will affect the unfolding confrontation. Firstly, during the first Cold War there was no Internet, which is a breeding ground for propaganda, fake news and massive impact on human opinion. Previously, the audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly the USSR and the collective West, consumed only the content that the media had prepared for them. But now the media has long lost its monopoly to social networks, which have their own laws and practically do not know borders. That is why the Americans, even to the detriment of their own reputation, continue to tell the whole world about Russian interference in the previous presidential elections in the US.

Another new tool of the current Cold War is cyberattacks, which make it difficult to unambiguously blame the other side for compared to conventional weapons. For example, the leading Western media outlets recently reported that the cyberattack that caused the disruption of one of the largest US oil pipelines, the Colonial Pipeline, could have been organised by a group of Russian hackers called DarkSide. That is, the fragmentary facts show that Moscow has a rather serious position in this area. Secondly, it is the use of proxy troops in various geopolitical hot spots, particularly in Syria, which Russians are not going to leave and where they are quite successful. Thirdly, even by the end of the first Cold War, China was not considered a powerful rival in terms of its economic, technological and military potentials. So far Beijing has managed to evade the Russia-West confrontation. Moreover, it even uses the confrontation to consistently strengthen its own strategic influence in various parts of the world. But in the future, China may have to declare a more unambiguous position. It is no surprise that one of the leading American publications, The National Interest, voiced fears that the Biden administration’s unfriendly policy towards Russia is pushing Moscow towards a forced alliance with Beijing.

Fourthly, Turkey can well be called one of the ‘unknown’ powers in the confrontation between Russia and the West due to its increasing regional and international influence based on national interests and ability to choose either side of the confrontation. Finally, the situation with the coronavirus pandemic, which, as we have seen over the past year, can have powerful economic and geopolitical effects, is yet to be resolved. Climate change may also become a powerful factor in the near future.

Obviously, the entire international community would feel calmer and safer if Russia and the West, represented by the US, could find a common language and agree to reset their relations. But, most likely, these are vain hopes. Therefore, let’s fasten our seat belts and try to solve the equation in multiple unknowns.