When the Cold War ended, there was hope that the United States and Russia would be able to work together. The United States took the reigns as world superpower, and there were moments of cooperation and aligning of goals during the late 90s. However, U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. US presidents, since the mid 90s, have each taken different approaches and attitudes towards Russian relations, specifically in relation to Putin. Both sides see the other as the aggressor; Russia sees NATO expansion as a threat to their security and regional influence, while the United States sees Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as internationally illegal and aggressive. Russia continues to antagonize the United States and NATO with provocative flyovers near naval warships, covert action in Eastern Europe, and diplomatic antagonism. The Syrian conflict further divided the two countries in terms of goals, and even with the common enemy of ISIL, cooperation has only marginally increased in the region. Furthermore, it is not likely that Putin will be initiating any cooperation in good faith between the United States and Russia anytime soon.
One major point of conflict between the United States and Russia is Eastern Europe, and who is going to have more influence there. NATO continues to grow into Eastern Europe, in order to ensure regional security and increase cooperation between the United States and European allies. In many ways, it makes sense for the United States and its Western European allies to continue to push NATO eastward. After all, many European countries are the United States’ closest, most culturally similar allies. In addition, besides deterring Putin from overly aggressive actions in Eastern Europe, NATO still can maintain its relevancy by introducing counter-terrorism efforts into its goals and objectives. The growth of ISIL and other terrorist organizations in the last few years provide NATO a new objective, especially as counter-terrorism operations become increasingly global.
However, Russia and President Putin’s regime see NATO expansion from a much different viewpoint. Russia no longer has a comprehensive buffer zone, as the Soviet Union once did in Eastern Europe. They see the expansion of NATO towards their borders as a direct threat to their security and their citizens. Putin’s view on securing national interests is different from the West’s. Because many Russians moved west when the Soviet Union controlled a large amount of buffer states, there still exists a small minority of people in these states who identify as Russian. This is one part of Putin’s reasoning for invading Ukraine in 2014, as he proclaimed a policy that vowed to protect Russians abroad (1). This policy is very troubling to the United States, NATO allies, and especially to those smaller NATO allies who lie close to Russia. For example, the Baltic States have a large minority of ethnic Russians. Of Estonia and Latvia’s population, 24% and 26% of people consider themselves to be ethnic Russians, respectively (2). This poses a serious threat to the stability of the region and the United States, because of NATO’s Article V, which states that an attack on any NATO member constitutes an attack on every member.
Not only is Russia’s annexation of Ukraine aggressive towards the United States and NATO, but the way in which Russia covertly implemented itself into Crimea is most unsettling. Prior to and during Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Russia actively participated in covert actions in order to destabilize Ukraine, and lessen the chance of a formidable military response. In a report to the EU, Ukrainian officials submitted proof that Russia participated in and supported covert action, in the form of providing weapons and training to separatists, intimidating Ukrainian officials, and other tactics against the Ukrainian government (3).
All of this covert action, and the invasion of Ukraine, strains Russia-NATO relations, specifically U.S.-Russia relations, for multiple reasons. First, this type of action is highly unsettling to former USSR, currently NATO member states. Although the Baltic States do have a decent minority of ethnic Russians, they are nervous about destabilizing activity caused by the Russian government. This forces NATO to respond, often in the form of increased military assets and training missions for Eastern Europe. These aggressive covert and military actions by Russia force a response from the United States; Russia’s activities destabilizing a region show that Putin is willing to rewrite borders when he has an opportunity. Also, the United States is still highly involved in NATO and provides the largest amount of money and military assets to the international organization, indicating the U.S. is still highly invested in maintain security and stability for its NATO allies.
In addition to Ukraine, Syria is another conflict area that further worsened U.S.-Russia relations. The beginning of the conflict proved to be a tense time for the United States and Russia. Both sides had, and continue to have, very different views on how to end the conflict, especially at the beginning. Originally, the United States wanted Assad to go because of his brutal measures against his own people. However, the U.S. stance is becoming more vague, and much of the focus is now on fighting ISIL, as removing Assad’s government completely could leave a political void that would be filled by multiple factions, leading to more instability in the region. Russia, on the other hand, was and is still backing Assad to remain in power; Russia and Assad remain allies, as Putin sees an opportunity to have more influence in the region. The misalignment of goals from the beginning of the conflict proves that Russia and the United States were never likely to cooperate well in the region, set aside everything else that the two countries disagree on around the world.
When ISIL became a truly global security risk, it looked like an opportunity for cooperation between the two countries. However, having the common enemy of ISIL only seems to stop the bleeding, not fix the wound, in regards to U.S.-Russia relations in the region. Any sort of cooperation would mean Russia maintaining agreements in the region, but that is not likely to happen if Putin sees an opportunity to push his objectives in Syria. If anything, the Syrian conflict and fight against ISIL is decreasing trust between the two countries, because of Putin’s opportunistic attitude and the volatility of the conflict areas.
It is unlikely that U.S.-Russia relations will improve anytime soon, as long as Putin is in power. There are large amounts of people in the U.S. government who continue to fail in correctly interpreting Putin and his motivations. However, the United States must be ready to see Putin for what he really is, an opportunist seeking to maintain power and expand Russian influence. Putin keeps the pressure on in Russia by silencing those in the media that would in anyway undermine his legitimacy. Last year, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, an advocate against the war in Crimea, was shot and killed near the Kremlin, suggesting a possible government sponsored kill, specifically because of the precision of the murder (4). At the same time, Putin uses superficial diplomatic cooperation with the United States to calm leaders enough, so they do not produce any formidable response to his aggressive tactics around the world (5). Russian fighter jets buzzing the tower of a U.S. destroyer is one small example of Putin and the Russian government provoking the United States, further deteriorating relations, and getting away with it.
The next United States President will likely have to take a stronger stance against Putin, in order to deny him from gaining geopolitical momentum when opportunities arise, indicating a future of shaky relations. The Cold War is not likely to restart, at least not to past escalations; however, circumstances do not look particularly optimistic.
(1) "Transcript: Putin Says Russia Will Protect the Rights of Russians Abroad." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 18 Mar. 2014. Web. 09 July 2016. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/transcript-putin-says-russia-will-protect-the-rights-of-russians-abroad/2014/03/18/432a1e60-ae99-11e3-a49e-76adc9210f19_story.html>.
(2) Person, Robert. "Baltic Russians Aren't Pawns in Strategic Game." The Moscow Times. N.p., 26 Oct. 2015. Web. 09 July 2016. <http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/baltic-russians-aren-t-pawns-in-strategic-game/540416.html>.
(3) "Ukraine Submits Evidence of Russian Covert Action." EurActivcom Ukraine Submits Evidence of Russian Covert Action Comments. N.p., 16 July 2014. Web. 09 July 2016. <http://www.euractiv.com/section/europe-s-east/news/ukraine-submits-evidence-of-russian-covert-action/>.
(4) "Russia Opposition Politician Boris Nemtsov Shot Dead." BBC News. N.p., 28 Feb. 2015. Web. 09 July 2016. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31669061>.
(5) O'Hanlon, Michael. "U.S.-Russian Relations beyond Obama." The Brookings Institution. N.p., 20 Apr. 2016. Web. 09 July 2016. <http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2016/04/20-putin-obama-next-administration-ohanlon>.
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