Great power politics is an art in managing adversarial relationships on the international stage. Ideas floated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, suggesting that Russia and the United States could form a strong and lasting alliance, defied geopolitical logic. However, that does not mean Moscow and Washington cannot maintain a relationship based on mutual respect and find common ground on resolving at least some of the core problems facing the international community today.
The end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s swift dissolution created an atmosphere of exuberant triumphalism and instilled a victory culture in the American foreign policy and defense establishment. In the 1990s, Washington’s power elite came to believe that American political, economic and military predominance in the world was permanent and irreversible. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama posited in his “The End of History and the Last Man” that the global ascent of the American liberal order will bring about an end to ideological competition as we know it.
Promises made to then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev guaranteeing that NATO will not expand beyond German borders were almost immediately discarded. Successive Democratic and Republican administrations paid lip service to friendly relations with Moscow, while pushing the envelope of NATO expansion further east toward the Russian border, finally incorporating the three former Baltic republics of the USSR and calling for future membership in the military bloc for Ukraine and Georgia.
Further inflaming the tensions, the Bush administration took upon itself to unilaterally abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which for decades served as the cornerstone of strategic nuclear balance between the two countries, starting on an ambitious program of building missile interceptor sites positioned on Russia’s borders. Moscow’s objections on both counts were plainly ignored.
The seeds of mistrust currently hampering the ailing Russian-American relations were sewn back then. If the words of American leaders could not be trusted, and if Washington did not see a place for a strong and successful Russia in its New World Order, then Moscow had to act to protect its national sovereignty and assure the security of its citizens by means that were available to it under the circumstances.
What happened next set the stage for the rampant hysteria concerning Russia’s role in the world and in U.S. politics Washington is experiencing today.
In 2013 Russia became the first country to successfully prevent an already planned out U.S. military strike against a third country. Moscow’s dramatic diplomatic intercession allowed chemical weapons stocks to be removed and destroyed in Syria, without a single American missile being fired off U.S. naval vessels in the Mediterranean. The Obama administration, striving for the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Assad, proceeded to provide covert military, communications and economic assistance to various rebel opposition groups of questionable repute. Russia’s success in protecting its ally in Syria stunned the Obama administration and Washington’s foreign policy managers. After all, it seemed just two decades before, in their formative years, that Russia was the sick man of Europe, that Moscow was firmly on a trajectory of political and economic destabilization and collapse.
For the American political class, which allowed itself to believe that Pax Americana was forever, any successful move to defy Washington’s will in the world was not just a geopolitical, but an ideological and even psychological blow.
Instead of seeking compromise, Washington doubled down. The old order had to be preserved at all costs, whether it was providing support for more and more radical Islamic fundamentalist groups fighting against government forces in Syria or extreme nationalist forces in Ukraine, unleashing a bloody civil war against their nation’s own Russian-speaking populations. Russia’s attempts to negotiate a lasting truce in Syria with then-U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry were knocked down by the Pentagon and CIA. At one point in late 2016, in a bout of anger and apparent helplessness, officials at Foggy Bottom even announced that it was ceasing negotiations with Russia on the topic of Syria altogether, only to resume them a few days later. Despite the successful outcome of multifaceted negotiations with Tehran, in which Moscow worked together with Washington, cooperation on other topics of mutual concern was purposefully limited by the Obama White House.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Cold War tempers flared from time to time, but geopolitical competition was an expected and accepted part of the international scene. It was certainly not a surprise to anyone and did not elicit hysterical or unpredictable reactions from either side. During the years of detente, Soviet leaders had cordial and at times even overtly warm summits with their American counterparts. American astronauts docked in space with Soviet cosmonauts (“Soyuz–Apollo”). American tourists visited Soviet cities and were frequent travelers on Soviet cruise ships. This did not make Washington and Moscow allies, but it helped make their adversarial relationship more manageable and predictable.
The hysterical reaction of significant and influential sections of the American political establishment to the election of a new U.S. president, who simply stated his willingness to seek compromise with Russia, shows how unprepared Washington still is to accept the fading of the American-dominated New World Order of the 1990s and the transition to a multipolar world.
The sooner Washington accepts the new reality on the ground, the sooner it would be possible to rebuild health, constructive and productive relations between two great powers that have a common stake in assuring global political and economic stability.
⦁ Viktor Olevich is a political analyst, lead expert of the Center for Actual Politics.
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