A Cold Peace

The United States has always been at the frontline of the West's political struggle with Russia. In lieu of the escalating tensions spurred by Russia's political ambition, the Russia-United States relationship has suffered a whole series of blows. Sharp rhetorical exchanges between the political elites are slowly translating into action, while strategic agreements are already getting cancelled.

A lack of cooperation between two of the world's major power centers is likely to do more harm than good to their own, long-term interests, making the need to find a way to reconcile quite evident. The only way to patch up these broken relations would involve mutual concessions, an acknowledgement of reality and admittance of the fact that a new Cold War is already knocking on the door.

"We are at a dangerous crossroads in U.S.-Russian relations today; this is a moment when leaders and elites in both countries need to take a deep breath and think carefully before they speak or act," said Robert Legvold, a Professor of political science at Columbia University referring to the ongoing diplomatic dispute which he labeled a "mutual overreaction."

Although the lack of rapport between the two counties dates much further back than the recent altercation in Georgia, this quarrel has further aggravated the situation. In the first decade of September, the Los Angeles Times reported that the George Bush administration was weighing stronger sanctions against Russia for its incursion into Georgia. Unlike that of the European Union, which failed to impose any sanctions after condemning Russia for supporting Georgia's breakaway provinces and recognizing their independence, this rhetoric is hardly seen as meaningless. The United States was much more resolute, pulling out of joint military exercises with Russia for the latter's having violated the territorial integrity of an American ally. Later president Bush announced that the United States would also cancel the civilian nuclear cooperation deal, once seen as a big achievement in both countries.

Considering the big picture, the current feud is but a logical manifestation of the downward spiral these relations have been on since the early 2000s. Back in 2001, then Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first national leader to offer sympathy to president Bush after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. He even expressed willingness to cooperate with the United States on maintaining global security. Muscovites brought flowers to the very same American embassy that was so vigorously picketed and stormed during NATO's bombardment of Russia's strong European ally, Serbia, just two years ago. "The Russian-U.S. relations were at their peak in 2001-2002 following the 9/11 attacks," said Edward Lozansky, the President of the American University in Moscow.

The cards were reshuffled following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Russia strongly opposed the move siding with Germany and France. Ever since, Putin has openly expressed irritation over the United States' extended involvement in global affairs, which culminated in his speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy. In this famous speech, preceded by a disclaimer in which Putin warned that he intended to do without the "pleasant but empty diplomatic terms," he accused the United States of "overstepping its borders."

Cold War, take two

Putin revealing himself a strong opponent of an American hegemony indeed moved the countries past empty diplomatic banter. Mutual castigation became commonplace, with Russia accusing the United States of expanding NATO closer to its borders and the United States admonishing Russia for lacking democracy and infringing on the sovereignty of its neighbors, primarily Ukraine and Georgia.

The relationship slipped into a state many compared to the Cold War. But both sides have not taken this comparison seriously, and some argued that it would be plain impossible now that Russia has moved past communism, effacing any chance of an ideological struggle. "Leaders in both countries, including the two U.S. presidential candidates, say that they do not want a new Cold War and that they doubt one is possible," said Legvold. "They are mistaken, if by a Cold War one means a relationship with virtually no meaningful cooperation on the hardest challenges facing each country's foreign policy, and where each country interprets the fundamental motives of the other as hostile, rather than mixed."

Any solution to the unfolding crisis would have to be more complex than just toning down belligerent rhetoric. Instead, the former Cold War rivals should define their won roles in the new world. "The two countries need to launch a serious, far-reaching strategic dialogue, the kind we have never had in the year of the collapse of the Soviet Union," said Legvold, stressing that a frank discussion of what each country sees as a legitimate and constructive role for the other in the post-Soviet space is an important part of this dialogue.

"Together with the struggle against terrorism, the four areas, in fact, constitute the security agenda of the 21st century: European security, nuclear security, energy security, and mutual security in and around the Eurasian landmass," said Legvold. "In all four spheres, the United States and Russia are not the only countries that count, but they are the two countries that count the most, and have the greatest capacity to lead. Nothing would better serve the long-term national interest of both the United States and Russia than to achieve cooperation in these four spheres."

But before any steps are made, agreements on the most pressing issues have to be reached to set the stage for a balanced dialogue. The recipe isn't too complex: just face reality. "First of all, we should halt rhetoric on the independence of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Kosovo; these are events that have already taken place," said Lozansky. "There is a thing called practical politics; we should acknowledge the realities of history," he added.

The speedy recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were seen as Russia's retaliation against the West for supporting the independence of Serbia's breakaway province of Kosovo. But cooperation, not rivalry, is seen as the constructive way forward. "On a more practical level, NATO should put the issue of accepting Ukraine and Georgia on hold, as it can cause sharp tensions between our countries and lead to unpredictable circumstances," said Lozansky, also suggesting that Russia should in turn broaden its cooperation with NATO including intelligence exchange and the use of its influence in international organizations such as the SCO to get their help.

The actions of the two governments, which up to date have been irresponsible at best with little effort to find common ground, make it difficult to imagine that any serious dialogue can be held, let alone succeed. The only way to make it work is to get other parties, and not just the officials, involved. "I believe the possibility of moving in this direction only exists if groups, organizations, and people outside the government show the way," said Legvold.

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