The last President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, told the Russian Agency of International Information last week that “[he] think[s] the world has reached a dangerous point” concerning the current state of relations between the United States and Russia. This assessment, coming just seven short years after the Obama administration’s “Russian Reset,” an attempted revitalization of the U.S./Russian relationship, places tensions between the two nations at the most critical point since the Cold War.
This current state of U.S./Russian relations began to deteriorate in February of 2014, when the Ukrainian revolution resulted in the ousting of then President Victor Yanukovych, a Russian ally. This swift change in government occurred largely as a result of the invasive corruption in the Ukrainian government and because of Yanukovych’s shift in foreign policy from being pro European Union (E.U.) to a more pro Russian view. Many Ukrainians, largely in the western portion of the country, felt that this shift in foreign policy was a betrayal of their culture and vehemently opposed it. After ousting then President Yanukovych, holding elections and attempting to restore order to the country, on March 16 the area known as Crimea, a peninsula on the north coast of the Black Sea, held a referendum to secede from the Ukraine and to join The Russian Federation. Most western countries condemned the referendum calling it invalid, as Crimea was occupied with Russian soldiers at the time of the vote.
The Russian annexation of Crimea, in addition to the Russian involvement in the Ukrainian civil war in the eastern part of the country, prompted the United States and the E.U. to sanction Russia. The sanctions, which harmed both E.U. farmers as well as Russian citizens, specifically took aim at allies of current Russian president Vladimir Putin and the money that they held abroad.
In the last days of September 2015, a new theater began to open up in the ongoing conflict between the U.S. and Russia when Russian president Putin, a longtime ally of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, announced that they would begin to assist the embattled regime militarily. While the U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization(NATO) allies had been bombing ISIS and assisting “moderate” anti-Assad rebels in Syria for months, Russia entering the fray openly on the side of Assad caused tensions with the U.S. to grow rapidly. With Russia backing Assad and the US aiding rebels, the Syrian civil war has been labeled by many as a proxy war.
Similar to the recent behavior of leading presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Presidents Obama and Putin have exchanged thinly veiled threats and pointed harsh accusations at one another over recent actions. President Obama has accused Russia of hacking the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) servers and publishing incriminating emails that resulted in the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz. The Russian President denied the claims of hacking the DNC, instead calling them a “public service,” and questioning why “does it even matter who hacked this data?” President Obama called into question Russia’s bombing of anti-Assad forces, specifically in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Aleppo is currently held by the rebels but is under siege by a coalition of Assad, Iranian and Russian forces.
These allegations have led to breakdown in peace talks between the U.S. and Russia over the Syrian conflict, and Russia reneging on a nuclear security pact. According to CNN’s Nicole Gaouette and Elise Labott, “Moscow abruptly left a nuclear security pact, citing U.S. aggression, and moved nuclear-capable Iskandar missiles to the edge of NATO territory in Europe.” The Russian’s pointed to the increased U.S. aggression as a justification for the missiles. In addition to leaving the nuclear security pact, Russia recently halted its agreement to dismantle weapons grade plutonium, an agreement made in early 2000. While the Kremlin has stated that it does not plan to weaponize this plutonium, the decision is thick with symbolic implications that could affect the escalation of future conflicts with Russia. Russian president Putin has also given a list of demands to be met by the next United States president. Some of the terms are as follows: the lifting of economic sanctions, compensation for the damages caused and for the United States to decrease its presence in NATO controlled allies. Any of these changes would contradict long standing American foreign policy, not to mention the legitimacy that would be granted to the Russian aggression.
Regardless of what the future holds, both sides must commit to de-escalation for any positive changes to occur. No one wins in a war, especially one between two nuclear powers fought across the globe.