The private meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the United National General Assembly session in New York apparently did not go well. The atmosphere was frosty, and both leaders also used their speeches before the UN body to take verbal shots at the other country. That outcome is most unfortunate, because Russia and the United States have important interests in common that are being damaged by ongoing bilateral tensions. In particular, both Moscow and Washington want to see ISIS decisively defeated and the overall threat of radical Islamic terrorism diminished.
Yet the Obama administration objects strongly to Russia’s growing political and military presence in Syria to support the beleaguered government of Bashar al-Assad against ISIS insurgents. Washington seems to resent any manifestation of Russian geopolitical influence outside the borders of the Russian Federation, even when it might indirectly benefit U.S. interests. Worse, U.S. leaders continue to cling to the fantasy that simultaneously seeking to defeat ISIS and Assad is a coherent policy.
Washington’s clumsy handling of relations with Russia has brought the two countries dangerously close to a second cold war. As I discuss in a new article in Aspenia Online, both sides bear responsibility for the deterioration of the bilateral relationship, but the bulk of the blame lies at the doorstep of the United States. And trouble began long before Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine triggered the most acute crisis.
Moscow deeply resented NATO’s decision to expand into Central and Eastern Europe, especially the addition of the Baltic republics in 2004. Russian policymakers believed, with good reason, that NATO enlargement violated pledges that the United States and its allies had made when the Kremlin acquiesced to a united Germany’s membership in NATO.
In addition to anger over NATO’s enlargement, Kremlin officials fumed that the Western powers were trampling on long-standing Russian interests in the Balkans. Russian leaders viewed NATO’s decision to prevent the partition of Bosnia, and especially the alliance’s 1999 war against Serbia to detach its restless province of Kosovo, as taking advantage of their country’s temporary economic and military weakness. The subsequent decision by the United States and its key EU allies to bypass the UN Security Council (and a certain Russian veto) to recognize an independent Kosovo in 2008 further inflamed Moscow’s anger.
Russia’s military action against Georgia on behalf of two secessionist regions later in 2008 sent a dual message to the West. One was that contrary to Washington’s insistence that the Kosovo episode was unique, the Kremlin viewed the situation in Georgia (and perhaps elsewhere) as sufficiently similar to apply the Kosovo precedent on outside military intervention. The second message was that the Western powers needed to abandon any desire for further NATO expansion, especially flirting with the notion of offering membership to Georgia and Ukraine.
Thus, the surge of tensions over the past 18 months (triggered by U.S. and European Union support for the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian government) is not a sudden, unpredictable disruption. It is instead the culmination of trends that have been building for more than two decades.
Western opinion elites need to stop viewing Putin’s Russia as a reincarnation of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. In marked contrast to those malignantly expansionist powers, today’s Russia seems to have far more limited, largely defensive, ambitions—focused on maintaining a sphere of influence along the country’s borders. That is a far cry from the continental ambitions of Nazi Germany or the global ambitions of the Soviet Union.
Creating a more cooperative relationship requires a crucial change in U.S. policy. American officials regard the existence of spheres of influence as illegitimate in the twenty-first century international system. That hostility is unrealistic and myopic. Great powers understandably are more concerned about developments, particularly hostile developments, in their immediate neighborhoods. And contrary to recent, self-serving rhetoric, the United States is no exception.
A partnership with Moscow can help solve a number of problems in the international system, including North Korea’s worrisome nuclear program. Russia is also an important ally in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. Conversely, if the West insists on treating Russia as an adversary, the Kremlin can create nasty difficulties in several arenas.
Putin’s Russia may not be the easiest great power to deal with, but the United States will assuredly not benefit from provoking a new cold war. Yet Washington’s current policy toward Moscow is simultaneously ineffectual and provocative. A course correction is badly needed, and President Obama missed an important opportunity to do so at his meeting with Putin in New York.