Managing the risks of the US-Russia confrontation in Eastern Europe

The good news about the two-year-old confrontation between Russia and the United States is that over the past year it has stabilized and become the “new normal.” The bad news is that this clash looks set to last, and is developing into a military-political conflict in Eastern Europe and a new arms race.

The new standoff is, unlike the Cold War, distinctly asymmetrical. This time around, the scales are clearly tipped in favor of the United States. That has caused Russia to overcompensate by raising the stakes, taking bigger risks, and making sudden moves that wrong-foot its adversary.

Yet this asymmetry, coupled with a sense of moral superiority, also leads the United States to underestimate Russia and view it as a state in progressive decline, interpret the Kremlin’s actions as a bluff, and keep ratcheting up the pressure. An encounter between a Russian and a U.S. airplane or between an airplane and a military ship in the Baltic or Black Sea region could result in the confrontation escalating to a new and much more dangerous level.

This confrontation is deeply rooted. It stems not from a lack of understanding or certain errors committed by the two sides—although these have played a contributing role—but rather from the two powers’ exceptionalism. The United States feels that it has no equal in the world, while Russia insists on parity. Essentially, the issue at stake is the world order, the role of the United States in it, and Russia’s status.

This means that even common interests such as nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction or the fight against Islamic extremism cannot fundamentally change the situation. The very terms of cooperation are hotly debated. Nor is there reason to expect the new U.S. president will improve bilateral relations. Barack Obama’s successor will most likely take a harsher stance on Russia.

Hopes that Western sanctions against Russia will be eased or repealed are unlikely to materialize soon. U.S. sanctions are definitely here to stay for a very long time and EU sanctions, due to be renewed this summer, are also likely to continue for a while, despite attempts by certain politicians to lift them.

U.S.-Russian relations should be viewed in a broader context. The quarter-century-long Pax Americana—a period when no one seriously contested American dominance—ended in the mid-2010s. Analysis of this phenomenon has previously focused on the word “Americana,” alluding to American hegemony and a unipolar world. However, there is also the other element, the “pax,” meaning generally cordial relations among all major world players. This time of peace and tranquility has come to an end and key world powers—the United States, China, and Russia—have entered a new phase of rivalry.

It is too early to seek a way out of this confrontation given current realities. The situation is still fluid and the outcome of the conflict is not set in stone. The Kremlin is fighting hard against a stronger opponent, but the most it can do is buy some extra time. The key question is whether Moscow will be able to use this time to build up its case to assert itself, once again, as a leading superpower and improve its financial, economic, research, technical, cultural, and technological resources.

Russia is likely to spend much of its energy in the near and medium term managing its confrontation with the United States. This chiefly means preventing incidents involving servicemen from either country, freezing the conflict in the Donbas, and sustaining stable and reliable contacts with influential individuals in the United States so that certain actions taken by Moscow or Washington are not misinterpreted, with dangerous results.


Republished with permission from Carnegie

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