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16 June 2021

Trapped in the Cold Web

How the US and Russia became entangled.

By Emily Tamkin

The commotion came in April this year. According to the American news website Axios, Joe Biden was considering appointing Matthew Rojansky as the Russia director on the National Security Council (NSC). According to the article, Rojansky was “soft” on the Kremlin, having repeatedly called for greater diplomatic engagement with Russia, as well as hosting numerous pro-Moscow guests at the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC, a research centre that Rojansky heads.

Condemnation of Rojansky’s impending appointment came from prominent corners of the US foreign policy establishment. Most vocal was the American-British businessman Bill Browder, champion of the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which places sanctions on those connected to the 2009 death in a Russian prison of Sergei Magnitsky, a tax adviser and lawyer who had worked for Browder’s firm. (The act was followed by the Global Magnitsky Act, which applies to human rights abusers more generally.) Browder said that if Rojansky was offered the job on the NSC, the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was “as good as dead”.

On 19 April, nine days after the Axios piece was published, Politico reported that the White House would not be appointing Rojansky.

As Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin held their first in-person meeting of Biden’s presidency in Geneva on 16 June, Rojansky was not among the NSC directors staffing Biden. The broadsides against Rojansky were symptomatic of the hawkish view held by many in the US towards more conciliatory relations with Russia. “You hear the argument from some former officials and commentators that because Putin’s regime is criminal and corrupt, any dialogue with Russia is equal to capitulation,” Rojansky told the New Statesman when commenting on the affair.

Still, despite the anti-Russian antagonism and vitriol, Rojansky does not believe the US and Russia are engaged in a new cold war. “The current period of severely strained relations is clearly not just the Cold War all over again,” he said. Other commentators and foreign policy experts that I spoke to agreed.

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But there is still need for caution. As Olga Oliker, director of the Europe and Central Asia programme at the International Crisis Group, put it to me, the absence of imminent confrontation “doesn’t mean the situation is not dangerous. It doesn’t mean it’s not antagonistic. It doesn’t mean it’s not getting worse.”

But if US-Russia tensions do not amount to a cold war, why are relations so frosty? And can they be thawed?

There are three major differences between US-Russia relations today and those of the decades after the Second World War. The first is that the Cold War, which lasted from the mid-1940s until 1991, stood for a bipolar world: one in which everything – political loyalties, national alliances, views of history – was determined by US-Soviet competition. As Oliker put it, “The two countries viewed everything in the world through the lens of their relationship with the other.”

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This is hardly the case now. Russia is certainly a geostrategic concern for the US but it is far from being a rival to American power, and has been displaced by Xi Jinping’s China as the prime inter- national adversary.

The absence of such rivalry between the US and Russia is partly because when the Eastern Bloc collapsed in 1989, bipolarity – in the sense of there being two preponderant powers – ended. Within the international order that followed, says Dylan Myles-Primakoff of the Atlantic Council, “there’s much more space for countries to balance between three or more global powers, which makes competition for influence less direct and potentially less zero-sum”.

The second difference is that the Cold War was defined by ideological conflict between communism and liberal-capitalism. For Myles-Primakoff, Russia no longer offers “an ideological model for other countries the way the Soviet Union did”. It does represent a form of hybrid authoritarianism, where formal democratic institutions and norms are routinely violated by the regime. But countries that adopt the same or similar type of political system, such as Hungary or Turkey, may not necessarily align themselves with Russia or take directives from the Kremlin the way satrapies of the USSR once did.

The third major difference is that the contest between the US and Russia is not over two competing visions of how to order the world. Rather, the tension is over how to manage the world as it exists today. For example, the US wants to dictate the terms of global financial infrastructure; Russia wants to prevent this. Russia, trying to exert greater control over the internet, has met resistance from US-based social media companies such as Twitter. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s state internet regulator, limited Twitter traffic soon after the social media giant allegedly refused to delete posts urging children to take part in anti-Kremlin protests.

***

This is not a cold war as a confrontation between two separate political, ideological and economic regimes, but rather a cold web: both countries have become entangled as they compete over who dominates global financial institutions, trade and capital flows, strategic alliances and the internet. The weapons are no longer bullets and bombs directed at each other, but cyber attacks, economic sanctions, shadow banking, assassinations, the expulsion of diplomats, the cancelling of cultural exchange programmes, and the use of armed proxies in battle zones such as Syria and Ukraine.

***

The existing state of US-Russia affairs was not inevitable. There were key moments when both countries – either individually or in unison – could have acted differently to ensure milder relations.

The early 1990s was the most significant of these. The fall of the Soviet empire in 1991 left the US without a rival. As the historian Perry Anderson has written, US policy planners confronted the post-Cold War world “with an unprecedentedly free hand. Their first priority was to make sure that Russia was locked, economically and politically, into the global order of capital, with the installation of a privatised economy and a business oligarchy at the switches of a democratic electoral system.”

Yet despite this hegemony, Oliker told me, there remained a high level of “nervousness” in Washington about the prospect of Russian resurgence. The US was not “quite ready to embrace Moscow with open arms”, she said.

Elected in 1991, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, along with an emerging cohort of new and former Soviet officials and military chiefs, regarded the likelihood of Nato’s enlargement as a threat. They came to believe that the US was taking advantage of Russian economic weakness.

Under Putin, who first became president in 2000, suspicion and resentment of American intent and power hardened into enmity. “Since Putin’s return to the presidency [in 2012],” said Myles-Primakoff, “Russian foreign policy has treated the United States as an enemy.”

Major disagreements over foreign policy and security have intensified the souring in relations: Russia strongly opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and granted asylum to Edward Snowden in 2013 after the intelligence consultant leaked information from the US National Security Agency.

Then, in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, following a Ukrainian revolt that broke out after Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-backed leader of Ukraine, backed out of signing an association agreement with the European Union. Russia armed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Putin blamed the West for the crisis in the region. In response, the US introduced sanctions, including preventing American citizens from making certain investments in Russian economic sectors such as energy and defence. In July 2017, after further US sanctions and tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions, the Washington Post declared that, “relations are back in a deep freeze”.

This followed accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, as well as a decade of disputes between the two countries in Syria, where Russia supports the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. In Russia itself, authorities have targeted diplomatic and civil society organisations: the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) and Open Society Foundations, George Soros’s philanthropic enterprise, were banned from operating in the country in September 2012 and November 2015 respectively. Numerous NGOs in Russia that receive US funding are categorised under Russian law as foreign agents; the future of Radio Liberty, the US-funded broadcaster and news organisation, is in doubt.

Today, there is limited political will in Congress for a policy of engagement with Russia. Even Donald Trump, who as president ostensibly wanted the US to have good relations with Russia, seemed more interested in his personal connection with Putin.

The present hostility was partly cultivated by the actions Trump took, or didn’t take, while in office: he refused to extend the New Start nuclear arms treaty between the US and Russia; he withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, on which both the Kremlin and the Obama White House had cooperated, in 2018; and he allegedly ignored the counsel of Fiona Hill, a political appointee who was interested in de-escalating relations between the US and Russia.

In 2020 Hill, who was in charge of the Russia portfolio at the NSC under Trump, said that what she “was most worried about was the toxicity of the issue of Russia. I mean I really felt that actually that was one of the reasons why I should try to do something.” But, according to her testimony at the first impeachment inquiry against Trump in 2019, the president refused to listen to Hill’s advice. Instead, he used Ukraine’s desire to protect itself from Russia with US military support as a way to help his re-election bid, as he encouraged its government to investigate Joe Biden, his political rival.

For Rojansky, however, the US under Biden is still missing an important “opportunity to invest in people-to-people connections with Russians, in the private sector, and in expertise… True, it became harder to have programmes in Russia over the past 30 years, but even at the start of that period, US government and private investments were a mere trickle compared to what we put into western Europe after World War Two… It is easy to say now that it would never have made a difference, or that it is Putin’s fault we could not do more. But the fact is that we did not do more, and the results, I think, speak for themselves.”

***

For all of the enduring frictions, there are areas of cooperation between Russia and the United States. Biden may have replied yes when, shortly after taking office, he was asked if he thought Putin was a cold-eyed killer, but on 19 May, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and the US secretary of state Antony Blinken had, by all accounts, a cordial first meeting. Blinken reiterated the US commitment to keeping channels of communication open between the two countries.

There are other critical areas in which the US and Russia may find common cause. Biden agreed an extension of New Start shortly after coming into office, and there are ways the treaty could be upgraded. If the US rejoins the Iran nuclear deal, it will once again be a co-signatory with Russia. The two could work together on climate change, though there are domestic pressures on each side that make cooperation difficult: in the US, the issue is caught in partisan bickering, while Russia’s economy is dependent on oil and gas.

The melting ice caps have opened up another frontier of US-Russia relations: the Arctic. Russia is trying to claim more of the Arctic seabed for mineral exploration, is rebuilding old polar military bases, and aims to expand shipping routes through the thawing permafrost. The US, in turn, has accused Russia of flouting international maritime law by trying to restrict other countries’ shipping vessels.

“Because the relationship has been adrift for so long, there is once again a backlog of issues on which the two sides might be able to make significant progress. US officials have signalled a willingness to move in that direction,” Rojansky said. “But we are all frankly less certain whether the Russian side will meet us halfway.”

During their meeting in Geneva, both Biden and Putin were likely primarily concerned with how their performances looked to their domestic audiences. Biden, who is well aware that diplomacy is communication of disagreement as well as acquiescence, said to US troops in the UK on 9 June that he would be meeting with Putin “to let him know what I want him to know”. They applauded.

“If you have incompatible and unrealistic visions of how to make [the US-Russia relationship] better,” Oliker asked, “can you still make it better?” The answer so far in 21st century US-Russian relations has been no. But what alternative is there but to meet in order to try?

“We really don’t want to burn the bridges,” Putin said in an April speech. “But if some mistake our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intend to burn or even blow up those bridges themselves, Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, quick and tough.”

This is not the Cold War. Relations are still frosty, still dangerous. And yet, they could be worse. At least a frozen bridge can be crossed.

Emily Tamkin, the US editor at the New Statesman, is based in Washington, DC

[See also: The G7 showed the West endures, but is not rising to the scale of its challenges]

This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web