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Print Edition> World
UPDATED: July 20, 2015 No. 30 JULY 23, 2015
Coming in From the Cold
Having fought each other to a standstill over the Ukrainian crisis, the United States and Russia seek a path to peaceful coexistence
By An Gang

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama in Northern Ireland of the UK on June 17, 2013 (CFP)

On June 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave U.S. President Barack Obama a telephone call. This was the first direct talk between the two heads of state since February, and was described by NBC News as "a call from Russia with love," referencing the title of one of the more famous entries in the 007 franchise. In their conversation, the two leaders discussed the continuing tensions in eastern Ukraine and exchanged ideas on fighting Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East.

A White House news briefing informed the media that Obama had urged Putin to make good on the promises he made in Minsk earlier this year, including the withdrawal of troops and equipment from Ukrainian territory. According to a posting on the Kremlin's official English website, "significant attention" was given in the dialogue to the topic of IS and terrorism in the Middle East, and the two leaders agreed to instruct Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to hold a meeting in order to discuss these issues further in depth.

Prior to the meeting, on May 12, Kerry visited the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi where he had conversations with Lavrov and Putin. The visit was interpreted by many international observers as a turning point for U.S.-Russian relations in the aftermath of the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis. U.S. media, including The New York Times even commented that Kerry has sent a signal that the United States is bending its knee to Russia. However, Kerry said at a news conference held in Sochi after the conversations had taken place that he had "made clear our deep concerns" including those related to, in Kerry's words, Russia's "continued arming, training, command and control of separatist forces." He urged both Russia and Ukraine to observe the Minsk Agreement.

Carrot and stick

It is worth noting that Kerry's Russia trip came just three days after the U.S.'s boycotting of Moscow's 70th Victory Day parade--the Russian holiday marking the end of World War II in Europe. Kerry's trip has obviously diminished the effect of the boycott. It is widely inferred that the United States is deliberately taking a soft tack to avoid U.S.-Russia relations from reaching boiling point.

After the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis and the ousting of pro-Russian former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia pushed through a referendum to annex the Crimean Peninsula as a retort to the Squeeze Strategy, which was primarily initiated by the United States. With the escalation of the crisis, Western countries continued to impose new sanctions on Russia, including kicking the country out of the Group of Eight, announcing travel bans and asset freezes against a number of Russian military and security officials and prohibiting financial aid to or investment in Russia's major enterprises in the country's finance, energy and defense sectors. In response to the sanctions, Russia has tried to expand new financing channels in Asia, to improve domestic payment systems, and to advance economic and trade cooperation with China. In addition, Moscow also tried to exert pressure on Kiev by giving support to pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.

It is believed that Russia and Western powers are on the brink of a new Cold War over the crisis in Ukraine. If this was indeed the case, this would be a lose-lose contest for all concerned. While losing the support of the country's middle class, Putin is giving more consideration to appealing to nationalism in order to consolidate his ruling. The Russian economy and financial system have suffered huge losses. The World Bank predicts Russia's economy may shrink 2.9 percent in 2015.

However, the Obama administration knows in its heart of hearts that it cannot fundamentally tame Putin. With international oil prices stabilizing and the ruble's gradual rebound since last autumn, the effect of the Western economic sanctions on Russia has already done its worst. As many EU countries are highly reliant on Russia's energy supply and agricultural products, divergence on the issue of whether or not to continue sanctions on Moscow has appeared within the bloc, leaving the EU trapped in a dilemma. In the meantime, Russia has spared no efforts in moving closer to different European countries in an attempt to create more divisions. On June 10, Putin made a highly visible trip to Italy to attend the Milan Expo. Meanwhile, the Russian president is building ties with Greece, which is beset by a debt crisis and engaging in fierce negotiations with the EU.

Despite the fact that the ceasefire agreement reached in Minsk in February has somewhat diffused what is a tense situation, the Minsk Agreement has never been fully implemented. At present, the situation in Ukraine's eastern area remains chaotic, and the former Soviet state appears to be trapped within a proxy civil war. Because of a huge financial deficit, though assisted by the West economically and militarily, it remains difficult for the Ukrainian Government to stabilize the political and economic situations. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Government has to give full autonomy to either the regions of Donetsk or Luhansk, as stipulated in the Minsk Agreement.

Red dawn?

Russia and the United States are now mired in strategic fatigue. Though they are reluctant to yield to the other first, neither of them can start an all-out confrontation by itself or in collaboration with their respective allies. Knowing this, Moscow and Washington have in effect been pragmatic in dealing with issues pertaining to the Ukrainian crisis--leaving room for resolving the confrontation through diplomatic means. They have agreed to maintain high-level contacts to ensure accurate communication. They have also continued cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue and issues relating to Syria as well as countering IS. The White House has embraced a Russian proposal to remove Syrian chemical weapons and put them under international control and voiced its appreciation of Russia's role in Iran nuclear negotiations. Now the Syrian Government, supported by Russia, has to focus its energy on commanding the Syrian army to combat IS, as neither Moscow nor Washington would like to see Syria becoming a "province" of the IS.

However, it would be premature to assume that Russia will win this round of the diplomatic contest. Obama and Kerry's direct dialogue with Putin does not guarantee concessions from Washington. The United States is still keeping pace with the EU in continuing to impose economic sanctions on Russia until the Minsk Agreement is fully implemented. On June 22, EU foreign ministers decided to extend economic sanctions against Russia for another six months, until January 31, 2016. The resolution passed on June 25 by the European Parliament described Russia as an "aggressor" and termed Crimea an occupied territory. At the same time, the Pentagon is poised to deploy battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other military hardware for up to 5,000 U.S. soldiers in Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries in response to Russia's move to build a new generation of long-range ballistic missiles. If approved, the deployment plan would represent the first time since the end of the Cold War that the United States has stationed heavy military equipment in the newer NATO member nations in Eastern Europe, nations that once fell under the Soviet Union's sphere of influence.

The longstanding geopolitical contest between the United States and Russia will continue for quite some time to come as neither side has formed any framework designed to alleviate the situation. Moreover, as the U.S. presidential election season approaches, the reaching of compromises and the softening of stances concerning key international issues hold increasingly little sway in terms of domestic political rivalry. A real "reboot" of U.S.-Russian relations is thus unforeseeable in the near future. The greatest danger is that neither party is able to figure out the other's bottom line; therefore, they can only continue to remain ostensibly hostile while keeping diplomatic back channels open behind the scenes. Even if a grand bargain is the ultimate outcome of the Ukrainian crisis and the underlying geostrategic competition, such a project appears nowhere in sight for the time being.

More importantly, it is hard for the United States to transcend its Cold War mentality, regarding itself as the winner with Russia inhabiting the role of the defeated party which needs to be punished and contained. Possessed by such a mindset, the United States has always wanted to play a tit-for-tat power game at the junction of Europe and Asia. Only when the United States changes this hegemonic mindset can its relations with Russia be fundamentally improved. Otherwise, Europe risks placing itself under the shadow of a new Cold War.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review

Copyedited by Eric Daly

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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