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Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Eagle’s Fear of the Bear – Increasing American-Russian tensions on the continent



If you read through the media and newspaper coverage these days and focus specifically on the American-Russian relations, you might find yourself back in the mid-1980ies. A new “Iron Curtain” has been drawn, with the same rhetoric and the same threat potential, and unfortunately with unchanged motivations. 

During its annual victory parade on Red Square, Russia not only presented new armament and a brand new battle tank (T-14 Armata), but it also demonstrated a new “Eastern Coalition”, notably China, Mongolia, the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia, and even India. The message was clear: “This new constellation has been forced upon us and we are responding to it accordingly: we will not accept a unipolar world.” 


The Dark Shadows of the 80ies

The Cold War seemed to be over for 24 years, now it is back with the same amount of rivalry, distrust and allies-hunting around the globe. While Russia has China on its side – not only militarily, but also economically –, the US has the EU – though not with the same amount of unilateral support. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, NATO has shifted eastwards, taking former Warsaw Pact states as their new members and now increasing their military presence in these countries. Above all, the three Baltic States Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are in focus of increasing re-armament close to the Russian border as these feel threatened by Russia’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy and re-armament activities. As NATO stated, this is a reaction to Russia’s intervention in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea last year. 

Recently, NATO accuses Russia for using Crimea as a stationary place for nuclear weapons, which rings the alarm bells of the former Cold War’s nuclear arms race. As Russia has initiated a new armament strategy, so will the West. That is the west’s reaction on Russia’s move and it seems like they have no better response – or do not intend to think more thoroughly of anything else. It looks like a hastily panic-like reaction without clear long-view perspectives – the same reaction used in the mid-1980ies, on the peak of the Cold War were every single miscommunication could have led to a massive escalation with incalculable consequences. 


America’s Struggle for a Unipolar World

Since 1991, the US experienced a unipolar world with itself as the sole remaining superpower after the USSR’s collapse. In the years between the 1990ies and the 2000s, US foreign policy was focusing on two strategies: first, maintain the US’ global leadership position by – secondly, protecting its strategic interests wherever necessary. This was predominantly the case after the events of 9/11 and the US’ interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result of short-termed strategy outlines and lacking long-term views on the scale of their own interventions, US foreign policy has remained mostly non-interventionist with President Obama in office. Even the civil war in Syria remains vastly untouched by any US intervention, which is now mostly focusing on counter-fighting IS, but without a direct mass-intervention by US troops. Even the recent involvements in Libya and now against IS there is no full US intervention. Partly because of the bad experience in Iraq and the lacking public support, but mostly because the current US administration is turning inwards.

This could mean that the US is unclear about its general foreign policy approach. They certainly do not want Iraq or Afghanistan to repeat itself; in fact, the rise of IS and the war going on in the Middle East is a result of the US’ failed intervention and non-existing post-conflict resolution in Iraq. But most obvious, the US’ foreign policy has repeatedly been focused on short-term involvements rather than long-term planning, also with respective view on next year’s Presidential elections and geostrategic interests in the Middle East and other selected areas in the world. 

Ukraine is considered as one of these selected areas. Not just as a potential future NATO member (if at all), but for geostrategic reasons – such as gas supplies and as a bridgehead to access to gas and oil fields in the Central Asian region. Even Europe knows it and is therefore indecisive in its actions towards Russia. The current power struggle on European soil between Russia and the US is last but not least another attempt of the US to prevent an equal competitor to arise and to challenge the US’ power in Europe or anywhere else in the world. Now, America is facing the return of an old adversary and for its own discomfort, it is an equal competitor. 


The End of the End of History

Surely, Russia’s aims are not to replace the US as a unipolar power, but at least to challenge it and to attempt to re-establish a multipolar world. What President Putin does, however, is restoring a bi-polar world with the US and Europe in the West, and Russia and China in the East. Deliberately or forced from outside, that is not the question. The fact of the matter is that the world has fallen back into a constellation, which was believed to have ended.

When the Soviet Union was folded and the new Russian Federation took a turn into a capitalist democratic system, high ranked politicians and scholars like Francis Fukuyama believed this end of East-West confrontation to be the End of History, as the end of all the ideological dissents that marked the 20th century.

Even though it is not an ideological confrontation nowadays, it is a returned rivalry of the two dominating political and military superpowers. However, maybe it should be seen as a rivalry of two weakened superpowers: one is weakened economically and morally by its failures of the past and its lacking public support, the other one is suffering from harsh economic wrong decision, inner repressions against any political opposition, and external sanctions, and is therefore turning into a more aggressive foreign policy. No one is blameless, but for now, they are both turning back the wheels of time. 


The Ticking Clock

Both, the US and Russia, have now embarked in a stage of modernizing their nuclear arsenals and increased defence spending and therefore undermining existing nuclear disarmament treaties which have been signed by both. Repeatedly, Russian fighter jets and bombers are being intercepted in NATO airspace – so it happened today north of Scotland. On the other hand, the US has extensive spying and intelligence activities going on all over the world and it is certainly doing it against Russia as well. At a NATO ministerial meeting in Antalya these days, the unanimous position is once again to remain the right for deterrence and unless Russia makes a significant step for a de-escalation in Eastern Ukraine (i.e. a complete withdrawal of Russian troops), it will not lead to a mutual rapprochement. For now, it is a tit-for-tat behaviour by both superpowers. 

As long as these tensions remain and neither side – neither the West, nor the East – steps back from its hardened position, a high amount of escalation potential will grow and the margins for mistakes and misunderstandings will become even thinner. Tensions are rising, heated debates are growing, and time is running out.

The doomsday clock now indicates three minutes to midnight.

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