The Buzz

Refusing a New Cold War

The Russians are messing with the United States. Not only did they invade Ukraine and annex Crimea in 2014, challenging what seemed a solid European security order, but their military actions in Syria often run counter to U.S. interests. They unnerve U.S. and NATO military personnel with their close, transponder-free flights, increased submarine activity, and buzzing of naval vessels. Now, to add insult to injury, they appear to be trying to influence the U.S. Presidential election, with evidence mounting that Kremlin-backed hackers accessed the Democratic National Committee’s computer network to gather and release information embarrassing to the Clinton Presidential campaign.

Why are the Russians doing these things, and how should the United States respond? In this essay, I argue that Russia’s actions are meant to center U.S. policy on itself, to recreate a bipolar global structure reminiscent of that during the Cold War. Such a relationship, however, runs counter to U.S. interests, which are much broader than Russia. This creates an imperative for Washington to craft a Russia policy designed to prevent such a stand-off from emerging, one which recognizes Russian priorities and goals and fortifies the United States and its allies against threats and provocations.

Messing with the United States is in many ways a central component of Russian strategy. Russia’s foreign policy today overtly aims to increase Russian influence and demonstrate its great power status. The Kremlin’s National Security Strategy makes clear that its first priority is, not to put too fine a point on it, making Russia great again. And the way that Russia intends to be great is not through economic growth and a rising national standard of living, but by increasing its global influence. This, in turn, it seeks to do in large part by standing up to the United States. How better to prove one is a great power than to challenge the world’s sole remaining superpower (as Russian President Vladimir Putin has termed the United States)? If the superpower responds, whether antagonistically, through cooperation, or (best case) through acquiescence, victory is attained.

In this, Russia’s narrative reflects a nostalgia for the Cold War, appropriate, perhaps in a year that marks a quarter century since the USSR’s collapse. But during the Cold War, while the average Russian’s standard of living left a good bit to be desired, the Soviet Union, with Russia at its helm, was one of the only two countries in the world that truly set the terms of global policy. Russia may not want to recreate the USSR, but both its rhetoric on regained influence and its focus on the United States suggest that it is not averse to something along the lines of a new Cold War.

This does not mean that Russia does not have specific policy interests, some at odds with those of the United States, around the world. It does. However, many of these tie back into Russia’s desire to prove itself important. In Europe, Russia wants to renegotiate the post-Cold War security and political order, which it feels leaves Moscow at a disadvantage. But the disadvantage is largely one of prestige. Despite the substantial contribution trade with a peaceful and increasingly united Europe made to Russia’s economic boom of the 2000s, the Kremlin has long seen NATO, and more recently the EU, as mechanisms meant to deny it its rightful role in continental affairs. Thus, it wants a new European security model, one that limits the role of the United States and cements Russian influence, at least on its periphery. But, perhaps paradoxically, it wants to negotiate that new security structure with the United States, not the other countries of Europe. Moscow wants to join with Washington to make a deal that determines the fates of others, an approach in line with its Cold War nostalgia.

In Syria, Russia’s interests are somewhat more complex. The Kremlin is surely genuine in its belief that the only sustainable solution is one based on the institutions of the Assad regime (if not Assad himself). It is also genuine in wanting such a solution: Russia’s fear of the spread of radical and violent Islamist extremism is real. However, not only is Moscow’s approach at odds with Washington’s “Assad must go” policy, but the fact that the United States has failed to put forward a viable alternative to the Assad system creates opportunities to embarrass the White House. Indeed, in Syria, Russia can demonstrate its importance both by standing up to the United States and by cooperating with it, at least in rhetorical terms. The latter, of course demonstrates that Washington is taking Moscow seriously and views it as necessary to any effective outcome—even when Moscow bombs facilities U.S. and allied personnel have used. Again, this echoes a Cold War model, and shows why Russia is fairly happy with how events in Syria have unfolded to date, despite the failure to move towards real resolution of the conflict.