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Towards a quick restart of the US-Russia competition?

Updated: Feb 23

- By Gabriele Natalizia

- Published article available here

 

In a recent article (https://bit.ly/3oVxbXP) on The International Spectator with Marco Valigi, I describe the US stance towards Russia in the post-Cold War as characterized by a cyclical pattern with two major phases. The first one, namely the “reset”, has been characterised by the prevailing of cooperative over competitive policies, aimed at integrating Moscow into the so-called “liberal order”. Due to Washington’s non-acceptance of Russian demand of recognition of its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, the reset has subsequently been replaced by a “restart” phase. This was marked by the pre-eminence of competitive policies, resulting in a zero-sum game scenario.

The reset/restart pattern clearly occurred during the Clinton, Bush and Obama’s administrations. By contrast, the cooperative phase was short-lived during Donald Trump’s term. Indeed, the tycoon needed to show himself assertive with the Kremlin in order to avoid the possibility of impeachment as a result of the so-called “Russiagate” scandal.

Then, in absence of major domestic constraints, we should foresee the re-emergence of the reset phase with Joe Biden. Despite his narrative about the threat that authoritarian nations pose to democracy, it seemingly started to take form in 2021. The new President immediately agreed with Putin to extend the New START Treaty through 2026, unwillingly accepted the status quo on the Nord Stream 2 and resumed a comprehensive dialogue with Moscow in Geneva the day after NATO blasted the Russian menace in its communiqué at the Brussels summit (https://bit.ly/3IdxYLz). However, barely a year after its inauguration, Washington found new reasons of confrontation with Moscow again on the Ukrainian chessboard.

For the Russian side, around 150,000 soldiers massed at the Ukrainian border, an impressive military exercise in Belarus, skyrocketing energy prices, a sequence of cyberattacks on Kiev’s main government websites and – icing on the cake – an inadmissible package of crisis-resolution proposals sent to the White House and NATO by the Kremlin. On the American side, tons of military equipment supplied to Ukraine’s Armed Forces, the relaunch of pressures on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to halt Nord Stream 2, the menace of new crippling sanctions, and, in the event of a Russian large-scale offensive against its neighbor, the readiness of the US and its allies to respond «decisively and impose swift and severe costs» (https://bit.ly/3gOUiiq).

So, are we witnessing to a sudden restart of competition between the two powers? The reality may be more controversial than it appears, and the US-Russia relationship should not be read in isolation from those with the People’s Republic of China. Unlike in the past, when the liberal order was not strategically threatened, the US was not interested in a hegemonic deal with Russia based on post-Soviet concessions. But, as Niccolò Machiavelli teaches to us when material conditions vary, intentions vary. And the structural conditions have been effectively altered because of China’s revisionist challenge to the US-led order, as the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (https://bit.ly/3HZlaYY) and the Indo-Pacific Strategy (https://bit.ly/3gV2uNX) confirm.

Consequently, we can expect – sooner or later – that Washington will search for some agreement with Moscow, to avoid its dangerous alignment with Beijing and focus US resources and efforts to counter the latter’s threat. At the moment, Russian demands to officially halt NATO’s eastward enlargement and to withdraw forces or weapons in countries that joined the alliance after May 1997 are unacceptable (https://brook.gs/3HWNRpi). However, diplomacy follows the “golden rule” of asking for more than you truly desire. What can the US put on the table in the future? Easily, a lift of sanctions. Subsequently, an official recognition of Russia’s role as a guarantor of security in a region that is no longer considered strategic in Washington, such as Central Asia. Finally, outside of any official declaration and only as long as the international order is unstable, the so-called “Finlandization" of Ukraine” (https://bit.ly/3rWAfF3).




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