The Cold War is over. But some hardliners in Congress would have you believe it is 1980. In order to avoid problems in the future, the US must focus on three key areas in its relationship with Russia: the conflict in Ukraine, nuclear non-proliferation treaty compliance, and Russian national security needs.
The possibility that Russia could escalate the conflict in Ukraine and continue to encroach on the borders and sovereignty of former Soviet states is making US allies nervous. Furthermore, President Putin has failed to define precisely where Russian borders fall, increasing anxiety about Russia’s intentions in the region.
In response, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) has proposed providing $1 billion in “lethal aid” to Ukraine. Thornberry has argued that the conflict is, “in many ways, the most significant threat to peace and stability since the the end of WWII.” He even argues that “escalation to de-escalate” will resolve Russian aggression in the region. But in fact, sending lethal aid to Ukraine will only further inflame regional strife, not lead to its resolution. In the past, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken has said that any support given to Ukraine by the United States could easily be “outmatched” by Russia. And President Obama has suggested that sending weapons to Ukraine would further provoke Russia. Unfortunately, this stance appears to have shifted. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he believes lethal aid should be sent to Ukraine. This apparent shift by the Obama administration is certainly disappointing and is a move in the wrong direction.
Unfortunately, Ukraine is not the only challenge facing US – Russia relations. Recent Russian violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which bans ballistic missiles with a range between 500km and 5,500km, have further elevated tensions between the US and Russia. A level-headed response by the United States is crucial if Russia is to be brought back into compliance with the Treaty. It is time for the Treaty to be expanded to include all nations who are designing and testing nuclear capable missile delivery systems. As far back as 2007, Russia and the US issued a joint statement at the UN General Assembly calling for other nations to limit their missile systems based upon INF limits. Both Russian and American concerns about other countries ballistic missiles must be addressed. Until then, Russia is likely to skirt its obligations or seek removal from the treaty entirely.
In the same breath, the US and Russia must also continue to adhere to the New START Treaty. New START is crucial because it reduces Russian and American nuclear stockpiles and launchers, capping the number of deployed nuclear warheads allowed by both sides at 1,550 by 2018. For comparison, the United States had over 31,000 active nuclear warheads in 1967. Adherence to the Treaty is imperative to global disarmament efforts. After all, the US and Russia have over 90% of the global nuclear weapons stockpile.
Finally, the United States needs to understand Russian national security concerns in order to fix its relationship and deescalate aggressive rhetoric and behavior. Former Ambassador Thomas Pickering has said that “the Russian fear of invasion goes way back; they don’t have firm, natural borders like … in the United States.” This is particularly important as NATO ramps up its military exercises and troop numbers in Eastern Europe. NATO needs to be careful not to give Russia the wrong idea. Its presence in Eastern Europe is presumably a matter of self-defense, not aggression. In a recent interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin explains that Russia, like all countries, wants to be respected and asks that its national interests be “taken into account.” This message must be understood by the US and its partners in Eastern Europe. Russia does not need special treatment, but it must be treated similarly to how the US expects to be treated.
The rise in tension between the US and Russia is a point of concern. But we can avoid an unnecessary Cold War revival. Both countries have worked together diligently to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and have worked for over a decade together countering terrorism around the globe. Even Putin has acknowledged successful bilateral efforts to counter the spread of WMDs, terrorism, and drug trafficking. If the US and Russia can work together on these crucial issues, there is hope that relations can be strengthened through diplomacy and good-will. The world needs peace between Russia and the United States, and peace is within reach.