By Claudia Cheffs and Andrew Szarejko
On March 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin officially “reclaimed” Ukraine’s Crimea region and declared it part of Russia. Crimea’s election committee said that 97% of voters favored uniting with Russia in the controversial March 16 referendum.
Western leaders have condemned Russia’s land grab. Calling the secession of Crimea “in flagrant breach of international law,” the U.S. and EU have imposed two rounds of sanctions so far including asset freezes, travel bans on a group of high-level officials from Russia and Ukraine, and bank restrictions.
But despite these steps, some in Washington have said that the sanctions have not had enough bite. Unsurprisingly, President Putin laughed off the sanctions, saying that he did not have a personal account at a sanctioned bank, but that he would open one as soon as possible in response.
A recent poll indicated that 69% of Americans see Russia as a threat to the U.S.—the highest number since the fall of the Soviet Union. Moreover, of those questioned, 50% believe a “new Cold war” between the U.S. and Russia is likely.
But is the United States heading towards a new Cold War with Russia? The answer is no. Only the most superficial analysis of the crisis in Ukraine could lead to that conclusion.
The Cold War was defined by three unique traits. First, the U.S. and the USSR were genuine peer competitors. That is, they were of roughly equal power, a characteristic that encouraged a destabilizing arms race. Second, they were the only two great powers in the international system, allowing the rivalry to dominate global politics through frequent proxy wars and far-flung alliances. Third, differing political, social and economic ideologies played a significant role in the conflict.
Current conditions do not mirror those of the Cold War. First, the United States and Russia clearly have divergent interests in Ukraine and elsewhere, but they no longer possess roughly similar capabilities. From 1945 to 1991, the Soviet Union was the only peer competitor facing the United States. Today, Senator John McCain is not far from the truth when he says, “Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.”.
Second, although the United States may still be the world’s leading power, the international order appears increasingly multipolar. The stark bipolarity of the Cold War gave way to a “unipolar moment” that is gradually swinging back towards a more diffuse international system. Third, even if Russia desired a new cold war, it is likely that Russia’s economic ties to Europe and the lack of an ideological conflict as divisive as that between western liberalism and communism would dampen the conflict.
While the United States is clearly not in the midst of a new Cold War, it should be equally clear that some U.S.-Russian cooperation can continue amid the current tensions, particularly in the area of nuclear security. The U.S.-Russia relationship has had its ups and downs since the end of the Cold War, but the states have typically been able to cooperate in areas of mutual interest despite otherwise cool relations – as they often did during the Cold War.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia, wrested by Russia from Georgia in 2008, remained occupied by Russian forces while the New START Treaty was negotiated and signed in 2010. The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) was signed in 2003 amid tensions regarding the US invasion of Iraq.
Even during the actual Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to collaborate on arms control while competing in other areas. The two states signed arms control agreements throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s not because they enjoyed a warm, trusting relationship, but because it was in their interests to do so.
Though the relationship was not always perfect–the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan helped scuttle the SALT II Treaty–cooperation in areas of mutual interest was the norm rather than the exception. So long as arms control remains in each party’s interest, it need not be jeopardized by Russian aggression in Crimea. More recently, the U.S. and Russia set aside their differences over Crimea to join world leaders at the third Nuclear Security Summit and endorsed the meeting’s final statement in enhancing nuclear materials security around the world. And today, a rocket carrying a Russian-American crew to the International Space Station blasted off successfully, illustrating that despite events in Ukraine, the two countries have not allowed their disagreements to disrupt joint space missions.
Some have been quick to assume that Russian tensions over Crimea will affect the Iran nuclear talks that are currently taking place with partners of the P5 +1– Russia, the U.S. and the other U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. On this front though there is good news, at least for now — American and European officials recently reported from Vienna during the second phase of talks that their differences with the Kremlin had no effect on the unified P5+1 position “aimed at ensuring the Iranians can never make atomic bombs.”
Putin understands that if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon, the U.S. may very well lead a military strike on Iran, which could weaken Russian power and undoubtedly lead to instability not only in the Middle East but also in former Soviet countries south of the Russian border. Additionally, Kremlin leaders prefer as few countries as possible to have nuclear weapons.
The United States has a strong motivation to continue cooperating with the Russians in the area of nuclear security and nonproliferation. President Obama has spent this past year working towards a final comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program, and continued cooperation with the Russians has been critical in beginning and keeping Iran at the negotiating table.
Moreover, Russia has strong interest in working with the U.S. on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons– not as a favor to the U.S., but rather because it is in both countries interests.
The reality is another cold war would simply not be in Russia’s interest. “I don’t think a serious conflict would be smart for Putin,” said Former National Security Advisor to President Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Some Republicans have suggested penalizing the Russians for their actions in Ukraine by withdrawing from the New START Treaty— which limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces– or even reinstating the Bush Administration’s ballistic missile program in Eastern Europe.
Scrapping the treaty would be a big mistake as it could prompt another nuclear arms race with Russia. White House Coordinator for Arms Control Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall stated, “We see no reason that tensions over Ukraine should in any way obstruct the path towards fulfilling the commitments that we have made with the Russians to reduce nuclear weapons on both sides.”
Secondly, reviving the anti-ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe may only worsen the situation and bring us closer to a more dramatic break. The Russians have already clearly exhibited their dislike over the Obama missile defense program, and returning to Bush’s plan would only worsen the situation—reviving the program would merely confirm what we’ve long denied: that our defenses in Europe are actually aimed at Russia.
Russia has violated international law and the security and independence of Ukraine. If the West fails to appropriately respond, Putin will conclude he can get away with dismembering more of Ukraine and perhaps aggression elsewhere in Europe.
When the Soviet Union broke apart, Ukraine reached an agreement with the U.S., U.K, and Russia to eliminate its nuclear arsenal of approximately 1,900 weapons in exchange for assurances that its territorial integrity and sovereignty would not be violated. Now that Russia has violated the agreement, the U.S. has an obligation to support Ukraine—though not with ground forces— and punish Russia. Failure to do so could undermine future security assurances as a tool of U.S. foreign policy.
<pThere are smart steps the U.S. can take to “punish Russia” and there are also counterproductive steps. And while Russia’s aggression must not go unanswered, that doesn’t mean we should blow up opportunities for collaboration where possible.