A slippery slope: US-Russian relations


The next U.S. administration will be a new reset, perhaps a new Cold War, that is not so much nuclear – despite Putin’s threats – but rather is cyber and may be more about Syria

While trying to describe U.S.-Russia relations, even policymakers like giving examples from the movies. For instance, four years ago at the Democratic National Convention, then-Senator John Kerry accused Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney of reading Russia through Rocky IV. At that point, we understood that what Kerry had in mind was a relationship that resembled something out of the Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Belushi movie, “Red Heat,” an action film about a Soviet and an American detective working together on a case. However, the current state of relations is far from something out of a movie nor does it resemble Rocky IV. To the contrary, what we see right now resembles a never-ending soap opera series like “Days of Our Lives,” which runs for decades despite having lost direction somewhere along the way and becoming so predictable that viewers have lost interest in it. Similarly, U.S.-Russian relations are not stable enough to cooperate on critical issues but are just stable enough to ward off any serious military confrontation.

It is hard to comprehend U.S.-Russian relations nowadays. Seldom have the top diplomats of the two countries met so often or held such lengthy top-level meetings, which usually end in a press conference.

In recent months, meetings between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and their attempts to negotiate have brought nothing useful for solving the crisis in Syria and Ukraine.

Instead, these attempts at negotiations have generated a laundry list of unrealized arrangements and failed agreements between two major world powers.

In the latest example of this, Kerry and Lavrov’s efforts to negotiate a temporary cease-fire in Syria have once again proven futile.

The Russian Air Force has instead continued bombing parts of Aleppo, resulting in the deaths of more than 400 people in the past week alone, at the same time that Lavrov and Kerry offered vodka and pizza to journalists in return for them announcing that a cease-fire agreement had been reached. A frustrated Kerry said, “I think we’re on the verge of suspending the discussion because it’s irrational in the context of the type of bombing taking place.” Most analysts have indicated that Kerry’s resigned words, which came on the heels of Russia’s resumed bombing campaign in civilian-populated areas alongside the Assad regime prove that there is nothing further the U.S. administration wants to say aside from a mere statement.

In the meantime, U.S. relations with Russia have come to the fore in U.S. politics as Clinton and Trump hash it out ahead of a looming political election. The debate of how to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin has become a hot button issue in the U.S. presidential debate, with Republican candidate Donald Trump praising Putin as a strong leader – stronger than current President Barack Obama, according to Trump – and generating major backlash from Democrats. On the other hand, Democratic candidate Clinton called the praise of Putin “dangerous” and “scary,” even going as far to say that Trump’s position on Putin would result in Trump “letting Putin do whatever he wants and then making excuses for him.” Email hacking allegations became another central issue in the debate; not regarding Putin himself but Russia as a state. In a campaign speech, Donald Trump said “Russia, if you’re listening I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing…I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press… they [Russia] hacked – they probably have [Hillary Clinton’s] 33,000 e-mails. I hope they do. They probably have her 33,000 e-mails that she lost and deleted because you’d see some beauties there.” Clinton responded to this during the first presidential debate, arguing that “the Russians need to understand that. I think they’ve been treating it as almost a probing, how far will we go? How much will we do? And that’s why I was so shocked when Donald publicly invited Putin to hack into Americans. That is just unacceptable.”

The hacking of DNC emails generated further tension in bilateral relations as reports suggested that the FBI suspects that Russian government-backed hackers hacked the emails of the DNC. A report in the Daily Beast says: “It’s an operation that several U.S. officials now suspect was a deliberate attempt to influence the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump, according to five individuals familiar with the investigation of the breach.” More recently, last week it was revealed that there has been a further attempt to hack the smartphones of staffers and officials of the Democratic Party by hackers backed by the Russian government. There is a concern about the possible disruption that these hackers can generate in the presidential elections that will take place this November.

So what is really the state of U.S.-Russian relations right now? There is apparently a cyber war going on between the two countries. Edward Snowden’s residence in Russia broke the already fragile level of trust between the two countries. Following these allegations of a cyberattack from Russia, the situation reached to a new level. In Syria we don’t even know what is the latest position of the U.S. Since the beginning of the Russian military intervention in Syria, the U.S. position has shifted from shock to wishful thinking of Russia’s ability to get the country out of the Syrian quagmire to acceptance of Russian presence in the region. Apparently, the latest ceasefire agreements included further “flexibility” from U.S. in regards to its Syria policy. In an oped to the Washington Post, Phil Gordon wrote: “With the Sept. 12 U.S.-Russia ceasefire agreement, the Obama administration offered Putin a way forward that, from a Russian perspective, could only have been described as a clean win. If fully implemented, the agreement would have prevented regime change in Damascus – a major Putin redline – for the foreseeable future; boosted Russia’s position as a major power in the Middle East; facilitated military and intelligence cooperation with the United States against terrorist groups; diminished a costly conflict; and secured Russia’s Mediterranean base.” It is becoming hard to describe it and looks like in the next six weeks this will not change. The new administration after the election will have a major homework to clarify its Russia policy. It will be directly related with the administration’s Syria, Eastern Europe and Central Asia policies. It will be a new reset, either for a new Cold War, that is not so much nuclear – despite Putin’s threats – as it is cyber and may be more about Syria.

*Kiliç Buğra Kanat is the Research Director at the SETA Foundation at Washington DC. He is also an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie. He is also a columnist at Daily Sabah Turkish newspaper.

(Published in Daily Sabah on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016)