Alexei Fenenko has a Doctorate in History; he is a leading researcher at the Institute of International Security Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and a senior lecturer at the Department of International Security, Faculty of World Politics, Moscow State University.
Resume: Neither Ukraine nor Syria has eased psychological tension so far. The United States and partly Russia do not think they have reached the dangerous point. Apparently they still need a bigger crisis to finally settle their issues.
The idea of writing this article came to me after a roundtable discussion of the prospects of U.S.-Russia relations hosted by the Rossiya Segodnya news agency in November 2015. I argued during the discussion that relations between the two countries had entered a period which is much more dangerous than the Cold War, including the Caribbean Crisis in 1962, and received critical responses (“We were on the brink of a nuclear war back then, but there is nothing like that now,” my opponents retorted). And yet, I believe that the risk of a military conflict between Russia and the United States in the next ten to fifteen years will be much higher than it was during their bipolar standoff.
Long-term negative trends are piling up, pushing both sides towards an armed confrontation. Unlike before, including the Caribbean Crisis, modern military-political collisions do not motivate the Kremlin and the White House to begin negotiations and work out a mechanism for reducing military threats. On the contrary, the two countries have been constantly scaling back their strategic dialogue, dismantling the European security system, and flexing muscles in close proximity to each other’s armed forces. This model resembles the system of relations between European countries of the late 19th century, which did not help ward off conflicts but rather precipitated them.
COLD WAR MYTHS
At the annual Munich Security Conference in the winter of 2012, Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI) experts presented a report titled Towards a Euro-Atlantic Security Community. They pointed to the lack of mutual trust in the Euro-Atlantic region and stated that bipolar confrontational mentality was hindering cooperation. As a matter of fact, the Cold War legacy was a stabilizing factor in Russian-American relations and helped:
American political scientist John Lewis Gaddis described the Cold War as “the long peace.” The confrontation between superpowers and their military-political blocs evolved by strict rules and never came close to a real military conflict. Contrary to the general belief, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States did not begin in 1945. Four victorious powers dominated the global political landscape in the first decade after World War II. It was not until 1956 that two of them (the Soviet Union and the United States) leveled down the status of Great Britain and France to the regional one. Despite tough rhetoric, Moscow and Washington worked together to dismantle the British and French Empires. The two remaining superpowers entered into direct military-strategic confrontation after the Suez Crisis in 1956 when there were no longer other great powers to mediate between them. Since then Soviet-American relations outwardly became characterized by:
Still, the risk of a direct armed clash remained minimal. The possession of nuclear weapons was hardly the main reason, though. Since the late 1950s Soviet and American strategists developed many war scenarios involving limited use of nuclear or conventional weapons (actually, neither side would have used nuclear weapons just as chemical weapons were never used during World War II). So many works have been written about “limited nuclear war” that they could fill up several collections, but almost none of them explains why American and Soviet leaders ignored recommendations given to them by their military.
The Soviet Union and the U.S. simply had no political reasons for direct confrontation. Neither could replace each other as a leader of the capitalist or socialist world, and any conflict between them would have meant a collapse of the Yalta-Potsdam system, including the United Nations. Had this happened, the winner would have ended up with a limited territory requiring enormous costs for reconstruction. It was obviously not worth sacrificing the resources acquired after World War II.
The absence of political motives was compounded by the lack of technical possibilities for fighting a war. Located in different hemispheres, the superpowers could not occupy each other’s territory; and neither had supremacy necessary to defeat the other or win a major regional conflict. Direct war would have boiled down to an irrational exchange of nuclear strikes without any political gains. Thank God, there were no fanatics willing to risk everything for the sake of victory in the battle of Armageddon.
Neither Soviet nor American ideology was uncompromising towards the opponent; both were based on the competition between communism and liberalism. Firstly, this meant that the Soviet Union and the United States recognized each other as equal actors. Secondly, they were prepared to play by the rules. Thirdly, competition meant that the opponent had positive experience that should be copied or excelled. Both the Kremlin and the White House hoped for the victory of communism/liberalism in some distant future, which legitimized the start of a dialogue. The theory of convergence popular in the 1960s, according to which the Soviet Union and the United States were expected to borrow each other’s best practices, did not come out of the blue and took deep root in the minds of the Soviet and American elites.
French writer Marcel Proust gave us examples of full ideological confrontation. Germany was so much hated in France after the war of 1870 that any sign of affection for anything German was completely out of the question. “We hated the Boche for being Boche, for drinking coffee with brandy, for eating too many sausages, for wearing red moustache, and for putting on a brown rather than black necktie; for just being around and for not having paid him for the Sedan,” he wrote about those times. Germans felt similarly about France and reproached Bismarck for having failed to finish off the “ancestral enemy.” On weekends, replicas of the Eifel Tower and the Brandenburg Gate were set to fire in crowded public parks in French and German cities.
There was nothing like that in Soviet-American relations. The leaders of the two superpowers did not try to sow hatred towards each other among their people, as Americanologist Vladimir Pechatnov noted quite fairly. Soviet propaganda carefully distinguished between “reactionary U.S. circles” and American people. When calling the Soviet Union “the red plague” or “an evil empire,” U.S. presidents always felt sorry for the Russian people. Neither Soviet nor American propaganda instilled animosity towards each other’s customs and culture in school, organized mass demonstrations inspired by militarist hysteria or rejoiced at the death of the other side’s soldiers in regional conflicts. The rejection of the opponent was political and ideological but not existential in nature. (A comparison of current political battles with Cold War-era ones prompts a disquieting conclusion that the level of mutual respect at that time was much higher and there was much less emotional exaltation.)
Real ideological battles are not fought with a real enemy. Instead, enemies prepare for a fight quietly. In the 1930s, officials from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany rarely tried to prove anything to each other or challenge each other’s views. Official meetings were always demonstratively polite and admitted of almost no informal contacts. Nor did the Germans conduct any discussions with the British before World War I. The question of war had already been decided, and trying to prove the enemy wrong would have been senseless.
The rivalry between Soviet and American security services became a vivid image of the Cold War era. Neither the Soviet nor the American leadership considered subversive operations carried out by the CIA or the KGB a sound enough reason to sever diplomatic relation, let alone harm the opponent’s political elite, since both sides rejected terrorism. Russians and Americans did not hate each other but were sincerely interested in each other’s way of life and culture. At some point, the general public in the Soviet Union and the United States started viewing militarism and arms race with irony. Suffice it to recall James Bond movies or Vladimir Vysotsky’s songs.
The phenomenon of “radio voices” to which Soviet intellectuals tried to surreptitiously tune in proved that many people in the Soviet Union were prepared to consider the opponent in earnest. According to numerous reminiscences, people usually did not hate the United States as such when they heard negative reports about their own country. (As French sociologist Serge Moscovici wrote, Europeans in the early 20th century were seized by chauvinism and simply rejected negative reports about their countries, thinking that foreigners did not deserve the right to even discuss them.) The concept of ideological influence (subsequently called “soft power”) conceived in the United States assumed that the opponent was ready to listen to your information and get interested.
A strategic stalemate prompted unprecedented democratization of international relations through abolition of the colonial system, a rapid emergence of more sovereign states, and the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement and a host of international organizations. Democratization tendencies went hand in hand with the development of international law which proclaimed the inviolability of the territorial integrity of states, the right of people to self-determination, and human rights obligations. Superpowers usually supported relevant processes in order to get advantages from their rivalry. The democratization wave also influenced political processes inside both the United States (wiping out the remains of racial segregation) and the Soviet Union (strengthening the liberal wing in the party leadership).
LONG PEACE CRISES
Thanks to American political scientist Paul Nitze, Cold War-era conflicts began to be called a “zero sum game,” meaning that if one side wins, the other one automatically loses. However, none of the Cold War-era crises fits this description. In fact, the Soviet and American leadership showed their unwillingness rather than readiness to start a big war and were eager to make concessions in order to preserve the status quo.
This tendency became evident during the Korean War (1950-1953) in which the American Expeditionary Forces and their allies fought for South Korea; Chinese volunteers, supported by two Soviet regiments of fighter aircraft, fought for North Korea. But the U.S. and Chinese leaders did not consider each other’s actions a sufficient reason to declare a war. Similarly, the Soviet and American leadership did not view local armed activities as a valid reason to break up diplomatic relations. The Soviet representative boycotted U.N. Security Council meetings, but the Soviet leadership never considered the possibility of leaving the Organization. In April 1951, President Truman disavowed U.N. forces Commander, General Douglas MacArthur’s ultimatum that threatened to use nuclear weapons against China, and the sides signed a truce at the first opportunity.
The second Berlin crisis in 1961 also revealed readiness for compromise. The crisis broke out amid the Soviet leadership’s apprehensions about West Germany’s nuclear armament policy under the NATO Multilateral Nuclear Force plan. The strong action taken by the Soviet Union around West Berlin, including the construction of the Berlin Wall, was meant to convince the John F. Kennedy administration that Moscow was prepared to use force if Germany got access to nuclear weapons. Faced with the real risk of conflict, the Soviet Command headed by Marshall Konev pulled back its tanks from the Berlin Wall in October 1991 without preliminary consultations with Washington. The White House prudently wound down its NATO Multilateral Nuclear Force project.
The Caribbean Crisis in 1962 provided further evidence of this trend. The Soviet Union deployed nuclear weapons (both on aircraft and missiles) in Cuba close to the United States. In response, the Kennedy administration considered a plan to destroy them. All that time the sides were looking for a dialogue mechanism and eventually established it through Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and the American president’s brother Robert Kennedy. Judging from open sources, no one either in the Soviet or American leadership raised the question of breaking up diplomatic relations or dissolving the United Nations. The Soviet and American leaders did not make fiery speeches in front of electrified crowds or promise them to avoid disgrace at any cost. And this was in striking contrast to how Russian Tsar Nicholas II and German Emperor Wilhelm II acted in the summer of 1914. It is not surprising therefore that the Caribbean Crisis prodded the White House and the Kremlin into beginning a strategic dialogue in order to reduce the risk of war.
The crisis over the medium-range missiles in Europe in the mid-1980s evolved in a similar way. The Soviet Union deployed RSD-10 Pioner medium-range missiles in 1977. NATO countries took this as a violation of the balance of forces in Europe. Unsuccessful talks in the fall of 1983 followed by the deployment of American Pershing-2 missiles that could reach Moscow within five to ten minutes. In a menacing televised address on November 24, 1983, Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov warned of the possibility of nuclear war and announced retaliatory measures, including withdrawal from the Geneva arms control talks. However, in February 1984 U.S. Vice-President George H. W. Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher arrived in Moscow to attend Andropov’s funeral and, after talks with his successor Konstantin Chernenko and Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov, agreed to preserve the ABM/SALT regime and continue strategic dialogue. A year later, in February 1985, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko agreed to resume the European missiles talks in Geneva.
Clashes in the Third World often played a stabilizing role in the mutual nuclear containment system. Firstly, they showed the superpowers’ readiness to use military force if necessary. Secondly, they allowed them to test new weapons. Thirdly, they justified the existence of the powerful ideological machinery in the Soviet Union and America. Calls for “supporting democracy” and “advancing socialism” materialized through relevant actions in peripheral regions.
Remarkably, none of the regional crises left the superpowers feeling seriously defeated or suffering from bouts of revanchism. One can talk as much as he can about the “Vietnam Syndrome” in America, but none of the presidential candidates had ever campaigned under the motto of “taking revenge for Vietnam.” In the Soviet Union, none of its general secretaries called for paying back to the United States for the Caribbean Crisis or the Middle East. Even the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 was welcomed by Soviet people with a sign of relief, not taken as a humiliating defeat. There were no parades of war veterans in Soviet cities or rallies with calls to “wash away the disgrace with blood” like those in Germany in the 1920s. None of the Cold War-era crises affected vital interests of the superpowers or provided the pretext for real confrontation.
American experts like to debate whether the Soviet Union’s nuclear deterrence policy was successful at all. As George Kennan observed, it was based on the fact that the Soviet leadership did not want a big war. There is no way to deter anyone who wishes to start a war, for he will see any show of force, even a symbolic one, as the long-sought pretext to begin it. Subsequent experience proved that the American leadership did not want direct armed confrontation either. The Caribbean Crisis, just like all others, clearly showed that the Soviet and American leadership had neither desire nor reason to start a war.
The situation started to change after the collapse of the Soviet Union, providing more and more reasons for an armed conflict between Russia and America. Two nuclear powers with comparable nuclear capabilities had to build their relations within one and the same world order, which in itself was enough to precipitate conflict.
The self-dissolution of the Soviet Union generated numerous assertions that there were no longer ideological contradictions between Moscow and Washington. In reality, however, such contradictions began to surface shortly after 1993. Having gone through a brief period of demonstratively pro-American rhetoric, Russia officially refused to recognize America’s leadership and democratic enlargement concepts from the end of 1994. In 1997, Russia and China put forth a concept of a multipolar world, angering Washington which sought to play a leading role in the emerging world order. This ideological confrontation was even fiercer than the previous one between communism and liberalism as it concerned not just the existence of two opposing camps but different models of world order. Unlike the Soviet Union and the United States, Russia and the U.S. simply could not retire to their respective quarters.
Two factors annoyed Washington most of all. First, Moscow had preserved the Soviet power (primarily nuclear) potential. Despite all the turmoil of 1990-1993, Russia remained the only country that could physically destroy America and had comparable military capabilities to wage a war against it. Second, Russia had retained a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and could block Washington’s motions or render them illegitimate. Despite all declarations about “strategic partnership,” the U.S. policy aimed to cut (or better still destroy completely) Russia’s strategic capabilities to a level that would be safe for the United States. America was not interested in Russia’s economic revival, for this would have implied modernization of its military-industrial complex as well.
The vexation of the American elite grew stronger as it realized that there were only a limited number of ways to “punish Russia.” It can resort to pinprick sanctions against individual Russian companies or try to dig up new human rights issues, of course, but the Ukraine crisis clearly showed that economic struggle against Russia could benefit the United States only if it had the full support of the European Union, which is possible but tricky. Meanwhile, constant speculation in American media “about the best way to punish Russia” only increases the risk of conflict.
The Russian elite, for its part, was well aware of the motives behind Washington’s actions. Moscow was most worried by the international law reform launched by the United States which was advancing two principles through a series of precedents: first, forced removal of the leaders of sovereign states (with their subsequent indictment by an international tribunal); second, forced disarmament of dangerous—as seen by Washington—regimes, primarily by eliminating their weapons of mass destruction. The Russian leadership suspected that Moscow was the U.S.’s ultimate target. The situation was further compounded by the Clinton administration’s position on the Chechen conflict. The White House was basically testing Moscow’s ability to defend its territorial integrity. Boris Yeltsin’s remarks at the CSCE Budapest Summit on December 5, 1994 that the Cold War was giving way to cold peace meant more than just Russia’s discontent with NATO’s eastward enlargement. They signaled a new turn in relations between Russia and the United States which were beginning to play by less clear, and therefore more dangerous, rules.
Up until 2007, the leaders of the two countries kept reiterating at every summit that they were committed to building strategic partnership and “dismantling the vestiges of the Cold War.” But Russia and the United States had opposite views on all key international issues. Moreover, a new factor had emerged in their relations—mutual dislike and antagonism—which was absent from Soviet-American relations. From the fall of 1994 or so, Washington started to pare down support for Yeltsin, claiming that Russia had failed in its democratic transition and had instead built a “neo-tsarist” (i.e. hostile to the United States) regime. The general view implanted in the minds of Americans was that Russia was “the wrong” country unfit for democratization. In Russia, the U.S. was increasingly viewed as threatening the very existence of the country.
All mention of partnership or plans to build it vanished from public statements in early 2007. Official rhetoric was heavily laden with mutual frustration. The “global anti-terrorist coalition” created in the fall of 2001 went to pieces eighteen months later because of disagreements over Iraq. The “nuclear non-proliferation partnership” slid into constant squabbles over the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. The energy partnership was scrapped in the run-up to the G8 Summit in St. Petersburg in the summer of 2006 even though energy issues were expected to dominate its agenda. Pacific partnership plans mulled over for several years never materialized. Currently, bilateral relations remain in a negative rather than positive framework, focusing mainly on how to reduce the risk of confrontation.
Strategic dialogue has fallen into decay. During his standoff with the Supreme Soviet, Yeltsin signed a package of nuclear disarmament agreements disadvantageous to Russia. As the country regained its statehood, the Kremlin made an attempt to disavow or at least emasculate them as much as possible, obviously angering Washington which then came up with its “mutually assured safety” concept. Following the United States’ withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002, Russian-American arms control negotiations became increasingly senseless and inane. The sides failed to agree the basic ABM formula even after signing the relatively successful New START Treaty in Prague in 2010, and arms control talks have been on hold since the fall of 2011. This is an unprecedented situation since the period of “interregnum” in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Disputes over the INF Treaty of 1987 clearly show that the sides are not prepared to continue the arms control policy in its classical form.
Mutual commitments in the event of conflict with third countries have also shrunk. After the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 the Soviet Union and the United States took efforts to develop confidence-building and transparency mechanisms in Europe. In 1990 they launched the “Paris process,” vowing to build an undivided and bloc-free Europe (the Charter of Paris for a New Europe) and limit conventional weapons (the CFE Treaty). Both documents were virtually disavowed fifteen years later. Russia’s attempts to start OSCE reform proved unsuccessful. Proposals to work out a new European security treaty (Helsinki-2) also led nowhere as was borne out by the Munich Security Conference in February 2012. As a result, Russia and NATO have been left without mutually approved rules of conduct during conflicts.
It was in the post-Soviet period that a new factor—territorial claims— emerged in relations between Russia and the United States. The latter had never officially recognized the Baltic States as part of the Soviet Union, but the issue was put on hold. Now the territorial conflict in the Bering Sea has been compounded by the re-division of shelf areas in the Bering Strait and the need to preserve the national border line across the Chukchi Sea. There are also disagreements over the Arctic: U.S. proposes making the Arctic Ocean a neutral territory and refuses to recognize Russia’s rights to the Soviet Arctic sector. The incorporation of Crimea into Russia has added a new edge to the issue: Within what borders does Washington recognize the Russian Federation?
A counter-elite war is a new form of conflict between Russia and the United States. This model was first put to the test in the 1990s through a series of arrests of Russian citizens in the United States on corruption and economic crime charges (which were never proved though). But this form of struggle began to be used in earnest during presidential elections in Russia in 2012. The Obama administration’s demonstratively unfriendly attitude towards Putin signified that the “red line” had been crossed. Never before had the White House conditioned bilateral relations on a concrete leader. The following two years proved that Washington had no intention to build a dialogue with Putin after his return to the Kremlin. (The situation came to a head in January 2016 when a White House spokesperson officially threw out corruption charges, albeit quite vague, against the Russian president.)
Washington for the first time officially stated its objections against a concrete person holding the office of president in Russia. The U.S. Department of State refused to recognize parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia as not complying with democratic procedures. The Magnitsky Act means that the U.S. does not acknowledge the legitimacy of an entire segment of the Russian elite. In late 2012, the possibility of breaking up diplomatic relations with the United States was for the first time officially mentioned in Russia.
COLD PEACE CRISES
New forms of interaction have engendered a new type of military-political conflicts. After 1991 the U.S. used force against countries it declared pariah states to test a model of war as punishment for certain regimes. As the risk of conflict grew, the Russian leadership became increasingly suspicious that Russia would be the ultimate target of this tactic. Moscow had to flex muscles to force Washington into looking for compromises. This molded a pattern for indirect but fierce confrontation between the two countries.
The war in the former Yugoslavia became the first example. Russia condemned NATO’s operation against that country in 1999 as aggression and responded by freezing the Founding Act with NATO and terminating the work of the alliance’s mission in Moscow. One can sneer at the efficacy of these measures, but neither side annulled agreements or closed diplomatic missions during the Cold War. In June 1999, Russia openly demonstrated its power by sending a brigade of paratroopers on a spontaneous march from Bosnia to Pristina. Judging from open sources, the American military did not rule out local armed clashes with Russia in the Balkans at that time.
The second example is the five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. Upon taking power in 2004, the Mikhail Saakashvili regime sought to regain control over two breakaway provinces—South Ossetia and Abkhazia—with the tacit support of the George W. Bush administration. The latter wished to check out two crucial things: whether Russia was capable of carrying out combat operations outside its territory, and whether its aircraft could be affected by the American information and space systems. Moscow used force against Georgia not only to punish Saakashvili but also to confirm its readiness to act similarly to counter NATO’s enlargement and the deployment of the American missile defense system in Europe (as Putin stated in his speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 10, 2007).
The results of the five-day war left everyone dissatisfied. They made the Russian elite feel victorious by proving Russia’s ability to coerce the United States into finding compromises. But the U.S. administration showed no willingness to begin a dialogue with Russia and flexed muscles instead by redeploying Georgian troops from Iraq and sending its own warships to the Black Sea. The sides needed a new, more serious, crisis to determine their positions in the post-Soviet space.
The conflict in Ukraine became an inevitable result of the five-day war. It was an important instrument allowing the United States to upset the creation of a Eurasian Economic Union proclaimed by Putin as one of the chief goals of his third presidential term. Moscow’s main task was to stop Ukraine’s drift towards NATO which threatened Russia’s positions in the post-Soviet space and could have caused it to lose its military presence in the Black Sea. In response, Russia incorporated Crimea and took some other steps. The United States retaliated economically in cooperation with its European allies. Throughout the conflict the U.S. discussed basically two main measures: lethal weapon supplies to Ukraine and deployment of NATO infrastructure in the Baltic and Black Sea regions.
The Syria conflict is a new form of confrontation. Theoretically, Moscow and Washington have one common task to solve in that country, namely destroying ISIS. However, both sides are conducting their combat operations in dangerous proximity to each other and refuse to coordinate their activities or do so to the minimum extent necessary. Washington has been accusing Russia of committing an act of “aggression” against the Syrian people, while Moscow has been pointing to the ineffectiveness and harmfulness of the American operations. Although Russia and the United States on October 12, 2015 adopted a memorandum on air safety over Syria, the risk of collision remains. A negative scenario can be triggered by one of the following events:
By extrapolating modern trends, one can easily foretell how U.S.-Russian relations will evolve. The sides may try to resume consultations on the most urgent issues, but the last remaining safety mechanisms designed to reduce the risk of war will continue to degrade. Military rhetoric will become increasingly hostile, counter-elite actions will be intensified, and contacts in the fields of science, education and culture will be curtailed. The threshold for the use of force by the Russian and American military in regional conflicts will go down. There are several possible scenarios for the development of U.S.-Russian relations.
Scenario 1. Conflict negotiations. It is perhaps the most optimistic scenario. While keeping up confrontational rhetoric and flexing muscles, the Kremlin and the White House begin to work out measures to reduce the risk of war. But an agreement on a key strategic issue, missile defense, is unlikely. There will be two issues on the agenda: developing guarantees against Russia’s accidental collision with the U.S.’s allies, and drafting a set of obligations for Moscow and Washington in the event of conflict with a third country. The latter also includes the INF Treaty of 1987. The Soviet Union and the United States had certain obligations to observe in the event of conflict with a third nuclear power. Having such commitments today is hardly possible for both of them.
In fact, this will require the two countries to be ready to negotiate and keep away from the show of force. But neither Ukraine nor Syria has eased psychological tension so far. The U.S. and partly Russia do not think they have reached the dangerous point. Apparently they still need a bigger crisis to finally settle their issues.
The situation has been compounded by the declining role of mediation. Since the mid-1960s, Soviet and then Russian leaders used France’s mediation services for several objective reasons. Paris had its own military capabilities and balanced between Moscow and Washington. The war in Libya in 2011 and Great Britain’s return as an active international player changed the balance of forces in Europe. France chose a privileged alliance with Great Britain, thus giving up attempts to pursue its own policy autonomously from NATO. Worried by the growing closeness between France and Britain, Germany is adapting to a new role as Washington’s “junior brother.” Moscow is beginning to view NATO and the European Union as a homogenous political space dominated by the U.S.
Scenario 2. Forced interaction. This scenario implies U.S. mediation in Russia’s conflict with one of America’s allies in an attempt to prevent armed confrontation. The White House may be prepared to play this role if two conditions are met. The first one is that the U.S. interference should be considered a diplomatic success helping to avoid a war. The second condition implies a public campaign to show the weakness of Russia’s position or create an illusion of such weakness through mass media. Only if these two conditions are met may Washington be willing to begin real talks.
However, such a crisis will require that the United States have a strong regional ally, a country with substantial military power and located on the line of engagement with Russia or having historical claims against it. In this case the Americans can act, publicly or semi-publicly, together with its anti-Russian partner. Until recently, probably only Japan could play the role of a guaranteed counterbalance to Russia (Poland, Baltic States, and Romania do not have sufficient military power for that). It seems that the number of potential counterbalances is growing. The collapse of Russian-Turkish relations after the downing of a Russian military plane turns Turkey into an extremely hostile neighbor with serious military capabilities.
Russia’s interference in the U.S.’s conflict with a third country is less probable but still possible. It remained solely hypothetical until last fall, but Russia’s showcase operation in Syria, where Washington was planning to create a no-fly zone, has changed the situation. Moscow shielded the Syrian government at first by the mere fact of starting its operation and then by deploying its air defense systems in the country. Attempts to create a no-fly zone can nevertheless lead to an escalation of U.S.-Russian tensions.
Scenario 3. Armed conflict. Unfortunately, this cannot be ruled out. Mutual enmity has been building up for too long and simply must burst out sooner or later. The deterring power of nuclear weapons should not be overestimated. Non-nuclear scenarios of Russian-American conflicts have become more realizable over the past thirty years than they were in the 1960s due to substantial progress in the development of non-nuclear precision weapons, emergence of large airborne units and various kinds of missile defense systems.
Russia’s ability to carry out an air operation beyond its borders is viewed as a threat to U.S. leadership. Russia may have to save face in a big regional conflict if, for example, it evolves by the Turkish scenario. This may push both Moscow and Washington towards testing the reliability of their armed forces.
The most probable scenario, however, is a large regional conflict directly involving Russian and U.S. armed forces. The two countries will preserve diplomatic relations and the institutions created within the Yalta-Potsdam world order. The Spanish Civil War of the mid-1930s, when Soviet aircraft fought Italian and German ones, may serve as a model.
Such a conflict will lead to the collapse of the modern world’s economic structure. Anti-Russian sanctions tested by NATO countries during the Ukraine crisis may be used again but on a larger scale. Further isolation will leave Moscow confronted with a difficult choice: retreat, lose face and attack elsewhere (for example, by striking at the non-proliferation regime which is important for the United States) or opt out for the mobilization economy. The latter may leave the West with a crumbling global financial system. After such a conflict the world will resemble a Versailles-Washington order rather than a Cold War.
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Over the past years a limited armed conflict between Russia and NATO has become more probable than during the Cold War. Washington hardly views such a conflict as a head-on collision with Russia, but rather as a U.S. military intervention—thoroughly prepared ideologically, politically and informationally—in a possible conflict between Russia and one of its neighbors. Setting them against Moscow has been one of the main purposes of the U.S.’s foreign policy in Central Eurasia over the past twenty years. Judging from the Russian leaders’ statements, the prevailing opinion in Moscow is that the United States is completely unaware of the cost of confrontation with Russia. An entire generation of U.S. politicians and members of the military has become imbued with the ideas of American invulnerability and invincibility. This scenario can only be avoided if Russia and NATO countries immediately resume their crisis-resolution dialogue.