The announced deployment of parts of the American missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic soured relations with Russia’s, many annalists arguing that bilateral relations between the former rivals have reached their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Besides the spat over the deployment ABM shield in Central Europe there are many other issues that have lead to the increase in tensions between Russia and the United States: American deployment of forward bases in Romania and Bulgaria, US involvement in the former Soviet space (Ukraine, Georgia, the Caucasus and Central Asia) as well as public criticism regarding Russia’s internal politics and finally the gross imbalance of power between the United States and the rest of the members of the international system. All in all Russia has many reasons to feel threatened by the United States and from its point of view the recent strategic developments in Europe are worrying.
On the other hand the United States has also reasons to be concerned with Russia. First and foremost is Russia’s assertiveness on the international stage since the coming of Vladimir Putin to Kremlin. Second Russia’s energy policy, which is aimed at restoring Russia’s great power status, is also used as a foreign policy tool in its dealings with other states. Third, diverging interests in key regions of the world such as Middle East and Asia. And finally the evolutions in Russia’s internal politics, which have seen in the last years a clear departure from what is considered standard democratic practices by the West.
It has been argued, mostly in media circles that the rise in tensions between Russia and the United States represents the start of a new Cold War. I would like to take issue with this line of argument. Nowadays it is impossible a repeat of the sort of situation in the international system that was specific to the Cold War. First of all as opposed to the Cold War era there is only one great power in the international system – the United States, while then there were two – USSR and USA. Second the lack of rival alliances – the Cold War pitied NATO and the Warsaw Pact, while in the post-Cold War era NATO has been joined by former Warsaw Pact members, leaving Russia – the main successor state of the USSR – without the security glacis (buffer zone) made up of Eastern and Central European states, to protect it from invasions from the west. The third distinguishing feature of today’s relations between Russia and the United States is the lack of a serious ideological conflict – the presence of which was one of the hallmarks of the Cold War. Finally there is a huge imbalance of power existing today between Russia and the United States, in favour of the latter, despite Russia’s efforts to rebuild its power base. However it should be noted that Russia has in terms of relative power windows of opportunity in the near future, due to the US being tied up in Iraq. Nevertheless a return to great power status of Russia in the near future is impossible, while the prospect for it to become one in the long term is theoretically possible.
What then should we make of this new rise in tensions between the US and Russia? It is clearly not the Cold War. And it is more than a spat over deployment of bases and ABM systems. Well it is basically an attempt by Russia to balance the increasing power of the United States and to protect its interests in certain regions of the world vital for Russia’s security. On the other hand the American deployment of forces in Eastern and Central Europe is consistent with the post-Cold War security configuration as well as with American priorities within the Global War on Terrorism. The missile shield is not primarily designed to protect from a possible Russian attack, but for threats that are coming mostly form the Middle East. However no one can guarantee for sure that the technology and strategy that lies behind the current National Missile Defense initiative will not be aimed in the future against Russia. Furthermore due to the imbalance of power between Russia and the United States, the latter is likely to dismiss the formers’ fears and interests and go ahead with its plans.