October 2016 brought a sudden spike in the crisis in Russia-US relations that has been lingering since early 2014. Things went so far that the media started publishing panicked reports on the looming threat of World War III. However, in reality, there are no reasons to believe that the United States and Russia will continue on the path toward increased confrontation. Most likely, after a series of public escapades, Moscow and Washington have now formalized a new standard in their bilateral relations which most adequately reflects the balance of agreement and disagreement between them.
The October escalation of the crisis between Russia and the United States was due to the collapse of the negotiation process on Syria caused by the actions of the parties to the Syrian conflict supported by Moscow and Washington, respectively. In fact, Russia and the United States made guarantees regarding what the third parties will do that were hard to honor. Russia guaranteed Bashar al-Assad government’s compliance with the ceasefire, while the United States issued a guarantee that the opposition would agree to a settlement. However, both sides in Syria are set on winning the war, and therefore any deal is fragile. Neither Russia nor the United States has the final say. Contrary to popular belief, Moscow and Washington are not too deeply involved in the Syria crisis as actors, and so not much depends on them, even though everyone is watching them. The Russian military operation in Syria, which involves about 50 aircraft, is limited. The forces the Americans are using in their Syrian campaign are not much bigger.
Moscow responded to the breakdown of the agreement with the United States on Syria with the so-called Plutonium Ultimatum, which is new to the Russian political style. Previously, in its relations with the United States, Russia drew a line between cooperation and competition even during major crises. Such issues were discussed separately. Now Moscow is defiantly mimicking the United States and mixing unrelated issues. This model was used by the United States when it adopted the law on providing support to Ukraine or imposed the Jackson-Vanik amendment.
Moscow's decision on plutonium was not directed at the current or future US administration, but at the United States in general and its Russia strategy. The Kremlin does not expect this strategy to change with a new resident in the White House and proceeds from the premise that the current concerns and challenges in mutual relations will last a long time.
The Syrian conflict remains an indicator of the change in Russia-US relations. Solving the problem of the so-called "moderate" opposition is the key. If we call a spade a spade, the entire opposition is Islamist. As a result, there may be a single common enemy in Syria represented by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. In this scenario, the grounds for talks between Russia and the West will expand considerably and the United States will come to see the Assad regime differently. If Washington were to choose between the Syrian leader and Nusra, the choice will not be for the latter.
Clearly, the United States believes that Nusra is the most viable force fighting the government in Damascus. Russia is opposed to this, and the Americans disagree, resulting in friction. The Free Syrian Army is an ephemeral construct which includes isolated groups of fighters without a single command. It’s unclear who is in charge, where its headquarters are located, or who its members are. This is precisely why the diplomatic track of the intra-Syrian settlement is not working properly. The opposition is unable to present a consolidated leadership, which makes it extremely vulnerable to extremists, who are gradually taking over all capable units. Eventually, the United States will have no choice but to join the war on terror.
The military dynamics in Syria favor Damascus, not only because of the assistance provided by Russia and Iran, but because the government has proved itself capable and regained credibility with supporters. Early on in the war, generals and government ministers were defecting in droves, but this is no longer the case. The government now looks like a battle-tested fighter who stands firmly on his feet. Overall, the government and society in Syria feel strong and decisive.
It would be a mistake to claim that the Syrian conflict has triggered a new arms race between Russia and the United States like the one in the Soviet era. The Soviet Union was focused on nuclear and conventional forces alike. The Soviet army was the world’s largest. However, all of that is not required in modern technology-based warfare. If you seriously contemplate a war between Russia and the United States, no one is planning to occupy any territories. Modern war will look different than in the 20th century.
The focus will be on destroying communication and control systems, satellites, cables, the internet, army command and control systems, air defense and missile guidance systems. The goal of such a war will be not to destroy the enemy, but to disrupt its ability to organize and use its military capabilities. A large conventional army is not needed for this kind of warfare, but rather high-tech approaches to information networks, cyberspace, and open space. Work in these areas is underway in Russia.
Therefore, arms race is a term dating back to the last century. In order to maintain its sovereignty and the ability to defend its interests, Russia will certainly need to be able to deliver a high-tech retaliatory military strike against any opponent, including the United States. Russian military thought and practice focus precisely on this. The Americans also do not rule out a big war either with Russia or China. But there is no arms race. It’s just that everyone realizes that the impossible is actually possible.
The current state of Russia-US relations is a new constant. This is a stable state which will exist regardless of who moves into the White House. Russia and the United States have very few areas of common interest and many areas of disagreement. There is also the irony of mutual assured destruction, so the two countries cannot pressure each other too much. That is why the current system of relations is quite stable.
Moscow and Washington both believe that time is on their side. The Americans think that Russia is in systemic decline, the sanctions will do what’s expected of them, the regime will sooner or later fall, and the next Russian government will be more pro-Western. Russia believes that even though the United States is the world’s number one country in terms of economic and military power, it lacks experience and makes many mistakes in foreign policy and military operations. This makes the world less amenable to the United States and, over time, it will become polycentric, which is what Russia wants.
Each side believes that time is on its side, and since the price of the conflict is so high, there’s no need to hurry. Considering the rate at which historical processes are unfolding, we can expect to see within the next 20 years which side was right.
Andrey Sushentsov is programme director at the Valdai Discussion Club and a chair of “Security and War Studies Program”.