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The conflict equilibrium of Russian-American relations

Why Russia and the United States are both comfortable with the current uneasy state of bilateral relations

Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama might seem like they’re unhappy with each other, but they’re actually fine with being unhappy each other. EPA/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/RIA NOVOSTI
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As the G-7 summit continues in Germany, my Washington Post colleague Steven Munson does an excellent job examining the state of bilateral relations that has “bounced from cooperation to confrontation and eventually to compartmentalization.”

My only quibble is the possible impression left that this is entirely about Obama’s fluctuating policy towards a constant Russia. As the meat of Mufson’s story suggests, Moscow has altered tactics as well:

With the escalation of attacks last week by Russian-backed separatists on Ukrainian forces and the continued forward positioning of heavy artillery in violation of cease-fire agreements, Russia is leaving the G-7 leaders little choice. White House officials said that Obama would not only support existing sanctions but would also consider imposing more….
“We’re not back in the Cold War, but neither are we in the strategic partnership we have tried to establish,” said Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO.

And, sure enough, supporting sanctions seems to have been the G-7 consensus that emerged yesterday:

Group of Seven (G7) leaders vowed at a summit in the Bavarian Alps on Sunday to keep sanctions against Russia in place until President Vladimir Putin and Moscow-backed separatists fully implement the terms of a peace deal for Ukraine….
EU leaders agreed in March that sanctions imposed over Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea and detribalization of eastern Ukraine would stay until the Minsk ceasefire was fully applied, effectively extending them to the end of the year, but a formal decision has yet to be taken.
Merkel said any easing of the sanctions depended largely on Russia and its behavior in Ukraine.
European Council President Donald Tusk went further, saying: “If anyone wants to start a discussion about changing the sanctions regime, it could only be about strengthening it.”

This raises an interesting question: Is the current state of Russia’s relations with the West in general — and America in particular — a stable one?

I believe it might be. From Russia’s perspective, the revealed preferences of goosing the Ukrainian conflict just before the G-7 summit suggests that the geopolitical benefits of destabilizing Ukraine outweigh the economic costs of continued sanctions. This set of preferences might flummox President Obama, but Russia’s actions make it clear. Putin seems content to test the resolve of the US-European partnership. As Mufson notes:

For the most part, though, what was an acute crisis last year has settled into a frozen conflict, at best, testing U.S. and European resolve to maintain — or toughen — economic sanctions. Russia has tried wooing the Czech president and the leaders of Hungary and Greece, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel has led the push for keeping costly sanctions in place as long as Russia fails to abide by the terms of the Minsk cease-fire agreement.

What about U.S. preferences? A few senior National Security Council officials explained the U.S. position during a conference call last Thursday. The key part from Ben Rhodes:

Look, clearly, President Putin’s calculus has not fully shifted.  We continue to see very concerning Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.  But the fact of the matter is, in the first case, sanctions are necessary as a deterrent against more aggressive Russian action, but secondly, sanctions take time to affect the calculus of other leaders….
We saw with Iran — it took years of pressure to get them to the negotiating table and to get them to begin to change their policy with respect to their nuclear program.  That’s why it is so important that this is maintained through G-7 sessions.  And that is why it’s so important that sanctions are kept in place, so that they’re not just seen as one-time punishments that are then able to be waited out by countries that continue to violate international law and international norms, but rather, we need to maintain the pressure, show that there cannot be cracks in the transatlantic unity, and show that the costs are just going to continue to grow for Russia. And that is what ultimately we hope will affect Russian calculus and allow for a return to peace and stability in Ukraine and the broader region.
So, again, sanctions are a tool that can have an immediate impact in deterring actions by governments like Russia.  But over the longer term, they need to be sustained to steadily inform the calculus of countries like Russia that are acting outside of international norms.

And the key part from senior director for Europe Charles Kupchan:

[O]ne other effective tool that we’ve seen quite recently is making clear that there are Russians operating in Ukraine and that some of those Russians are being killed.  And the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine is something that the Russian government has tried to deny, but the more evidence and the more public evidence there is of that presence, the more pressure there is on Vladimir Putin.

And now the American position becomes clear. For the U.S., the key isn’t just to maintain the sanctions, but to maintain the state of geopolitical uncertainty in the region. That’s the only way to deter private investors from inching back into the Russian market. If the current sanctions stay stable, then private investors are likely to do that very thing.

So it appears that both Russia and the United States have a vested interest in continued conflict. Russia wants to weaken Ukraine, not be seen as knuckling under to sanctions, and wait for fissures to appear in the Western alliance. But the United States sees the calculus of conflict a bit differently. U.S. officials think that continued conflict will help to perpetuate the sanctions and the number of dead Russian soldiers in Ukraine. This elevates geopolitical risk and makes it harder for Putin to suppress the domestic costs of his Ukraine adventure.

International relations scholars are not keen about talking about cases in which the stable equilibrium appears to be continued conflict and crisis. But this relationship appears to be one of those cases.