It may still be far from the depths of the Cold War, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Thursday speech, outlining new, “invincible” weapons to overcome U.S. defenses, lowered the already chilly temperature of the relationship by several degrees.
Few experts on either side believe that the new weapons, assuming they actually exist and are ever deployed, would change the balance of power between two nations that already have the ability to destroy each other many times over.
At the same time, there is widespread agreement that the rhetorical attacks, stalled diplomacy and military escalation that increasingly characterize U.S.-Russia relations are counterproductive to global security.
Russia and the United States have a lot to talk about, on such topics as arms control, cyber intrusions, Ukraine, Syria and beyond. But there are no easy answers on how to break what appears to be an inexorable slide into a deeper freeze and little optimism that dialogue is about to break out.
“The tension level is high, higher now than it was several months ago, in part because the Russians have gotten past the phase where they thought with President Trump they would be able to move the relationship in a different direction,” said Thomas Graham, senior director for Russia on the George W. Bush National Security Council staff and now managing director at Kissinger Associates Inc.
“This is qualitatively worse than any post-Cold War period,” Graham said.
Trump appears to be the only senior member of his administration who still believes in a thaw. He has praised Putin’s honesty and directness after meeting with him in person and recalled his own campaign aspirations for closer ties. He has yet to take a stand against the election interference that U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed, largely because he fears it will undercut his own legitimacy, according to administration officials.
But as he has failed to move relations forward, “the Russians basically see the Trump administration as a lost cause,” said Andrew Weiss, who held senior Russia policy positions during both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and is now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“On the one hand, [the administration] is mired in this intense political crisis,” in part over allegations of Trump campaign ties to Moscow. “On the other hand, it’s got this obvious level of dysfunction and incoherence. Trump is saying only nice things about Russia,” Weiss said, while “the national security cabinet around him has pretty mainstream views of Russia as an adversary.”
U.S. defense officials have consistently cited Russia as the most significant strategic threat to the United States, and the primary reason to build up its defense budget.
Gen. John Hyten, who leads U.S. Strategic Command, said in a speech Wednesday that Russia poses “the only existential threat to the country.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that there will be no warming of relations with Russia until it abandons its 2014 annexation of Crimea, something Russia has vowed never to do. The administration has reversed an Obama-era prohibition against providing lethal weapons to the Ukrainian military. In the first major implementation of that decision, it notified Congress on Thursday of plans to sell 210 antitank missiles to Ukraine.
Tillerson has also come down increasingly hard on Russia for failing to control the brutal attacks against civilians by the government of President Bashar al-Assad that it supports in Syria.
Russia not only is providing air cover for the regime but also is “responsible” for Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Tillerson has said on numerous occasions. “They can deny it all they want to, but facts are facts,” he told Fox News last month.
Both the United States and Russia have now outlined expansions of their nuclear arsenals, and it remains unclear whether New START, the primary arms-reduction treaty in effect between the two, will remain viable beyond its expiration date of 2021. Each has also charged the other with violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
As both have rapidly increased their defense budgets, “this is a time when there ought to be some serious conversations about arms control,” said Steven Pifer, a Russia expert during 25 years as a Foreign Service officer and a now senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“What I worry about is, I’m not sure where the push comes from, Washington or Moscow, to get to a serious arms-control dialogue,” Pifer said. There must be “some sensible thing” to be done to “find a way to save INF and give a quick extension to New START.”
Despite their criticisms, both Tillerson and defense officials have stressed the importance of finding a path to dialogue with Moscow. That is not the case with Congress, which overwhelmingly passed recent legislation directing Trump to impose new sanctions on Russia. So far, the president has not taken action.
The legislation and congressional restraints create even more complications for the administration, Weiss said, because “anything that looks like a giveaway to Putin would be dead on arrival in the Senate.”
“The problem we have,” he said, “is that we’re entering this world where the framework that we’ve used to manage U.S.-Russia relations is in parlous conditions,” even as “both sides are engaged in activities that make the other very nervous.”
Two dates are seen as key in Russia’s military expansion and broadened reach on the world stage. U.S. withdrawal in 2002 from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty — followed by development of more sophisticated antimissile defenses — were seen by Russia as a way to undermine its own strategic nuclear arsenal. Twelve years later, Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea marked a major step in what it sees as its post-Soviet Union return to its rightful place on the global stage.
The Ukraine intervention was quickly followed by Russia’s military support of Assad — moves it said were justified under international law to support a sovereign government, unlike the uninvited U.S. military intervention against the Islamic State in Syria.
A new analysis by the Carnegie Endowment sums up a “broad, sophisticated, well-resourced and ... surprisingly effective campaign” by Russia “to expand its global reach” at the same time the United States has pulled back from its global leadership role.
It identifies four tools used by Moscow, depending on its aims and the opportunities in different regions and countries. They include economic measures such as debt relief, bailouts and investments, as it is using in Venezuela to prop up the government of President Nicolás Maduro.
Moscow had also cultivated, promoted and funded the influence of friendly political figures, particularly among right-wing leaders such as Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary. In other parts of Europe, as in the United States, it has used social media and cyber-operations to disrupt societies and promote divisions.
Fourth, it has “taken advantage of instability throughout the Middle East and U.S. retrenchment to rebuild ties with governments and regimes across the region,” the Carnegie analysis said. Beyond Syria, Russia has also become a player in Libya — where it supports Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a maverick military leader competing for power there. Russia has also aggressively pursued arms sales to some of the United States’ closest allies in the region.
Faced with an array of problems in the U.S.-Russia relationship, some experts cautioned against overreacting to a speech they said was mostly aimed at a domestic audience, in advance of this month’s presidential election there.
While his win is virtually guaranteed, Putin seeks validation with a massive turnout and majority. But with a stagnant economy, “he has nothing serious to offer the average Russian,” Pifer said. “So what does he do? He hypes the American” threat.
Others drew a larger lesson. “If you missed the Cold War, it looked a lot like right now,” said Joe Circincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation based on nuclear weapons policy.