Politicians and experts still debate whether the United States and Russia are in a new cold war. Let’s end the suspense. Cold War 2.0 is a reality. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres shares that view. He ought to know, as he observes daily the hateful rhetoric exchanged by U.S and Russian delegations during Security Council sessions.
The present situation is even more dangerous than during the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. The old safeguards to prevent direct military confrontation and tragic, accidental escalation have long since atrophied.
The U.S.-led attack on Syria on April 13 nearly missed such an accident. We can only guess whether the world should thank U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford or President Donald Trump himself for avoiding strikes on Russians in that country – this time.
Unfortunately, judging from the super-toxic anti-Russia atmosphere in Congress and the mainstream media there is no guarantee that we will be so lucky next time another “trigger” event, like a chemical attack, takes place. It hardly matters whether the event is real or faked, since retaliation is unrelated to presentation of evidence against the presumed guilty party.
Objective “beyond the reasonable doubt” has been replaced by subjective “highly likely,” even if the accused perpetrator had no motive, as with the claimed chemical attack in the Syrian city of Douma. Sen. Rand Paul and other prominent American and European figures like, for example, the former head of the British Navy Lord West and possible future British Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn, share the opinion that the Syrian government had no reason to conduct a chemical attack.
Today’s journalistic practice makes it almost impossible to separate real news from fake. With rare exceptions, such as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, across the political spectrum media uncritically repeat the same government-fed story as certified fact.
In such an atmosphere, chances for the improvement of U.S.-Russia relations, a consistent theme of President Trump’s 2016 campaign, are close to zero. We should be prepared for the tough times ahead.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that we should just sit and pray that the worst-case scenario somehow doesn’t materialize.
Recently I had a chance to talk to Sergey Rogov, the well-known and respected academic director of the USA and Canada Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow’s most influential think tank. Mr. Rogov perfectly understands that it’s unlikely that Washington and Moscow will soon make a U-turn and normalize their relationship. Sharp disagreements will persist for years to come. Effectively, Cold War 2.0 is permanent.
However, Mr. Rogov believes the situation may deteriorate even further unless both countries recall how the Soviet Union and the United States were able to avoid a nuclear Armageddon by negotiating mutual rules of the game through a set of political agreements and legally binding treaties.
Despite the current negative political climate Mr. Rogov had no problem meeting with many influential American foreign policy experts trying to promote his idea of convincing Washington to enter into negotiations with Moscow on at least three things which, even those who hit the ceiling when someone mentions word “Russia,” still might seriously consider.
According to Mr. Rogov, these rules of the competition seem to be almost forgotten, and the existing arms control regime is on the verge of a complete collapse. “The ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] and CFE [Conventional Forces in Europe] treaties are dead, and the INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] treaty is in big trouble since each side accuses the other of violations. If the INF treaty crashes next year, the New START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] hardly will survive in a vacuum,” Mr. Rogov says.
He proposes urgent three-point action to at least make sure that World War III doesn’t begin by accident, namely agreements to: 1. Prevent tactical military accidents; 2. Preserve the INF Treaty; and 3. Extend START-3. In the space of this commentary it is impossible to present the technical details of these three proposals but Mr. Rogov has already given them to his American colleagues, who are in a position to pass them on to the high places.
Being a realist, Mr. Rogov understands that no new arms reductions are possible since the U.S. Senate will not consent to legally binding new arms control treaties with Moscow in the foreseeable future. However, he believes that these limited goals seem to be achievable and concludes that “if we maintain the proposed rules of competition, we can also stabilize the military situation and prevent an unlimited arms race and balancing on the brink.”
If so, Mr. Rogov’s suggestion could also lead to broader U.S.-Russia political dialogue on cyber security, prohibition of meddling in other countries elections, resolving regional conflicts and other issues.
Mr. Rogov believes that Moscow is ready to start the dialogue. Will Washington join?
Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow.