Angela Stent is Professor of Government and Foreign Relations at Georgetown University and the author of The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.
WASHINGTON, DC – When Russian President Vladimir Putin presides over the military parade commemorating Victory in Europe Day on May 9, he will not attract the crowd he could have expected a couple of years ago. Neither US President Barack Obama nor any leader from the European Union will be present to watch as tanks roll and military bands march through Red Square. Aside from the president of Serbia, the only leaders expected to be in attendance are from countries, such as China and Vietnam, that were not part of the European theater in World War II.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and given Putin’s continued support for secessionists in eastern Ukraine, relations between Russia and the West are as bad as they have been since the Soviet Union disintegrated almost a quarter-century ago. Obama recently listed Russian aggression in Europe alongside Ebola and the Islamic State as one of the three main threats to US national security. Putin responded with claims that the US created the Islamic State and supports “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine and around the world.
The diplomatic tension is ironic, because the parade in Moscow is meant to commemorate a victory made possible seven decades ago by the alliance of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. Today, the former allies are unable to work together, even when facing a common enemy like the Islamic State.
Previous commemorations – which were attended by US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – emphasized the common endeavor. This year, Russian media have ceaselessly downplayed American and British contributions to the defeat of the Axis powers. The Nazi-Soviet pact, which carved up Poland and Romania between the Soviet Union and Germany, has been swept under the rug.
Obama’s first term in office began with an attempt to “reset” relations with Russia. The surviving fruit of those efforts – the New Start arms-control treaty and cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan – are vestiges of the warmer ties that existed when Dimitri Medvedev was president of Russia. Bilateral relations began to deteriorate when Putin blamed the US – and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in particular – for supporting the thousands of Russians who protested his return to the presidency in December 2011.
The Obama administration made several unsuccessful attempts in 2012 and 2013 to restart a dialogue with the Kremlin, but changed course in the summer of 2013, when Russia granted political asylum to former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. The war in Ukraine then took relations to their current depths.
One year after the “little green men” – Russian soldiers without military insignias – began to appear, first in Crimea and then in the Donbas region, the situation in eastern Ukraine remains both stalemated and volatile. A fragile ceasefire remains in place in most parts of the contested region, but fighting continues to break out in some areas, and many worry that a new Russian-backed offensive could soon be launched around the strategic port of Mariupol.
Worse, the war in Ukraine appears to be on its way to becoming a “frozen conflict,” with the Donbas maintained as a pseudo-state run by Russian-backed insurgents and mafias. Ukraine has lost control over both the region and its border with Russia, and it faces the constant possibility that the conflict could heat up once again, as Georgia’s did in 2008, when Russia sent in troops to support the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s neighbors are left feeling vulnerable, worried that Russia’s efforts to destabilize the region may cross yet another border.
The Kremlin shows no signs that it is interested in a solution to the crisis that would enable the government in Kyiv to regain full sovereignty over its territory. Even if the fighting does not spread, the US and its allies must re-evaluate their relations with Russia.
The turning point was the annexation of Crimea, which effectively ended US and European hopes for integrating a modern post-Soviet Russia into the West. Putin has explicitly rejected a global order that he believes was imposed by the US in the 1990s, when Russia was weak – an order that, in his view, has run roughshod over his country’s interests.
The ability of the next US president to work with Russia on issues of global order and Euro-Atlantic security will depend largely on the choices that Putin makes in Ukraine and elsewhere. His Victory Day celebration – with its display of advanced weaponry, underpinned by increased military spending – will serve as a demonstration of Russian nationalism and intransigence.
As long as the US and Russia view each other as antagonists, creating a viable working relationship, let alone an alliance, will be impossible. Their inability to unite even in celebrating their shared triumph in World War II is a clear sign of the geopolitical challenges that lie ahead.
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