Tension with Russia brewing new Cold War?

SlateMay 6, 2014 

— A few recent stories drive home the point that the larger atmosphere of tension between the United States and Russia is having an impact on issues far beyond the fast-deteriorating situation in Ukraine.

The commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific, Gen. Herbert Carlisle, says there’s been an uptick in activity by Russian planes and ships in the region, including “long-range Russian air patrols to the coast of California and a circumnavigation of the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam. He said a U.S. F-15 fighter jet intercepted a Russian strategic bomber that had flown to Guam.”

In reporting on a new deal allowing the United States to keep its military base in Djibouti for 20 more years, The New York Times notes:

The deal also appears to end speculation that Djibouti might lease a small parcel of land to Russia and grant it military landing rights at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow have badly deteriorated over the crisis in Ukraine. Russia has been an active contributor to the international antipiracy effort in the region since it first deployed warships in 2008.

In Syria, experts are concerned that Russia-U.S. tensions could delay efforts to dismantle Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons program. While the majority of weapons have been removed, Syria has missed several deadlines for shipping out the last of its toxins.

Meanwhile, Der Spiegel reports that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany appears to have backed off some of her harshest criticisms of American surveillance programs stemming from the revelations that her own mobile phone had been targeted by the NSA:

“The reason is not difficult to pinpoint: The Ukraine crisis. With the situation continuing to escalate, Merkel is eager to demonstrate unity with Obama and the two threatened Russia with further economic sanctions. But the solidarity comes at a price: Merkel has had to back away from some of her own convictions. …

Merkel is convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin can only be reined in if Europe and the US stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the Ukraine crisis and she is even prepared to sacrifice the NSA investigation to that end.”

There’s certainly some irony in the fact that, for all the discussion of shifting the focus of U.S. foreign policy from the Middle East to Asia, we seem to have pivoted in the wrong direction and ended up in Russia.

Given that the crisis in Ukraine now appears unlikely to blow over, it’s possible that the larger geopolitical rivalry between the United States and Russia will come to be seen as a factor in a wide variety of U.S. foreign policy moves throughout the world – even when those moves seemingly have little to do with Russia or Ukraine themselves.

This is a pretty bizarre state of affairs – Russia’s ability to impact U.S. interests is extremely limited – and U.S.-Russia cooperation may be able to continue on some fronts: nuclear arms reduction may hopefully be one. But unless things die down fast, U.S.-Russia tension is going to become a major undercurrent in international relations, and not just on issues directly related to Russia’s interests.

Some prominent members of Congress have recently expressed the fairly insane view that things were somehow better and simpler during the Cold War. They may, unfortunately, be getting their wish.

Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics.

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