Russia's Relationship to Washington: An Expanding Crisis
If some have thought that with the collapse of the communist system there would be no major confrontation between Moscow and Washington, reality has proven otherwise. President Putin seems determined to bring Russia back as a key player in global politics. The question is: At what cost?
Some of today's conflicts where the United States and Russia are on different sides of the fence include the elections in Ukraine, the war in Iraq, the complex relation between Syria and Lebanon and Iran's ambition to acquire nuclear weapons.
The importance Russia places on its relations with Iran, Syria, Iraq and others is not measured by the extent of Russia’s own interests in these countries but rather by the extent that these countries matter to the United States. In effect, these states have become Russia’s bargaining chips for pursuing its objectives elsewhere.
Although friendly in the past, relations between Tehran and Moscow have arrived at a point where firm decisions must be made. It has been Vladimir Putin's policy make an effort to conciliate tense relations with both Tehran and Washington. The risk is that President Putin could give up the strategic game if bilateral relations with the US clash over Ukraine.
For some time, the United States has intensified its pressure on Iran, saying that it has failed to take action against extremists. Washington also accused Iran of trying to acquire nuclear weapons and has urged Moscow to halt its nuclear cooperation with Iran.
As for Iran - the fact that it has engaged in negotiations with Euro 3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom) and is renouncing its nuclear ambitions for now merely proves that Tehran's regime is keeping all of its options open. However, there was no announcement that Moscow would stop cooperating with Iran with regard to its nuclear program.
The United States is placing pressure on Syria for three main reasons:
1) Syria has looked the other way while so-called "freedom fighters" have passed from Syria into Iraq; instead of helping to stabilize Iraq's internal conflicts, the presence of fighters from abroad has resulted in more violent clashes and uncertainty regarding Iraq's future;
2) The rejection of UN Resolution 1559 which calls for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, to stop dictating Lebanon's domestic policy and stop helping various Palestinian radical factions;
3) Syria's tense relations with Israel can degenerate without further notice into a conflict over the Golan Heights.
In Ukraine, thousands of citizens are on the streets demanding regime change and the liberty to choose what they think is best for their country. So far, Russia’s response has been a clear and loud "niet".
The Bush administration refused to accept the results of the presidential elections in Ukraine and called on the government to investigate allegations of fraud or face consequences in bilateral relations. The European Union, albeit largely dependent upon Russia's delivery of natural resources, has voiced its concern over the possible emergence of civil war in Ukraine; moreover, this conflict could spread violence beyond Ukraine.
Regarding the war in Iraq, Russia's policy has proven to be cooperative without being compliant. President Putin let other nations challenge the US reasons for invading Iraq and maintaining American troops in the country for a longer period of time than had been previously anticipated.
President Putin has to carefully consider potential actions; he cannot side with Washington, but he also cannot ignore US requests. Russia's relations with Europe are also a major concern for President Putin. The EU mandate to expand and include some of the former Soviet states in the union is perceived as a threat worth taking into consideration by Moscow. There is also Moscow's continuing anxiety over NATO's extension up to its borders.
The stakes are high in Ukraine. If Yushchenko wins, then the principles of democracy and freedom will guide the future of Ukraine; on the other hand if Russia's protegee Viktor Yanukovich is the winner (contrary to the West's warning signals and people's constant manifestations), then we might witness another Cold War, or worse.