US & Russia - A Return to the Cold War?

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem

Answer to a Question

On the Russian Role

Question: Assalamu Alaykum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatuhu…

It has been noted that the media as well as several milieus are extensively talking about the return of the cold war between Russia and America. And all of this is due to the Russian stance vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis and the Russo-American concord on the political solution as well as the Geneva conference.  At the same time it is known that in the other issues of the region, Russia is proceeding with America towards resolving them according to the American viewpoint, such as the Palestinian issue among others, whereby hardly any rivalry or struggle is noticed.

However, the issue of the missile defence shield and the issue of the American meddling in the affairs of the former Soviet republics are causing a rift between the two states that turns into a struggle at times. The question is, would the exploring of the Russian stance in Syria be a special case that does not stretch beyond Syria, or would it reflect a forthcoming role for Russia in the region and the world who would jostle with America? Looking forward to the answer; Assalamu Alaykum.

Answer: First: The cold war between American and Russia allegedly ended in 1991 as officially announced. In fact, this war ended effectively when Kennedy and Khrushchev reached an agreement in 1961. The agreement laid the foundations for what became known as the policy of international harmony that exemplified the notion of peaceful coexistence between America and Russia and involved confining the tackling of international issues to them after France and Britain had been discarded and China besieged in the Pacific Ocean.

The two states decided to keep the notion of the communist and capitalist blocs alive as well as the notion of the cold war with the aim of duping their rivals and to corroborate the policy of harmony between them. Since the détente of 1961, Russia relinquished her cold war against America and set about working solely towards maintaining her security, status and interests. She even accepted to be aligned with America in all of the world's political issues to the point where she virtually became America's ally in international politics.


The policy of international harmony and the notion of cold war continued until Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in Moscow. Then a new phase of international relations started to take shape. It started with Perestroika, i.e. the renovating of the Soviet state, and ended with the collapse of the USSR and its fragmentation into 15 independent republics due to the depletion of the Soviet economy by the arms race and the evaporation of the communist idea from people's minds. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, America announced the birth of a new world order based on the American unilateral dominance of world politics.

During the tenure of Boris Yeltsin, America worked assiduously towards capitalising on this "historic opportunity" to give the remnants of Russia’s international, regional and even domestic influence the coup de grâce. However, the emergence of Vladimir Putin,who assumed the post of president in 2000, stopped the decay. Despite the disparity in viewpoints between Russia and America towards several issues, this has not developed into a return to the cold war, and not even to its atmosphere, as many analysts tend to suggest.

Today's Russia is much weaker than the former Soviet Union that had been challenging America's influence all over the world with the aim of nudging her from top spot, before it adopted the policy of peaceful coexistence in 1961. Hence, if this used to be the nature of the relationship between Russia and America up until 1991, it is all the more reason that she would  not attempt to compete with America on the international scene after she had lost a sizable chunk of her influence in Central Asia and now that NATO is breathing down her neck coupled with Moscow itself being threatened by the American missile defence shield deployed in Eastern Europe.

Second: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, America has been working assiduously to capitalise on the "historic opportunity" to strip Russia of her areas of influence and her components of power and superiority by seizing control of the Caspian Sea oil and its shipping routes,  weakening Russia in Central Asia, tightening the grip on Eastern Europe by expanding NATO and deploying the Missile Defence System close to the Russian borders. However, when Vladimir Putin assumed the reins of power and succeeded in halting what he called "the strategic collapse of Russia", America resorted to working towards containing the return of Russia to her lebensraum by inviting her to partake in tackling international issues according to the American agenda such as "fighting terror" and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Nevertheless, what Russia is undertaking on the international arena under the spectre of the unilateral American dominion over world politics is far from rising to the level of the international rivalry witnessed during the cold war era. Russia is merely exerting pressure on the American administration to persuade it to take into account the Russian security needs and vital interests. Russia's endeavour to renovate her military arsenal and the threats she has been brandishing from time to time about directing her missiles towards Europe and freezing her commitment to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), all of this is designed to prove to America that she has the military clout to nullify the effectiveness of the missile shield America aims to deploy in Europe and  send a message to the western European states stipulating that their security requirements should not necessarily agree with the US strategic plans.

Third: On the 13 December 2001 and after the fall of Afghanistan to  American occupation, President George W Bush announced America's unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty ; then in 2007, Bush announced Washington's intention to deploy a missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. It was natural for Russia to object to the American missile shield as she deemed it to be directed at her rather than at the "rogue states" (North Korea and Iran) as per the American statements, especially after the expansion of NATO towards  Russia’s borders as several states of the Eastern Bloc and former members of the Warsaw Pact became new NATO members.

Russia believes that Iran lacks the missile technology to threaten the European states as America has been claiming. Besides, the military bases that America wants to establish in Eastern Europe are designed to confront the Russian strategic missile capabilities.

This is why Russia deems the deployment of the missile shield near her borders as threatening because the notion of spreading military bases outside the USA stipulates by default the modernising of the military infrastructure in those targeted areas, and this would inevitably lead to obliterating the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty that had been in its last throes since the Baltic states joined NATO without putting pen to paper on the Treaty. Military experts had unanimously concluded that the missile defence system was offensive in nature because it would allow America to strike first at her potential enemies, such as Russia and China, without fearing retaliation, in addition to occasioning disequilibrium in the European strategic balance of power. In the first response to the decision of Bush Jr. to proceed with the missile shield initiative, the Commander of the Russian Strategic Missiles Force, General Nikolai Solovtsov, told a press conference: "So far we have seen nothing being done, only intentions being talked about." He added: "But should the Polish and Czech governments decide (to host the U.S. missile shield), the strategic missile forces will be capable of having these installations as their targets if a relevant political decision were made."

Solovtsov also said Russia's resurgent military industrial complex was strong enough to produce a new generation of missiles that could penetrate the U.S. missile umbrella. He added that massive investment in the military industrial complex under Putin made possible the creation of new weapons to match the U.S. project.

Effectively, Russia set about resisting the missile shield project by carrying out a successful test on a new ballistic missile launched from a nuclear submarine and capable of penetrating the American missile shield. Putin described it as the main component in Moscow's future nuclear capabilities. The Kremlin then announced that President Vladimir Putin had signed a decree stipulating the freeze in Russia’s participation in the CFE Treaty for reasons related to "national security"; the Treaty was concluded in 1990 with the aim of reducing the number of tanks, heavy artillery and jet fighters that are deployed or stockpiled between the Atlantic and Ural Mountains.

Russia attempted to solve this quandary that America had concocted by proposing a host of solutions to Americas' security requirements. For instance, Moscow argued that if America wanted to confront Iran and North Korea, it would be better to establish the missile shield in countries close to Tehran, especially in Iraq where the American forces have been deployed since March 2003, or even Turkey where the American forces are head quartered in the Incirlik Air Base. The Russian president even suggested at the G8 summit, held in Germany in June 2007, that America could possibly make use of the Russian base in Azerbaijan.

It is clear that America is not interested in the Russian proposals with respect to the missile shield project in Eastern Europe. She wants to continue exerting pressure on Russia until she withdraws from the former Soviet arena and leaves that arena allowing  to America to spread her political thoughts such as democracy and human rights; also, lest Russia should hamper America's plans in building new oil and gas pipelines between Asia and Europe that bypass Russian territory. It also seems that by propagating the missile shield project, America wants to twist Russia's arm with respect to expanding NATO to countries such as Ukraine and Georgia .

Fourth: As for the issue of the Russo-American relationship in the Middle East, despite the occasional differences between Russia and America on the issue of the Middle East, especially the Syrian file, the fact remains that these do not exceed the media scope. In fact the Russian needling of America in the Middle East serves the essence of the American policies and help their execution. The benefits that Russia reaps from this are the arms deals and the commercial contracts such as building the reactors for peaceful nuclear energy. Furthermore, Russia's cooperation with America has allowed Russian warships access to the "warm waters" of the Mediterranean, something that Russia had been coveting since the days of tsars.

In addition to the absence of any Russian role rivalling America in settling the Palestinian issue, and to America's green light to Russia to provide the Gulf states with all the technological assistance in the field of nuclear energy, we will review two files that demonstrate to us the extent of the Russo- American concord in the Middle East, namely the Syrian and the Egyptian files.

1- The Syrian File:

The prevalent opinion stipulating that Russia has been backing the Syrian regime against America's wishes is erroneous. In fact, Russia perceives clearly that most of the trump cards are in American hands. America, with the help of Russia is deliberately perpetuating the war in Syria until she finalises some of her aims, which include ripening the sectarian segregation in the region and preparing for the fragmentation of the countries in the region by proposing the federal system, and until she lays the political foundation upon which the move towards the post-Geneva 2 phase will be built. In order to camouflage all of these aims, America has been feigning her inability to impose the appropriate solutions and blaming the Russian stance for her shortcomings. She consents from time to time for some Republican congresspersons to make statements suggesting that America lacks a plan for Syria, though this is false.

This conduct helps America absorb the anger of some of her allies, such as Saudi Arabia, who dreads the repercussions of the Syrian war due to the resentment expressed by the scholars who believe that the "Sunni" people must be defended against the alliance between the Shia and Bashar Assad. Saudi also dreads the Salafi Jihadi movement capitalising on the flaccidity of the royal family and becoming active anew, not only in Syria but also in Egypt. As for the military aid with which Russia supplies the Syrian regime from time to time, these are not weapons and ammunition that would occasion a radical change in the balance of power in favour of the armed opposition.

Russia has reiterated several times that she would not stand by Bashar Assad and engage in a war by proxy on behalf of the Syrian regime. This became evident when America was preparing to launch a strike against Bashar Assad in the wake of East al-Ghouta massacre. Hence, thanks to the Russian collaboration and the threat of a military strike, America succeeded in stripping the Syrian regime of its chemical arsenal preventing its successors from inheriting it. This has been one of her targets, to turn the Middle East into a WMD-free region, and despite America's retraction from launching a military strike and her acceptance of the Russian initiative regarding the Syrian chemical weapons, she however kept Syria under the threat of the UN article 7 without taking the previous Russian objections into account.

The media reports suggesting that Russia has succeeded in aborting the American military strike against Syria does not reflect the strength of the Russian stance; it rather proves that America was never serious about launching that strike. This became evident when Britain, Germany and Italy announced their withdrawal from participating in the strike. Obama had also sought approval from Congress to launch a military strike against Syria, despite the fact that American law gives him the right to initiate war without referring to any US institution.

Hence, Russia does not have any influence in the Middle East and her apparent role in the Syrian file is concordant with what America wants in terms of diverting the international and regional public opinion away from the reality of the international situation that  is characterised by a unilateral American dominion, and portraying it as being multi-polar to absorb the resentment of the Muslims and their hatred towards the US policies.

As for Russia, in addition to losing some of her influence within her lebensraum, namely the former Soviet republics, her military doctrine is confined to protecting herself and tackling the regional struggles close to her borders now that she has pulled out from Eastern Europe and adopted the Capitalist ideology in her political and economic systems.

2- The Egyptian File:

Several journalists and politicians have been trumpeting Egypt's new phase ever since the Russian foreign and defence ministers, Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu, visited Cairo on 14 November 2013. Following their meeting with the new leaders of Egypt, the Egyptian defence minister Abdul Fattah al-Sissi described this visit by saying: "Today, a new era of cooperation with Russia has started." Some analysts believe Russia has started to fill the vacuum left by America after she froze a part of her military aid to Egypt. In fact, talk about the visit of the Russian officials and the arms deals with Russia began following the coup d'état against Mohammed Morsi on 3 July 2013. This new cooperation between Egypt and Russia has apparently emerged following the intensive planning by America which was initiated by the visit of Bandar Bin Sultan, Secretary General of the Saudi National Security Council and Head of the Saudi General Intelligence, to Moscow on 31 July 2013. The Russia Today satellite channel revealed on 27 October 2013 that Bandar Bin Sultan had offered Moscow $15 billion in exchange for a visit by Vladimir Putin to Cairo in order to lend "legitimacy" to the coup in Egypt. According to the information aired by the Russian channel, prince Bandar Bin Sultan paid the cash in the shape of a tripartite deal that would see Saudi providing finance for the purchase of Russian weapons by Egypt. Although the channel stated that Putin had rejected the Saudi offer, the recent visit of the defence and foreign ministers however indicated that Moscow had accepted the Saudi offer but with some modifications.

Hence, the two Russian officials' visit to Egypt is not connected to what has been propagated about the end of the American influence in Egypt. The visit was rather a good turn Russia  did for America in return for the financial gains she would reap from the sizable arms deals with Egypt that Saudi would bankroll. The aim behind this undertaking was to end the international isolation that the current regime in Egypt had been experiencing, thus the visit by officials of a major power such as Russia who often seems to dismiss the Western standards on human rights and democracy. Hence, America and Europe would maintain their international reputation as sponsors of the secular thoughts, especially democracy, the civil state and human rights; besides, America and her Western allies would maintain their special relationship with the Islamic movements involved in the democratic transition process stemming from the so-called Arab Spring, whose essence is to blend Islam and secularism in life, the state and society.

In a nutshell, it has transpired that talking about the return of the cold war is baseless. On the other hand, there is no return to the Russian submission that Boris Yeltsin had brought about before Vladimir Putin put an end to it.

As for the Russo-American struggle that crops up from time to time, it is linked to the areas of struggle and influence by the types of interests which Russia deems as vital. On the international scene, Russia can only protest in the media and use the right to veto at the UN Security Council.

As for the Middle East, Russia has no political or strategic influence for which to fight. She merely resorts to manoeuvring in order to scoop some economic deals, especially those related to oil and arms, in addition to having some military presence in the Mediterranean that America capitalises on to divert attention from her numerous military bases in the region.

Therefore, Syria, Iran and other states of the region do not represent a red line for the Russian vital interests, such as Georgia for instance, where Russia settled the struggle in a few days, separating South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and proclaiming their independence in the process in record time, thus sending a robust and clear message to America and the West stipulating that she would not hesitate to go to war when it comes to the direct vital interests of the Russian Federation.

As for the question on the extent of Russia's endeavour and seriousness in rivalling America on the international scene, it is true that Russia today is not the Russia of 1991 that came into being following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia, at that time, would plead for aid from the IMF to boost her nascent Capitalist economy; she would offer strategic concessions, not only in various parts of the world but even within her lebensraum which the tsars themselves had defended before the communist state came into being.

It is also true that America continues to dominate the international situation single handedly, though her world reputation has suffered a series of setbacks since George Bush grandiosely announced, in 1991, the birth of the New World Order. In particular, her reputation suffered due to the unfavourable public opinion evoked by her policies towards various people, especially the Muslims, and her military interventions in several Islamic lands. Nevertheless, there are no signs suggesting that Russia is working towards destabilising America's international standing as a prelude to replacing her at the top because she lacks the serious willpower to compete with America on the international arena or on her areas of influence. What Russia aspires to becoming is a real international partner to America in running international affairs, or at least some of them. Although she perceives that America would not relinquish her unilateral dominance over the international situation, she nevertheless continues to achieve her ambition and will not cease to endeavour to become America's partner in running some world affairs, at least in a symbolic manner, since this will bolster her status as a major power. What Russia covets most is for America and the major European powers to acknowledge her patronage and influence over the independent former Soviet republics in their quality as part of her lebensraum. However, America and the European powers have been resisting the Russian aspiration and they have not even recognised the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a regional organisation within Europe. America has opted for initiating, from time to time, the "Partnership for Peace" Programme (PfP) as one of the tools aimed at containing and westernising the former Warsaw Pact states, including Russia herself, and to egg on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe to intervene to settle the disputes within the former Soviet sphere.

Hence, any talk suggesting that Russia is jostling with America and that she may have a forthcoming role in which she would rival America is farfetched, especially amidst the geostrategic siege laid on her, namely the eastward expansion of NATO and the military siege, i.e. the missile defence shield which America has been imposing on her. Moreover, Russia has not undertaken any serious moves to stand up to America, especially through the policy of threatening her interests; what is rather evident on the international arena is the opposite.

Russia nowadays is involved in securing America's international interests and even absorbs the public opinion blows on her behalf, especially in respect of her backing of Bashar Assad. As for the verbal and media protests that Russia makes from time to time, they do not even rise to the level of being the conduct of major powers, and they do not constitute any real threat to the interests of America and her European allies.

It is true Russia has succeeded, since Putin took office in 2000 and during this period of unilateral American dominion over the international situation, to bring to a halt the decline that befell her during the tenure of Boris Yeltsin, and it is true that Russia has succeeded in challenging some of the American plans in Central Asia and the Caucasus by strengthening the domestic situation, courting China, controlling production and exporting of her oil riches and finally, by building a reliable military nuclear deterrent and reviving her heavy industry.

However, all of this will not enable Russia at this stage to engage in the struggle to rival America and change the international situation in her favour because she lacks the willpower to do so and because America has succeeded in linking Russia's economic interests to a network of European and international relations that have made her a prisoner of those interests. This confirms that America does not wish to thrust Russia aside economically, be it in Central Asia or the Middle East or even in the rest of the world; far from it, America is working towards deepening and expanding the Russian interests throughout the world, just like she is doing with China; first, to reward her for proceeding with America and second, which is far more dangerous, to threaten those interests when Russia not only contemplates rebelling but even when she contemplates impeding the execution of the American projects. Hence, America is allowing Russia to partake in the regional files, such Syria, Iran and Egypt, and the international files, such as fighting terrorism and preventing the spread of WMDs, in order to exploit her as a force that protects stability on the basis of the American vision. In return, Russia gains the international presence at the expense of France and Britain and achieves some economic and commercial interests, and even military interests such as the presence of her naval fleet in the Mediterranean and even in the Suez Canal after the visit of the Russian delegation to Cairo.

18 Rabi' al-Thani 1435h

18 February 2014