Ukrainian situation highlights tensions between United States and Russia

By Jason Roche

Russian troops stand guard blocking Ukraine's military base at the town of Perevalnoye near Simferopol, in Crimea, on Thursday, March 6, 2014. (Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Russian troops stand guard blocking Ukraine’s military base at the town of Perevalnoye near Simferopol, in Crimea, on Thursday, March 6, 2014. (Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

The situation in Ukraine has stirred the tensions between Washington D.C. and Moscow like a flashback to the ’60s. Okay, not that intense. While the United States and Russia are not nearly as diametrically opposed as during the Cold War, relations between the two countries have been strained in recent years. Syria and Iran, noncompliance with arms treaties, Edward Snowden’s asylum and now Ukraine, have pitted the United States and Russia against each other despite efforts to improve relations between the nations.

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, relations between the United States and Russia were at their lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. President Obama began his first term with the goal of improving U.S.-Russian relations and agreements with then-president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, were looking promising. Some highlights were when the two leaders signed the new START treaty aimed at reducing nuclear stockpiles, worked together toward addressing Iran’s nuclear program and collaborated to address the global financial crisis.

The warming relationship took a turn for the worst after the start of the Arab Spring and the return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency. As revolutionary movements spread across the Middle East, the United States and Russia found their interests to be on opposing sides of the revolutions. In regards to Libya, Russia abstained from voting on military intervention, and later condemned the air strike campaign. After witnessing the intervention in Libya, Russia has refused to agree to any UN military intervention in Syria and has been supporting the Assad regime with both weapons and financing. Situations in the Middle East often place the United States and Russia at odds because of their differing alliances. Russia’s allies are often America’s enemies.

Russia’s opposition to United States’ requests regarding Syria, Iran and now Ukraine, displays its confidence that ignoring these requests will not substantially harm its interests. International affairs is not the only area where Russia has disregarded demands from the United States. Russia has also violated a medium-range missile treaty and refused to extradite Edward Snowden.

Russia no longer fears the West, suggests Ben Judah of Politico. He writes, “Russia sees an America vulnerable: in Afghanistan, in Syria and on Iran – a United States that desperately needs Russian support to continue shipping its supplies, host any peace conference or enforce its sanctions.”

Putin has made it a clear goal to restore the power of the Soviet Union and to prevent Western gains in post-Soviet spaces. Part of this vision involves the expansion of Russia’s military. Russia Today reports that “Russia’s defense expenditure has more than doubled since 2007, and will be triple by 2016.” Russia has surpassed the United Kingdom as the third largest military spender in the world, and it is a clear sign of Russia’s attempts to project its strength.

In addition to increasing its military, Russia is also looking to expand its borders and not just in Ukraine. Russia has also made moves to claim the North Pole and has responded to competing Canadian claims by increasing Russia’s military presence in the region. This is in line with a series of Russian expansions including ushering Transnistria under Russian influence in the 1990s and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008.

Each time Russia sends in its troops to claim new territory, the United States stands in opposition and issues warnings, but fails to prevent the Russian agenda. As Russia continues its occupation of the Crimean peninsula, there is little that the United States can do to address the situation.

As Brookings Institution Scholar Fiona Hill points out, “What can we do? We’ll talk about sanctions. We’ll talk about red lines. We’ll basically drive ourselves into a frenzy. And he’ll stand back and just watch it. He just knows that none of the rest of us want a war.” Putin has already responded to the threat of sanctions and remains committed to keeping troops in Crimea regardless of economic consequences.

The situation in Ukraine has highlighted the tense relationship between the United States and Russia and has shown that the interests of the two countries are often at odds with one another. Putin knows that the United States, along with the rest of Europe, does not want to go to war over Ukraine. It would not be a surprising result if the Crimean peninsula effectively becomes a part of the Russian Federation.

Jason Roche is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]