Roots of resurgent US-Russia fray go back decades
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Roots of resurgent US-Russia fray go back decades

Despite cooperation in Iran nuclear talks, American-Soviet relationship remains tense, 20 years after Cold War’s end

US President Barack Obama, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, June 17, 2013 (Evan Vucci/AP)
US President Barack Obama, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, June 17, 2013 (Evan Vucci/AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The stumbles and policy chaos that have sent increasingly frosty US-Russia relations into what many now call a new Cold War might have been inevitable.

The fundamental hopes and fears lurk in the collective minds of the Russian and American nations despite the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly a quarter-century ago. That puts their world views at odds, with the crisis over Ukraine the latest and biggest confrontation.

That dismal relationship more often than not can be linked to the eastward expansion of the NATO alliance and Moscow’s refusal to believe America’s promises that it does not threaten Russia. There’s also Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anger over his country’s loss of superpower status.

Back in friendlier days, after agreement on the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright said she saw the trouble brewing.

Albright, writing in Foreign Policy about the late former Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov, recalled her friend as a flexible realist, but she also cited differences already evident.

“From the first time we sat at the same table at a NATO meeting, it became clear that no matter what was signed, we would see that key agreement differently,” Albright wrote.

Madeleine Albright (photo credit: US State Department)
Madeleine Albright (photo credit: US State Department)

The Russians were understandably concerned about NATO. The US-led Western alliance was created in 1949 to blunt feared Soviet expansionism in Europe. Russia, its Soviet empire vanished, worried that Washington would push alliance boundaries right to the Russian border. Russia is now virtually surrounded on its western and southern borders by NATO member nations.

“The Russian sense of having been played falsely, not just once, not just twice, but on a number of occasions is fairly deep,” said Wayne Merry of the American Foreign Policy Council and a former US diplomat in Moscow.

During and after World War II, Soviet troops occupied countries of Eastern and Central Europe and made them Soviet republics or Soviet-dominated satellites in the Warsaw Pact. Josef Stalin was acting out of the centuries-old Russian fear of invasion. Germany already had done it twice in the 20th century.

Those buffer countries, newly independent once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, obviously looked for protection from a repeat of their own history and eventually scrambled for NATO membership. The enticement? The promise that every alliance member would come to the aid of any other member that was attacked.

But that was deeply unsettling to Russia.

Ukrainian soldiers ride armored vehicles to Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine, Donetsk region, on February 1, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Oleksander Stashevsky)
Ukrainian soldiers ride armored vehicles to Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine, Donetsk region, on February 1, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Oleksander Stashevsky)

After pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee the country last year following protests, Putin responded by annexing Ukraine’s strategic Crimean peninsula, where the population is largely Russian. The Kremlin also fomented an armed uprising by the largely Russian population in eastern Ukraine.

The United States and the Europeans hit Moscow with punishing economic and travel sanctions in response. So far, fighting between Ukrainian forces and rebel forces continues at a simmer despite two cease-fire agreements. NATO is stationing heavy armor in the Baltic states and has sent hundreds of military trainers to Ukraine. To this point, Washington has dispatched no arms for the Ukrainian army.

Putin has shown no sign of backing down. He has repeatedly said the United States was trying to subjugate Russia, accusing Washington of stoking protests against him.

“I don’t think the United States ever fully appreciated how deeply the Russians believe the color revolutions were instigated by the United States,” said Jessica Matthews, distinguished fellow and former president of the Carnegie Endowment, referring to uprisings that ousted Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze and Yanukovych for a first time in Ukraine. The Kremlin likewise saw America’s hand in Yanukovych’s second ouster.

While Russia’s behavior in Ukraine, Crimea and a 2008 war with Georgia has earned the Kremlin western outrage, Putin’s motives are built of a deep Russian suspicion of the world around it. And Putin, like his Soviet forbearers, is using anti-Western propaganda to distract his people.

Still, Putin called Obama at the end of June for the first time in four months. The White House said they discussed the Iran nuclear negotiations, the civil war in Syria and efforts to counter Islamic State. Moscow has been helpful in US-Iranian nuclear negotiations.

Matthews said there needs to be much more communication between Washington and Moscow.

“I think what could turn it around is clarity about NATO’s intentions about Ukraine, and I think those can only be delivered in person, and personally and quietly,” she said.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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