Service members of the Russian airborne forces get wait before boarding Ilyushin Il-76 transport planes during drills at a military aerodrome in the Azov Sea port of Taganrog, Russia, April 22 2021. Picture: REUTERS
Service members of the Russian airborne forces get wait before boarding Ilyushin Il-76 transport planes during drills at a military aerodrome in the Azov Sea port of Taganrog, Russia, April 22 2021. Picture: REUTERS

On Russia’s popular weekly television news show Vesti Nedeli, host Dmitry Kiselyov said last Sunday that relations between Moscow and Washington are approaching the level seen during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Such comments might easily be dismissed abroad as hyperbole by an outspoken television anchormen. But the remarks by Kiselyov, who heads the state-owned Rossiya Segodnya news agency and was sanctioned by the EU for his role in Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, point to an awkward truth.

Relations between Moscow and the West are now at their worst since the Cold War, with multiple avenues for possible escalation.

Thursday’s announcement that Russia would start pulling back some of its troops from close to Ukraine’s border after what it said was a “combat-readiness check” may reduce fears of short-term conflict.

What both Moscow and Washington still clearly see as their worsening confrontation, however, may be harder to de-escalate, even though there is talk of a summit being arranged between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden summit at a neutral location.

April has seen multiple new diplomatic flashpoints emerge. They include a worsening spat between Russia and the Czech Republic, a member of the EU, over the alleged involvement of Russian security services personnel in a fatal 2014 ammunition dump explosion. Russia has denied the allegations. Ukraine and Bulgaria have also been involved in tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions with Russia.

The Biden administration has also imposed a swathe of sanctions on Russian entities in retaliation for alleged cyberattacks and election interference, denied by Moscow, and warned of further action if Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny dies in a Russian prison.

The US hopes to nudge Russia towards what Washington regards as more responsible behaviour — or at least to impose a cost for what it sees as its most egregious moves. The Western allies, however, are far from united on how to handle Russia.

Despite the tensions, Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany is nearing completion, bypassing current pipelines through Ukraine and Poland in a move Washington warns will make Europe more dependent on Russian gas and increase Russian political and economic leverage over Europe. The US is keen to kill the project outright with economic sanctions and is looking to appoint an envoy specifically tasked with blocking it.

Military brinkmanship

Hopes of ensuring the pipeline’s completion could be one factor restraining Russia from military action against Ukraine. But Moscow has imposed navigation controls over several parts of the Black Sea, prompting protests from regional neighbours, Nato and the US. Russia accused the US and Nato of engaging in “provocative activities” in the waters and airspace of the Black Sea.

For the Russian authorities, and particularly Putin, such periodic brinkmanship provides multiple easy wins, including distracting attention from protests in Russia and discontent over economic problems.

Putin devoted much of a state of the nation speech on Wednesday to domestic projects such as education and infrastructure, even though it featured a warning to the West to avoid Russia’s “red lines”.

The stand-off could have lasting implications for the complex dynamics between the US, Russia, countries in Western Europe and Ukraine.

Ukraine has lobbied hard for membership of the Nato military alliance, saying it is needed to prevent Moscow using its military to bully its southern neighbour. Russia says people in eastern Ukraine, where separatists have rebelled, would not accept Nato membership, and Putin has warned of unspecified consequences for the alliance if it cultivates closer ties with Kiev.

Ukraine’s Nato quandary

Nato members have stepped up support for Ukraine, but France and Germany are seen as particularly cautious. Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany took the unusual step this month of warning that without Nato membership Kiev might consider re-acquiring nuclear weapons — abandoned since the Soviet era.

Though designed to deter Russia, such statements risk unintentionally pushing Russia closer to conflict if it decides is should take what action it can before Ukraine moves towards the West.

Russia has been steadily moving closer diplomatically to China, where state media has echoed comments by Russia on its confrontation with the US. Earlier this week, the Global Times tabloid repeated Russian accusations — denied by Washington — that the US is fostering “colour revolutions” from Ukraine to Hong Kong.

Though such verbal support might embolden Moscow, it seems unlikely to lead to military forces crossing the border with Ukraine. Some military and political analysts have, however, suggested Russia might consider sending military forces as peacekeepers to Donbass and Luhansk, or annexing the two regions in eastern Ukraine.

Kiev has accused Russians of arming, leading and funding the separatists waging a rebellion in eastern Ukraine since 2014. Moscow has denied the accusations and said it has no plans to intervene in the conflict there.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has called on foreign countries to refrain from a “mass anti-Russian psychosis”, and security forces in Russia and Belarus — an important Russian ally — said earlier in the month they had thwarted an attempted coup and assassination attempt against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Whatever the short-term trajectory of tensions between Washington and Moscow, an era of long-term confrontation is under way.


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