TSG IntelBrief: The Outlook for U.S.-Russia Relations
April 27, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Reports of Russian military flights near Alaska in mid-April are not alarming in and of themselves, but are part of alarming trend.
• Relations between the U.S. and Russia remain tense across the geopolitical spectrum, and will likely continue to deteriorate.
• Russia will continue to carry out disinformation and influence campaigns against Western elections and politicians.
• Syria will continue to be the most likely arena for accidental clashes between the U.S. and Russian militaries given the proximity of their respective operations in a crowded and chaotic battlefield and airspace.
The post-Cold War relationship between Russia and the U.S. has entered a new stage. The sheer range of issues in which Washington and Moscow are in conflict is of great concern, but so too is the fact that there are few issues in which the two countries can cooperate meaningfully and effectively. The threat of terrorism, which generally causes even bitter rivals to cooperate on an enemy that threatens both, now divides more than it unifies in terms of international cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. The medium-term outlook for Russian-U.S. relations not only shows little cause for optimism but rather shows serious cause for concern given the stark imbalance between areas of conflict and areas of cooperation.
Reports in mid-April of four flights by Russian military aircraft at varying distances from the Alaskan coast show that Moscow remains intent on power projection and saber-rattling as if it were still the Cold War. Viewed in isolation, there is actually little alarming or troubling about such flights—the U.S. regularly conducts similar flights in international air space near Russia. Indeed, the Pentagon said as much when remarking about the joint U.S.-Canadian identification and polite intercept of the Russian bombers and marine patrol aircraft. These flights are a far cry from the exceedingly provocative and dangerous fly-bys performed several times over the last year by Russian jets over U.S. naval ships in the Black Sea.
At the same time, however, two high-profile investigations by the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate are gathering speed as they look into Russian efforts to influence the recent U.S. election. The Senate investigation is also looking into whether there were improper contacts and relationships between individuals in or associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Russia’s coordinated hybrid disinformation campaign using fake news items tailored to appeal to existing fears, prejudices, and concerns—and spread by bots and paid social media posters—has thus far been a largely consequence-free form of meddling that is now being repeated across western Europe. From France to the Netherlands, elections, politicians, and social issues are being targeted by Russia’s intelligence agencies and proxies.
On top of ongoing concerns about how to counter or deter Russian influence operations across the West are the issues of Syria and Ukraine. In terms of Ukraine—where last week a U.S. citizen working with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring the fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebel forces (and sometimes simply Russian forces) was killed when his vehicle hit a separatist landmine—Russia will not reverse course. It has repeatedly stated it will not return Crimea, which it illegally annexed in March 2014. The annexation of Crimea—the first such land grab in Europe since the end of the World War II—and Russia’s blatant (yet denied) military operations in eastern Ukraine are the largest source of contention between Moscow and the EU. Meanwhile, Russia’s military operations in Syria—where more U.S. forces and aircraft are now in too-close-for-comfort proximity to Russian forces and aircraft—are perhaps the greatest source of contention with the U.S. Russia will not change its stance on Ukraine or Syria, and neither issue is likely to improve with time. Though U.S.-Russian relations may not be ‘at an all-time low’—as President Trump recently stated—given the many truly dangerous periods since 1945, relations between Washington and Moscow are exceedingly poor across the spectrum, with little reason for optimism for any change in direction.
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