Stumbling towards conflict with Russia?

When Rip Van Winkle fell into a deep sleep and awoke 20 years later, he found that his world had changed almost beyond recognition. But, were today’s Rip Van Winkle to sleep for no more than a year and a half, he would awake to a radically different Russian-American relationship—and not just different, but dangerous to the point where usually-sober students of international relations now openly worry about Washington and Moscow stumbling into a confrontation that could lead to a totally unwanted conflict.

From the beginning of this odd crisis, the Obama White House stressed that although it profoundly disagreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy in Crimea and Ukraine, it would not go to go to war over the matter. Unstated was the understanding that Ukraine represented an existential challenge for Russia; not so for the United States.

Still the U.S. was stunned by Putin’s brazen seizure of Crimea. To punish Russia for violating a neighbor’s territorial integrity and disrupting the post-Cold War norms of international behavior—accepted throughout the Western world though clearly not by Putin—Washington took the lead in imposing economic sanctions against Russia and, when possible, isolating it diplomatically.

Rather than bend to this Western pressure, Putin doubled-down. He annexed Crimea, instigated a pro-Russian rebellion in southeastern Ukraine, and imposed his own set of sanctions against the West. He also accused the U.S. of moving its armies and alliances closer to Russia’s borders, threatening its national security. The sharp deterioration in East-West relations had all the earmarks of a new Cold War.

The West vacillates

It is possible that President Obama exacerbated the problem when he, along with most Western leaders, declined to attend the May 9 celebrations in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the allied victory over Nazi Germany. The snub was intended to display his displeasure with Putin’s policy. But it also robbed Obama of the chance to pay his respects to the Russian people for their sacrifices during World War II. This decision may yet prove to be a blunder. Obama could have used such an event to remind the Russian people, and everyone else, that Russia and America once cooperated as wartime allies to move history in a positive, promising direction—and could do so again, if Putin changed his policy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Moscow the next day, surprising many and striking a delicate balance between policy and courtesy. Proving that she could walk and chew gum at the same time, Merkel laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an obvious sign of respect for the Russian people. She then proceeded to scold Putin in a long, private talk, warning him that new sanctions would be imposed if Russia did not abide by the Minsk II ceasefire accords.

Even more surprising was Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Sochi the following day, where he conducted a full day of unexpected negotiations with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It was the first time the peripatetic Kerry visited Russia since the Ukraine crisis began, and it may yet foreshadow a possible Putin-Obama summit. Surely the Sochi meetings signaled to Putin that the U.S. wanted to stop the deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations, suggesting there is room for cooperation on Iran, Syria, terrorism, and other issues. Indeed, if Russia plays its part and abides by the Minsk II accords, the U.S. might regard the Ukraine crisis as effectively shelved for the time being.

Putin’s interest in softening Western sanctions might explain his willingness to meet with Merkel and Kerry. His actions recall Vladimir Lenin’s dictum: “Probe with a bayonet; if you meet steel, stop! If you meet mush, then push.” Putin is a stubborn, shrewd nationalist, a product of the Soviet KGB. From his Kremlin window, as he gazes out at the Baltic and Eastern Europe, he sees many confusing problems. Should he “stop” or “push”?

At the European Union summit in Riga on May 21-22, for instance, what did the leaders mean to say? Baltic diplomats were profoundly disappointed by the results. The final communiqué offered only perfunctory praise for Ukraine’s recent reforms. It contained no firm promises of further Western support. Putin the cynic should have been delighted by this show of Western indecisiveness. Who wants to fight Russia over the fate of Ukraine?

But at the same time, Putin could not help but notice large U.S. and NATO military exercises throughout Eastern Europe—including in Western Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltics. What was Obama up to? Was he going to send lethal military aid to Ukraine? What were U.S. paratroopers doing in the Caucasus? War games? Was this all not similar to the containment policy of the Cold War?

American diplomats and generals rarely miss an opportunity to stress that the U.S. will live up to its Article 5 obligations in the NATO charter. When Obama visited Tallinn, Estonia last September, he attempted to ease Baltic anxieties. “An attack on one is an attack on all,” the president said, adding: “[if] you ever ask again, ‘Who will come to help?’, you’ll know the answer—the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America.” It is still an open question whether NATO, including the United States, would live up to its Article 5 NATO obligations if Russia moved into the Baltic.

Potential for errors

These American promises and military actions in Russia’s backyard constitute a needed Western response to Putin’s provocations throughout the region. Russian incursions into Baltic waters and airspace—which have led to near-collisions with U.S. aircraft—could touch off a totally unnecessary crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. In fact, according to one reliable report, Russian jets have on several occasions buzzed Western military and civilian flights over the North Sea and even over the English Channel.

At the moment, Putin is talking out of both sides of his mouth. He suggests in diplomatic talks that he is open to a relaxation of East-West tensions, but in military actions that he is prepared to engage in a dangerous game of chicken in the Baltics and elsewhere. That is why, for the first time since the Ukraine crisis began 15 months ago, there is a real concern that Russia and the United States may unintentionally be stumbling into a confrontation neither wants.