Why a new Cold War with Russia is inevitable

This is a critical moment in U.S-Russia relations. The civil war in Ukraine is settling into a mutually hurtful stalemate; a workable nuclear deal with Iran has been concluded; and Russia is ramping up its presence in Syria, which increases the danger of confrontation with the United States but also opens up the potential for cooperation against the Islamic State (or ISIS). Before a more hawkish U.S. administration comes to power—and before anti-Americanism becomes further entrenched in Russia as evidenced by the latest Levada Center public polling data—perhaps there is an opportunity for Washington and Moscow to overcome their current impasse.

This is our hope. But theory and evidence point to a sobering conclusion: Neither side can make the concessions necessary to resolve their current differences and prevent relations from deteriorating even further.

Commitment anxiety

The chief concern of those calling for negotiation between the United States and Russia is that while the current relationship is beset by a number of serious differences, the downside of an openly hostile relationship is even worse. These voices argue that without an updated European security framework to resolve some of the worst tensions (and implicitly to update the post-Cold War settlement), a new Cold War between the two camps will emerge.

The competition would not be as encompassing as before, but it would make cooperation on vital issues outside of Europe—including Iran, ISIS, and Syria—unsustainable and lead to an inherently more unstable international order. In turn, they advocate for a mutually acceptable framework for regional order to avoid future conflicts from arising in other areas of the post-Soviet space.

We are skeptical that such a grand bargain can be reached, because it would suffer from acute commitment problems.

A larger “grand bargain” to regulate the structure of international and regional relations based on mutual accommodation is a worthy goal. Nevertheless, we are skeptical that such a grand bargain can be reached, because it would suffer from acute commitment problems. Russia would have to convince the United States and its allies that it would not push for even greater revisions to the status quo. The United States would have to demonstrate to Russia that it would stick to any bargain and not go back to the policies that threaten it.

Impossible concessions

Among the insights of bargaining theory is that states can overcome commitment problems by accepting costly concessions that signal their resolve to abide by agreements. What hypothetical concessions could both sides make to make the grand bargain stick?

Russia could atone for its actions in Crimea—which Washington and other Western capitals see as a grave breach of international law and order—by either reversing the annexation or by using economic and other inducements to get Kiev to recognize the new status quo. The United States could address Russia’s fears of encirclement by NATO, either by agreeing to the formation of a pan-European security organization with authority above NATO’s (as Dmitri Medvedev proposed during his presidency). Or, it could formally abrogate NATO’s right to enlarge its membership and recognize the neutrality of the post-Soviet states on Russia’s Western borders.

A new Cold War…would make cooperation on vital issues outside of Europe—including Iran, ISIS, and Syria—unsustainable.

While these concessions could conceivably make a bargain work, we believe that the domestic political costs of trying to implement such agreements would be too high for leaders of both sides. Any demand for the return of Crimea to Ukraine (as many Western voices have implored) is a non-starter for Russia. The Kremlin has invested so much in the “Return of Crimea” discourse that even minor concessions on this issue would shake the regime’s legitimacy to its very foundations (and perhaps even threaten a nationalist revolt).

The alternative—inducing Ukraine to recognize de facto the loss of Crimea—is also problematic, with severe domestic blowback almost certain to befall any government in Kiev that made the deal. Moreover, given its current economic difficulties, Moscow may not be able to deliver the economic inducements necessary to win Kiev’s compliance.

On the other side, any concession that would give Russia a de facto veto over NATO’s policies would be rejected outright by the alliance’s members. The more moderate option, the abrogation of NATO enlargement and the recognition of Russia’s sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, is unacceptable to American leaders and publics. It would validate a realpolitik understanding of international relations that is fundamentally at odds with their views of international relations—in which every state should be free to choose its alliances.

A downward slide?

As things stand now, neither side can make the concessions necessary to make a grand bargain work. As a result, both now find themselves sliding towards a new Cold War that neither really wants.

We hope that statesmen on both sides will prove us wrong by finding the courage and foresight necessary to overcome these commitment problems. But it is difficult to be optimistic given the current political climate, as talk in both capitals is dominated by the sort of Russia- and America-bashing, which prevents either side from developing an appreciation of the other’s security concerns.