Information Age communication networks were supposed to help bring understanding between the West and Russia after the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, it seems to have driven them apart for now.
As of 2.30 pm Istanbul time on February 16 2022, it looks like Russia and NATO have found a way to pause escalating diplomatic tensions over the fate of Ukraine.
There are still at least 130,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders. And there are still 44 million people in Ukraine living on top of one of the most dangerous political and military fault lines in the world, a fault line that has been yawning awake again after more than seven decades of slumber. That rift threatens to swallow Ukraine whole.
What passed for good news today was an announcement from the Russian Ministry of Defence saying that some of those soldiers would be returning to their bases. Independent confirmation of the movement of any of those forces, and their direction, remains unavailable as of Wednesday evening, and the White House said on Tuesday night that it saw no sign of a departure.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, said that more negotiations were possible on Russia’s security demands. NATO has only offered to talk about missile deployments and improved lines of communication over military exercises. The Kremlin has not dulled the aspirations of the Ukrainian government or people to join NATO.
NATO membership for Ukraine was a distant prospect before the Russian troop build up, and now it is even more distant. But it has also energised existing NATO members and successfully provoked new NATO deployments to Poland and Romania. On Tuesday night, US President Joe Biden said that these are purely defensive measures and that no US soldiers would be fighting in Ukraine. Flows of military aid to Ukraine, again for defence, would continue.
“The United States and NATO are not a threat to Russia. Ukraine is not threatening Russia.
Neither the US nor NATO have missiles in Ukraine,” Biden said in a speech from the White House on Tuesday night. He also welcomed the chance for more talks with Putin. “We do not — do not have plans to put them there as well. We’re not targeting the people of Russia. We do not seek to destabilise Russia.”
Russia has insisted it has no intention to invade Ukraine, but the military exercises are happening right on Ukraine’s borders, not in Russia’s far east. The exercises allow NATO the chance for surveillance of Russian weapons and troops. That’s a cost Putin appears willing to pay, but so far it is not clear what he expects in return.
Biden’s and Putin’s best allies in avoiding war are the opinions of Russian and American citizens, who don’t want to see it happen. Neither hold particularly positive views of the other’s country, but there is no thirst for warfare. Sadly, if a war begins, it will create its own justifications for continuing despite the diplomatic push for peace and Moscow’s denials that it wants war at all.
“Sending arms or deploying Russian troops into Ukraine is unpopular — and has only become more so as Russians tire of the war Moscow and its proxies have waged in eastern Ukraine since 2014,” a group of academics surveying Russian popular opinion wrote in the Washington Post.
“According to our latest survey of 3,245 Russians in December, just 8 percent think Russia should send military forces to fight against Ukrainian government troops there. Only 9 percent think Russia should train or equip separatist forces with Russian arms.”
The US sending weapons to Ukraine is not universally cheered in the US, either. But that’s more of an academic discussion for Americans, as there is currently no universal requirement for military service. There is one in Russia. Putin would be betting on the war’s horrors justifying the invasion to the public after the fact. The risk of that bet is what should keep Putin from pulling the trigger.
What he does have is one of the largest militaries in the world at his command. Without putting his own soldiers at too much mortal risk, Putin has been able to use the guise of exercises to intimidate Ukrainian civilians in order to extract concessions from the West. The widespread broadcast of Russian military exercises shows the Kremlin’s intention to be as feared as it was heard.
“We showed everyone what we wanted. Previously, they didn’t even want to talk to us about security, but now there is a line of people wanting to admire the views of Moscow in February,” Margarita Simonyan, the Editor-in-Chief of the state-owned RT news network, wrote in a social media post.
“Kyiv’s economy is torn to shreds. A small matter, but pleasant,” Simonyan added in a social media post. “The departing tanks, if needed, will return at just the same speed.”
These statements are a departure from Putin’s romanticised view of the fraternal links between Russians and Ukrainians, which he explained in a widely read essay published last July.
“First of all, I would like to emphasise that the wall that has emerged in recent years between Russia and Ukraine, between the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy,” the Russian president wrote.
“These are, first and foremost, the consequences of our own mistakes made at different periods of time. But these are also the result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity. The formula they apply has been known from time immemorial – divide and rule. There is nothing new here. Hence the attempts to play on the ‘national question’ and sow discord among people, the overarching goal being to divide and then to pit the parts of a single people against one another.”
There’s an ironic twist to the language here. The US intelligence community has concluded, over and over again, that Russia has attempted to “sow discord” in the United States, specifically to aid the candidacy of former US President Donald Trump. Whether you are inclined to believe their conclusion or not, the perception is persistent nonetheless among voters and political leaders.
The American liberals’ fear that Russian interference is trying to destroy democracy by using divisive media has its corollary in Putin’s fear that the US is trying to do the same to Russia. Except instead of democracy, it’s Russian culture and society.
Both Putin and American liberals have a habit of vastly overestimating the responsibility of foreign actors in domestic political strife or even the failure of foreign policy goals. This was also the case during the Cold War, when the US and USSR tried to quarantine their societies from one another.
That kind of societal social distancing is no longer possible, thanks to the internet. And even during the Cold War, the economies of the West and the Soviet Union were interlinked through trade in grain and oil. The geographic distance between the two countries was irrelevant given that both are on the same planet, and connected today to the same web of undersea cables.
Those communication networks were supposed to help bring understanding between the West and Russia after the end of the Cold War, but unfortunately, it seems to have driven them apart. The irony, of course, is that there are no two countries in the world with more in common than the US and Russia.
“Even beyond Europe, Russia’s history, like the United States, is built off the back of settler colonialism. Vast regions, such as Siberia, the Caucuses, and the Arctic were all colonised during the Russian Empire. Minority peoples were trampled by Russian armies and targeted for genocide by Soviet rule,” Terrell Jermaine Starr, an American international affairs analyst based in Ukraine and the host of the Black Diplomats Podcast, wrote in Foreign Policy.
The Russian annexation of Ukraine in 2014 was the culmination of a century of purges of its Crimean Tatar population, which Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin ordered in the 1930s. Tens of thousands of Tatars, men, women and children, died of cold and disease, packed on trains headed to Central Asia.
Stalin then moved ethnic Russians into the region, solidifying Moscow’s control over it. Whether the results are to be believed or not, the legacy of those deportations was apparent in the results of a 2014 referendum in Crimea that saw nearly 97 percent support for annexation by Russia. The vote was held under Russian occupation.
In the same sense, the legacy of the US army’s genocide of Native Americans turned out to be key to the US nuclear triad. The sites of US Intercontinental Ballistic Missile silos are on the same land where the US cavalry carried out campaigns of mass murder and starvation. The American military’s capacity for force projection in the Pacific, from Guam to Alaska, rests on the choices of men, now long dead, to use industrial weaponry to seize distant other people’s land.
But these historical parallels are a bad basis for building cultural understanding. Conservatives in the US and Russia are both unapologetic about their countries’ imperialist past and present, although the Russian right-wing has more centuries of imperialism to nostalgise.
“American and Russian conservatives share that idea and ideal of a national community that has been fragmented by liberal modernity; both tend to root that concept in religion, and both see the normative family as the basic unit of society,” Tony Wood, author of the book “Russia Without Putin”, told TRT World.
“US liberals did see common ground with the Russian liberal free marketeers of the 1990s, but those died out as an electoral force pretty quickly, and they have no role outside the Putinist state, which US liberals have taken firmly against,” he added. “So there's no coherent object of solidarity, as it were, for US liberal centrists.”
So would the world be safer with a US-Russia alliance built on social conservative principles? The answer is no, because this alliance will always depend on the character of each country’s leader.
“The basic geopolitical imbalances of the past 30 years have shaped the course of US–Russia relations far more than individual decisions. I see this as in large part a story of the West – led by the US of course – driving home its advantage after the end of the Cold War. NATO initially expanded in the 1990s because Russia was weak, not because it was a threat. From the Russian side, the story is one of disillusionment, as its leaders gradually realised that their interests were fundamentally distinct from those of the West,” Wood added.
“For a time in the early 1990s, Yeltsin sought to align Russia's foreign policy with Western interests, hoping for NATO or EU membership. From the Western point of view, neither was going to happen, but for a surprisingly long time, Russian leaders maintained the idea that Russia could forge some kind of strategic partnership with the West.
“For example in 2000, after Putin first became president, he asked Clinton about the possibility of Russia joining NATO, and during the ‘War on Terror’ he made repeated overtures to the Bush administration. These were all rebuffed; the US didn't listen to Russia because, as the world's sole superpower, it simply didn't have to.”
Although Russia has made major strides in its military might, and its territory remains massive, there’s no chance that it will catch up with the US economy. The gross domestic product of New York City and San Francisco alone is larger than that of the entire Russian economy. The US has around 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Russia has just one. And while Trump talked about how the US should be “friends with Russia,” his administration oversaw the first deliveries of lethal military aid to Ukraine and major military spending overall.
And in Europe, too, social conservatism is not sufficient to bridge the gap of historical animosities and geopolitical vulnerabilities. Poland has elected a social conservative and increasingly autocratic government, but that government is still deeply hostile to Russian moves in Eastern Europe. The memory of Soviet dominion over Poland, deeply despised by Poles during the Cold War, is still a significant factor in how the country relates to Russia’s push to expand and strengthen its control over the region.
Partisanship is not the solution, because the main habit of like-minded partisans is to engage in fierce rivalries, as the history of both the US and Russia shows. Rather, the best chance for lasting peace or improving relations would be outside of the realm of politics altogether.
The most successful examples of cooperation between Americans, Europeans and Russians have been in space, where they conduct experiments to expand the limits of human knowledge together. That scientific cooperation that began during the Cold War continues today, despite the recent rise in tensions. Although flying around in space together is not a sufficient solution, it does point to what co-existence could look like.
Putin and Yeltsin couldn’t get Russia into NATO, but Russian ice hockey players in the US are on the same team as citizens of NATO countries. One of the best National Hockey League players of all time, Alex Ovechkin, plays for the Washington Capitals. To fans of the team, the fact that he is Russian doesn’t matter as much as the fact that he took the team to win the Stanley Cup Championship in 2018. Everyone can agree on how many goals he’s scored. That’s the fact that matters. (The number is 759).
And while the internet has not resulted in a blossoming of good feelings between Americans and Russians, and has indeed been an arena for conflict between their governments, that doesn’t mean every online interaction is negative.
More and more Americans and Russians broadcasting their daily lives increases the chances for individual friendships to form, even if what each person has in common is a similar taste in music, books or movies that examine or dramatise universal human experiences. That’s a better foundation than trying to build camaraderie over fickle, petty political ideologies alone.
These interactions will face barriers of class and language and worldview, as well as prejudices founded in ignorance. But that’s the case with any human interaction, whether it is happening between societies or within them. Person-to-person diplomacy, of the kind conducted on the International Space Station, offers the highest possible bandwidth for human communication. Unlike the internet, face-to-face communication presents far less risk of distortion by third parties serving the interest of any authority, algorithmic or otherwise.
In the final analysis, prospects for peace between the US and Russia can be found in joint pursuit of truth, whether that truth is scientific, athletic or personal. The US government could do more for the cause of peace by spending a million dollars on a US-Russian academic exchange programme than it could by spending a billion dollars on some new weapon of death. Those are the kinds of connections that Americans and Russians are still not finished building. The rest of the world should hope they continue to try, whether it’s online, in space or on a hockey rink.
The timeframe for this generational diplomatic effort is continuous and open-ended. It might take hundreds of years, not just thirty. But success, and the dismantling of nuclear weapons, will help ensure the durability of human civilisation for millennia to come.