The news stories of the past week are a powerful throwback to an era to which we thought the world bid goodbye in the 1990s – the mutually opposing stance of Russia and the West on the developments in Ukraine, Russian troops in Crimea and the US-Europe combined talk of sanctions against Russia are heating up the theatre. The attack on President Putin by the US State Department through a point-by-point rebuttal and Moscow’s repartee thereto are vintage Cold War stuff. Still, John Kerry and Lavrov have held meetings in Paris and Rome and the US and EU are working on exploring diplomacy alongside threats of visa refusals to Russians, sanctions, and even skipping the G8 meet in Sochi - the list is growing by the hour. The problem can be characterised in a number of ways. It is bilateral between Russia and Ukraine, European because of Ukraine being under Russian coercion against joining the EU, transatlantic because of the 1994 agreement about Ukraine between the US and Russia, and multilateral in view of its shadow over the G8 summit.
This puts paid to the hope that came to life in September 2013 with a breakthrough on Syria between the US and Russia and the successful launching of chemical disarmament of Syria under OPCW, the historic November 2013 agreement in Geneva of Iran with the Group of 6 i.e. US, EU, France, Germany, Russia and China – which hinges on the removal of on Iran. It is anybody’s guess how Russia could endorse continued sanctions on Iran by the same powers who are threatening it with sanctions about actions which Russia considers dictated by its legitimate interests. China, which has been building a closer and closer partnership with Russia over the past decade has suddenly lapsed into its Cold War style equivocation of ‘be good’, ‘be peaceful’ advice to both sides without any word to show its understanding with the Russian position on Ukraine. To Iran’s credit so far, its team in Vienna and Paris are carrying on the positive track set by the November agreement and subsequent arrangements worked out in January this year. Iran has even stated that Ukraine would have no influence on its continued work with its interlocutors.
While the resolution of the Iran imbroglio seems like work in progress, questions arise about a full-range of bilateral, regional as well as multilateral agendas. What will happen to bilateral nuclear accords between US and Russia? This is not only about reduction in strategic arms but also important processes like the Megatons to Megawatts programme whereby Russian-origin HEU is down-blended and burned in nuclear power plants to produce power, which is substantial and earns revenue for Moscow up to as much as USD 25 billion. Will sanctions under consideration in the US derail this process that started in 1995 around the same time that newly independent Ukraine surrendered the strategic weapons on its territory to Russia and acceded to the NPT? Even the burning of excess plutonium as MOX has been part of the US-Russia cooperative threat reduction programme.
The process which has since continued over the past two decades comprises valuable assets in diplomacy. Russia has worked with US and its Western allies on practically all disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation initiatives. President Obama’s Prague speech and subsequent launch of the biennial Nuclear Security Summits has so far received Russian cooperation with participation at the summit level in Washington and Seoul. Will warnings issued now from Washington and others from the G7 to skip the Sochi Summit in June affect Putin’s approach to the Hague Summit later this month? That seems more and more likely as the East-West contention over Ukraine gets worse. The NSS with the participation of 53 countries has meant a lot in a time of multilateral paralysis on nuclear disarmament and arms control. Without Russia, it will be much less credible.
The actions of both sides seem to come in a time warp – the Russian missile test of last week and possibly another to come soon, the invoking of NATO’s article IV by some US allies led by Poland for consultations, the hard-liners in Washington making reckless demands (including expulsion of Russia from the Security Council?) on a president they consider weak and indecisive, Secretary of State John Kerry’s tough warnings despite continued contacts with his Russian counterpart, talk about Russian troops in Crimea implying end of diplomacy are ominous pointers to what might go wrong. With all unresolved tensions still festering in Asia and the Middle East, the entrenchment of a Cold War mentality is bound to be for no one’s gain. Putin may show military muscle to drum up nationalism and brandish Russian strategic systems but will he gain anything? The Europeans are still looking for saner options and seeking to dispel tensions by cooperation with Russia and Ukraine but Russian refusal to meet the new leadership in Kiev is like Western refusal to do anything with the besieged ruler of Syria. Will money from the EU, IMF and other institutions to Ukraine uplift its sinking economy; especially if the worsening situation in Crimea can derail Russian economic interdependence with the rest of Europe? There is too much at stake and even if Europeans succeed in defusing the crisis, chances for which seem fainter than ever before, the taste of bitterness may persist and would virtually stall all forums engaged in diplomacy based on global coordination among great powers and emerging countries. Non-proliferation and arms control will be just the thin end of such a cold war redux.