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Are the US and Russia on a Collision Course?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump. (AP File Photos)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump. (AP File Photos)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter@JosephVMicallef.

In late July, the House and Senate both passed the Russian Sanctions Bill by an overwhelming majority, 419 to 33 in the House and 98 to 2 in the Senate. The bill, which had started out as a move to impose additional sanctions on both North Korea and Iran for their recent ballistic missile tests, turned into a vehicle for sanctioning Russia as well in response to continuing disclosures of Russian interference in the recent U.S. presidential election.

The Sanctions Bill specifically targets Russia's weapons exports and energy sector. In particular, it allows the U.S. to impose sanctions on any companies participating in the development of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

The pipeline is designed to bring Russian natural gas from Vyborg in the Russian Federation to Greifswald in Germany. The route, across the Baltic sea floor, bypasses the need to cross any of Russia's neighbors.

There are five European companies, Uniper, Wintershall, Shell, OMV and Engie, that have committed to each financing 10 percent of the project, up to roughly one billion dollars each. The other 50 percent of the financing is being funded by the Russian energy company Gazprom. The Sanctions Bill has been criticized in Europe as it exposes the five European companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 project to potential sanctions by the U.S.

In addition, the legislation limits the ability of a president to roll back any of the sanctions that were imposed by former President Barack Obama, via an executive order in December 2016, in response to findings that the Kremlin had interfered in the 2016 presidential elections.

Not since Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973, has a bipartisan Congress moved so resolutely to limit Presidential authority. The Trump Administration, after claiming that it had weighed in on some of the provisions of the bill and had them modified, quietly signed the measure on August 2.

The Russian response to the new sanctions bill was swift. Russian President Vladimir Putin termed the sanctions bill "illegal" and went on to add, "it's impossible to endlessly tolerate this kind of insolence towards our country ...This practice is unacceptable -- it destroys international relations and international law."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov derided the American action, claiming that Russia was doing "everything possible" to improve U.S.-Russia relationships but that, "U.S. policy was in the hands of Russophobic forces, pushing Washington to the path of confrontation."

On Sunday, July 30, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that it had seized two properties owned by the U.S. Embassy, a warehouse in Moscow and a country villa, or dacha, on the outskirts of the city. In addition, the Ministry announced that the U.S. would have to reduce its embassy and consulate staff, by 755 employees, from 1,210 to 455 -- the same level of staff allowed to Russia in the U.S.

From a practical standpoint, most of the staff reduction will involve Russian nationals that are employed in the embassy in a variety of roles, from drivers to housekeeping functions. The last time the Kremlin took a similar action, in the 1980s, diplomatic staff were forced to contribute one day a week doing various menial and support tasks at the embassy.

In addition, the Kremlin is likely to redouble its efforts to sow dissension within NATO while looking for additional opportunities to challenge American interests around the world. On July 31st, Moscow announced plans to integrate soldiers in the South Ossetian militia into the Russian Army.

South Ossetia, is a breakaway region of Georgia that has been supported by Russia. Abkhazia, a second breakaway region from Georgia announced that same day that it would establish "an information and coordination center" with Russia.

Significantly, the announcement came during US Vice President's July 31 -- August 1 visit to Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. The next day, Georgian president Giorgi Margvelashvili issued a statement that Georgia's territorial integrity and its eventual membership in NATO were "clearly defined" during Pence's visit.

The Kremlin's policy towards Georgia is a classic example of how Moscow uses conflicts in peripheral areas to hamper US policy. Georgia is not a strategic interest of the U.S. Its position in the South Caucasus however makes it critically important to Russia.

If the US downplays its commitment to Georgia's territorial integrity, ignores Russian attempts at subversion or does not support Georgia's eventual membership in NATO, the Kremlin will emphasize the limits of US power and Washington's unwillingness to defend the territorial integrity of the nations in the Near Abroad.

If, on the other hands, Washington emphasizes its commitment to nations like Georgia, it will create conflict within NATO. There is little support within NATO's European members to include a member currently in open conflict with Russia and whose geographic position is not strategic to NATO's mission.

Likewise, Moscow has moved to expand its trade relationship with North Korea, shipping food and possibly fuel supplies to Pyongyang. Russia has little strategic interests in North Korea, but here too it can hamper US plans to further isolate Pyongyang to gain some leverage against Washington.

Russia voted in favor of the recent UN Security Council resolution imposing new sanctions on roughly one billion dollars' worth of North Korean exports. At the same time, Russia's UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, called for a "creative solution" to the Korean problem; a reference to Moscow's proposal to trade a suspension of Pyongyang's nuclear program for a withdrawal of US forces from South Korea.

The Trump Administration is now the third American presidency to attempt to improve U.S. relations with Russia with little success. George W. Bush famously declared that he had looked into Vladimir Putin's soul and "found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy." In March 2009, Barack Obama dispatched his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to Geneva to symbolically present Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a reset button that would re-energize Russian-American cooperation.

As a candidate, Donald Trump argued that he would improve U.S.-Russian relationships only to find himself, subsequently to becoming president, at the center of a broad investigation concerning Russian meddling in the U.S. election and inappropriate contacts between members of his campaign staff and Russian officials. This latest Sanctions Act, effectively strips much of the president's power to unilaterally roll back many of the sanctions imposed on Russia.

Not since the height of the Cold War have relations between Moscow and Washington been so frigid. Moreover, this time the U.S. and Russia seem to be locked into a cycle of confrontation and tit-for-tat reprisals that is accelerating into a steadily increasing spiral of deteriorating relations. Are Moscow and Washington falling into an ever-deeper pattern of confrontation and retaliation?

Since 2014, the imposition of sanctions by the U.S. and its allies, in response to the Russian takeover of the Crimea and the Kremlin's support of secessionist groups in the Donetsk Basin of Eastern Ukraine, has been at the center of Russian-U.S. relations. The effect of the sanctions has been further magnified by low petroleum prices. The issue over Ukraine, however, is just a symptom of a far deeper issue that dates back to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989.

In the spring of 1990, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the four principal Allied powers from World War II, the U.S., France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union signed, in Moscow, a treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, which consented to the unification of the two Germanies and granted full sovereignty to the new, unified German state.

The treaty, nicknamed the Two Plus Four Treaty, represented a revision to the agreement reached by U.S. President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin in Potsdam on August 1, 1945.

The original agreement, among other things, had set out the borders of the four occupation zones in which Germany was divided as well as the overall borders of the German state, and in particular the eastern border with Poland along the Ode and Neisse rivers (Oder-Neisse line)

German reunification was a controversial issue. UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was famously opposed to it, declaring, "We defeated the Germans twice! And now they're back!" French President Francois Mitterrand was equally opposed, although he conceded that reunification was inevitable. Given its prior history with Germany, the Soviet leadership also had serious misgivings about German reunification.

The negotiation over the Two Plus Four Treaty occurred during a period of worsening economic crisis in the USSR. Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was convinced that the USSR needed to integrate itself further into Europe and believed that Soviet consent to German reunification would pave the way for closer economic relations with the EU and America, as well as access to Western financing and technology.

The Kremlin has long held that its acquiescence to German reunification was contingent on U.S. assurances that neither NATO nor the EU would seek to expand eastward into those countries whose government had previously been allied with Moscow. Successive U.S. administrations, however, have maintained that no such assurances were ever given to Moscow.

The Treaty on the Final Settlement did not impose any limitations on the expansion of either NATO or the EU eastward. Significantly, former General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev has also confirmed that he did not ask for any such assurances and that none were given by then Secretary of State James Baker.

In retrospect, it was naïve to think that having suffered a half century or more of Soviet control, the former members of the Warsaw Pact, as well as those newly independent nations, formerly constituent republics of the Soviet Union like the Baltic states, would not seize the opportunity to protect their sovereignty through the collective security arrangements offered by NATO.

Likewise, the opportunity to link their economies to the dynamic marketplace of the European Union and its access to capital, technology and its multi-trillion-euro consumer market was difficult to resist.

It was equally naïve to believe that the United States and its EU and NATO allies would not see the opportunity afforded by the collapsing Soviet Union to roll back the influence of the USSR and later Russia and to institutionalize that roll back by expanding multilateral organizations like NATO and the EU.

In allowing and encouraging the expansion of NATO and the EU, however, the U.S. and its allies also committed themselves to the defense of a region where the U.S. had little strategic interest and which have historically been seen by Moscow as crucial to its defense and security.

Vladimir Putin famously declared that the breakup of the USSR was "the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century."

When Putin came to power in 2000, he brought with him a conception of Russian security shaped by Russia's historical experience of its vulnerability of invasion from the West and a strategic doctrine that Russian security was firmly grounded in Russian dominance of the region the Kremlin called the Near Abroad, essentially that area formerly bound by the Soviet Union and now distributed among the 14 successor states which emerged, in addition to Russia, from the detritus of the USSR.

Additionally, this region included 25 million ethnic Russians to whom Russia would eventually grant Russian citizenship and assume responsibility for.

Between 2000 and the present day, a series of popular, peaceful uprisings took hold in the Balkans and in some of the former republics of the USSR. The Western media termed them the "Color Revolutions," although the first uprising in Yugoslavia, which ultimately led to its break up, was termed the Bulldozer Revolution and two subsequent uprisings, in Georgia in 2003 and in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, took a rose and a tulip respectively as their symbol.

These popular uprisings were unofficially supported by the U.S. and European governments and were aided by a variety of Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs), many of which operated with financial support and assistance from American and European governments.

U.S. and European support for democratic movements in Eastern Europe was nothing new. The Reagan Administration had actively supported such movements prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union and had covertly funneled hundreds of millions of dollars of financial aid to, among others, Poland's Solidarity movement.

Russian hardliners to this day still argue that had the Kremlin enforced the Brezhnev Doctrine and intervened to quell the unrest, as Moscow had done in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet Union might still exist today.

For Moscow, the argument underscores the importance of Russian military power in the region. Russian foreign policy hardliners point out that Washington opted not to intervene during the Hungarian and Czech crisis because it realized that the region was a core interest of the Soviet Union and any intervention could lead to a military conflict with the USSR.

By the 1980s, Soviet weakness meant that the West could intervene with relative impunity; a condition that has persisted to this day.

For the Kremlin these revolutions, which it perceived as having an anti-Russian and anti-Moscow character, served to not only undermine Russia's position in the region and to bring U.S. and European influence that much closer to Russia's borders, but also as a source of contagion that could spill over into other regions of the "Near Abroad" and potentially into Russia itself. The color revolutions were simply the latest chapter in an ongoing drama for how the U.S. and its allies were rolling back first Soviet and now Russian influence and power in the region.

Moscow is convinced that the West is determined to encourage color revolutions throughout the former Soviet Union and even Russia itself, an event that would result in the overthrow of Vladimir Putin and the Russian ruling class that has emerged around him.

As Russia has become increasingly more autocratic, the prospect of democratic revolutions among its neighbors has become all the more threatening. For the Kremlin, the color revolutions and Western support for them is nothing less than an existential threat to the continuation of the present regime.

The color revolution that has been playing out in Ukraine since 2004 was particularly dangerous to Moscow. Ukraine's geographic position raised the prospect of NATO forces on the doorstep of the Russian heartland while at the same time potentially limiting Russian access to the Black Sea.

Moreover, it meant that virtually all of what had once been western Russia was, except for Belarus, now increasingly in America's orbit. Not since the Treaty of Brest Litovsk in 1917, had Russian influence been rolled back so dramatically.

Unable to restore the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych, and fearful that the pro-Western government in Kiev would move to join NATO, Putin dispatched Russian troops to seize the Crimea, while at the same time supporting ethnic Russians advocating for Eastern Ukraine and the Donetsk Basin to secede from Ukraine.

It was those actions that prompted the U.S. and the EU to impose sanctions on Russia and that have set the tempo of Russian-American relations ever since.

The United States does not have any significant strategic interests in Eastern Europe or the Near Abroad outside of their potential role in containing Russia. Moreover, while Russia has been and will continue to be a disruptive force in European political affairs and in European-American relations, Moscow no longer has the ability to militarily dominate Western Europe or impose its will upon the continent.

On the other hand, support for democratic movements has long been a touchstone of U.S. foreign policy. In Eastern Europe and the Near Abroad, however, such support however comes at a high price.

While Russia is no longer the superpower it once was, it is still the dominant military power in the region, and will likely retain that status for the foreseeable future. The democratic states that emerged from the Soviet Union will find it difficult to resist Russian encroachments and subversion on their own, especially if they are still highly dependent on Russian natural gas for their energy needs or have a large number of ethnic Russian citizens within their borders.

Hence, their interest in seeking the support of a multilateral military coalition like NATO. Ultimately, having now allowed them to join NATO, it will fall on the U.S. and its NATO allies to ensure that these countries retain their independence in accordance with the mutual defense provisions of the NATO treaty. Barring a fundamental change in Moscow's posture, that is an open-ended commitment that will last for some time.

In the closing months of World War II, Adolph Hitler confidently predicted that the Allied Coalition arrayed against him would collapse over rivalries on who would dominate postwar Europe. It didn't, in large part because at Yalta, Churchill and Roosevelt consented to the postwar domination of Eastern Europe by the USSR. Stalin, confident that American withdrawal from the European continent would eventually open the way for Soviet domination of the rest of the continent, was content to bide his time.

What the Kremlin ultimately wants from the West is a 21st century Yalta, an explicit commitment that NATO and the EU will halt their eastward expansion and ideally even reverse it, and consent to Russian political and economic domination of the Near Abroad. Such an outcome, while not inconceivable, is unlikely.

First, there is no clear mechanism to rescind NATO membership. A member of the alliance can withdraw or downplay its membership, as France did under Charles de Gaulle, but it can't be booted from the group. Secondly, a withdrawal by the U.S. and Europe from the region, or even the imposition of an enforced neutrality among the nations of the Near Abroad, would be highly unpopular among Western European voters.

Repeated Pew Research Center surveys of European voters have shown widespread support, for example, for Ukraine membership in NATO and the EU and for providing economic assistance, even though direct military aid much less a military confrontation with Russia over Ukraine remains unpopular.

While American voters are generally more ambivalent and less knowledgeable about the situation in Eastern Europe, these countries enjoy broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Any attempt by an American president to consent to a Yalta-like solution would be vigorously opposed by Congress.

Moreover, an American withdrawal from Eastern Europe would be perceived as undermining NATO, raise doubts about the reliability of American security guarantees elsewhere in Europe and be interpreted as a major Russian diplomatic victory. In short, having advanced NATO's and the EU's frontiers to Russia's borders, the West will find it difficult to reverse course, even when that strategy makes an ongoing confrontation with Russia inevitable.

There is an old adage that, when you find yourself in a hole the first thing to do is to stop digging. It is a lesson that Vladimir Putin has yet to acknowledge.

Having gambled and lost in Russia's intervention in Ukraine, the Kremlin has since tried to double down; interfering in the U.S. and French presidential elections in the hope of electing friendlier governments while continuing to oppose U.S. interests and objectives around the world in the hope of amassing enough chips to allow it to broker a satisfactory agreement with the U.S. and its allies over Ukraine and the elimination of economic sanctions.

To date, that strategy has largely failed. While it is indisputable that the Kremlin sought to interfere in the U.S. presidential elections, it is unclear whether their objective was to promote the candidacy of Donald Trump, cripple the campaign of Hillary Clinton or simply inject enough confusion and uncertainty about Russia's role and objectives to simple cast a shadow over the legitimacy of any incoming administration.

While Moscow has certainly accomplished those goals, they have come at a high political price; one that makes it virtually impossible for the existing sanctions against Russia to be lifted.

As long as the Kremlin defines its security as contingent on its control of the Near Abroad, as long as Moscow sees democratic revolutions among its neighbors as potentially destabilizing Russia, and as long as it sees Russia's status as a great power dependent on its ability to dominate and shape its periphery, and as long as the U.S. and its European allies are committed to supporting democratic revolutions among the former Republics of the USSR, then Moscow and Washington will remain on a collision course.

The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com.

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