Who could have imagined, one year ago, that American-Russian relations would deteriorate to a degree that would lead some Russia watchers and America experts to speak about a sense of déjà vu, the rhetoric of the Cold War back in circulation, when analysing the new lows in bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington?
US President Donald Trump, upon entering the White House in January 2017, had shown a marked willingness to cooperate with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, in order to improve American-Russian relations, on the one hand, and to work with the Russians to find peaceful solutions to crises in Ukraine and Syria, on the other.
The world welcomed such openness on the part of the new US administration and, for a while, things seemed to move in the right direction. Arab countries, Egypt included, thought that this American attitude would help in implementing UN Security Council resolutions related to Syria and Libya, and maybe would have a positive impact on the Middle East peace process.
After all, both the United States and Russia are members of the Middle East Quartet.
By the end of last year, American positions on Russia hardened in a way that startled the world. As an example, the Obama administration had declined to provide the Ukrainian army with lethal weapons, for fear of making matters worse, and hampering implementation of the Minsk Accord.
That was a wise decision and encouraged, to a certain degree, the concerned parties, including Germany and France, to keep working in that direction.
However, the Trump administration, late last year, shifted gears and decided to start exporting lethal weapons to the Ukrainian military. The US State Department announced last week that Washington okayed the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles and related equipment to Kiev in a deal worth $47 million.
The US Defence Security Cooperation Agency said in an official notice last week that this proposed sale “will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by improving the security of Ukraine”.
It added that the Javelin system “will help Ukraine build its long-term defence capacity to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
It goes without saying that the Russians would take the necessary measures to keep a certain balance of power between Kiev and the Eastern Ukraine regions that have enjoyed Russian support from 2014 onwards.
In the meantime, the US administration unveiled its Nuclear Posture Review last year that considered both Russia and China as anti-status-quo powers bent on confronting the United States and the “international liberal order” of the post-Berlin Wall international system. In this review, the United States called for developing smaller, low-yield nuclear weapons to deter Russia and China.
Dana White, spokeswoman of the Pentagon, explained this strategy, stressing that the United States needed to develop such tactical nuclear weapons because of “many things Russia has done”.
On the other hand, she assured Moscow that American defence plans have never been about Russia. It is highly doubtful that the Russians would buy such assurances.
As a matter of fact, the Russian response to the abovementioned American moves, decisions and policies was not slow in coming.
On Thursday, 1 March, Putin went on national television and said, “I want to tell those who have fuelled the arms race over the last 15 years, sought to win unilateral advantages over Russia, introduced sanctions aimed to contain [Russia’s] development… you have failed to contain Russia.”
He said that his country has developed a nuclear weapon that makes defence systems “useless”. He added that this intercontinental ballistic missile is capable of reaching nearly any target in the world, adding that “defence systems will not be able to withstand it.”
The missile President Putin talked about is a hypersonic missile, meaning that its speed is five times the speed of sound.
The Russian president emphasised that Moscow believes that a strong military is a necessary guarantor of peace in the world.
However, he warned that any use of “nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies… any kind of attack… will be regarded as a nuclear attack against Russia”. He made clear that in responding to such attacks, “Russia will take action… no matter what the consequences are,” and that “nobody should have any doubt about that.”
The Pentagon reacted quickly to the televised speech of President Putin. The spokeswoman of the US Defense Department affirmed that the United States needs “to ensure [it has a] credible nuclear deterrent, and we are confident that we are prepared to defend this nation no matter what”.
The two superpowers and China are actively engaged in an arms race, not only in nuclear arms but also in new small tactical nuclear weapons that could be used in local theatres of war. In Ukraine, or Syria, for example. Or in North Korea.
In the heyday of the Cold War, there had been two political ideologies fiercely competing: capitalism and communism.
The United States was the uncontested leader of the capitalist camp, which was called the “Free World”, and the former Soviet Union spearheaded a “world revolution” to propagate its communist ideology.
The world back then was evenly divided between the two superpowers.
In today’s world, things have dramatically changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Soviet Union became history and the United States is no longer the uncontested leader of the “Free World”.
To mark the difference, the concept of the “Free World” itself had undergone revision to reflect the basic changes in the contemporary international system.
It has been replaced by the “international liberal order” which is not restricted geographically to the Western world, but encompasses countries from east and west that share the “liberal and democratic” values so cherished by the West. Of course, this liberal international order almost crumbled in the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and saw the rise of nationalist populism across the United States and Europe in later years.
In other words, if there are existential threats to the West, they are not necessarily the doings of the Russians and the Chinese who have every right to defend their national security interests.
Unlike the Cold War years of the 1950s and 1960s, it is difficult today to identify enemies among the superpowers.
We could safely speak of adversarial pattern of relations among them. This could be managed through diplomacy and not through armed containment. The world of today has become so interdependent and international relations so fluid that a return to the Cold War is almost impossible.
However, we should be wary of its shadows. The Arab world should not live under these threatening shadows. Maybe, destiny beckons Egypt to play a greater role in this respect.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly