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US & Russia: Stalemate on the Grand Chessboard

America and Russia: Stalemate on the Grand Chessboard

by Reuben Steff

Click to enlarge

Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama exchange pleasantries (Image: The Kremlin).

The recent American-Russian summit had all the pomp, ceremony and pleasantries that one expects of political theater. However these atmospherics only acted to obscure and divert the world’s attention from the core disputes which remain unresolved between the two powers.

Just prior to the summit Obama accused Putin of being stuck in a Cold War mindset. This statement had some merit. After all, Putin and Medvedev have been hard at work re-asserting Russia on the global stage and attempting to force former Soviet states to bow to their regional hegemony.

They have done this by using Russia’s massive energy resources and through the use of military power, most notably during its 2008 invasion of Georgia.

In other ways Obama’s statement can be seen as remarkably hypocritical if we consider his recent commitment to maintain a global military presence beyond challenge, signaling that he adheres to the doctrine of ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ – ‘Pentagonese’ for America’s efforts to dominate all domains of the earth – it’s oceans, land areas, airspace, cyberspace and outer space.

Obama’s predecessor had massive faith in the transformative power of military force, with his lackey’s stating that America could now ‘create reality’. This hubris, accompanied by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is Obama’s inheritance from his predecessor. Thus, if Putin is stuck in a Cold War mindset then Obama is captive to one. Their actions show that both continue to place faith in the ultimate power of military might to coerce and influence other nations.

Russia’s recent efforts should not surprise anyone. It is no longer the confused and chaotic state of the 1990s. America felt it could ignore that Russia, illustrated by the expansion of NATO right up to Russia’s borders.

How quickly things change. When Russia is weak and fragmented it is easy to dismiss; when it is united and strong it usurps the global stage. This is the Russia Obama confronts today.

This made the summit all the more important. Their strategies have diverged in recent years to the extent that they now both embrace one another in a strategic relationship characterized by geopolitical confrontation.

Fundamentally, we can identify three key areas that are in dispute:

Firstly, America has committed itself to placing missile defence interceptors in Poland. Russia perceives this to be part of an effort to contain its resurgence. At this stage it is not the capability of the system itself that worries the Russians but American ‘boots on the ground’ and the potential for Poland to act as a ‘forward base’ for American power projection.

Secondly, America desperately wants to isolate Iran in order to curb its nuclear aspirations. This is impossible without the help of Russia, which sells Iran arms, helps build its nuclear installations and engages it economically. Russia knows how important getting Iran to behave is to the Americans so will not be willing to give up its patronage without getting a major concession from the Americans in return.

Thirdly, America continues to support Ukraine and Georgia’s bids (albeit tempered since the arrival of Obama) to join NATO. Russia has made it clear that it sees this as a fundamental threat to its national security. The invasion of Georgia clearly signaled this. Moreover it had the dual purpose of clearly showing that the balance of power had changed in its favour throughout the region. This is a consequence of American military forces becoming stuck in the Middle East.

From the statements made at the summit, none of these points of contention were overcome.

So what was achieved? There was an agreement to cut nuclear arms by a third. This has been widely heralded, yet poorly understood.

Their nuclear armaments are a Cold War issue and the only area of substance that they could agree upon. This is for good reason: use of nuclear weapons is taboo. Throughout the Cold War US presidents were forced to face the fact that strategic and political considerations rent nuclear weapons of their ability to be used in any ‘conventional’ sense. Their primary purpose was for uses of ’deterrence’ – to prevent the other side from launching an attack upon oneself. Problematically deterrence is a ‘psychological phenomenon’ and can rarely be proven to have operated upon an aggressor since we can never demonstrate why something did not occur

Quite simply the ability and threat to obliterate another state may be far less useful than policymakers think. Owing to these prohibitions nuclear weapons today are widely seen as ‘useless’.

This does not mean they will never be used. During the Cold War there was constant concern that events could ‘overtake’ policymakers, leading the world to the brink of nuclear war. This happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

We cannot rule out such an event occurring again, especially when core disputes remain unresolved.

What accounts for the failure to find more common ground? In part, it can be put down to their differing political systems. While Russia can engage in realpolitik - strategic quid-pro-quos – relatively easily American presidents do not have such a luxury.

The peculiarities of the American system mean that it is risky for US presidents to be seen to be giving concessions on matters of major strategic importance. Such moves open up a window for partisan politics to reign – they would provide Republicans no end of ammunition with which to use against Obama the ‘appeaser’. This holds no matter how much a deal may make sense.

Problematically, this is exactly what Russia desires: a ‘Grand Bargain’ with America whereby it would receive recognition of its Great Power status and acceptance as a regional hegemon over the states of the former Soviet Union. In this situation Poland would be ‘neutral’, with assurances from the Americans that missile defence interceptors will not be deployed in Poland. This would be coupled with Georgia and Ukraine’s bids to join NATO being thrown out.

For its part America wants Russia to stop playing spoiler in the Middle East and pushing back against American interests throughout the former Soviet Union.

There is an additional problem for Obama: any ‘deal’ that helps America in the short term could result in America confronting a far more dangerous, assertive and powerful Russia in the long run. At the same time by rejecting Russia’s overtures Obama risks remaining bogged down in the Middle East and unable to deploy forces in other theaters if necessary.

Despite this the summit should not be seen as a total failure. The fact that they were able to agree on anything is a small victory in itself. Yet both sides must divorce themselves from dogmas of the past and their belief in the ultimate utility of military power to counter one another’s influence. We are told that the Cold War is over, yet the very nations who tell us this continue to act as if the world is a grand chess board.

Obama is right in saying that Russia and America are not destined to be enemies but to create this reality they must act in ways that do not make confrontation inevitable. We must look past the ‘myth’ of Obama. It is indisputable that as a phenomenon he is larger than life but personalities can only do so much when confronted with the stark realities of international policies.


Reuben Steff is currently writing his PhD thesis on 'Deterrence Theory and Ballistic Missile Defence' at Otago University. He encourages comments, criticisms or thoughts. You can e-mail him at stere538[at] His blog is

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