Over the last several months, U.S.-Russian relations have arguably sunk to a new low in the post- Cold War era– which could bring trouble for Washington in the Asia-Pacific and the Persian Gulf.
While the saga over NSA leaker Edward Snowden was the final straw that led Washington to cancel a leadership summit with Moscow scheduled for this September, ongoing tensions over a number of issues have been simmering for some time. From Russian concerns over U.S. missile defenses to Moscow's support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and multiple other challenges, have helped foster an atmosphere of strained relations.
President Obama went so far in his Friday press conference to call for a "pause" in relations to "reassess where it is that Russia is going."
Such a "pause" clearly spells the final chapter for the much vaunted "reset" of relations with Moscow.
As the president noted Friday, from the New START treaty, cooperation on Iran sanctions, and Russian assistance in supplying U.S. troops in Afghanistan, to American assistance in helping Russia join the WTO, both sides clearly benefited from a positive working relationship.
For its part, Russia's reaction to the cancellation of the summit seemed rather muted — for now.
Russian presidential aide Yury Ushakov explained that “considering the discussion in the press and the political environment created in the U.S. over Snowden, we were ready for the visit to either take place or be canceled.”
Yet, Russia does have a number of options if it did wish to exact a price over Washington's change in tone.
Over the last several years, Sino-Russian ties have warmed considerably. Moscow could decide that a stronger relationship with Beijing might suit its national interests more than repairing relations with Washington.
Considering Russia has already sold China a number of advanced weapon systems over the years, and has played a large role in fuelling Beijing's growing military capabilities, it could seek to do more on this front. Already multiple reports suggest possible Russian sales of advanced SU-35 fighters, Amur-class submarines and possibly even the advanced S-400 air defense system to China.
Moscow could also increase its cooperation with Beijing in the area of energy sales. Over the last decade, China has been on a quest to secure large and stable supplies of natural resources to power its growing economy. With many of these resources travelling through various narrow straits and seas, Beijing has become increasingly concerned that such supplies could stop in times of international crisis or war. China could increase energy security by securing stable and abundant supplies from neighbors where overland pipelines could deliver them to China. Russian oil and natural gas supplies to the north in Siberia could help solve such challenges.
Just last month, Russia's OAO Rosneft agreed to supply more than 2.6 billion barrels of crude to China National Petroleum Corp over the next 25 years in a possible sign of things to come. According to Bloomberg, with a value of approximately US$270 billion, China would become Russia's largest market for oil sales. While similar deals in the past have been floated in the media only to fall apart, both sides seemingly have large stakes in cultivating and expanding this partnership.
Iran could also provide Russia with ample opportunities to create difficulties for Washington. Tehran has sought in the past to gain access to weapon systems to defend its air space from a possible Western strike of its nuclear facilities. With advanced technologies such as the S-300 air-defense system, Russia would be in a prime position to assist Tehran if it so wished. Moscow pulled out of a deal to sell Tehran the air defense system in 2010, which prompted a lawsuit from Iran. With Russia no longer concerned about pleasing the U.S., it could find itself in a much more agreeable mood when it comes to supplying the S-300 system to Iran.
Russia could also find itself much more willing to cooperate with Iran on nuclear energy. Recent reports from various Russian news outlets note that Iran will sign an agreement to construct a new nuclear power plant. While such cooperation is not new — Russia built much of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant — agreeing to build another power plant would be certain to draw the ire of Western diplomats.
There is also the nightmare of the Syrian civil war. Recent reports have gone back and forth in claiming that Russia will supply advanced air defense systems to the Syrian regime. While the most recently reported information suggests Syria could take delivery of such systems no earlier than July of next year, it could be possible to speed up the purchase. While training on such systems would take considerable time, they could provide an important defense against any possible Western military action in the future.
Russia could also ramp up its efforts to provide offensive weapons to Damascus. Moscow has already reportedly provided advanced cruise missiles to Syria. With reports of an Israeli strike that appears to have failed to destroy such weapons, Russia's influence in the ongoing conflict could presumably increase if it so wished.
While the above is only a small sample of various strategies Russia could employ to complicate American foreign policy goals across the Asia-Pacific and Middle East, both sides have a strong interest in dialing down tensions.
President Obama — with both sides of the political spectrum calling for action against Moscow — was clearly in a position where it would have been almost politically impossible to do nothing.
Could Russia simply choose to ignore the cancellation of the summit and press ahead regardless?
There is some reason for hope. During Friday's "2+2" meetings between Russian and American officials in Washington, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's statements seemed to be aimed towaed dialing down tensions.
“Edward Snowden did not overshadow the discussions. This was mentioned as a fact we have on our hands,” noted Lavrov at the conclusion of the talks. “It’s clear that there is not a Cold War, the relationship is quite normal and we shouldn’t expect any aggravation… We don’t feel any cooling down of the temperature of the relations between the two countries.”
While Lavrov's comments are a positive sign, the future of U.S.-Russian relations remain uncertain at best. The two sides have long had a tortured past and a vast array of conflicting interest across the globe to contend with. Now, with Mr. Snowden sitting in Russia with no telling what new revelations he could publicize next, bilateral relations seem set for rough waters in the short to medium term.
Will Putin decide to up the ante? Stay tuned…