Over the past weeks relations between Russia and the United States reached the highest level of tension in the past decades, probably the most serious since the mid-1980s. A nuclear catastrophe is not behind the corner: the governments of Moscow and Washington have no intention of waging an open, direct war. However, the situation is bad enough to be seriously worried and it deserves the utmost attention of European chancelleries and of international public opinion. The US denounced increasing attacks by Russian hackers aimed at influencing the election campaign for the election of the new President. It’s hard to prove the origin of an IT attack, but the US accusation doesn’t seem implausible. A year ago the head of German domestic security said quite plainly that there was a 95% chance that Moscow was responsible for the serious cyber attack against Berlin Parliament’s IT system. This apparently unascertainable problem is coupled by dangerously concrete episodes. For example, Russia announced the installation of Iskander rockets in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. For those of you unfamiliar with armaments, these rockets are capable of carrying nuclear warheads and reach Central Europe, starting with Berlin. Putin has also suspended the agreement with the United States envisaging the destruction of 68 tons of plutonium – a fundamental component of nuclear weapons – and supported Assad’s bombing of Aleppo that is killing thousands of people – which also Pope Francis urged to end – and that broke the terms of the ceasefire negotiated with much difficulty by Kerry e Lavrov.
The situation in Syria is particularly dangerous for East-West relations, since both the US and Russia have their troops on the ground, theoretically engaged in a joint struggle against ISIS, but in fact with opposite goals, divided by the future of president Assad. That said, an escalation process is never ascribable to one party alone. The United States and the Western world have their share of responsibility. The resumption of Russian-Syrian bombing of Aleppo began after the United States broke the ceasefire by bombing a Syrian army-base – although later admitting that it was a “mistake.” Also the deployment of missiles in Kaliningrad was not unexpected: it is a response to the placement of a NATO missile defence system in Poland and in the Baltic republics last summer, and of the more general strengthening of the Eastern flank of the Atlantic Alliance, planned to include an Italian contingent.
At a closer glance, these are age-old problems.
On the part of Western countries these problems began with the decision to allow the Baltic States, Poland and Bulgaria to join NATO, some even supported extending NATO membership to Ukraine. It was to be expected that Moscow would interpret the Eastward expansion of a military organization, whose essential purpose is to safeguard the security of its members from external attacks, as anti-Russian. On the part of Russia, the moves that triggered the heightened tension of the past days started off at least two years ago, with the annexation of Crimea, and more generally with Putin’s new mandate as Russia’s president. For Europe and for the United States it’s important to preserve constructive relations with Russia without cornering it. But it’s equally important to clarify that good relations with Russia don’t entail turning a blind eye to the foul play of its President. Putin conceives foreign policy in eighteenth century terms, namely as plain power politics, and he does not hesitate when it comes to exploit the international situation to conceal domestic problems. Today’s situation is different from the way it was during the Cold War years. The two powers are not guided by incompatible ideologies. They don’t necessarily view one another as enemies, but eighteenth-century power politics envisaged also the possibility of resorting to war as a means to solve controversies between States. Given today’s nuclear weapons, this possibility is not an option.
Neither Putin, nor any US President would voluntarily wage a war. But in a situation marked by heightened tensions mistakes are more likely to happen, and in this case the price would be far too high.
The international community – notably the two contenders – must urgently make concrete steps for the establishment of mutual confidence. There is no alternative.