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U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, 2012, at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico. Growing tensions between the two leaders have led to Mr. Obama cancelling a planned meeting next month. (STEPHEN CROWLEY/NYT)
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, 2012, at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico. Growing tensions between the two leaders have led to Mr. Obama cancelling a planned meeting next month. (STEPHEN CROWLEY/NYT)

Russia-U.S.: Not a new Cold War, but things are definitely chilly Add to ...

It’s a chill that brings back a shiver of the Cold War like a John LeCarré novel. A defector has caused a snit between Washington and Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has given asylum to a man who revealed American spy secrets, Edward Snowden. So U.S. President Barack Obama has cancelled a summit.

Mr. Obama cancelled the face-to-face meeting with his Russian counterpart scheduled to be held on the eve of next month’s G20 summit in St. Petersburg, saying that it would be more “constructive” just to skip it. Harbouring Mr. Snowden, he suggested, was a throwback.

“There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality,” Mr. Obama said about Russia in an interview with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show on Tuesday night.

Things may be tense, but don’t mistake the chill for a new Cold War. Insults between Russia and the U.S. no longer push the Doomsday Clock forward. Even in the post-Soviet era, relations have cratered before, over conflict in Kosovo and Georgia.

“They are probably not at their lowest point,” says Carleton University Russia analyst Piotr Dutkiewicz. “But they are at a very low point.”

Mr. Snowden didn’t drag them down by himself. His flight to Moscow allowed him to elude American punishment, but did not cause major spy damage. There are other tensions.

Mr. Obama took office in 2009 planning a “reset” in relations with Moscow, arguing that he needed Russia’s co-operation in confronting big issues like Iran’s nuclear program. Mr. Putin, however, never really played along.

He dug in his heels against plans for a NATO missile-defence shield in Europe, and blocked United Nations action against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. When the U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act barring certain Russian officials, Moscow banned Americans from adopting Russian children.

Many U.S. analysts argue the difficulties stem from Mr. Putin’s autocratic grip and Russia’s foot-stamping desire for international attention in an era when its power is deteriorating. But Russophiles say Americans don’t understand Moscow’s mindset: vulnerable, wary of being encircled by the West, and prizing stability over do-gooding intervention. And Moscow is piqued by American criticism.

Still, it’s no Cold War Two. Russia has co-operated when it judged issues to be in its interests. It provided supply routes for Afghanistan. Even on Iran’s nuclear program, Moscow, blowing hot and cold, has approved UN sanctions. It okayed intervention in Mali.

“It’s not irrelevant that they’re still co-operating with us in some of these cases,” says Bruce Jones, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a U.S. think tank. And both countries still have an interest in working together again.

“There’s certainly tensions in the Snowden thing. But it’s one of these emotive things,” Mr. Jones says. “Though sometimes it’s harder to walk back on the emotive things than the strategic ones.”

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