Is the U.S.-Russia conflict the new normal?

Victoria Walker, Staff Writer

“Are we on the path to a new Cold War? Are we in a new Cold War?” Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, said. The answer to both of these questions, according to Rojansky, is no. He tackled this issue during a Feb. 8 presentation titled “U.S.-Russia Conflict: The New Normal,” which took place in the Elaine Langone Center Forum and drew an audience of just about 100 students, faculty, and community members. The talk was sponsored by the department of political science and by a member of the Class of 1957. It was the second in a new series of Annual National Security Forum lectures.

As Kennan Institute Director, Former Deputy Director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia Program, and an individual with a lot of first-hand experience working with Russians in their home country, Rojansky brought a unique perspective to a subject that is so often discussed in the media.

“If you pay attention to the American press, you would think that Russians are the opposite of Americans,” Rojansky said. “In fact, Russians and Americans are a lot more similar than you would think. […] We have a sense of ourselves as having a certain role in the world; a manifest destiny if you will. We see ourselves as the saviors of our civilization.”

Rojansky explained that while American and Russian societies may share similar values, different things are emphasized in each country. In the United States, political freedom and individual liberties are prioritized. In Russia, the freedom that most people find important is the freedom to travel, both within the country and across international borders. Rojansky pointed out that you will be granted access into more countries worldwide with a Russian passport than with an American one.

So what do these differences mean for the U.S.-Russia relationship today? According to Rojansky, the Russian dependence on “the power vertical,” or state control, stems from a history of unrest and the relatively recent fall of the Soviet Union. This has led to a deeply-ingrained distrust of the American political situation and an assumption that the whole system is controlled by a small group of individuals. Most Russians, he said, currently believe that both of the major American political parties are run by the same people and that presidential election results are decided ahead of time.

“We need to give them a lot more information about why the things that happen in Washington happen, and that often means giving them a window into our very system and partisan policies; what any other country might call corruption, but what we call scandal or something else here in the United States,” Rojansky said.

Ultimately, Rojansky highlighted that a major communications gap exists between the United States and Russia which has continued to intensify existing issues.

“This is the pattern in U.S.-Russia relations,” Rojansky said. “You don’t like what the other side is doing, so you stop talking to them.”

Today, the relationship is certainly tense. From investigations into Russian election hacking and dire portrayals of Putin to proxy conflicts in which the United States and Russia take opposite sides, it is clear that some Cold War tensions have carried through to 2018. However, this is not a Cold War situation. No major ideological struggle exists, the countries are more connected than ever through social platforms like Facebook, and a huge military and financial power imbalance exists that favors the United States. Nevertheless, Rojansky stresses that change is needed regarding the interstate relationship in order to prevent breaches in international law, like the invasion of the Ukraine. This change should entail a more stringent effort to “know your adversary,” or to understand the leaders and population of Russia based on their history, culture, and contemporary political situation.

“As a general rule, we should probably try to avoid policies that are trying to change Russia. That’s really not a valid or even possible objective of U.S. foreign policy. Instead, try to deter the type of behavior we don’t want to see. […] I think this is very much about not having the hard but necessary conversations that we need to be having about European security today,” Rojansky said.

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