The movie “Red Heat,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Belushi, represented a major break from previous movies, such as “Rocky IV,” which focuses on the rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In “Red Heat,” released in 1988, Ivan Danko (Arnold Schwarzenegger) replaces Ivan Drago of “Rocky IV” as the Russian co-star and teams up with a Chicago Police Department detective to arrest a common threat to both societies, the leader of a major crime network in the U.S. The two officers it the beginning have difficulty communicating, and throughout the movie the difference in their approaches in their fight against the common enemy is the main source of humor for viewers. The contrast between “Rocky IV” and “Red Heat” somehow reminds you of the contrasting relations between the two superpowers over the last few years.
It was the good old days of a potential reset in U.S.-Russian relations when then Senator John Kerry at the Democratic National Convention made a speech criticizing Mitt Romney’s statement on Russia in which he said that Russia is the number one geopolitical foe of the United States. During his campaign, Romney even made a trip to Poland during his candidacy to underline the differences between his approach and President Barack Obama’s on Russia. Kerry in this speech mocked the candidate, saying, “Mitt Romney talks like he’s only seen Russia by watching ‘Rocky IV’.” The “Rocky IV” analogy was used in different instances by the Obama campaign, and there was even a campaign poster with Kerry’s quote at the top. In those days, many in Washington, D.C. were expecting bilateral relations between the U.S. and Russia to become friendlier in the coming years and predicting these two countries would cooperate on issues of mutual concern, including terrorism, arms control and nonproliferation. Cautious optimists, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, were also signaling the possibility of “expanding the West” to include Russia. The source of this optimism was not only the thawing of relations between the U.S. and Russia and the personal rapport between President Obama and President Dimitry Medvedev in these years. There were also meaningful societal changes that were taking place in Russia as a result of economic growth, which mostly took place as a result of soaring oil prices in the early years of the millennium. There was an emerging urban middle class, much more connected with the Western world and much more educated and internationalized.
There are different opinions about what started the end of this optimism and what shifted the trajectory of relations. For some, it was Vladimir Putin 2.0 basically coming to the office of the presidency with a different set of goals and priorities and abandoning the mission of modernizing, Westernizing and democratizing Russia, while for others, there were other intervening variables, such as the Edward Snowden incident. But regardless of the debates on the starting point, almost everybody agrees that the crisis over Ukraine became a major turning point in relations between the two countries.
A few years after the reset and the optimism in the West about the future of Russia, today relations are back at square one. Since Moscow’s support of pro-Russian groups in Ukraine, the invasion of Crimea by these groups and the ascension of Crimea to Russia after a controversial referendum, relations between the two countries started to deteriorate gradually. While Putin was trying to repair the image of Russia as a major power in international relations, he generated a major Western reaction that started with the economic sanctions, which triggered a capital flow from the country. In the meantime, another major incident was the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, which further isolated the Russian administration. Although denied by Moscow, most agencies in Western countries agree that the plane was attacked by the pro-Russian militia in Ukraine, which is sponsored by the Russian government. An overlapping (or pre-planned) reduction in oil prices further deteriorated economic conditions in Russia and created a major economic crisis that led to a rapid and dramatic loss in the value of the ruble.
At this critical moment, nobody can easily project the future of relations due to various issues between the two countries and the escalating nature of the crisis. In the meantime, there are some reports of Russian submarines breaching the waters of Sweden and increased military activity of Russia in the Baltics, and a few months ago there were some veiled threats by Putin about nuclear weapons. NATO was also added as a top security threat in the new security doctrine adopted by Russia. In addition to punitive economic actions, there are now an increasing number of media reports about corruption allegations in regards to Putin, and there are even some reports about increasing question marks concerning the relationship between Russian intelligence and Putin to the Apartment Bombings of 1999 in Russian city centers, which killed more than 290 people and led to the beginning of the Second Chechen War.
There appears to be an asymmetric escalation of the crisis between the two countries. Of course nobody expects another Cold War that may continue for decades; however, they also cannot foresee the end of the crisis. Many in the West consider change in the domestic politics of Russia as the only way to change the existing situation. Thus, they regard the departure of Putin as the only way to mend ties between the U.S. and Russia and expect the economic crisis to have a serious impact on the popularity, legitimacy and authority of Putin over the country. However, without a proper answer about how long this process may take and what will be the position of the “Putin Generation” in this change of government, this reasoning may fail to provide any meaningful projection. At the end of the day, it may take Putin himself – due to pressure from society or institutions within Russia – to revise his position and reset his own strategic goals or ambitions.
This article was originally published in the Daily Sabah on January 17, 2015.