U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico.
Putin versus Obama, missile shoot-downs, propaganda wars and sanctions: Relations between Russia and the United States have sunk to lows not seen since the Cold War period of the early 1960s to late 1980s. While the two nations were once fierce rivals across the planet, they are now both looking for their identities in the 21st century. Kremlin-watchers point to these signs that we may be going back in time when it comes to Russia.
Information was tightly controlled during the Cold War, by both the Soviet Union and in many cases by Washington. Today, social media and the Internet has made censorship more difficult, but both sides seem to be spinning diametrically opposite versions of what happened over the skies of Eastern Ukraine.
“The propaganda machine is functioning full bore,” says James Collins, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. “We see ourselves engaged in an intellectual battle against Russia. It’s a battle for what’s true. Nobody looks carefully at what the Russians are saying about Ukraine, we just assume they are lying. Russians are doing the same about us.”
Armed pro-Russian separatists block the way to the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014.
The former Soviet Union and the United States fought each other through proxy armies in Nicaragua, Cuba, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Today, Ukraine is the current proxy battle: The United States and its European allies are supporting the Ukrainian government against Russia-backed separatists (described as “volunteers” by Moscow).
The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics were widely seen as “Putin’s Olympics,” with massive cost overruns, shoddy construction and complaints about journalist quarters. He’ll get another chance to either boost or dent his prestige during the 2018 World Cup. Boycotts by the United States during the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, and the former Soviet Union during the 1984 Los Angeles games, marked the height of the Cold War sports war.
Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters perform during the 2013 Russia Arms Expo.
Remember Maverick, Goose and the Iceman taking on MIG fighter jets back in 1986? It was based on real-life exploits of U.S. aviators against Soviet pilots. In recent months, the Russian Air Force has violated air space over Finland, Alaska and the United Kingdom. No dogfights yet, but plenty of scrambled jets and nervous radar operators.
Malaysia Airlines planes are seen parked at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on July 19, 2014.
In 1983, the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Air Lines flight with 269 passengers and crew on board, including a U.S. congressman. The Kremlin initially denied its fighter jets shot down the airliner, but then said it was on a U.S. spy mission and violated Soviet airspace. The White House accused the Russians of obstructing search-and-rescue missions, and it took eight years for the flight data recorders to be released. Today, both sides are blaming each other for the downing of MH 17 of the Eastern Ukraine, while civilian crash investigators have been delayed on the ground.
The U.S. has aimed a direct blow at Russia's economic heart with sanctions on Rosneft, the flagship oil giant that generates more than 4 percent of the world's crude and over 8 percent of the country's GDP.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter banned the sale of U.S. wheat to the Soviet Union after the invasion of Afghanistan. It had almost no effect as Russia instead bought wheat from South America and Europe. Today, President Barack Obama wants to further tighten sanctions against Russia in response to the MH 17 crisis, but some European allies are balking, given the economic links between them and Moscow.
A column of Russia's air defence system Buk-2M launch vehicles rolls at the Red Square in Moscow, on May 9, 2013, during a Victory Day parade.
In October 1962, the U.S. and the Soviet Union came close to a nuclear war over the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The world learned the capabilities of intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), U2s (spy planes), and Soviet Ilyushin bombers. Today, it’s all about the Russian-built Buk anti-aircraft defense system and the SA-11 missile that U.S. and Ukrainian officials say shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.
Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office with Putin about the situation in Ukraine at the White House, March 1, 2014.
Until the Reagan/Gorbachev summits, U.S. and Soviet leaders never spoke to each other directly. That often led to fear, mistrust and name-calling, each side defining the other as an adversary in speeches. While Obama and Putin talk on the telephone, the discussions haven't gone well. Obama canceled a summit in August 2013, and the two met only face to face briefly at D-Day ceremonies in June. Many analysts say this lack of a personal relationship between the two has made things worse.
The Soyuz TMA-6 spacecraft docks with the International Space Station.
The launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 kicked off a technological “space race” between the two nations, culminating in the Apollo moon landing in 1969. However, despite the Cold War tensions as the Apollo program was drawing to a close, the United States and the Soviets were able to find some rare common ground in orbit, including the Shuttle–Mir Program in 1994, carrying out seven long-duration joint missions of the U.S. space shuttle and Russian space station Mir. These projects formed the groundwork for the International Space Station which continues to this day.
However, recent events in the Ukraine has seen an increase in politically charged threats of non-cooperation in space projects like the ISS and manned launches using the Soyuz launch system (on which NASA currently relies), prompting fears that U.S. astronauts may be "cut off" from access to orbit. But in reality, U.S.-Russia relations in space remain close (three Russian cosmonauts, two NASA astronauts and one German astronaut are currently in residence in the orbiting outpost) and NASA is currently working with commercial partners to provide continuous access to the space station.
NASA astronauts are still being launched into space by the Soyuz and there are few signs that this will change. But in April, NASA announced that it would be restricting communications with Russia because of the Ukraine crisis, except for communications involving space station projects.
Putin passes guards as he enters St. George's Hall in the Grand Kremlin Palace to deliver a speech.
The Cold War was a fight over competing ideologies, many say, Soviet Communism vs. American capitalism and “democracy.” The Soviet Union fell more than 20 years ago, but now some believe the current struggle is between spheres of economic influence. This time it’s Washington and its partners in Brussels (seat of the European Union) vs. Moscow. At stake is identity and power. The big difference is that the two nations aren’t equal anymore. Despite Putin’s best efforts, Russia’s economy and influence has waned.
“The return of the Cold War is only an apt analogy if you can’t escape history,” said Matthew Rojansky, director at the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. “The Cold War isn’t back, but there are a lot of Cold War-type behaviors that are back.” The solution, Rojansky says, is diplomacy: “We can be for the opposite of what Putin stands for, and be for Ukrainian democracy, but we have to stop the Russia bashing and isolation. The Russian (people) aren’t buying it and there are 140 million of them.”