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Past Differences Hamper US-Russian Efforts to Help Syria

  • Pamela Dockins

Public diplomacy analysts say a difference in perceptions dating back to the Cold War era could hamper U.S. and Russian efforts to deal with the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Heritage Foundation senior fellow Helle Dale said there is a "love-hate" relationship between the United States and Russia that is "quite complicated."

On VOA's Encounter program, Dale said she agrees with an Obama administration official who told her that Cold War-era differences between the two countries are straining relations today.

"This official said we work along the assumption that the Cold War is over. We are past that here in the United States. The Russians - they behave as though it’s still on," she said.

Dale said these apparent differences are affecting U.S.-Russian efforts to organize a possible peace conference for Syria in June.

Both sides agree on the need to bring Syrian rebels and representatives of President Bashar al-Assad's government to the negotiating table in a bid to end a conflict that has resulted in over 80,000 deaths.

But Russia’s decision to send anti-ship missiles to the Syrian government has sparked U.S. criticism.

Dale said Russia and the United States have a relationship in which they work together where there are common interests, but at the same time promote individual interests.

"It is very pragmatic and not necessarily very loving," she said.

Andrew Kuchins, the director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, agrees.

He said since the end of the Cold War, it has been difficult for Russia to adjust from being a super-power to a much lesser power.

"At the end of the Cold War, with the United States emerging as number one, it has kind of made the world free for, you know, America to do whatever it wants, wherever it wants, and this was true with the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990’s, and of course Iraq and elsewhere. And that’s something that really grates on the Russians," he said.

Kuchins said there are other differences that have caused a strain between Russia and the United States.

He said Russia interprets the Arab Spring as sort of a "proxy war" with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and their allies on one side and Iran on the other - a view that puts Russia at odds with the United States.

"The status quo in the greater Middle East, as they refer to it, is their preferred option. They believe that any change is going to be to their detriment," he said.

He also said he does not expect Russia to make any significant shifts in its support of the Syrian government between now and the possible June peace conference.

"I am very skeptical of the Russians fundamentally changing their position. It’s good that we are talking about it and trying to do something but I would not get my hopes up about a big breakthrough in June, unfortunately," he said.

However, Paul Pillar of Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies Program said there is reason for optimism concerning the conference, the idea of which resulted from talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

"I think the development in Moscow in terms of the agreement that Secretary Kerry reached with the Russians to convene a conference is one of the most positive, hopeful things we’ve heard in connection with Syria in quite some time," he said.

But Pillar said he does not believe the conference, if and when it is convened, will result in an immediate resolution of the conflict.

He does, however, believe it could set the stage for an eventual agreement that would result in what he calls a "new political order," in which Syria's ethnic groups would share responsibilities and a role in government.