As Russia and the United States prepare for their respective presidential elections, tensions between the countries are growing. The central point of contention is U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans. Russia has several levers, including its ability to cut off supply lines to the NATO-led war effort in Afghanistan, to use in the standoff over BMD, but the United States could retaliate by supporting the current protests in Russia. Moscow is willing to escalate tensions with Washington but will not push the crisis to the point where relations could formally break.
Relations between the United States and Russia are incredibly tense as both countries prepare for their respective presidential elections in 2012. The campaign season has presented both sides opportunities to escalate tensions, but it is unclear how far each side will go.
Moscow and Washington have been in a standoff over myriad issues ever since Russia began to roll back Western influence in its periphery and assert its own power. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States got involved in the region intending to create a cordon around Russia to prevent it from ever becoming a global threat again. But after 2001, the U.S. focus shifted to the Islamic world, and a previously crippled Russia began to strengthen. Washington continued some of its policies of Russian containment, such as trying to give the key former Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine NATO membership, but Eurasia was not the United States' key focus.
This gave Russia the time and opportunity to resurge into its former Soviet states. Moscow's ultimate goal is not to recreate the Soviet Union -- that entity eventually failed. Instead, Russia wants to limit the influence of external powers in the former Soviet Union and be recognized as the dominant player there. Consequently, foreign governments -- particularly the United States and Europe -- must shape bilateral relations within the framework of this understanding. In the past few years, Russia has been relatively successful in regaining influence in many of its former Soviet states. This brought Russian power back to its broader frontiers, especially in Central Europe, where the United States has staked a dominant position. Russia is not looking to control Central Europe, but it does not want the region to be a base of U.S. power in Eurasia. Washington sees Central Europe as the new Cold War line -- a position previously held by Germany -- that halts Russia's influence.
The Standoff: Missile Defense