Russian President Putin attends meeting of Defense Ministry Board in Moscoww
Russian President Putin attends meeting of Defense Ministry Board in MoscowwReuters

Recently, against the backdrop of tensions in relations between the two sides, analysts have been talking about something of a new Cold War in Russian-American relations. The latest installment in this saga: the mutual expulsion of American and Russian diplomats.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has given a note to a senior American embassy official that 10 American diplomats have been expelled and should leave Russian territory by May 21.

“This measure is a tit-for-tat response to the hostile actions carried out by the US side against a number of Russian Embassy employees in Washington, and the Russian Consulate General in New York, who were groundlessly declared persona non grata,” Moscow said. Other measures will follow, warned Russia.

Tensions along its European side are mostly over the Ukrainian issue. Western countries have accused Russia of mobilizing tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine. Europeans fear a Russian invasion of the country.

Since Russia announced annexing Crimea in 2014, relations with the West took a sour turn for the worse, marking a new low not seen since the Cold War. In fact, the most striking indicator of strained relations between Russia and the West came after the United States announced a raft of sanctions targeting Russia in mid-April.

These include expelling 10 Russian diplomats and banning direct purchases of Russian debt bonds issued by Russia’s Central Bank, National Wealth Fund or Ministry of Finance. In a separate move, sanctions are planned against some 17 Russian officials from President Putin’s inner circle.

Moscow responded by announcing the expulsion of 10 diplomats, preventing senior US officials from entering the country and advising the US ambassador to leave for serious consultations in his country. The tension has coincided with accusations of Russia interfering in the 2020 US presidential election, spying and conducting cyberattacks.

This comes as the British accuse Russia of engaging in cyberattacks, interference in democratic processes as well as building military capacity near the Ukrainian border and “in the illegally occupied Crimea.”

Mutual expulsion of diplomats is neither a fresh nor a fleeting issue in Russian-Western relations in recent years. In March 2018, the United States, Canada and nearly 20 European countries expelled dozens of Russian diplomats. The context was the case of the poisoning of the double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in Britain.

The number of Russian diplomats that these states expelled reportedly went up to a hundred. However, relations continued and dialogue was maintained, with somewhat less of an uneasy climate as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.

As some European countries felt the strain of the epidemic, European positions on cooperation with Moscow and the use of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V grew nuanced. Germany has even called for the use of the Russian vaccine.

Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany could start buying Sputnik V independently if the EU refuses to go to Moscow with a joint request to supply the vaccine to member states. France strongly objected. Austria showed interest in producing the vaccine.

This revealed a sharp European rift at a time when European capitals were talking sanctions against Moscow following the jailing of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. Navalny had received treatment in Germany after an attempted poisoning allegedly by Russia. He was arrested upon return to the country and sentenced to two years and eight months in prison.

The decision drew loud criticism from the West, which called for his immediate release. The strongest signal of this new tension was from Russian President Vladimir Putin. The president warned the West not to cross Russia’s “red lines.” He stressed that his country would respond quickly and forcefully to any foreign provocation and that would make those who committed it regret their actions.

President Putin seems to have been provoked by the ongoing expulsions of Russian diplomats. It’s not just the United States. The same is true of the Czech Republic. The country recently decided to expel 18 Russian diplomats accused of espionage. So, he spoke in a recent speech about “red lines” that he would put in each issue separately.

Russian analysts say that the countries of the “new Europe,” the Eastern European countries that have joined the European Union, are being used as Trojan horses by the Americans to isolate Russia and burn bridges in relations with the EU. But the facts show us that tensions are growing between Moscow and the major European capitals, especially Paris and London.

Here lies a hint of a simmering conflict between the West and Russia. This conflict manifests itself in declared policies and accusations. But behind it bubbles a race for international influence and dominance.

Several European countries are pressing Berlin to abandon the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which the United States and other allies criticize for causing “greater dependence” on Russian gas.

Angela Merkel has always spoken of a pragmatic relationship with the Russian side. According to her, despite “important” political differences, it was possible to work together, even on a humanitarian scale, to deal with the Covid epidemic.

What is happening in the realm of Russian-Western relations is not a cold war in the traditional sense of the term. That one prevailed between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

At that time, it took on certain manifestations and practices, which may not be appropriate for the new conflict between Russia and the West. The term, which sums up the events of the conflict between the two superpowers in the second half of the twentieth century, is today devoid of its most important ingredient: ideology.

But this does not take away the essence of the confrontation: a real conflict. It has become a conflict of interests and influence between major powers and states, and no longer between blocs. The West is not a united bloc anymore, either at the European level or in transatlantic relations. Russia is not the USSR either. And this, even though it is its legitimate heir.

The conflict goes on. But with different tools that follow the evolution that is taking place in all areas, especially technology. It must be carefully followed.

Dr. Salem AlKetbi is a UAE political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate.