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Image: picture alliance/AP Images/M. Kulbis

Cold War games

Fiona Clark, Moscow
April 3, 2016

Russia says the West is spreading nasty stories about it and that it's damaging relations between the two sides, but is there any basis to them? Fiona Clark takes a look.


Russians have been speaking in a conciliatory tone recently. Take Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's article published a few weeks ago in the magazine "Russia and Global Affairs."

"We are not seeking confrontation with the United States, or the European Union, or NATO. On the contrary, Russia is open to the widest possible cooperation with its Western partners," he wrote.

He argued Russia was misunderstood and still viewed in the now obsolete pre-WWII view of a totalitarian aggressor.

"The notion of the 'clash of two totalitarianisms,' which is now actively inculcated in European minds, including at schools, is groundless and immoral. The Soviet Union, for all its evils, never aimed to destroy entire nations."

His views were echoed this week by Russia's Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov. In an interview with DW, the minister said this "spreading of scary stories has to stop - rumors that Russia will send its tanks into the Baltics, into Sofia or into Budapest. No one intends to do that. There are no such plans, nothing. Russia does not want war. The very idea of it is ridiculous."

Crying wolf

He laid the blame at the feet of the Baltic nations - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, whose tactic of "screaming 'the Russians are coming, run for your lives'" had "proved very effective in securing more military spending from the government and also gaining the attention of financial backers in Western Europe."

It's also been very effective in gaining the attention of NATO, with the US Defense Department announcing it would boost its troop numbers in Europe up to three fully manned Army brigades as part of its "commitment to increased assurance and deterrence." It also announced it would begin storing equipment, known as 'Army pre-positioned stocks,' within Europe for contingency operations. The reason given for what it described as a "big step" was "reassuring our NATO allies and partners in the wake of an aggressive Russia in Eastern Europe and elsewhere."

soldiers holding flags Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/CTK/epa/L. Zavoral
Russia blames NATO's plans on the Baltic nationsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/CTK/epa/L. Zavoralpicture-alliance/dpa/CTK/epa/L. Zavoral

Asymmetrical response

This has not gone down well in Moscow, prompting anything but conciliatory words in response. Russia's envoy to NATO, Aleksandr Grushko, retaliated by vowing a "totally asymmetrical" response if the alliance stands by a plan and deploys new armored units to Eastern Europe.

"We are not passive observers. We consistently take all the military measures we consider necessary in order to counterbalance this reinforced presence that is not justified by anything," he told the TV channel Russia-24. "Certainly, we'll respond totally asymmetrically."

But is such a response justified? While the country claims it's not an aggressor, its actions speak louder than its words. Crimea and Ukraine aside, its violations of European air and sea space suggest anything but a peace-loving, friendly attitude.

In the nine months between April and November 2014, there were 39 incidents involving armed Russian fighter jets or naval craft between the UK and the Baltics. A further eight incidents were reported between November and May 2015, some involving near misses with civilian aircraft and diversions of passenger planes.

Russia may argue this show of strength is a natural response to what it sees as an aggressive NATO on its border, but somewhere along the line the two sides are going to have to sit down and sort this out. And that won't be easy. US President Barack Obama wants to talk about reductions in nuclear arsenals before he leaves office, but with a buildup of US troops in Europe, it's not likely Russia will be listening.

Propaganda war

In fact, Russia is expecting relations between it and the West to deteriorate even further. The Kremlin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, has warned Russians to expect an avalanche of negative press about President Vladimir Putin as the West continues its bid to "destabilize" the country, and the deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov, has criticized US presidential candidates for "blackening" Russia's name to boost their ratings without considering the effect on bilateral relations.

two men in an office (c) dpa - Bildfunk
Testing times for Putin and his aidesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Alexey Druginyn/Ria Novosti/Government Press Service Pool

"Many US presidential candidates … behave like Cold War troopers when they 'ride' the anti-Russian rhetoric. This is regrettable and it does not promise any changes for the better in our relations with the United States after the elections there," Ryabkov told the newspaper Izvestia.

Lavrov hopes that Germany, France, Italy and Spain understand that it's impossible to solve the security issues affecting Europe, the Middle East and Asia without Russia's help and will push for closer cooperation. The UK, however, may not join that bandwagon - not yet anyway.

Foreign secretary Philip Hammond recently told Reuters he wasn't convinced Russia was a reliable partner, and if Reuters is right in its report that claims Russia is shipping more military hardware to Syria than its pulling out, Hammond may well be right in thinking that the conciliatory rhetoric is little more than hollow platitudes.

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