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Commentary: Chemical weapon allegations tense relations between United States, Russia

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US President Barack Obama (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed June 18, 2012, that the violence in Syria has to end, but they offered no new solutions and showed no signs of healing a rift over whether to impose tougher sanctions on Damascus.

US President Barack Obama (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed June 18, 2012, that the violence in Syria has to end, but they offered no new solutions and showed no signs of healing a rift over whether to impose tougher sanctions on Damascus. Credit: Courtesy of MCT

Allegations from the United States and the United Nations about the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government on its own citizens have brought the Syrian Civil War into the international spotlight in recent weeks. Along with stirring a public debate over what actions should be taken, the Syrian Civil War has reanimated U.S.-Russian relations on an international scale.

Long a detractor from U.S. foreign policy, Russia has stanchly opposed Western military intervention inside Syria in the weeks following allegations of chemical weapon use.  As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia threatened multiple times in recent months to veto any resolution that sanctioned military strikes on Bashar al-Assad’s government, according to U.S. Senator and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Robert Menendez, a democrat from New Jersey.

These behind-closed-doors threats made by the Russians were also confirmed in a Sept. 6 press release from U.S. Representative to the U.N. Samantha Power, “This year alone, Russia has blocked at least three statements expressing humanitarian concern and calling for humanitarian access to besieged cities in Syria.

“In the past two months, Russia has blocked two resolutions condemning the generic use of chemical weapons and two press statements expressing concern about their use,” Power said.

In July, Russia formally vetoed a U.N. resolution put forth by Great Britain to place economic sanctions on Syria for failing to follow the peace plan, according to The New York Times.

Russian opposition to Western policy efforts has become the default since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. While the U.S. and Russia have been unable to foster bilateral relations due to mutual mistrust, the status of U.S.–Russian relations has been fairly subdued prior to the Syrian Civil War.

Now as officials in both countries vocalize their opposition to one another with respects to Syria, tensions between the two nations are heating up, albeit not to the levels seen during the Cold War.

In early August, U.S. President Barack Obama canceled a September meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled to take place in Moscow due to a lack of progress made in bilateral relations.

Attempting to take advantage of the American people’s lack of support for U.S. military intervention in Syria, Russia’s everlasting leader Putin opted to bypass U.S. government officials and address the American people publicly Sept. 11 with an op-ed in The New York Times.

In his op-ed, Putin attempted to cast Russia as the peacemaker in the process instead of acknowledging his friendship with Al-Assad.

“From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.”

Putin also challenged the idea of American exceptionalism, taking on Obama’s claims that America’s willingness to act to protect Syrian civilians is what makes America exceptional,

“I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism … It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

Putin’s address was met with criticism from American politicians, particularly from Republican Senator John McCain from Arizona, who chose to return the favor by addressing the Russian people directly through an op-ed in the Russian newspaper Pravda.

Despite Russian and U.S. officials trading jabs in the media, no military action or drastic policy shifts between the two countries has come out of the increased tensions. Obama still chose to attend the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg in September and met with Putin privately to discuss their positions on Syria.

International nuclear proliferation treaties leave little chance for another Cold War-like scenario in the future, but the U.S.-Russian dialogue over the next decade will surely be closely monitored. As more of America’s enemies become Russia’s allies, the disparity between the West and the East will grow.

In a worst case scenario, tensions could reach a fever pitch in the coming years and could even lead threats of war between Western countries and Russia’s coalition of Middle Eastern and far Eastern allies. While both sides clearly will strive to avoid this situation, it cannot be taken off the table.

In the best case scenario, the U.S. and Russia can establish a bilateral agenda to tackle world issues head on together as world powers, but don’t count on it.

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