Skip to main content

Analysis: U.S. and Russia playing chess or blood sport?

By Elise Labott, CNN Foreign Affairs Reporter
updated 1:08 PM EST, Sun February 23, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: John Kerry and his Russian counterpart give differing views of conversation
  • Obama administration continues to dismiss notion of new Cold War with Russia
  • John Kerry said in December that U.S., Russia weren't engaged in bidding war over Ukraine
  • White House says Ukraine conflict not reminiscent of 'proxy conflicts of the Cold War era'

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin went to great lengths to portray their phone call Friday as evidence the two leaders were working together to stabilize the situation in Ukraine.

Absent were the accusations they traded the past two months over the future of the former Soviet republic.

The Obama administration continues to dismiss the notion of a new Cold War with Russia. But the louder their protests, the more apparent the chill has become.

It was on display Saturday in widely differing characterizations of a telephone conversation between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, after news broke that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych left the capital because of what he described as a "coup."

Kerry said the two agreed on a need to resolve the political tumult in Ukraine without violence, and that he expressed to Lavrov the importance of both countries encouraging Ukraine to move toward constitutional change, according to the State Department.

But Lavrov said he raised concerns about "illegal extremist groups" refusing to surrender arms and reiterated the conversation between their respective leaders. "Putin called on Obama to use all opportunities to curb the radicals' illegal actions and settle the situation by peaceful means," according to a state-run ITAR-TASS report, which was tweeted by Russia's Foreign Ministry.

In December, Kerry snubbed Ukraine after it rejected an agreement to increase trade with Europe. Instead he visited Moldova, which did sign the agreement.

There, Kerry insisted the United States was not engaged in a bidding war with Russia over Ukraine or any of the former Soviet republics.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin is a popular but polarizing figure who has dominated Russian politics for more than a decade. Click through to see some highlights of his career. Russia's President Vladimir Putin is a popular but polarizing figure who has dominated Russian politics for more than a decade. Click through to see some highlights of his career.
Putin in power
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
>
>>
Photos: Putin in power Photos: Putin in power

Kerry raises idea of sanctions against Ukraine government

Similar statements ensued over the past few months, with the White House saying this week the Ukraine conflict is not reminiscent of the "proxy conflicts of the Cold War era."

Obama and Putin: They're just different
Did Obama snub Putin?
Will Putin send troops into Ukraine?

Obama put a finer point on showdown in Kiev this week, saying he didn't view U.S. and Russian differences over Ukraine, or Syria, through that lens.

"Our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we're in competition with Russia. Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future, that the people of Syria are able to make decisions without having bombs going off and killing women and children, or chemical weapons, or towns being starved because a despot wants to cling to power."

U.S. talks tough, but options limited in Ukraine

Obama is right. It is not the Cold War. Today, the United States has the upper hand economically, militarily and diplomatically. But it does face a resurgent, defiant and increasingly authoritarian Russia.

But, in essence, it is a chessboard. And the crisis in Ukraine illustrates the latest moves between Washington and Moscow as they compete for influence on the world stage.

The disagreement between the two powers over Ukraine is not entirely dissimilar to their power play over the conflict in Syria. Until recently, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was able to challenge his opposition's pro-Western leanings with Russian political and financial backing, just as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in large part has been able to withstand three years of civil war and threats of American military strikes with Russian money, arms and diplomatic support.

But in both cases, Obama matched Putin's moves with his own. Washington banned 20 officials from the Russian-backed government in Kiev from traveling to the United States, and has threatened further measures if government forces continue their violent crackdown against protesters.

Frustrated with Moscow's failure to enact any compromises from the Syrian regime at U.S.-Russian sponsored peace talks in Geneva, the United States has now signaled it is examining its policy options in Syria, where the bombing by al-Assad's forces against civilians has intensified.

Putin's desire to maintain a sphere of influence in the Middle East is in no ways limited to Syria. He has met U.S. ambivalence toward the military-led government by welcoming the de facto Egyptian leader, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, to Moscow this month, giving him an endorsement for his as-yet undeclared candidacy for president and continuing discussions about a $2 billion arms deal for Egypt, even as the U.S. has suspended some military support to Cairo.

The visit was a Russian bid to rekindle a relationship that foundered since the Cold War, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat broke off ties with the Kremlin. The ties remained frosty during Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule. But the warm reception of Sisi and Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy also seemed designed to send a message to the United States that Russia still has clout in the region's most influential and populous country and is prepared to increase its military ties.

Sport is not immune to the rivalry between the two nations. Obama declined to attend the Sochi Olympics, instead sending openly gay athletes in a clear jab at Russia's anti-gay laws. It was the first time in more than a decade a U.S. president, vice president, first lady or former president hasn't attended an Olympic opening or closing ceremony.

The U.S. hockey victory over the Russians in Sochi, the first American win since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, added insult to injury, presumably made even more painful by the gloats of National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who tweeted "U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A."

Overall, Putin's party in Sochi was a relative success. Dire predictions of political protests or a terrorist attack haven't materialized, and after a rocky start in terms of preparations at some hotels and the condition of some venues, the games were hailed by most athletes and the International Olympic Committee athletes. Putin was even on his best behavior as he made a visit to American athletes at the U.S. Olympic headquarters.

But now that the Sochi games are coming to a close, Putin has even less incentive to play nice. With the truce in Kiev shaky at best, the U.S. is bracing for an even more audacious power grab for Ukraine -- whether that be financial blackmail or even sending in its own forces if the violence continues.

It will then be up to the U.S. to contemplate its next move on this chess board. With Ukraine's future at stake, it's far from a game.

CNN's Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Photos illustrate the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as fighting continues to flare in the region.
updated 7:12 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
A 20-minute drive from Kiev takes you to a neighborhood that feels more like Beverly Hills than central Ukraine.
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nearly six months since popular protests toppled Yanukovych, fighting between Ukraine's military and pro-Russia rebels continues.
updated 8:34 AM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
Western leaders stepped up sanctions, but the Russian President shows no sign of backing down.
updated 8:36 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Europe's deteriorating relationship with Russia has hit its growth, even before food sanctions begin to bite.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon August 4, 2014
Despite mortar fire echoing in the distance, the international team combed through the wreckage of MH17.
updated 7:08 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
The road isn't easy -- past shelling and eerie separatist checkpoints. But where it leads is harder still.
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Future imports, exports between the EU and Russia are now banned -- but existing contracts continue.
updated 8:26 PM EDT, Mon August 4, 2014
The Cold War aerial games of chicken portrayed in "Top Gun" are happening in real life again nearly 30 years later.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
More Russian aggression in Ukraine. More U.S. and European sanctions imposed on Moscow.
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Air accident investigators normally reach crash sites soon after a plane has gone down, what does the delay in reaching MH17 mean?
updated 8:01 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Deadly violence, ongoing tensions and the deliberate downing of a passenger airplane. Why should Americans worry?
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
The shooting down of MH17 may finally alert Washington and Europe to the danger of the conflict in Ukraine.
updated 7:04 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The United States and its allies are angrier at Russia now over Ukraine, but will they do anything more about it?
The U.S. releases satellite images it says shows the Russian military has fired across its border with Ukraine.
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
updated 4:37 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Information about Ukraine, the second-largest European country in area after Russia.
updated 1:25 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on securing the MH17 crash site and negotiating with the separatists.
Learn more about the victims, ongoing investigation and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
updated 3:00 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
When passengers boarded Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last week, they couldn't have known they were about to fly over a battlefield.
updated 5:25 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Increased fighting around the MH17 crash scene blocks international investigators. CNN's Kyung Lah reports.
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
In the tangled aftermath of the disaster, two narratives emerge -- one from most of the world subscribes to, and another from Russia.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT