Tensions between Russia and the United States, which seemed to be on the verge of boiling over at the beginning of the month, appear to have settled back into their long, slow simmer. On Tuesday, Russian news outlet Izvestia reported that the deconfliction agreement in Syria meant to minimize in-flight incidents between Russian and U.S. military aircraft operating in the country has been reinstated. Moscow had suspended the agreement in early April in response to a U.S. missile strike against a Syrian air base.
The increasing strain between Moscow and Washington following the strike against Syrian forces, whom the United States accused of dropping chemical weapons on civilians, magnifies the importance of the deconfliction agreement. A mistake on the battlefield not only would have escalated the war of words that erupted in the wake of those developments, but could also have resulted in actions that would have deepened the antagonism between the two countries. An April 12 visit to Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, however, appears to have put a lid on the situation.
Rumblings of more U.S. sanctions against Russia have quieted, and U.S. and Russian officials have agreed to establish a working group to address their respective grievances. Meanwhile, the reopening of military communications between the countries can be expected to limit accidents and miscalculations in Syria. But cooling tensions should not be mistaken as a sign of growing cooperation between Russia and the United States. The deconfliction deal is there only to minimize battlefield incidents and does not include any obligation on Washington or Moscow's part to collaborate. Beyond their common desire to fight the Islamic State, their strategic interests are at odds in the Syrian civil war, which looks ready to grind on for a while longer.
Another key regional conflict is adding to the strife between the two countries. As it did in Syria, Russia is asserting its interests in the war in Afghanistan. By hosting a series of peace talks — three over the past four months — Russia is expanding its diplomatic involvement in the country.
Despite Moscow's denials, Washington's accusations that Russia has helped equip and train Taliban forces in Afghanistan over the past year and a half have grown increasingly forceful.
A presence in Afghanistan not only gives Russia an opportunity to help counter the Islamic State threat, but also serves as another point of negotiation for Moscow as it works to end its broader standoff with the West. Just as its military backing of President Bashar al Assad's government gives it a stake in Syria's political evolution, Russia's involvement with the Taliban gives it a similar voice in Afghanistan's. Neither has escaped Washington's notice. Its decision to launch airstrikes in Syria and plans to ramp up the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan attest to that.
Russia's moves in areas of keen U.S. interest have counterparts in America's involvement in strategic theaters for Moscow. U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration have shown strong support for Ukraine in its ongoing conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern half of the country. In a phone call on Sunday, Tillerson assured Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that U.S. support for his country would remain firm and that sanctions against Russia would stay in place until Moscow returns control of Crimea to Ukraine and "fully implements its commitments in the Minsk agreements" meant to end the separatist fighting.
U.S. support to other countries in the Russian periphery has gone beyond the realm of rhetoric. On Tuesday, two U.S. Air Force F-35A fighter jets arrived at Estonia's Amari air base in a high-profile show of support for the small but strategic NATO member state on Russia's doorstep. U.S. and NATO aircraft will conduct training flights in the country for the next few weeks. The air power, along with a semi-permanent rotation of U.S. and NATO forces in the country, visibly signals the United States' unwavering support for Estonia.
While on the campaign trail, Trump questioned the value of Russian sanctions and suggested that assistance for countries like Ukraine and the Baltic states could be reduced. But his priorities since taking office have proved starkly different. This divergence between rhetoric and reality tracks with the United States' strategic imperative to contain Russia’s regional influence regardless of the personalities in charge of either country. And as Russia maintains its involvement in Syria — and increases it in places like Afghanistan — tensions between Moscow and Washington are likely to persist, if not worsen. They will not prevent negotiations or limited tactical cooperation from taking place, but the frictions do show that the standoff between the two longtime rivals is, and will continue to be, a deep and enduring one.