Russian Ambassador to U.S.: Relations Aren’t at Cold War Level, Yet

Russian Ambassador to the U.S. warns of deteriorating relations between the two countries over Syria

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Russias President Vladimir Putin welcomes President Barack Obama at the start of the G20 summit on September 5, 2013 in Saint Petersburg.

Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak says that U.S. and Russian relations aren’t as bad as they were during the Cold War—yet.

“I’ve been listening to the discourse of relations between Russia and the United States going back to the Cold War,” Kislyak said at an event hosted by the Center for the National Interest. “I’m concerned that they’re not in good shape. I’m concerned where they’re going. But I don’t think they’re going back to the Cold War, yet.”

Kislyak’s comments came hours after President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Syria on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Russia and agreed to disagree on how to handle the spiraling civil war ravaging the Middle Eastern nation. “He doesn’t agree with me, I don’t agree with him. But we listened to each other,” Putin told reporters in St. Petersburg.

Kislyak repeated Russia’s warnings that if the U.S. choses to strike unilaterally it will not only harm U.S. and Russian relations, but “regional stability… and international norms.” Russia has moved eight warships to the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast in part to counter America’s five warships already there, and in part to help support and evacuate Russian citizens in Syria. There are an estimated 30,000 Russian citizens living in Syria, which is home to Russia’s last naval base in the region, Tartus.

Russia has expressed doubts about the validity of U.S. and European intelligence showing that Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, a Russian ally, was behind a chemical weapons attack last month that killed anywhere from 400 to 1,400 people, according to varying estimates. A Russian investigation into a smaller chemical weapons attack near Aleppo in March pointed to the Syrian opposition.

“The Russian press is all talking about al Qaeda cells arrested in Baghdad this week who had equipment to make Sarin gas,” says Paul Saunders, a Russian expert at the Center for the National Interest. “There are two different narratives, two different discussions, and they are totally disconnected.”

Kislyak bemoaned the refusal by leadership in both chambers of Congress to meet with a delegation from the Russian duma to discuss Syria. “There is no interaction between the legislatures… the judiciaries do not speak. So you have two of three branches of government that don’t communicate,” Kislyak said. “It is striking more than 20 years after the Cold War how weak our communication is, even in normal times, let alone times of crisis.”

In recent years trade between Russia and the U.S. has dropped off. Failure to make progress on a range of issues such as missile defense, arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, human rights and civil society issues prompted Obama to cancel his planned summit with Putin before the G20, according to White House Spokesman Jay Carney in announcing the decision in August. Russia’s decision to grant Edward Snowden asylum also hasn’t helped.

While the Syrian civil war has long been a proxy conflict between the Sunni Gulf States like Saudia Arabia and Shia Iran, it is increasingly becoming a proxy battle between Russia and the U.S. Russia continues to arm Assad and the U.S. is working with France to step up efforts to give Syrian opposition groups heavy arms in the wake of last month’s chemical attack.

The ambassador couldn’t say what Russia’s response would be if the U.S. Congress backs Obama’s plan to strike Syria and the U.S. moves ahead with the attack. “I’m not sure if we go from bad to worse or if we’re reached some point in the relationship and things will improve,” says Dimitri Simes, head of the Center for the National Interest. “It is a very sensitive moment.”