Russia’s buildup of troops at its border with Ukraine has created a diplomatic standoff between Russia and the US, the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
For a better understanding of how we got to this point, and what could come next, I talked to Michael Kimmage, a professor at the Catholic University of America. He specializes in US-Russia relations and is a voice for engagement with Russia and a more nuanced view of the country.
Our conversation, conducted by email and lightly edited, is below.
WHAT MATTERS: Let’s start with a very general question. If the Cold War was about US capitalism vs. USSR communism, what is the standoff between Russia and the West about today?
KIMMAGE: It is less sweeping than the Cold War. It is, at its core, a contest for influence in Eastern and Central Europe. The Cold War, by contrast, was defined by the Iron Curtain. The military situation was mostly settled after 1949. That is why ideological conflict (over capitalism and democracy) was so intense; it was the real arena of competition.
Today, there is no Iron Curtain in Europe. There is no clear line dividing Russia from Europe, or Europe from Russia. And in this ambiguous situation there is a stark difference of vision or of worldview.
The United States sees the individual states of Europe as entirely sovereign and as entitled to make their own decisions about security, trade, alliances, etc.
Russia sees itself as having a privileged zone of interest along its western border. For reasons of security and of prestige, Russia demands in this area a combination of influence and deference, and Russia is willing to employ military force where it sees itself as thwarted in this privileged zone.
Ukraine falls right in the middle of this contest, and since 2014 both Moscow and Washington have come to see Ukraine as a barometer of Europe’s future.