The Syria ceasefire deal between the Kremlin and the White House reveals the desire of both sides to start the bridge-building process in bilateral relations. Hotline diplomacy, once thought to be a relic of the Cold War, could be making a comeback.

U.S. President Barack Obama during a phone call. Photo: AP

Last month Moscow and Washington attempted to reinvigorate their collaboration over Syria as indicated by last week’s Syria ceasefire agreement and a recent telephone “hot line” call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart Barack Obama.

Remarkably, the U.S. president initiated the call, which actually became a good example of Russian-American hotline diplomacy. At first glance, it seems to be a good sign. However, it could also be misleading, because it indicates that there is a deep crisis in bilateral relations. 

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Historically, hot line calls between the leaders of the U.S. and Russia have helped to alleviate tensions in bilateral relations. However, can they be effective today?

Russian-American hotline diplomacy during and after the Cold War 

While the idea of a “hot line” seems to be a bit outdated in the Internet era, hot lines have proved to be an effective tool for resolving crises and improving mutual understanding. The first Moscow-Washington hot line was established in 1963 as a response to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made it evident that swift, reliable and secure communication between the leaders of two superpowers that mistrusted each other was vital.

During the Cold War period, the hot line was considered a mechanism to lessen the risk of hot war because of miscalculation, misunderstanding, or a failure of communication. The first hot line and all the subsequent ones had the form of teletype, telex, or facsimile. A direct telephone link between the Kremlin and the White house was established only in 1991.

The Russian-American hot line is a direct communication of a certain kind. Originally, it was intended to be used primarily for the most urgent matters of war and peace, as happened for the first time in 1967 during the war in the Middle East.

The creation of the hot line between the two countries that controlled the majority of the world nuclear arms demonstrated that a dialogue was possible in spite of the Cold War confrontation. In a broad sense, active hot lines have continued to be a symbol of improving bilateral relations and an important step in building or enhancing confidence between either friendly or hostile states.

After the end of the Cold War, the Russian-American relationship became multilevel and multifaceted, and new channels for communication have appeared. The current U.S.-Russia crisis has revived the old spirit of fundamental mistrust and brought back the concept of the Moscow-Washington hot line.

Today, the degree of Cold War rhetoric from both sides and the lack of credibility remind us not about the late 1980s or even the 1970s, but rather about the 1950s and 1960s. The “Cold War II” concept is at the center of political, social and media discourse as a theoretical framework for better understanding of the new normal of U.S.-Russia relations.

In this context, Putin-Obama hotline diplomacy has become the channel of communication between leaders who are feeling a lack of trust and interaction in the face of global challenges. The hot line talks between them have not been frequent, and every new call evokes some optimism on both sides of the Atlantic.

As some ague, this hotline diplomacy opens opportunities to mend bilateral relations. In 2014, Presidents Putin and Obama had phone discussions about the Ukrainian crises and the situation in southeastern Ukraine three times (twice in March and in July).

Of course, each president’s account of the conversation was dramatically different. But thanks to them, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov started an active face-to-face negotiation process on Ukraine and Syria.

Putin and Obama spoke twice in 2015 (in February and June) as well as in 2016 (in January and February). The main topics of their hot line talks were the Syria and Ukraine crises, Iran’s nuclear program and the common threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).

The face-to-face meetings of the two presidents have been even more rare and remarkably brief, except a behind-closed-doors talksin Parisat the UN Conference on Climate Change on November 30, 2015. Probably, due to the last Putin-Obama telephone link, the U.S.-Russia ceasefire in Syria finally came to fruition. However, it is too early to talk about the improvement in U.S.-Russia relations despite all these good signs. 

Why pessimism prevails over optimism

The Syrian government and the main opposition umbrella groups have accepted the terms of a deal to cease hostilities. The ceasefire regime went into force on Feb. 27 and has demonstrated that Moscow and Washington are capable of constructive dialogue regardless of the “war of sanctions” and asymmetric confrontation. Therefore, hotline diplomacy is working.

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At the same time, skepticism has lingered over this plan. State leaders, politicians, and experts are very cautious about raising expectations for many reasons.

First, all sides of the conflict have made it clear they will retaliate in response to attacks. Second, there is no Russian-American common list of terrorist organizations fighting in Syria. Third, there is the deepest credibility gap exists between the international coalitions under the U.S. leadership, on the one hand, and the Syrian government, Russia and their allies, on the other. Fourth, relations between Russia and the key players in the Middle East, first of all, with Turkey are getting increasingly worse, and the two countries seem to be on the slippery slope of military confrontation.

The main source of pessimism for the West is Russian President Putin himself and his “Syrian gambit.” The New York Times summarized these pessimistic considerations in an op-ed:

One reason is the extraordinary web of conflicting interests and agendas involved in this struggle, and the warring parties have to buy in to make the truce work,” it reads. “The greater reason is that the central figure in the fray is Vladimir Putin, the Russian president… As he has already clearly demonstrated in Ukraine, a ceasefire to him is a tactic, even a smoke screen, not a goal… Though the West broadly seeks to destroy ISIS and oust Mr. Assad, Mr. Putin, by contrast, has a concrete focus – to assure the control of Mr. Assad’s government over key areas of Syria.”

That is why the U.S. administration has a “Plan B” as an alternative scenario for Syria in response to any provocative actions violating the ceasefire regime.

An attempt at a new Russian “reset”?

So, the failure of a U.S.-Russia ceasefire agreement might hamper the attempts to alleviate the tensions between the U.S. and Russia on a bilateral level. In his remarks at the 2016 Munich Security Conference, the head of the Russian delegation, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, warned the world against sliding “into a new period of Cold War” and suggested a collective fight against world terrorism.

First of all, this Kremlin announcement aimed at showing audiences inside and outside Russia that the country is a superpower and can be an equal partner in its cooperation with the West in general and the U.S. particularly in decision-making about international conflicts. Furthermore, it meant to show the world that Putin is doing his best to stop the conflict that has already cost hundreds of Russian lives, as a result of the terrorist attack on the Russian passenger plane over the Sinai.

After Munich, Putin offered Obama an alliance against international terrorism, inviting him to an equal partnership based on the common threat from ISIS. And this move reminds us of Russia’s “reset” attempt initiated by Putin after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when he called his U.S. counterpart, then-President George W. Bush and offered support for the antiterrorist campaign in exchange for a full-fledged U.S.-Russia partnership.

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However, although bilateral cooperation on Syria as well as on some other global issues is possible, all hopes on this alliance are groundless, because there is neither trust nor common vision of the future in the case of the current crisis.

As Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, pointed out in his interview to Russia Direct, we deal with two different foreign policy strategies and they are based on two different types of revisionism.

“Russia is a revisionist country when it comes to the international system, the rules of the game and the security dynamics in Europe… The West is revisionist when it comes to democracy promotion,” he said.   

On the next day after the Obama-Putin hot line connection, the British Minister of Foreign Affairs Philip Hammond, while attending the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show,” said that, “There’s one man on this planet who can end the civil war in Syria by making a phone call, and that’s Mr. Putin."

Nevertheless, could the recent Obama-Putin hot line call on Syria be productive enough? At least, it symbolizes the definite state of bilateral relations, being both an indicator of its critical crisis and the desire to start the bridge-building process.