RELATIONS between the United States and Russia have dived to their worst levels since the end of the Cold War, a new report has claimed.
The US-Russia relationship today was in a deep crisis that the world had every reason to be worried about, according to the Lowy Institute's nonresident fellow Dr Bobo Lo, as the chance of a direct confrontation had increased significantly.
The two countries were engaged in a bitter and paranoid period of global tension - known as the Cold War - that divided the world for more than four decades, as friction between East and West escalated.
A new report released today, An accident waiting to happen: Trump, Putin and the US - Russia relationship, revealed how relations between Washington and Moscow were more problematic and acrimonious than at any time since tensions started to thaw in the late '80s and early '90s.
The election of US President Donald Trump, Putin's aggressive conduct in foreign policy, sanctions against Moscow, and clashing interests had helped to sour relations further during the past nine months, Dr Lo said.
An escalating war of words between Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un also fuelled the US and Russia divide.
Trump had threatened to destroy North Korea while Russia, an ally and neighbour which shares a border with the kingdom, called for calm and warned military action would be catastrophic.
Written by Dr Lo, who is also an associate research fellow with the Russia/NIS Center at the French Institute of International Relations, the paper examined the issues both countries had faced since Mr Trump's election last year.
The 27-page report revealed while there were initial hopes that Trump's victory would "lead to a new quality of engagement", the question now was whether "Moscow and Washington can manage their many differences and avoid a dangerous escalation of tensions."
It goes on to highlight that signs aren't looking good for a turnaround in frosty relations.
Dr Lo notes the dysfunctionality of the Trump administration was also threatening to create fresh crises and aggravate existing issues between the two countries.
"The best-case scenario for the relationship in the short to medium term may be one of mutual containment, reminiscent of the Cold War," Dr Lo wrote.
"However, even this relative stability appears elusive."
Speaking to news.com.au from London, Dr Lo said the differences between Washington and Moscow reflected contrasting world views, historical mistrust, conflicting priorities and interests, and the absence of a meaningful, cooperative agenda.
Dr Lo said there had been no sudden breakdown in the relationship and today's crisis was the product of accumulated long-term problems.
"Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the general trend of US-Russia relations has been downward, interspersed with occasional periods of constructive engagement," he said.
"Trump is pro-Kremlin, but he simply doesn't have the capacity to deliver what Moscow wants.
"There are many reasons for this, including overwhelming anti-Kremlin sentiment in Congress; Russian interference in the US democratic process; and Trump's dysfunctional behaviour and the chaos in the White House."
In the report, Dr Lo highlights how many expected relations between Moscow and Washington to improve dramatically following the election of the "most pro-Kremlin" president in years.
During the election campaign, Trump said: "I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin."
However, the Trump administration was soon weighed down by claims that Moscow helped him get to the White House.
A vocal critic of NATO and sanctions against Russia, Trump expressed he wanted to get along with Moscow and even suggested he would recognise the annexation of Crimea.
Instead things quickly deteriorated.
"The ongoing scandal of Kremlin involvement in the US election, and the Trump camp's ties with Russian security agencies, have made Russia among the most toxic of issues in Washington," Dr Low writes in the report.
"The storeyed personal dynamic between Trump and Vladimir Putin has proved more a hindrance than a help."
The meetings between the leaders have proved counter-productive with Trump coming across as a "Russian patsy" on the sidelines of the G20, believing Putin's claims that Russia didn't interfere in the US election, the report reveals.
Things have not improved since with a return to the vicious cycle that had "characterised US-Russia interaction since the fall of the Soviet Union."
The pair weren't able to even reach modest successes with divergent world views, mistrust, conflicting priorities and unstable personalities which "risk putting Washington and Moscow on a collision course".
"Trump prides himself on his ability to 'make a deal'. But his presidency has instead revealed a reverse Midas touch - the more he says and does, the worse things turn out," Dr Lo wrote.
'BILLY NO MATES'
Dr Lo said Trump and his Russian counterpart do get on but have a "wholly unequal relationship".
"Putin is by far the dominant player, for several reasons," Dr Lo said.
"He is vastly more capable and experienced. He is the most authoritative leader Russia has had since Stalin, whereas Trump is politically hamstrung at every turn. And Putin needs Trump much less than the other way around."
Dr Lo said the inequality of their personal dynamic was brutally exposed during the Hamburg G20 summit.
"We should be careful, then, not to exaggerate the warmth between the two presidents," he said,
"A fair analogy would be the unpopular kid at school, who everyone despises ("Billy no-mates") desperately currying favour with the school jock or bully."
Dr Lo made it clear Putin had one goal, and that was for the US to accept Russia as an equal in twenty-first century global affairs.
Putin didn't want Russia to be the global leader and instead wanted parity with the US on issues where his country was concerned.
"So while Putin may want a friendlier United States, he does not necessarily want a friend, especially one whose actions are very hard to judge, and whose international reputation has never been lower," the report revealed.
The report also highlighted Trump had shown little interest in foreign policy with his only experience coming from business deals and that he saw "Russia as an annoying distraction that threatens to derail his presidency."
The two leaders share common views and like-mindedness including the 'us against them' mentality.
Despite their similarities, their relationship had regressed mainly due to the dysfunction within the Trump administration, which had not made foreign policy or Russia a priority.
Dr Lo said Putin's strategic priorities were stabilising the relationship with the United States; expanding the Sino-Russian partnership, including through the idea of a Greater Eurasia; projecting Russian influence throughout the Middle East; and holding the line in the Western neighbourhood, starting - but not ending - with Ukraine.
Dr Lo said Putin's foreign policy was hugely popular with the Russians "who enjoy seeing him stick it to Western leaders", who they blame for their troubles during the 1990s.
"Trump is reasonably popular in Russia, certainly far more so than Obama," he said.
"However, this is largely because of his disruptive effect on the US political establishment, and the damage he is inflicting on America's standing in the world.
"The spectacle of the world's sole superpower being reduced to new levels of farce is one that appeals to many Russians."
NOT SO ROSY FUTURE
Things are also not expected to improve in the future with the report painting a negative view for future relations.
"The best-case scenario in the short to medium term might be a relationship not unlike that between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War," he writes.
"Such a scenario, however, seems increasingly unlikely. Many of the problems that dogged relations during the George W. Bush and Obama eras have become more serious, and could generate new crises."
The report also noted that Trump's leadership of the US was the least bad option and revealed that if Vice President Mike Pence assumed power: "Washington and Moscow would then most likely enter a new phase of confrontation."
Dr Lo told news.com.au the worst case scenario was a clash between Russian and American/NATO forces that escalated quickly.
"No-one wants a war, but there is ample scope for 'accidents' given the fragility of de-
confliction arrangements in Syria and especially over the Baltic Sea," he said.
"Until now, Putin has been able to second-guess American and European leaders, and retain the advantage of surprise. But faced with an unpredictable, mercurial counterpart, reading intentions has become notably more difficult."
Dr Lo said one possible scenario was the world had a new version of the Cold War, whereby the United States and Russia remained hostile toward each other, but manage things in such a way as to avoid direct confrontation.
"However, there are real doubts as to whether mutual 'strategic containment' is sustainable in an increasingly fluid and volatile world. The potential for accidents is considerable," he said.