Western relations with Russia are the worst in thirty years–and unlikely to improve as long as Vladimir Putin is in the Kremlin, says Russia expert ANGELA STENT.
Where do we stand as far as Russia’s relations with the West are concerned―is this a new low? Certainly for the United States, and to some extent for Europe as well, relations with Russia are the worst since before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power back in 1985.
In the US, that has been driven of late by the investigation into Russian influence in the US presidential election last year. Even if some of the media coverage is hyped up, even if some of the characters who claim to have had contact to the Trump campaign or the Kremlin did not, we know there was interference and leaks to WikiLeaks. It is the same in Europe. There have been cyberattacks in Germany on the Bundestag that have been attributed to the Russians. We know in France there was interference as well. Be it Brexit or Catalan independence, we hear about Russia trying to benefit from euroskepticism and populism. These movements already exist in the US and Europe. But the Russians certainly try to intensify both the questioning of our fundamental beliefs about democracy and the European Union and the post-war commitment to a closer Europe.
If we are asking ourselves if we need a new Russia policy, then one part of the answer is that we certainly need better and more sophisticated defenses against the kind of interference we are seeing. We have freedom of expression in the West. We don’t have one state-controlled media outlet. We cannot respond to what Russia is doing perfectly symmetrically because the government cannot tell our media what to write. But you can respond better both in terms of the messaging and preparing stronger cyber defenses.
Is this interference opportunistic or part of a deliberate Russian strategy? Even if we question how state-controlled various hackers are, the Kremlin obviously saw a vulnerability looking at the US and Europe, and they definitely have a policy of trying to influence. Russia does not like dealing with a united European Union, so anything that weakens it, why not? In the US, they listened to what Trump was saying and saw an opportunity to move beyond the sanctions. A lot of these euroskeptic parties they support across the EU would lift sanctions if they had power. And don’t forget, Russia hosts meetings with separatists and far-right groups, and we know they gave money to Marine Le Pen. All of that is deliberate and comes from high up.
There were similar efforts to influence our politics in communist times, of course. I remember in 1982 the Soviet Union was supporting the American peace movement. I think the concern now is that the Russians are so much more effective. And it comes at a time when we in the West are also questioning the moorings of our own democracies. I think the cyber aspect means we are in uncharted territory, and perhaps it is simply a question of building better tools. In Soviet times, there was a lot of Soviet television and propaganda, but we had our own response. Now the cyber tools give the Russians new capabilities.
On the other hand, a lot of Russians, or certainly those who do not like President Putin, cannot understand how we in the West are building up Russia as this monolith capable of destroying our societies and democracies. They say we give far too much credit to the Russians, that we should have some confidence in ourselves.
The EU has on the one hand implemented sanctions alongside Washington, but on the other tried to keep diplomatic channels with Moscow open. What do you make of the EU’s policy? The EU doesn’t have a single Russia policy. You have German policy and French policy that is more or less aligned, and British policy is less important now. But if you look at the so-called “illiberal democracies”, the Poland’s and Hungary’s, and then you look at the Czech Republic and Cyprus and even Italy, Spain, and Greece, there are EU member states that want to lift sanctions but cannot without German-French agreement.
US policy is very divided at the moment, but the official line that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has put forward is a three-prong policy. You resist Russian aggression where you need to; you work with Russia where you have common interests; and you try and establish strategic stability. It goes back to the old two-track policy of the 1969 Harmel Report―you engage Russia where you have common interest and try and push back in areas where you want to counter Russia. In that sense, I don’t think there is a huge difference between official US policy and German policy or EU policy.
So how do you stabilize or improve the situation? Is it time for another reset? I’m always very wary of a reset. I wrote a book about four American presidents who have done resets and they have all ended in disappointment. You have to think about what your expectations are. Russia hasn’t budged an inch on Ukraine. Do we start to normalize the relationship? Do we try to improve it and begin to lift sanctions? If you do that while Russia hasn’t changed its Ukraine policy, that sends a strong signal. If you want to try and move beyond the Minsk agreement, you would need to have all sides agree, and you would need much more active French and German engagement.
In Syria, the US has basically abandoned its leadership role, and that happened under Obama. It has now ceded that role to Russia, which has become the power broker. Putin has managed to get Turkey and Saudi Arabia to accept Russia in that role. The Saudi king was just in Moscow meeting Putin, and Erdogan, and the Iranian leadership more recently visited Sochi for talks. We have all stepped back from the position that Bashar al-Assad has to go, but we are still dealing with a humanitarian catastrophe. I think now it is up to Russia to see what they are going to do. Are they going to step back? Will there be a reconciliation process? I don’t know. But the US is no longer a main player in the conflict.
So what would be the basis of another reset, of a different Russia policy? Right now everything is suspended until the Russian presidential elections are over. Once Putin is reelected in March, certainly from my discussions with the Russians, I have no sense that there is any kind of policy change in the cards, either domestically or in foreign policy. One of the things we should be asking ourselves is: is it us that should be doing the reset? Or do we need signals from Russia, that Russia understands that it needs to take our considerations into account?
One of the problems if we talk about a new policy is sanctions. Europe could lift sanctions, but in return for what? In the US case that has become really difficult: Congress enacted very tough legislation because Republicans and Democrats were worried that Trump would lift sanctions unilaterally―and I believe he was intending to do exactly that but couldn’t. What’s more, the process of lifting sanctions is so unwieldy. It took 25 years to change the Jackson Vanik amendment of 1974 that denied “most favored nation” status to Russia. Also, the sanctions as they currently are could have far-reaching consequences for Germany because they contain language that says nobody should be building new energy pipelines, and I don’t know what will happen with Nord Stream 2―nobody does. It would be good to have the US and Europe really coordinated. I think one of the successes of the Obama administration is they did work with the Europeans very closely.
Beyond that, what would a new Russia policy look like? Some say the problem goes back to the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit, where the final communiqué stated that Ukraine and Georgia would join NATO. There was no date attached, but it is very easy for the Russians to say “this is why we had to take Crimea.” So does NATO change that language to prevent another escalation? To do that without going over the heads of Ukraine and Georgia is difficult. This is an issue that the Europeans and NATO have to confront.
A new policy on Russia has to take into consideration what Russia wants from us. It’s a recognition of its sphere of influence. That influence extends at least to the border of the former Soviet states, not the borders of the Russian federation. Are we prepared to do what Putin would like, which is to re-enact the Yalta conference of 1945 with Russia, China, and the US? It is unclear where Europe comes in. There are some who argue that Russia has its historical interests in its region and is threatened by the idea of the West coming closer to its borders. Do we say: no more NATO enlargement? The reality is there won’t be anyways for the foreseeable future.
A new Russia policy that could successfully avoid producing new Russian actions would probably have to accommodate Russian interests. Other people might argue that we need a much tougher Russia policy. We need to push back more. We are already deploying more troops as a result of what happened in Ukraine. We have more US troops in Poland. But there is no consensus on a tougher response.
What does accommodating Russian interests mean―what are the Kremlin’s interests, and its long game? I think it has a particular interest in the former Soviet space, but in general its interest is to have a seat at the international table on important issues, to be one of the great powers again. In the Middle East at the moment it looks as if it has succeeded quite dramatically in the last few years in establishing itself as a major power and influencing policy there, particularly in Syria. One of the lines I use is that Russia would like the West to treat it as if it were the Soviet Union―a great power whose interests we have to respect as legitimate, one that we respect and to some extent fear. The Chinese are very clever in treating Russia as if it’s a great power and equal, even though they understand the reality.
Russia has been able to benefit from opportunities opened by US withdrawal. There are global ambitions there, but I think a lot of it is simply opportunism. And you have to remember that many of these global ambitions feed the current Russian elites’ desire to stay in power and continue to enrich themselves. A lot of foreign policy is driven by that, and obviously a concern is to not have the outside world try and raise questions via democracy promotion. The EU is not going to give up its standards, but it understands the limits. And a country like China is never going to tell Russia it has concerns about its human rights record.
Some, especially in Germany, believe extending economic relations and a “modernizing partnership” be the way forward. Could economic cooperation to help boost the Russian economy provide some leverage? Economically Russia is a raw materials exporter―oil and gas and military hardware. Those are important, but is Russia really interested in modernization? So far I think we can say there are some individuals and groups in Russia that are interested in modernization, that understand if Russia doesn’t modernize its economy it will remain a raw materials exporter while countries around it become much more formidable economic powers. But there is very little evidence that the people in the Kremlin are seriously interested, because such a program in the end would erode the basis of their own power. One of the answers to “Do we need a new Russia policy?” is that we could perhaps have one if we had different leadership in the Kremlin, one that understands modernization and is willing to undertake the kind of economic reforms that would move Russia away from being a petrol state.
There are Russians who say they don’t believe Putin will leave the Kremlin voluntarily. But there are other Russians who say he may well be preparing the path for a successor. We know he has put in power a number of younger people who could potentially be successors and who might understand the need for modernization. So in the longer run maybe such a policy would work. But right now that doesn’t look likely.