The new phase of relations between Russia and the West is regrettable, but a dose of realism was long overdue, says Evgeny Pudovkin, foreign affairs correspondent at Russian daily, Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Donald Trump’s election prompted a sugar rush among pundits: the billionaire had not even formally assumed the Presidency before speculation took hold about whether his conciliatory tone toward Russia would manifest itself through concrete actions. Visions of ‘grand bargains’ were commonplace, as were suspicions regarding possible collusion between Trump’s team and the Kremlin.
The tumultuous whirlwind that accompanied Trump’s early presidency, however, ensured that talks of a new “reset” quickly dissipated. Other pertinent topics came up, too. First, there was the resignation of Michael Flynn from his post of national security adviser after he misled US Vice-President, Mike Pence, about his contacts with Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. The badly-handled “Trumpcare” bill, debacle together with the so-called “Muslim ban”, and accusations around the wiretapping of Trump Tower have added to the shambles.
With both houses of Congress as well as the FBI investigating Trump’s alleged dealings with Moscow, the former subtlety with which all things Russian used to be treated has given way to a more strident rhetoric. President Trump himself has accused Obama in (among other things) of being too soft on Putin, while his Secretary of State took a dig at his counterpart Sergei Lavrov for not having enough independence over his brief. To top it off, General Mattis and H.B. McMaster, the two figures in the administration’s team responsible for defence policy, have never been particular fans of the idea of ‘rapprochement’ either. So much for the meeting of minds and the dawn of the tough-guys’ “bromance”.
Seen in this context, Trump’s decision to retaliate against the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria – believed to be responsible for a chemical attack on the rebel-held town that killed over 80 people – may well prove to be the final nail in the coffin of the whole ‘pivot to Russia’ enterprise.
It looks clear now that the scenario, wherein Trump will attempt a dash for a “reset” to restore the leading western nation’s relations with Russia to its pre-Crimea normality is unlikely to materialise. And without this deus ex machina event, low and behold, the whole reappraisal of ties between the West and Russia seems elusive to say the least. For the Kremlin, the Trump’s presidency will likely have been the last train to hop on in order to achieve any conspicuous concessions from Europe or the US, like lifting sanctions or greater acquiescence on matters related to Ukraine or Syria.
Set against this backdrop is a more concrete – although, of course, a less tepid – vision for the interaction between Russia and the West is taking shape, the one that may prove sustainable in the medium-term. In its heart lies the plain-speaking admission that there is not much to be done to resolve ideological and strategic differences between the Kremlin and western capitals. Rather, what both sides should henceforth dedicate their diplomatic efforts to is figuring out how to live together without allowing a military confrontation to occur.
While at first sight this state of affairs is lamentable, it doesn’t mean either side intend to bury their head in the sand. But at the same time, having admitted that some of their main differences – most prominently on Syria and Ukraine – are presently irreconcilable, Russia and the West should concentrate on how to prevent any sharp local confrontation from taking root and minimise its potential to escalate. Both sides can now avoid worn-out phrases such as “building bridges”, “normalising relations” and “strategic cooperation”, focusing instead on more relevant – and immediate – issues on the security agenda.
This shift to a new phase, it can be argued, is long overdue. A change to Donald the ‘Siberian candidate’, eager to carve the world between himself and Vlad, into a decisive, if cantankerous, custodian of conventional Western interests, appears to have momentously taken place. To some, however, the whole notion of a ‘reset’ seemed doubtful from the outset. “Russia-US relations do not need a new ‘reset’”, Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted last month. “What they need is proper risk management. The main question should be not about improving relations, but rather about making sure we are not balancing on the edge of hot conflict”.
With respect to what this ‘risk-management’ agenda should entail more concretely, the strengthening of dialogue around the topics of military risk management, counterterrorism and cybersecurity would certainly not go amiss.
The situation in Syria is extremely sensitive. The balance of power on the ground still favours the regime and Assad’s capacity to escalate tensions remains considerable. Although the Kremlin may not ostensibly wish to aggravate the conflict further, the case of the chemical attack demonstrates it will not equivocate when it comes to supporting the Syrian strongman. Turbulence will thus persist. Apart from that, officials in both Russia and the West also express their concern on how dangerous the current situation is in the Black Sea and the Baltics, where Russian and NATO forces are stationed in cloose proximity to one another. Therefore it’s imperative to make sure agreements regarding flight safety and incident-prevention are kept in place – or, where suspended, restored as soon as possible.
Another area where some ground rules need to be established is cybersecurity. As Henry Kissinger observed, the hostile activity in this area could soon become commonplace. Presently, however, the issue seems to concern the West rather more, given a strong suspicion on the behalf of a good part of the expert community that Moscow had intervened in elections in other democracies. As pointed out in a new report on UK-Russia relations, prepared by Sarah Lain from RUSI, and Andrei Kortunov, the Chair of RIAC, a Russian think tank, it is becoming increasingly important to establish rules ensuring that neither side suffers critical damage to its infrastructure.
It may also be a fair point that the new format of dialogue based around damage-limitation related to security could provide for a welcome qualitative change in the interactions between the West and Moscow. Discussions on “risk management” stipulate that counterparts engage in cooperation based upon naked interests and already-planned operations; values and “strategic visions” are cut out of the loop. Given the extent to which the Kremlin is hard-wired on security issues and how irritated it becomes when its partners start pointing at its shortcomings in democracy and the rule of law, the conversation will actually flow easier that way.
From a Western vantage point, the damage-control agenda deals with arguably the main challenge it encounters in its dealings with Russia, which is the latter’s potential to destabilise the political landscape. In this regard, should the US try to go for the regime change, Syria is only a part of the story. Moscow’s actual arsenal is more considerable: meddling in the CIS states, aligning itself with China and arming Iran are only a few options the Kremlin may entertain. Given that Russia’s military might is one of its greatest assets, it stands ready to exploit it. Indeed, as Graham Allison and Dmitry Simes emphasised in their memo to President Trump, ‘Russia’s potential as a spoiler is difficult to exaggerate’.