The Russian Revival and the Western Response

Today, American global dominance is being challenged by the most significant shift in great power relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the British decision to leave the EU creates great uncertainty about future economic and political developments in Europe. Putin has intervened in Syria to show that, unlike the USA, Russia can be trusted to get things done in the region and win friends by offering Iraq an alternative to the USA. The struggle is also over legitimacy, as Putin wants to discredit America’s dominance of the international order. The USA argues that popular discontent and the Syrian regime’s abuses of human rights disqualify President Bashar Al-Assad from power. Putin, on the other hand, plays down human rights issues because he sees this as an excuse for the West to interfere in sovereign countries, including Russia itself. The Obama Administration seemingly takes comfort from Russia’s weak economy but, nevertheless, a declining, nuclear armed, former superpower can cause a lot of harm. Moreover, as relations between the two states continue to deteriorate, cooperation on issues of common concern weakens as well. Evidence of this comes from the Russian announcement that it will not join with the USA in its newest efforts to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan. In the words of the Russian Special Envoy on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, ‘We won’t join the useless events and we’ve already told the Americans. I don’t see any sense in it. Honestly speaking, we’re already tired of joining anything Washington starts. We have told them constantly on the unlikelihood of this or another step, and then they actually do fall apart’ (cited in Sputnik 2016).

However, despite tensions, the USA and Russia are not experiencing another ‘Cold War’ as many authors have described or feared to be the case. The world is simply not where it was during those times. Tsygankov (2016b) notes that today, major powers are not inclined towards the same risky behaviour they may have pursued in the past for their core interests for the following reasons. First, the cost of confronting the USA’s superior military is reason enough to deter serious warfare. In addition, Moscow is more interested in working with major powers and being accepted as one of them, not challenging them. This is the reason why they have insisted on Western recognition of their status as a major and equal world power. Its actions are not a drive to destroy the foundations of international order, but rather to be more fully included in it and to have a voice in its future.

Another factor concerns the fact that the USA has important interests in preventing regional conflicts from escalating, as it seeks regional stability. Moreover, the contemporary world order has no rigid structures of alliances as existed after the Second World War, for example. International coalitions are mostly formed on an ad hoc basis today.

There is no fundamental conflict of values and ideologies with the exception of ISIS and other extremist groups which most of the world is generally agreed to fight. The biggest cultural divide between the East and the West is the idea of liberal democracy versus autocratic tendencies, and this is not an idea for which either the West or the East is willing to engage in direct conflict (Tsygankov 2016a). How the West should respond to Russia is a question of great importance.

According to Karl Elias Gotz, the leading views on how to perceive Russia’s behaviour range from seeing it as a revisionist state with imperial ambitions, a victim who seeks security and honour, or a troublemaker dominated by a self-serving elite (Gotz 2016). The truth most likely lies somewhere between these three views. Russia has been convinced that the West has not included it in important decision-making roles taken in the course of the past quarter century and that NATO and the EU have encroached on its territory. In this respect it could be considered a victim who is trying to assert itself against the ‘bullying’ of the West. At the same time, however, Russia’s economy is weak. Therefore, the fragility of Vladimir Putin’s regime is a powerful motivator for him to try to regain Russia’s influence and status in any way possible. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its actions in eastern Ukraine and Syria, have all succeeded in diverting the Russian public’s attention away from Russia’s internal problems and towards the heroicness of their president’s actions in his efforts to regain relevance in the world. The analytic perspective used to view Russia’s actions will determine the adequate response selected by the USA and the West, whether through containment strategies, engagement, or ‘constrainment’ strategies (Gotz 2016).

If operating from the perspective that Russia is aggressive and imperialistic, the West should take a firm stance to curb these ambitions by reinforcing their military presence along NATO’s eastern flank, by supplying the government in Kyiv with weapons and military hardware and increasing NATO’s commitment to Ukraine to deter Russian aggression (Motyl 2015). Also, the EU and the USA would have to assist Ukraine’s economic transition and apply harsher economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia (Braun 2014). This, to a very substantial degree is what the USA and NATO have been doing over the past several years.

This strategy is not ideal, since it isolates Russia from the West and encourages its aggressive behaviour even further, as we have seen after the introduction of economic sanctions on Russia. Therefore, we must look to other foreign policy responses. Engagement on the other hand would entail the West’s pursuing more accommodating policies and seeking rapprochement with Russia by scrapping any plans to expand NATO further into Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus, because the Russians see this as a threat and may heighten tensions even further. Secondly, this entails abstaining from making any political or military commitments to Kyiv and backing away from encouraging it to join any kind of Euro-Atlantic structure. This approach would also require the lifting of economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia. This increased dialogue would enable more cooperation between Russia and the West on important issues of mutual concern, such as fighting terrorism, dealing with climate change, preventing nuclear proliferation, and the management of instabilities in the Middle East and the crisis in Syria. Whether the Russians would respond as hoped is another issue. Sanctions have resulted in a propaganda tool for the Kremlin to depict the West as an enemy and blame them for Russia’s economic downturn to the Russian population. Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard have made an excellent point about this. ‘The economic costs of sanctions,’ they argue, ‘will allow Putin to hide the failures of the Kremlin’s economic policies. Sanctions also provide Putin cover to push for managed isolation from globalization through policies designed to nationalize the internet, prohibit foreign ownership of the media, and limit travel’ (Krastev and Leonard 2015, p. 53).

Constrainment, a half-way policy between engagement and containment, may be the best policy option that the West should adopt. The West would engage with Russia politically and economically in order to promote a certain degree of cooperation and respect between nations. However, Putin’s regime is weak and vulnerable and all the muscle flexing that it does cannot hide the fact that the political order in Russia is increasingly fragile. Therefore, Russia is not as large a threat as some believe it to be. Despite this fact, it has still nevertheless succeeded at threatening the dynamic of powers in the world.

However, as some have argued, Russia might be flexing its muscles as a response to its failing economy. Russia is a revisionist power experiencing domestic insecurity which may be partially triggering its aggressive behaviour. Russia’s economic conditions are problematic, and internal political stability cannot be ignored at this time. Aggression fuelled in part by domestic crisis could potentially result in daring, reactive and impulsive behaviour, argues Robert Kaplan (2016), which is much harder to predict and to find counter measures against. As is well known, in 2014 the price of oil collapsed, and slow global growth reduced the demand for Russian natural resources, while the West imposed damaging sanctions on Russia. The result, as discussed earlier, has been a full-blown economic crisis where the ruble has lost more than half of its values against the US dollar. Russia has relied on its natural resource production for decades, as well as a manufacturing sector that makes consumer goods for the domestic market only. Its service sector remains underdeveloped. In the late 1980s, when the economy was hit by a crisis, then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev responded by opening up the political system only to see the results of anarchy and the collapse of the Russian empire. Putin has seen this as the example to be avoided and has decided to respond in the opposite manner: by keeping the political system closed and distracting the masses with displays of Russian power in the near abroad, and now beyond. Putin is well aware of the economic problems within his country and is therefore strategiz- ing that his foreign policy must become increasingly more creative and calculating, because, the more chaos that occurs abroad, the more it seems that there is an autocratic stability within the country. Although Russians may be aware that a freer society is better in the abstract, because of past examples in Russia itself, they fear such a transition. The problem for Putin is that no matter what he does abroad, he will not be able to stop the domestic economic decline unless internal restructuring occurs. This economic decline may encourage infighting among the ruling elite, if their wealth begins to decline. In addition, given the absence of strong institutions, enough turmoil could cause Russia to fragment, with its highly diverse population including the heavily Muslim North Caucasus and Russia’s Siberian and far eastern regions experiencing political upheaval. This instability could also affect Jihadist movements near or within Russia.

Europe looks less and less likely to able to provide any kind of firm response to Russia’s actions. Europe has been experiencing political division, exacerbated by Britain’s decision to leave the Union, and is continuing to suffer from slow growth and an inability to pursue the reforms that would overcome its economic and political crises. In addition, the refugee flows and terrorist threats of 2014 and 2015 also affect the EU’s division, as the different members are divided on how to respond. This disunity will simply contribute to the existing disorganized response to Russia. Slow economic growth in Europe, along with its political problems, will intensify right wing and left wing nationalist movements, which all use unmet economic expectations as rhetoric, further destabilizing the region. As mentioned in the introduction, the West is not unified in terms of dealing with Russia and is, therefore, unwilling or unable to contain it (Kaplan 2016).

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