Another Reset with Russia?

LONDON – The question of the West’s relationship with Russia has been buried by media stories of hacking, sex scandals, and potential blackmail. The dossier by former British spy Christopher Steele about US President Donald Trump’s activities in Moscow some years ago may turn out to be as credible as the claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction – or it may not. We simply don’t know. What is clear is that such stories have distracted attention from the task of bridging the diplomatic chasm now dividing Russia and the West.

It’s hard for a Westerner, even one of Russian ancestry like me, to warm to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I hate the way his government has used the “foreign agent” law to harass and effectively close down NGOs. I hate its human-rights abuses, assassinations, dirty tricks, and criminal prosecutions to intimidate political opponents.

What seems indisputable is that today’s anti-liberal, authoritarian Russia is as much a product of the souring of relations with the West as it is of Russian history or the threat of disintegration that Russia faced in the 1990s.

This souring is rooted in Russia’s perception, underpinned by a large dose of paranoia and a misreading of post-communist history, that the West – and the United States, in particular – has aggressive designs on it. It is simply not true that Russia willingly gave up its empire to join the democratic West, only to be rebuffed by it. The Soviet Union had become too decrepit to hold on to its post-World War II gains or even its pre-war frontiers. The peoples of Eastern Europe, and those absorbed by the Soviet Union, were delighted to be free of Kremlin control.

Nonetheless, as Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, points out, Robert Gates, who headed the CIA in the early 1990s, later conceded that the West, and particularly the US, “badly underestimated the magnitude of Russian humiliation in losing the Cold War.” The spectacle of “American government officials, academicians, businessmen, and politicians” arrogantly “telling the Russians how to conduct their […] affairs” inevitably “led to deep and long-term resentment and bitterness.”

In this context, NATO’s expansion between 1999 and 2004 to include the Baltic states was, in my view, a serious mistake. I remember a leading Russian liberal telling me in the 1990s that a democratic government in Moscow was a much more secure guarantee against Russian adventurism than NATO troops in Vilnius.

Russia’s own overture to join NATO in 2001-2002 was predictably rejected. NATO’s essential post-communist purpose, after all, was to protect Eastern Europe against Russian revanchism. But it was a kick in the face when, at NATO’s Bucharest summit in 2008, the Alliance’s then-secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said that Ukraine would “someday” join. Although NATO’s leaders rejected Scheffer’s position at that very summit, many Russians came to believe that wherever Russia’s power receded, it was being replaced by the expanding power of the West, with no middle ground or buffer. Putin called NATO membership for Ukraine “a direct threat” to Russia.

Although Russia and the West each claim to uphold a rules-based international order, both sides have flouted the United Nations Charter when it suits them, accusing the other of hypocrisy. Did no Western policymaker heed the warnings of responsible Russian politicians that NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999 and Kosovo’s subsequent detachment from Serbia – both in violation of international law and the UN Charter – might set a dangerous precedent?

Despite the manifest corruption of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and his betrayal of his pledge to sign an association agreement with the EU, Russia saw only the West’s hand in the popular uprising that resulted in Yanukovych’s ouster in 2014. The West, in turn, was unanimous in condemning Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and clandestine military support for a pro-Russian separatist uprising in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

From the perspective of Realpolitik, Putin’s intervention in Ukraine was a catastrophic error: in addition to the economic sanctions Russia incurred as a result, Russian policy shifted Ukraine decisively into the Western camp. With its links to the US and the European Union fracturing, Russia has looked to a Eurasian alliance with China to bolster its crumbling geopolitical position. But this is neither country’s favored partnership.

Trenin believes that the West should fear Russia’s weakness more than its imperial designs. Russia’s fundamental post-Soviet shortcoming has been its failure to modernize its economy. The Putin-Medvedev governments that have ruled for the last 17 years have failed to overcome the “oil curse.” The state’s continued dependence on resource revenues has entrenched corruption, sustained autocracy, and encouraged foreign-policy adventurism as a substitute for broad-based material prosperity.

The Trump administration is set to make a new effort to build bridges. Trump proposes a “deal” to lift Western sanctions on Russia in exchange for an agreed reduction in nuclear stockpiles. This would be a good confidence-boosting start.

There are at least three positives to build on. First, Putin’s foreign-policy coups, while opportunistic, have been cautious. He talks big, but respects his limits. Having made his point in Georgia and Ukraine, he drew back. He is a gambler, but not for the highest stakes.

Second, the Russian thesis of “multipolarity” offers much to international relations. With American power on the wane and China’s on the rise, a restructuring of international relations is inevitable. The rules of the game forged in the era of US supremacy will have to be revised to accommodate different interests and perceptions. Russia could play a constructive role in this revision, if it does not overestimate its strength.

Finally, Russia has shown – on the nuclear deal with Iran and the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons – that it can work with the US to advance common interests. And, in my view, Putin’s “realism” in providing military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is preferable to futile Western efforts to orchestrate a “political settlement.” If successful, millions of refugees may be able to return to their homes.

The conflict of values between the two sides will continue. But, provided the West treats Russia and its concerns with respect, there is no reason why a much better working relationship cannot be established.