What is the myth?
Western leaders at intervals have declared an ambition to rebuild a cooperative relationship with Russia, given its intrinsic importance, and despite the way that Russia has developed over recent decades. The result, however, has been a cycle from hope to disappointment, then back again.
The case for Western leaders to return again and again to the quest for a mutually constructive relationship with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia rests on various debatable assumptions:
- That Russia’s geopolitical weight is such that Western countries need to respect what its present political leaders see as their country’s national interests. This includes putting such interests above those of Russia’s less powerful neighbours. The underlying assumption is that all would benefit from the mutual trust and security that would result.
- That Russia and the West have common economic and political interests to pursue.
- That Russian mistrust of the West stems from Moscow’s past humiliation by the West.
- That Russia’s present system of top-down government is natural to it, and will endure.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
Such sentiments are all the more seductive to those Western political figures and observers so inclined because they match propositions embedded in Russian government circles too. The axiom becomes that we must show respect for Russia and its rulers, and that building trust between Russia and the West has to be a central aim in developing a new and safer relationship. The theory is that success in particular matters can build common understanding. So, perhaps, it could – but that is easier said than done.
The most recent hopeful innovator was the French president, Emmanuel Macron, arguing that the EU as well as France should reach out to Russia. Before him, US President Barack Obama sought a ‘reset’ on similarly generalized grounds. He secured the signature of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the then Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, on 8 April 2010, but no wider steps towards a fuller relationship with Russia. President Donald Trump wanted a close personal but unspecified relationship with President Putin. None of these approaches, nor others by earlier Western political figures, have had more than a transient effect on the evolution of Russian international or domestic policies. Nor have they prevented a steady deterioration in Europe-wide security. While the new US president, Joe Biden, wishes to extend the START arms controls agreed with Russia in 2010, he has nonetheless taken a tougher line with Russia in accordance with that reality.
Why is it wrong?
It is true in principle that both Russia and the rest of Europe would benefit from more assured security structures and the understandings that might underpin them. It is also the case that there was progress, punctuated by crises, towards such instruments becoming established during the Cold War. But the uneasy balance that existed between the Soviet and Western blocs until the collapse of the Warsaw Pact is no more. The security structures and understandings that then existed have been eroded over time in consequence.
There can be no security in Europe while Russia demands, under the rubric of its claim to be a great power, the right to control the destiny of lesser powers in its neighbourhood, and to enforce this by the threat or use of military power. The argument that Russia needs such a zone to defend itself against the West depends on the beliefs that international relations necessarily rely on force, and that Western powers look in the first place to military power to govern their geopolitical balance with Russia. The presentation of the West, and the US in particular, as a threat to ‘Fortress Russia’ is also an essential support to domestic authoritarian rule from the Kremlin.
The list of apparently plausible common interests for Western interlocutors to draw upon in building a new relationship with their Russian counterparts is painfully thin.
The list of apparently plausible common interests for Western interlocutors to draw upon in building a new relationship with their Russian counterparts is painfully thin. Macron has, like others before him, mentioned common action to curb terrorism. Tackling cybercrime is also a favoured subject. Most Western leaders would in principle like to encourage trade and investment. The difficulty is that as soon as an area for discussion is suggested, however tentatively, its practical boundaries in relation to contemporary realities become obvious. Russia, too, denounces terrorism, but shares no common definition with possible partners of exactly what this is or who might be responsible for the threats it poses. Russia is close to Iran, the West is not. Russia has military forces in Ukraine, Libya and even parts of sub-Saharan Africa whose connections with the central government in Moscow are denied. Russia and the West share no common definition of cybercrime. Economic relations with Russia are complicated by sanctions, by the corruption – whether official or unofficial – that cripples the Russian economy, and by the lack of judicial independence.
It is worth noting that Moscow has not itself suggested meetings with Western leaders seriously to explore new ways of managing these sorts of issues. US and European relationships with Russia in the 1990s, and as the Putin era opened, involved transatlantic non-governmental as well as state-supported bodies being tasked to work with their Russian counterparts on a wide range of social and economic issues. These initiatives have since been shut down, for the most part by the Russian authorities. During the Medvedev presidency, the US government proposed that a social dialogue be included as a significant part of the reset. Nothing useful resulted. Russia has taken no considered position even on cooperative measures that would seem to be in its natural interest, such as avoiding military accidents or reducing risk by promoting mutual understanding of the reasons behind military stationing and exercises.
What are the present implications for Western policy?
Western hopes of realizing a more balanced and constructive relationship with Putin’s Russia have been further compromised by the radical shift over the last year and a quarter in its governance. The constitutional amendments forced through by Putin and his administration on 1 July 2020 by a highly questionable ‘popular vote’, subsequently built up further by repressive measures passed by Russia’s state Duma (parliament), were designed to achieve a number of regime aims: to reduce future elections in Russia – whether federal, regional or municipal – to formalities controlled by Moscow; to prevent public protests or even discussion of political alternatives to what might be favoured by those around Putin; to put Russian ‘law’ above the country’s obligations under existing international agreements; and to allow for Putin to return to the Kremlin for two further six-year presidential terms in 2024.
This latter prospect alone – of Putin remaining in power until 2036 – makes it even more implausible for individual transatlantic leaders or organizations to hope that to reach out to Moscow in a search for a new and mutually cooperative agreement on the management of future relationships would achieve something truly bankable. The brutal suppression of Russia-wide protests in January 2021, sparked by opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s arrest on his return to Moscow after his recovery in Berlin from a failed assassination attempt in Russia, only underlined the nature of the regime that the West would have to negotiate with. Navalny’s treatment as he began his prison sentence, and the refusal of adequate medical attention as his condition deteriorated, added to the lesson.
The Kremlin’s dependence on powerful security and military forces to retain its control over Russia will continue to inform the country’s international relationships, as witnessed by Russia’s present pressure on Ukraine and Georgia, as well as by its support for the discredited President Aliaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus. Critically essential decision-making in Russia is determined by a small and hermetic group centred on Putin. Its habits and ideas have inevitably become engrained. Outside this circle, the system is naturally favoured by those who have profited from it or those who depend on it for their survival. Polling is an uncertain measure in Russia, at best. Putin’s present support in the polls of around 65 per cent is balanced by scores of 30 per cent or less when it comes to trust in him. Fear and uncertainty of who or what might replace him is a factor in his favour. So is the fact that the regime has ensured that no authorized and credible alternative to Putin can be put before voters. So far, so good, depending on your point of view, but the outcome is that no one knows how or when he will go, or what will happen when he does. The Levada poll readings for March 2021 record 48 per cent of Russians believing that their country is moving in the right direction, 42 per cent in the wrong one and 10 per cent uncertain. There is good evidence of a widespread and strong wish for generalized change, particularly among younger and middle-aged citizens, but less clarity as to what exactly that would entail or how it would best be achieved.
The prospect facing Western policymakers is consequently one of already personalized autocratic rule being further reinforced by those now in power and likely to remain so for the immediately predictable future. Accordingly, Western policymakers must expect that the Kremlin’s vision of Russia as a fortress entitled to a commanding role in the world yet threatened by outside powers, and by the US in particular, will remain at the heart of its beliefs.
What would good policy look like?
The options facing transatlantic policymakers are therefore narrow. That is not to exclude the possibility of addressing particular issues with Russia as opportunity may offer, but Russia’s objective in responding to individual approaches of a broader nature would not be to promote a better security system to reduce transatlantic tensions, but to divide the country in question from NATO allies or the rest of the EU. Much the same might well apply to more focused approaches. There is no present prospect of Putin’s Russia abandoning its ambition to establish dominance over neighbouring states, and Ukraine in particular, or relaxing its efforts to encourage division among Western countries more generally. To do otherwise would require the Kremlin to retreat from its great-power ambitions and to contemplate a return to a relatively liberal path domestically.
Foreign governments need to nurture the respect of the Russian public by commitment at home and abroad, whether in Russia or its neighbours, to the principles behind popularly accountable and law-based governance.
Western policymakers must also take account of how the Russian people will judge what Western powers may do. Foreign governments have to deal, like it or not, with those in command of the states before them. But there is a reason why Putin and his cohort now see a paramount need to control Russia’s peoples still more vigilantly, by violence if need be. Western policymakers and analysts must take full account of the continuing, and probably increasing, divide between Russia’s rulers and their subjects.
Grand gestures intended to reinvent a close relationship with a Russia as we might wish it to be, but not as it really is, would run counter to that requirement. Foreign governments need to nurture the respect of the Russian public by commitment at home and abroad, whether in Russia or its neighbours, to the principles behind popularly accountable and law-based governance – including, not least, support for such principles in respect of Ukraine.