In recent weeks, a grand ‘reset’ between the US and Russia has become politically impossible amid increasing speculation that Donald Trump and his campaign team may have come under Moscow’s influence. But such a deal was in any case destined to fail because of the irreconcilable underlying interests of the two countries.
This is a relief for the Ukranian government, which feared that, led by Washington, the West might abandon Ukraine to a Russian zone of influence. It is also a reminder that there are no short-term fixes to the complex set of issues dividing Western countries and Russia.
Against this background, it is time for Western leaders to recognize that the scale of the Russian challenge is directly proportionate to the level of effort they invest to address it. The lack of focus on how to respond to Russia’s increasingly dangerous and disruptive behaviour has made the problem worse. It has encouraged Moscow to think that it is more powerful than it is. At the same time, it has made Western countries believe they are weaker than they are.
There are many reasons why Western countries have been so slow to react to the gauntlet thrown down by Moscow. They include rose-tinted views in the US and Western Europe after the collapse of the USSR about Russia’s ability to develop as a democratic state, the redeployment of resources to fight terrorism and the priority focus given to the Middle East. These increasingly diverted attention away from Russia and allowed governments’ policy expertise, built up over decades, to degrade.
Despite evidence to the contrary, there was also reluctance among leading Western governments to face up to the possibility that in a relatively short space of time, Russia could find the resources to re-assert its influence in Europe. By the end of President Vladimir Putin's first term in 2004, it was clear that Russia was not on the road of democratic development but was restoring authoritarian government with traditional views of Russia’s security interests.
At the same time, rising commodity prices were restoring Russia’s economic position after the default of 1998, but they were also reawakening instincts and behaviour suppressed in the 1990s by loss of empire and economic distress.
NATO and EU countries either misunderstood or ignored Russia's determination to restore its influence on the territory of the former USSR. This led to a poorly judged effort by the US to integrate Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, a policy that triggered Russia's war with Georgia in 2008. In turn, this accelerated the rebuilding of Russia's armed forces. At the same time, the quest for cooperation in areas of common interest such as terrorism and narcotics trafficking produced only negligible results.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its fomenting of conflict in eastern Ukraine finally awoke Western leaders to the fact that it once again posed a serious security threat despite its underlying weaknesses. Yet NATO’s response to Russia’s military build-up is so far the only long-term policy currently in place to protect Western interests against Russian efforts to expand its influence.
A fully-fledged Western response should not be hard to formulate.
The first stage is for leading countries to audit jointly the range of threats posed by Russia and assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Russian system, including the sustainability of Moscow's current policies.
The next stage is to integrate a set of symmetrical and asymmetrical responses to counter the threats posed. Among others, this will require further measures to reinforce nuclear and conventional forces, as well as diversifying energy sources, building proper cyber security defences and sensitising Western societies to the dangers of Russian disinformation. It will also be necessary to consider options for sharpening the current sanctions regime.
The third step is to signal to Russia that Western countries will defend their interests and will hold it accountable for its actions aimed at undermining their security, including attempts to subvert their political systems.
This strategy must remain separate from efforts to reduce tensions and seek cooperation in areas where interests may coincide. While talking to Russian leaders is necessary, diplomats' instinctive desire to ‘engage’ must not again become a substitute for policy, as it was, for example, after Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, when Western countries thought they could quickly mend fences with Moscow and return to ‘business as usual’.
Finally, Western governments must rebuild their Russia expertise and as necessary bring out of retirement specialists with knowledge of the USSR to help in the process of reading Russian capabilities and intentions. The West’s shortage of people versed in Russian statecraft is a serious deficiency. For example, there are senior officials in the British government managing Russia policy who have never served in the country and do not speak Russian.
The pattern of Russian history since Peter the Great suggests that when the cost of maintaining the status quo becomes too great, Russia will eventually switch to a reform path and open itself again to the West. With a carefully calibrated strategy, Western countries can accelerate this outcome while maintaining peaceful relations. However, in the process they must learn from their mistakes at the end of the Cold War and have realistic expectations of what reforms in Russia can achieve.
The Russian challenge is surmountable if Western leaders choose to see it that way.
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