The relationship between Russia and the West, mainly the U.S.A. and the members of the European Union, is in precarious waters. One party retaliates to the actions of the other. In the past this often resulted in some back and forth of throwing out diplomats, slinging some verbal mud, uttering harsh words, followed by a sort of “normalisation of relations”. But can the ongoing disputes about energy, the Baltics, Balkans and the Black Sea region, territorial, political - not to start on economics, corruptor, money laundering, Syria - be considered normal? Is it conceivable to move towards normalisation? If so, what is the best way to move forward?
To understand why Russia reacts the way it does and enacts its policies we need to understand some important historical events. In the early 19th century Russia discovered Europe was more a threat than a friend when Napoleon marched on Moscow. A century later the First World War left a severe stain on Russia’s history, confirming its belief to be perceived as a minor player by the “West”. The Second World War saw a third territorial threat to Russia posed by the Nazi regime. Afterward 1945, the Soviet Union felt safe behind its large buffer zone, keeping NATO and the European Coal and Steal Community at a safe distance. When, after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, the U.S.A. declared itself the victor of the Cold War, it indirectly declared Russia the loser. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union Russia believed it had assurance that NATO would not expand. But its former satellite states were eager to use their recently obtained self-determination. The resulting fast expansion of NATO, and to some extend of the EU, was a new invasion into Russia’s sphere of influence.
Russia has always been torn between a desire to belong to Western Europe and not entirely fitting in. Ignored in regional and international politics, but most of all not taken seriously. Russia’s limited economic and diplomatic means should not make the West overconfident. The European Union is still dependent on Russian energy. Moscow has also explored its ability to meddle in national affairs by investing in media, politicians, hacking, and “aid”. Through these tools it has shown to seriously disrupt the rule of law, fuel nationalism and encourage separatism.
But how do we move forward with a partner that doesn’t want to collaborate and only advance its own agenda, with the desired end result almost always antithetical to that desired by the West. Some argue it is best to exclude Moscow and punish Russia with heavier sanctions, ostracising it from important bodies until it is able to behave and play according to the “rules”. But would that achieve anything more than playing into Putins hands? Using an old enemy of the Soviet Union to unify its citizens? Others say we need to keep engaging with Moscow, making sure it can’t claim that it is being ostracised. But wouldn’t it then take advantage and still retaliate against the 'immoral West'? So, what is the right strategy? Unfortunately there is no straight answer for this. Policies should, perhaps, instead be based on a better understanding of how Russia perceives the world.
Moscow, meaning the political elite and those within the Putin regime, perceive the world as constantly at odds with one itself. Here the Kremlin tries to tip the balance of power in its favour to secure its national interests, security and stability. Conflicts are attributed to the immoral West and the international institutions they dominate, such as NATO and the EU. Moscow carefully selects its goals and smaller objectives in order to progress gradually towards a maximum payoff. For example, in trying to block further NATO and EU enlargement it actively engages in destabilising potential members and the inner workings of these institutions. The goal of urging regions to secede, via military action or economic stimulation, are smaller objectives helping to progress towards a bigger goal. In pursuit of these objectives, careful consideration is given to the strengths of opponents and the likelihood and ability to deploy it in the situation at hand.
Moscow controls risks by carefully calculating them and limiting the means used, exploring situations, and provoking opponents. Such provocation is only allowed when full escalation can be prevented and there is considerable control over the situation. The Kremlin thus only seizes opportunities in which it can deploy its available means with the biggest impact. In doing so it believes chance has little effect on the chain of events, and optimism based on the achieved goals and objectives.
Now this all sounds quite abstract, so lets apply it in a short example. Russia desires to be taken serious as an internationally superpower. In pursuit of this goal it first tested the waters by paying lip service to certain secessionist regimes, it then moved to economically support those self-declared states, slowly at first, but later more overtly. Think of Abkhazia, Transnistria or Republika Srpska. These successes, with little international retaliation, led to more bold military support in South Ossetia. In all events risks were low, control was high, and Russia could easily pull out.
Then with Ukraine, in the Krim and Dombas region, Russia simply invaded. The Kremlin safely in control of the perception of the story, at least at home. Shortly after, Russia entered the Syrian war, and can be considered to be on the winning side. Over the past years the West in turn has started to perceive Russia a realistic military threat, strengthening its own military, increasing its presence at its borders, and calling for more U.S. security guarantees in Europe. Now Russia is pulling out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), it may be safe to say it is quite successful in putting itself back into the position of an international superpower which needs to be taken serious. But how do we deal with it?
Author: Hans van den Berg
Hans is an international relations researcher with a teaching position at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He has an interest in Russia and its relation with Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region. He teaches and provides trainings in International Negotiation and Diplomacy.