Mirror Images: The Standoff between Moscow and Western Capitals
Mirror Images: The Standoff between Moscow and Western Capitals
Russian soldiers march past the US Consulate in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on 31 March 2018. AFP/Olga Maltseva
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 11 minutes

Mirror Images: The Standoff between Moscow and Western Capitals

Russia and the West are mired in mutual mistrust, sinking deeper with each contretemps in the post-Soviet space and every round of sanctions punishing perceived Russian malfeasance. A rapprochement appears unlikely soon, so both sides must open channels to avert confrontations where their interests collide.

Relations between Russia and the West are at a perilous juncture. The two sides’ narratives on major issues of the day – for instance, the future of Crimea or the wars in eastern Ukraine and Syria – are so disparate as to be mirror images of one another. Where Moscow sees beleaguered co-linguists crying out for defence, Western capitals see neo-imperial land grabs; where the West sees peoples resisting oppression, Moscow sees manufactured excuses for the expansion of Western hegemony.

Yet the distrust runs much deeper than interpretations of current events in places where the two sides’ interests clash; it extends to existential matters. “If this were just a question of narratives, that would be one thing”, a Moscow security insider remarked. His assessment was dark: the West believes Russia has no right to exist within its present borders, and wants to destroy it. Other Russian officials say much the same, albeit in milder language. In March, Senator Andrei Klimov issued a report alleging that Western states spent billions of dollars to weaken public trust in Russia’s political system through propaganda and agents of influence, including non-governmental organisations and education initiatives. His report was, in other words, the Duma’s variant of Western legislators’ inquiries into supposed Russian plots to subvert global democracy.

Moscow is immersed in tales of its own isolation. The talk of the town this spring was an article by President Vladimir Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov whose Russian-language title translates as “The Loneliness of the Half-Caste”. The article argues that Russia, unable to find a home in either Europe or Asia, must give up its misguided quest to belong to either continent, and chart a unique geopolitical course. For its part, the U.S., insofar as its relations with Russia are concerned, is consumed with the investigations of connections between Moscow and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The EU – though its unity is perennially questioned – thus far is sticking to a coherent position of wariness toward Russia.

Conversations with Russian and Western interlocutors in Moscow suggest that a lengthy standoff will be hard to avoid – but that its more frightening risks can be managed.

The mutual suspicion portends protracted geopolitical confrontation with several potential flashpoints where neither side wants to appear weak. So what alternatives might there be? Conversations with Russian and Western interlocutors in Moscow suggest that a lengthy standoff will be hard to avoid – but that its more frightening risks can be managed.

Putin’s Landslide Victory

Western ambassadors in Moscow quip that Russia’s March presidential election was a nail-biter. But the outcome – a landslide victory for Putin – was surprising in one way. The 67.5 per cent turnout exceeded even the Kremlin’s expectations. It signalled in part that Putin enjoys considerable support, even if helped along by the machinery of state-run media and what Russians call “political technologies”, which close off alternatives to the president. But voters also seem to have been galvanised by the Skripal affair – the poisoning of a Russian ex-double agent and his daughter in the UK. The British are treating the case as the first instance of military-grade nerve toxin use in Europe since World War II, and along with a number of other Western governments, have expelled dozens of Russian diplomats in pre-emptive punishment. The Russian media portrays the affair as a Western provocation and yet another indication of a rabid anti-Russian agenda; many Russian voters appear to have agreed.

On the eve of Putin’s fourth inauguration, signs point to Moscow hewing to its present domestic and foreign policy course. According to a Russian foreign policy expert, the Kremlin sees the election as a strong endorsement of its approach, even if many are already looking ahead to 2024, when Putin’s final term will expire and he is expected to stand down. Moscow will continue to seek a prestigious role in a multipolar world, with clearly defined spheres of influence. It will also, as one Russian official put it, work to establish “a signalling system between partners that reminds everyone of the reliable rules of the Cold War”. Avoiding loss of face on the world stage will remain a central principle for the Kremlin, whose political operatives are convinced that domestic stability could suffer if it backs away from its red lines on Ukraine or the Middle East.

The makeup of Putin’s new government, due to be announced in early May, could provide hints as to the shape of domestic policy in the coming years. Most Russian experts agree that structural reforms – particularly the economic shifts that liberals had hoped might serve as a basis for stronger ties with the West – are unlikely to occur. The Kremlin apparently sees little need for such reforms. The economy has been hard hit by multiple sanctions regimes – from penalties related to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine to the more drastic U.S. sanctions linked to Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. Yet, as of late April, Russia’s Central Bank had over $460 billion worth of reserves and, as one Russian analyst told Crisis Group, it “is full of smart people who know how to use [the money] to stabilise the economy”.

A fundamental barrier to any new “grand bargain” is mutual mistrust.

A Protracted Confrontation

Still, Russian experts and Western diplomats agree that reducing tensions is of paramount importance. The former tend to cite two broad approaches. The first would work from the general to the specific – that is, renegotiate the principles governing international affairs and then, according to those principles, address disputes over Syria, Ukraine and alleged electoral sabotage. The second would aim for progress on a specific problem – namely eastern Ukraine – and apply the positive momentum to other crises.

Russians and Westerners alike consider both options to be long shots, due partly to divergent basic assumptions and partly to limited diplomatic access and capacity. Westerners have little contact with the Kremlin insiders who make most decisions – and only some with the more forthcoming but less influential foreign ministry. The spate of diplomatic expulsions after the Skripal affair means there is even less interaction.

Still, even with the right diplomatic mechanisms in place, either approach would likely be hampered by disagreements on substance. The first approach, which might be described as the grand bargain” scenario, would involve reviving the logic of spheres of influence and, ideally, the fraying arms control regimes. Many Russians would welcome this step toward restoring their country’s “rightful” place in world affairs. But many Westerners see even the much-needed review of arms controls regimes as a tall order. More importantly, most Western diplomats claim that the principle that all states are entitled to make sovereign choices is non-negotiable – so the logic of spheres of influence is a non-starter. Russian experts counter that the West needs to be more honest about the limits of its principles, pointing out that Washington would surely object, for instance, to Venezuela choosing membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation. 

Moreover, as far as Europe is concerned, Russia’s past actions, including its annexation of Crimea, rule out a discussion of new principles. Moscow has unilaterally violated principles that it previously agreed to, such as the Helsinki Principles and those contained in the Paris Charter. Russia, in turn, argues that the West unilaterally violated other rules long before Crimea, for instance, in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya.

While Moscow bears primary responsibility for the conflict [in Ukraine] and continues to actively undermine Ukraine’s security, Kyiv’s palpable disinterest in implementing Minsk ... plays into Russia’s hands.

A fundamental barrier to any new “grand bargain” is mutual mistrust: as one European diplomat in Moscow puts it, even if the two sides could agree on a way forward, Europeans fear Russians would keep redefining their interests to seek greater concessions. The mistrust is already harming discussions that could lay the basis for reviving arms control regimes. Attempts to pursue informal structured dialogue in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which involves officials from all the OSCE’s participating states, on issues including threat perceptions and military postures highlighted that flexibility – even basic willingness to explore options beyond states’ existing positions – was lacking.

Lastly, there is President Trump. A senior EU official told Crisis Group that Russia’s pro-Western neighbours are particularly wary of Trump’s penchant for grand bargain rhetoric, given how unpredictable his approach to foreign policy appears to have become. These fears persist despite State Department assurances that Washington will stick to its principle of supporting the sovereign choices of all European nations. The official said one of Russia’s neighbours had clearly signalled that it would make trouble if the U.S. showed signs of going for a grand bargain approach over the heads of the countries situated between the EU and Russia, or downgrading its support for the pro-Western path of those – like Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova – that have chosen it.

A Way Out?

The second option – using progress on the Donbas crisis in eastern Ukraine as a wedge to open up dialogue in other areas – seems equally unlikely, for different reasons. 

A clear framework for conflict settlement is in place with the Minsk Agreements, but neither Moscow nor Kyiv is eager to implement Minsk provisions without being able to dictate the terms. Moscow finds the current situation insufficiently costly, to its reputation or its finances, to back down from its demand that Ukraine reintegrate the territory controlled by Kremlin proxies and grant them extensive autonomy. Russians involved with Minsk negotiations say the West will support Ukraine whatever it does, even if it attempts to crush the eastern rebels by force. This means, they say, that Moscow has no choice but to stay politically and financially involved in Donbas. Kyiv, meanwhile, is loath to reintegrate a Kremlin-infiltrated Donbas, particularly while state institutions and the economy are already fragile. While Moscow bears primary responsibility for the conflict and continues to actively undermine Ukraine’s security, Kyiv’s palpable disinterest in implementing Minsk – it lacks even a vision for reintegrating Donbas with all its citizens – plays into Russia’s hands.

To make matters worse, both Moscow and Kyiv appear to be edging toward adopting harder lines. An adviser to the Russian administration told Crisis Group that Moscow was even entertaining the possibility of officially recognising the Donbas separatist entities as independent states – a move guaranteed to derail the limited but steady dialogue in the Minsk format. New U.S. sanctions – the latest round imposed by Washington on 6 April – make the Donbas sanctions pale in comparison, he said, so there are fewer carrots to induce Moscow to seek compromise. This notion may be posturing designed to spur the West to heed Russia’s concerns. But even so it leaves little space for constructive dialogue. Similarly, in Kyiv, hardline options, which are increasingly floated in private and in public, range from isolation of the conflict regions to more assertive military deployments. Many observers believe this hawkish rhetoric is tied to Ukraine’s 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, as politicians vie for support from key nationalist constituencies, and believe that it will remain just talk. That may well be the case, but such sentiment nevertheless has a chilling effect on the peace process and also is difficult to walk back once unleashed.

What Can Be Done?

An adviser to the Kremlin said he is hard pressed for ideas about how to narrow the Russian-Western divide: “When it is 50 degrees Celsius outside, how can you sit down and play chess, when you know full well that moving a pawn will do nothing to bring the temperature down?”

He may well be right. President Putin will be in office for the next six years. Any successor may well be still more nationalistic, so the West should not count on strategic patience. But neither should Russia, because the West, too, is unlikely to depart from its red lines. A high-level EU official in Brussels has explained that existential fears drive the EU member states’ firm positions, even if there is little transatlantic coordination on Russia these days: “If ministers of foreign affairs of EU countries consider Russia as a potential partner for problems in Syria, for example, a number of heads of state view it as a threat to their domestic political systems – and that is what keeps the unity stronger than many think”.

There is no Russian-Western rapprochement on the horizon. But, until the spirit of cooperation returns, Moscow and Western capitals must find ways to reduce and manage risks.

Instead, Western capitals and Moscow should opt for risk reduction: where possible, they must seek to minimise the possibility of inadvertent military confrontation that could spiral out of control. To address immediate risks of accidental clashes in conflict theatres, military-to-military contacts between Western and Russian officials are essential. Both sides are acutely aware of this need, as a Russian official and a NATO country diplomat in Moscow confirmed. Where both sides’ involvement is greater or measures that carry particular risks are foreseen, top-level political contacts are important to avoid misunderstandings; French President Emmanuel Macron’s call to Putin ahead of the 14 April strikes on Syria was an excellent example. Lower-level diplomatic channels, too, should be reinforced as much as possible – with the understanding that diplomatic missions decimated by mutual expulsions are often unable to handle basic political dialogue.

Without budging from its principles, the West should engage with Russia through formal and informal diplomatic channels, demonstrating that it hears Moscow and is aware of the degree to which the Kremlin’s views depart from its own. Moscow, for its part, should lay out its own concerns to Western partners with an understanding that many in the West cannot distinguish between its genuine interests or fears, and its positions, which have at times been disingenuous, as in the case of Russia’s engagement in Donbas.

The West must maintain its red lines on issues like interference in Donbas or the alleged use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe, while understanding that Russia’s leaders are likely to adhere to their own. Sanctioning Russian leaders for clear violations of international law or overtly hostile acts is reasonable, although Moscow no doubt will argue that Western violations of international law such as in Iraq went unpunished. The West should not partially lift Donbas sanctions in return for partial but hard-to-measure progress toward peace. Any potential further Russian aggression in Ukraine, or Russia’s other neighbours, might even warrant further penalties. But the West should frame any new restrictive measures with care. Irreversible or ill-defined sanctions risk pushing the Russian populace even deeper into a defensive mindset and reinforcing anti-Western sentiment.

The West should press both Moscow and Kyiv for progress on Donbas. Moscow must cease its interference in eastern Ukraine, but Kyiv also needs to accept that without movement on the Minsk agreement’s political provisions, Western patience with Ukraine will grow thin. Western powers should push Kyiv to come up with a vision for a unified Ukraine that offers all people living in the east a future in the reintegrated country but does not undermine its cohesion.

There is no Russian-Western rapprochement on the horizon. But, until the spirit of cooperation returns, Moscow and Western capitals must find ways to reduce and manage risks. They must keep channels open, lest the gulf between worldviews widen so far it cannot be bridged.

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