Dealing with Russia: A Way Forward

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has been the subject of many editorials and op eds.  However, there has not been enough analysis as to why relations with Russia have reached this impasse nor lessons learned on how to manage relations with Russia going forward.

Critical Misperceptions

With the fall of the USSR in 1991, the US and EU sought through economic and technical assistance to guide Russia toward democracy, civil society and the rule of law. Integration into the post-Cold War European security framework would be accomplished through agreements which committed Russia to respect the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of European states. Russia, in its initial weakened condition, accepted this approach in the 1990’s as it sought to become a “normal “country. Later, as the economy improved and state structures established, Russia objected to the Western “cookie cutter approach” to development which it viewed as interference in internal affairs and strenuously criticized alleged Western antagonism to Russian security and foreign affairs concerns, particularly NATO expansion and Kosovo. In retrospect, the 2008 Georgia/Russia war was Russia’s signal that the balance of power had changed and that Russia was no longer bound by the West’s post- Cold War system.  Ukraine and the Crimean annexation were confirmation of this.

The West was slow to recognize these changes in Russia and held the idea that cooperation was possible in areas of common interest; otherwise, there would simply be agreement to disagree. Compounding the problem was a lack of regular policy level consultations which might have shed light on the differences and forged better working relationships.

Narrative Differences

Russians argue that Russian geography, history and culture are unique and that Russia must forge its own path. The Russian Empire took centuries to create, the result of expansion spurred by conquest. The loss of empire with the collapse of the USSR was a huge psychological blow as territories intimately linked to Russia’s culture and history, such as Ukraine (Crimea) and Georgia became independent states. The idea of restoring lost territories and Russian pride has now become a substitute for the discredited Soviet ideology and a raison d’etre for a Russia still struggling to identify its national purpose. 

The EU and the values it projects are also the result of history. Two world wars convinced Europe that their bloody history required a new approach based on international law, respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and peaceful settlement of disputes.  Europe thus sought broader ties with Russia in the hope of creating a free and undivided Europe. This in turn led to Europe’s growing dependency on Russia for oil and gas supplies and its reluctance to react strongly to Russia’s recent aggressions lest it endanger trade ties with Russia.

Basic Systemic Differences

Russia today is not the Soviet Union as citizens enjoy more rights and personal freedoms. It is, however, not a democracy. The system is authoritarian centered on the powerful presidency of Vladimir Putin. The foundations of the regime are the security forces—intelligence, military and law enforcement –which enforce Putin’s rule through control of the press and media and suppression of public demonstrations against him. Russia’s leaders increasingly rely on anti-Western propaganda, and nationalistic and xenophobic themes to bolster their power base. The invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea have been very popular at home and have heightened national pride.

EU member states are functioning democracies. The EU Partnership Program was designed to provide a variety of trade and economic benefits to former Soviet countries, including Ukraine, in exchange for political and economic reforms. It relied heavily on the allure of democracy and access to EU Single Market, but was not backed up with sufficient economic resources and political will when Moscow first bought off the previous Yanukovych government in Ukraine, then seized Crimea following the ouster of Yanukovych and now uses separatism in Eastern Ukraine to weaken the new government in Kiev and influence their foreign policy choices.

The Relationship Going Forward

Important common interests with Russia remain-- preventing the spread of WMD, anti-terrorism, peaceful development of the Arctic-- but the present gulf between the West and Russia is large. Russia has now demonstrated that it is a revisionist state willing to use military force to change international borders. Further complicating the situation is Putin’s averring that the West is in moral decay, its economic model is failing and that Russia is the true protector of traditional values.  All of this has raised Putin’s popularity to new heights and shut off the voices of the democratic opposition.

The West has been on the defensive as Putin’s willingness to take risks has caught it off-guard. Economic sanctions are the chosen Western counter force and they are having an impact. But, given their limited targets and the inability to agree on sectoral sanctions, these measures are not sufficient to meet the challenge; a more comprehensive strategy is necessary.

Several factors, however, must be kept in mind. Russia is not a global challenge. It is a regional revisionist force but the example it sets of revising borders by force is a danger to the rest of the world. Russia has serious internal issues--stagnating economy, health and demographic problems, uncertain future markets for its oil and gas, increasingly expensive and difficult development of new energy sources with consequent need for foreign investment, an unrelenting Islamic insurgency in the Russian North Caucasus, and a serious brain drain and capital outflow situation.  As these factors and the costs of Russia’s expansionism begin to mount, Putin’s standing and the popularity of his extreme nationalistic approach could begin to wane. But, it cannot be ignored that Russia is and will remain a key factor in the fate of Ukraine and no lasting solution will be found without it.

What is to be done?

Change in Russian policy will take time and the West needs to be firm and patient while remaining open to dialog with Moscow. Over the near term, sanctions must be maintained and strengthened if Russia does not change course. The next step is sectoral sanctions which would impact Russia’s financial and trade relations (energy exports) to the West. Europe must accept that its dependence on Russian gas is dangerous and needs to start making alternative supply arrangements, including LNG imports from the US if it can liberalize its gas export regulations. Worried allies in the Baltics and East Europe must also be reassured through appropriate NATO steps.

More emphasis must be put on Ukraine to resolve the crisis. The May 25 presidential elections should go forward and hopefully produce a mandate for economic reform, democracy and anti-corruption. The dominance of oligarchs in Ukrainian politics, unfortunately, is a fact and only a strong popular mandate for change may move the process along. The new government must also receive the aid resources from the US and EU necessary to accomplish the task. It will have to deal with Russia but must be buttressed by Western political and financial support to balance the playing field.

There must be increased support for Russia’s other neighbors that feel threatened and want to pursue closer ties to the West. In the first instance this means Georgia and Moldova which are still intent on signing partnership and trade agreements with the EU. Belarus and Kazakhstan, both closer to Russia, were unnerved by the Crimea annexation. Ironically, President  Lukashenko in Belarus has raised his popularity by portraying himself as the defender of Belarusian independence and stating that his country would fight if invaded. Belarus and Kazakhstan will likely sign onto Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union but will be looking for support to balance Moscow.

More effective public diplomacy will be needed to counter the Putin propaganda onslaught against the West. This means expanding Russian language information flows and quality radio and television programming through standard techniques as well as the internet to reach audiences in Russia.  One target must be to shed light for Russian audiences on the massive corruption at high levels in Russia and the abuses by the security forces.

Finally, the West must encourage Russians to engage with the international community through student and other exchanges, travel and study in the West.  Russians need more, not less exposure to the outside world.

In sum, the West needs to employ a containment strategy “light” that aims to strengthen Ukraine and its neighbors, broadens the horizons of the Russian people and allows for the resumption of diplomacy through a resumed Geneva process aimed at the restoration of international order which ensures a sovereign and independent Ukraine. 

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