The fact that Russia and the West will in the near future once again vigorously target each other with military forces will simply reproduce the nature of relations between the powers along the entire historical path of their development at a new technical level. This, apparently, is the way things are going, regardless of whether the relationship is expecting serious crises or they will develop according to an inertial scenario, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
At the end of 2021, relations between Russia and the West in the military-political sphere crossed the point of no return to any of the forms of interaction that arose in the first decade and a half after the Cold War. As a result of the actions of the United States and its allies on the Ukrainian issue, Moscow put forward very tough demands, which some observers considered an ultimatum. We can, of course, assume that as an intermediate result of these Russian decisions, an inertial scenario will prevail — the United States and the leading Western countries will agree to enter into long-term consultations with Russia, the result of which will be a cosmetic revision of the fundamental principles of the international order in Europe. These principles, as we know, emerged after the Cold War and reflected the maximum freedom of opportunities for the Western countries in pursuing their selfish interests. This course of events would not change the nature of Russia-West relations; they would remain hostile. However, it would soften the acuteness of the issue in the specific historical period.
We note right away that for a number of reasons, such an inertial scenario has real prerequisites. We cannot underestimate the determination of the US leadership, if not to reverse the policy of confrontation with Russia formed over the past decades, then to move away from it. Indeed, President Biden takes seriously the challenge of China to America’s ability to be the primary beneficiary of globalisation. Maintaining a high degree of tension on the border with Russia is not necessarily the ideal condition under which to fight Beijing on another front. To this end, the United States can agree, if not to abandon the confrontation with Moscow, then at least to temporarily transfer it to the negotiating table. Moreover, the leading European allies of the Americans are interested in attenuating the intensity of the conflict with Russia. European countries such as Germany, France and Italy would like stabilisation in the eastern theatre, which is already beginning to bring real trouble to Europe. Russia itself is likely to be interested in such a development of events, which will allow it to deal with the resolution of the Ukrainian problem separately, outside the context of the military confrontation in Europe.
However, we can equally accept that the United States and its allies may choose to ignore the Russian proposals, or their reaction will be reasonably considered by Russia as abandoning any meaningful conversation. Apparently, the United States is either confident that Russia will refrain from decisive action in Ukraine, or does not consider the catastrophe of the Ukrainian state a big problem for itself. In addition, there is no situation in Europe that could lead to the need for Washington to react in such a way to Russia’s actions that would create a threat of the escalation of war between the two countries. However, it is the rejection of the inertial scenario that will lead to the fact that the probability of such a situation will gradually increase.
First of all, in this case, the interaction between the two nuclear superpowers in Europe may become more dynamic. The nature of these dynamics was elegantly formulated by a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official shortly after the new Russian proposals were presented to the Western partners as a “counter-threat regime”. It can be assumed that in reality, this diplomatic formulation presupposes a limited arms race involving certain types of weaponry and a military build-up, which Russia considers necessary, in its subjective assessment of the threat posed by the West. This means that in the coming years, we will be able to observe a gradual overflow of the “farcical” Cold War in Europe into a more or less real one.
In a practical sense, it would probably be worthwhile to expect Russia to build up such military-technical capabilities. These, in its opinion, could compensate for the advantages of the United States and its allies arising from the continuation of Russophobic policy which Russia urged them to abandon in December. First of all, this could probably imply the creation by the West of elements of a military infrastructure for conducting offensive operations on the borders of Russia, including Ukraine. In response to this, as well as to the numerous opportunities already available to inflict damage, Russia can deploy forces and means on its territory to prevent this in the event of a direct conflict. Which, as we note, both sides do not yet consider to be something realistic.
Also, Moscow can turn to asymmetric ways to create additional concerns for the United States where it really matters. In other words, relations between Russia and the West in Europe can quickly become like a direct confrontation, similar to during the Cold War. The difference is that today, the boundary of threats has shifted towards the most important industrial and administrative centres of Russia, and the modern technical capabilities make up for the diminished size of the armies, which are only a fraction of the size they once were. In parallel, in the East, the United States, with even less reliance on allies, will have to build a similar system of confrontation with China.
In principle, such a state of affairs, if it occurs, does not entail anything tragic. Moreover, it will be the result of Russia’s deliberate rejection of an international order in Europe which openly fails to take into account its basic interests. A relatively cloudless atmosphere in the security relations between Russia and the West has existed for only several short periods since the Cold War, when Russia either could not (in principle) object to the decisions of the United States and its allies, or refrained from doing so for tactical reasons. After 1999, a second pattern of behaviour prevailed, and the crisis between 2008 and 2014 was the result of Russia’s strengthening.
The fact that Russia and the West will in the near future once again vigorously target each other with military forces will simply reproduce the nature of relations between the powers along the entire historical path of their development at a new technical level. In any case, as a result of measures of economic pressure from the West, Russia will still maintain trade relations with the United States and its allies in the coming years, but its dependence on the main financial infrastructure under their control will decrease. This, apparently, is the way things are going, regardless of whether the relationship is expecting serious crises or they will develop according to an inertial scenario. The military of Russia and the Western countries will confront each other in Europe, Russian weapons will be aimed at NATO facilities important from the point of view of Moscow, and this state of affairs will be considered the new normal.
The Ukrainian issue, in turn, will develop in its own way. Still, we must not forget that at the centre of the Ukrainian problem is precisely the weak consistency of the state itself, and not its foreign policy activity. In any case, the Western countries will not be able to solve
this problem, especially given the preservation of Russian influence and an indirect presence in the eastern part of Ukraine. Moreover, the question of full-fledged NATO membership for Ukraine, as well as for Georgia, or the deployment of serious US forces there will not be on the agenda. Simply because the United States is not going to create such an excellent opportunity for Russia to test American commitments to its allies in a geographic area where Moscow has full advantage.
However, such relations in the military-political sphere cannot but contain some risks. Now the prevailing opinion is that the real degree of threat of direct conflict has been reduced due to the fact that the two nuclear superpowers interact with each other. This is really so and, moreover, military observers are right when they say that in Europe, there is no confrontation between armies ready for a serious war with each other. But the stability of mutual tension in any case contains risky elements, the main of them being strategic frivolity.Strategic frivolity, the ability to create risky situations for the sake of solving particular issues, is a characteristic sign of the confidence of states that a major conflict between them is either unrealistic or can be relatively easily settled using diplomatic methods. But we know from history that diplomacy and even direct communication at the highest level may not always work. And this will, most likely, be the most emotional side of the relationship to which Russia and the West will come as a result of the current round of diplomatic interaction.