Russia-West Relations: No Light in the Dead End Street

The EU is not a serious player, and in some cases never was, writes Valdai Club expert Gerhard Mangott. Institutionalized dialogue with Russia was cut back in March 2014 and the EU member states are divided on how to proceed with Russia. As things stand, the course will still be set by France and Germany, but several countries are demurring at it.

Quite a bunch of pundits and scholars had hoped for a realignment in the US-Russian relations after the inauguration of Donald Trump as US President. At that time, bilateral relations between the great powers had long been on a downward spiral and essentially rotten when Obama left the White House. As we all know now, instead of improving, the relations have only gotten even worse. Despite all the high-level tweets by Trump cozying up with Putin, he never had a comprehensive strategy of how to improve relations with Russia (and neither had Russia). Besides, with all the allegations of election meddling, the Russia topic became toxic among the swamp, the Washington foreign policy establishment. Any gesture Trump would have made towards the Russians would have been interpreted as a sign of Trump’s (illegal) indebtedness to the Russians. In addition, in Trump’s own security cabinet (Mattis, Tillerson, McMaster, Kelly) and even more so in the US Congress, strong veto actors forestalled any improvement of relations with Russia. This has gotten even worse with the newcomers in the inner cabinet – Pompeo and Bolton.

There are three areas, where the US-Russian cooperation would be essential. First, both sides have to recommit to legally binding arms control. Russia, after having modernized its nuclear arsenal, offers talks about preventing a new arms race. The US has just started its modernization and will never stop it, despite its high cost. The Russians want to further decrease strategic offensive weapons only if strategic defensive weapons like BMD are included. This will not happen. The US refuses to negotiate on Global Prompt Strike systems, while Russia is developing similar systems of its own. When it comes to low-yield weapons, the estimate is to have even more of them in the next year. To cut it short, disarmament is not on the agenda. The most optimistic scenario is both sides agreeing on the extension of New Start in 2021 by another five years. A modest goal, but far from assured. Even this will not be possible, if both sides are unable to sort out their differences over alleged non-compliance with the INF Treaty.

Another area of distinct importance is a political solution for the internationalized Syrian conflict. As it has turned out, Russia’s endgame in Syria is much more difficult than the Russians have most likely expected. The troika of Russia, Turkey and Iran has not yet been able to find common ground with any reasonable bunch of Syrian rebels. Russia’s influence on the Syrian regime is more limited than expected. Turkey is an actor too difficult to control. A political solution therefore seems a long way down the road. The US efforts for now seem to be to make life more difficult for the Russians, realign their regional allies and widen the scope of interests in Syria well beyond the extermination of the IS. The US and Russia will not see themselves on the same side of the process of finding a political solution.

A third area of necessary cooperation is the Ukraine crisis. More and more the US sidelines France and Germany in an effort to find solution to this internationalized armed conflict. Minsk 2 is essentially dead, ill-designed, with failing military obligations on both sides and the Ukrainian government unwilling and unable to meet its political obligations under the Agreement. The US conditions for accepting Russia’s proposal to send a UN mission to the separatist regions seem inacceptable for the Russian side. Ukraine regaining control of the bilateral border with Russia in the regions of conflict has been set as the ultimate concession for legal concessions to the Donbass by the Ukrainian government. Russia would not want to alter the sequence.

The EU stands on the sidelines on many of these issues. It is not a serious player (and in some cases never was). Institutionalized dialogue with Russia was cut back in March 2014 and the EU member states are divided on how to proceed with Russia. As things stand, the course will still be set by France and Germany, but several countries are demurring at it. The sanctions imposed by the EU have punished Russia and signaled Moscow that the EU condemns its actions in Ukraine. Yet, Russian policies based on vital interests have not been changed. So how will the EU proceed? Continue with the mess in bilateral relations with Russia? It so will happen. Containment, but not engagement is on the EU table.

In the current situation, the West is not in a mood for concessions. But neither is Russia. If it wants to see an improvement in mutual relations, it needs to make concessions too. It is not that the West will finally decide to take Russia as it is and go back to business as usual. Russian ideas and proposals for mutual rapprochement are lacking. If both sides stick to containment and deterrence, rapprochement will be long down the road.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.