If one is trying to think of events or actors that could shake up the world in the coming year or two, then Russia does not necessarily make it to the top of the list. In a world growing ever more disorderly, Russia suddenly seems a comparatively predictable actor. Its propensity to create chaos does not compete with that of some other regions and phenomena – think, for instance, of the failing state system in the Middle East or of migration from Africa.
In a world where – to use senior Brookings fellow Robert Kagan’s catchy phrase – the jungle is growing back, Russia remains an aging, though experienced, “beast” among others that are younger, fitter, and hotter-headed. Aware of its vulnerabilities, it is trying to insulate itself from global threats, to guard its self-identified backyard and maximise its leverage, so as to have a voice on questions it considers essential or existential.
One can say that Russia’s loud rebellion happened in and against yesterday’s world: the world of the post-cold war liberal Western-led order. This is the normative arrangement that Russia first tried to join. In a second phase, it imitated its form while ignoring its essence, before finally openly rebelling against it in words as well as deeds.
Our future is full of unknown unknowns. And in such a situation, it is not actually necessarily so bad that Europe and America handle the world – and Russia – in different ways
But the fact that Russia’s crimes – the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas – took place in yesterday’s world does not make them unimportant or unnecessary to address. For one, this history is now an acute part of Russia’s relationship with the West and cannot simply be ignored. Its repercussions keep manifesting and demanding diplomatic attention – think of the question of maritime traffic in the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait. Left unattended, tensions can escalate and spill over into different theatres. If the West hopes to cultivate “the jungle” and ultimately resurrect an adapted version of the rules-based order, then it is important to address past transgressions – Russia’s as well as others’.
The West’s normative disunity
Western-Russian relations in the four years since 2014 make for a very interesting case study, not least because in the middle of that period the Western approach towards Russia changed fundamentally. In 2014, Europe and America were by and large united in their normative assessment of the situation, and they closely coordinated their policies. Since the start of the Donald Trump presidency, though, not only has coordination grown shakier, but, more importantly, European and American policies towards Russia have become based on entirely different philosophical foundations. Whereas Europe is still guided by and trying to defend the principles of the post-cold war liberal order, America’s Russia policy is now fashioned on a volatile brew of hard-nosed, unsentimental great power calculations, unrelenting domestic political combat, and Trump’s whims.
That loss of normative unity and coordination has resulted in a fascinating interplay of the European and American approaches to Russia: sometimes their policies have reinforced one another; sometimes they have cancelled one another out, often in paradoxical, non-linear ways. While common wisdom says that in order to influence Russia, the West needs to be bold, united, and apply coordinated pressure, a close examination of the recent developments suggests that, on some occasions, uncoordinated pressure may in fact work better.
Sanctions may be the most vivid case in point. While the influence these punitive measures have had on Russia’s economy is usually not disputed (though estimates of its extent may vary), the question of political influence has always been trickier – are the sanctions affecting political decision-making, and how?
At the beginning, they seemed not to have much influence. In the tense days of 2014, the Russian elites, instead of turning against Vladimir Putin, rallied to the flag. But by 2017, dissenting voices started to speak out. “If we want our economy to grow, and grow smartly, then we need to improve relations with the West, and for that, also Russia has to take steps,” proclaimed the “intra-system liberal” and former finance minister Alexei Kudrin at the Primakov Readings conference in Moscow in June 2017. Many more liberal voices echoed the same line.
Turning to Europe
Paradoxically, what made that change possible was not the impact of coordinated Western sanctions itself, but their combination with the Trump presidency. Putin hates bowing to pressure, and for as long as he viewed the normatively united West as an existential threat, he could not possibly compromise. But the advent of the Trump presidency removed the hard ideological standoff, relaxed the political climate, and allowed pro-Western minds in Russia to speak out without fearing for their political future.
What also helped was the fact that, though he was nominally pro-Moscow, Trump was unable to resolve the Ukraine situation on Russia’s terms – even if he had really wanted to do so. Moscow certainly had some hopes on this account. “In Ukraine, Russia did not clash with the US, but it clashed with the US-led international order,” said Russian analyst Dmitry Suslov in late 2016, describing the Moscow establishment’s hopes that under Trump’s priorities – America first, order last – a great-power deal between the US and Russia would become possible, and Europe, with its normative agenda, would be sidelined.
Instead, Trump’s Russia policy remained hostage to domestic political infighting, and this prompted Russia to turn to Europe. In September 2017, Putin suggested deploying United Nations peacekeepers to Donbas in a move that many in Moscow interpreted as a nod to Europe. At that point in time, relations with Washington were paralysed, but Europe seemed to be in the ascendancy: it had not fallen apart after the Brexit vote; instead it had been strengthened by the Macron presidency. “It seems that in the Kremlin, a re-evaluation of Europe is happening,” said a Russian analyst in October 2017. “We need Europe’s help to manage the dangerously unpredictable America, and settlement in the Donbas would be a key to improved relations with the EU.”
A drop in the ocean
It is hard to say whether the peacekeeping proposal ever had a true potential to solve the Donbas issue. It might be that positions were too far apart. “Putin views Donbas as an investment, which he is willing to sell for something tangible,” a Russian analyst told me at the time. But all that the West was willing to offer was a face-saving way out. Any accompanying perks remained either uncertain (such as a better relationship with the European Union and/or United States) or impossible (such as an agreement over Ukraine’s political future).
Moreover, any settlement for Donbas would have involved a major diplomatic investment: sketching a way to resolution, with built-in guarantees for Kyiv as well as Moscow, and then steering the process towards conclusion. It could be that neither Europe nor the US had steady enough leadership for that. At least, that seems to have been the conclusion in Moscow: after some months of discussions on whether it should “sell Donbas” to Trump or Angela Merkel, Moscow has instead withdrawn it from the market.
And the reason for this is also clear: the new US sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections. Today, talk of Donbas peacekeeping has all but died out. Russia knows that in the conditions of the new sanctions, Donbas is not a game-changer. As one Kremlin adviser said: “A year ago we thought that regulation in Donbas would be a breakthrough in our relations with the West. Today we see that this would have no effect, be a drop in the ocean, hence pointless.” The US is seen to have moved the goalposts.
The conclusion from the above seems to be that while uncoordinated Western policy towards Russia may have created some openings, the West has so far failed to turn them into a decisive breakthrough. But it is questionable whether things would have been any better had the West stayed normatively united. Rather, one is inclined to assume that, in that case, Russia in Barack Obama’s words would have continued to be “a bored kid in the back of the classroom” – a contemptuous power happily using its disruptive potential to subvert the world order that it views as not just hostile to its interests, but also generally unviable.
On virtues of diversity
The Trump-era divergence between Europe and America has made the world more complicated for Moscow, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Moscow has had to reassess many of its earlier assumptions: it did not expect Europe to stick to sanctions, but Europe did; it expected Ukraine to “collapse,” but Ukraine did not; it expected Hillary Clinton to win the election and become a fiercely anti-Russian president, but she did not; it expected Trump to become a soft pro-Russian president – and that has not happened either. These reality checks should logically lead Moscow to critically question some of its own strategies. For instance, it could ask what it has won and what it has lost by interfering in the US’s (and other countries’) elections. Is the balance sheet really positive?
Or it could question whether its whole strategy in Ukraine – using Donbas as leverage to control Ukraine’s geopolitical future – is in the end realistic at all. As Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center has said, “the Minsk Agreement was a major diplomatic victory by Moscow which could not be cashed in for the simple reason that it was Moscow’s victory to which Kyiv could never reconcile itself – and its Western backers were unwilling to make it accept.”
Paradoxically, the Kremlin’s reassessments vis-à-vis the Ukrainian situation would not have been possible under the conditions of the normatively united West. Only the more complex world of a West in dissolution has made this possible. By compromising now, Moscow would not be surrendering to a strong, united antagonist, but rather to the laws of nature – and acting in accordance to a realistic assessment of its own leverage.
Furthermore, the question is not just about Russia. One must not forget that there is also “the jungle”, and the West, in its Russia discussions, should remain aware of it. Not all of us are. In early 2018, the European Council on Foreign Relations organised a Russia discussion in Washington, with the intention of comparing European and American views on Russia and finding out whether there is a transatlantic rift in our approaches. And indeed there was a rift, but it was not transatlantic. Instead, it ran between participants, European as well as American, who said that Russia must be pressured into accepting the rules-based world order, and others who asked, “What rules-based order? Where do you see it?”
A future full of unknown unknowns
It is unclear if the world has ever undergone changes as profound and multifaceted as the present ones. Not only is the global power balance changing, but globalisation, migration, information technology, and gene technology are upsetting people’s long-held understandings of what it means to be a citizen of a country, or even a human being. This means that we are faced with years, if not decades, of volatility. It also means that those in the West who want to save the liberal international order need to focus on adapting it to the emerging circumstances. Attempts to cling to the past, to recreate the international system as it existed in the 1990s, will be futile; they could even be downright counterproductive.
The chief reason why there has been no breakthrough with Russia is that Russia will not take Western rules and norms seriously until it realises that the norms, and the West as a norm-setter, will be there to stay in the new, changed world. Getting to that point will take years, if not decades, and this work needs to start at home. The EU can best support a rules-based order by ensuring its continuity at home. Likewise, the US – to be a global leader (not to mention the leader) – needs to first cater to its citizens and overcome domestic polarisation.
To navigate through this period of chaos and volatility, the West can hardly have a strategy, as strategy implies a somewhat charted landscape, problems that are in most part known, and a notional way through. Our future, however, is full of unknown unknowns. And in such a situation, it is not actually necessarily so bad that Europe and America handle the world – and Russia – in different ways. If strategy is not possible, one relies on instincts – and a normative approach is Europe’s instinct in the same way that hard-nosed great-power calculations are Trump’s instinct, and up to a point America’s. Each approach has its flaws, but in their diversity and heterogeneity they could become a Western strength.
Or, to put it another way: A chaotic jungle should be easier to navigate with a seemingly disorderly, motley crew of hobbits, elves, dwarfs, and wizards – as opposed to a uniform army under a single command.
This article appeared originally on 3 January in the Berlin Policy Journal.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.