Print
Rate this article
(votes: 2, rating: 5)
 (2 votes)
Share this article
Roderic Lyne

British Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2000 to 2004, Vice-Chairman at Chatham House

These are some reflections provoked by the University Consortium 2nd Annual Conference in Washington on 5/6 October. The conference embraced academics, policy experts and “institutniks”, and some former politicians and diplomats from the USA, Russia and Europe, with guest appearances by Dr. Henry Kissinger and Senator Sam Nunn.

It is common ground that we are living through a very dangerous period, with “world order” under threat or illusory; that relations between Russia and the USA, and between Russia and leading European members of NATO, have reached a level of hostility not seen for 35 years or more; and that, with new risks being added to old in an increasingly fragmented world, security and stability are vastly harder to achieve than during the bipolar age of the Cold War.

A three-cornered discussion of the kind we had in Washington illuminates, depressingly, how short-term politics are suffocating vital longer-term needs. To return to my starting point, some day the task of regenerating trust will need to begin.

“…the American, Soviet, and British governments did indeed try to bring the monster [nuclear weapons] under control. Viscerally hostile to one another, trust between them seemed impossible. Yet they were forced to find common instruments to avoid nuclear catastrophe…Slowly a messy cobweb of agreements was generated which introduced a modicum of order and predictability into the nuclear confrontation.”
(Rodric Braithwaite: ‘Armageddon and Paranoia’: Profile Books, 2017)

These are some reflections provoked by the University Consortium 2nd Annual Conference in Washington on 5/6 October. The conference embraced academics, policy experts and “institutniks”, and some former politicians and diplomats from the USA, Russia and Europe, with guest appearances by Dr. Henry Kissinger and Senator Sam Nunn.

It is common ground that we are living through a very dangerous period, with “world order” under threat or illusory; that relations between Russia and the USA, and between Russia and leading European members of NATO, have reached a level of hostility not seen for 35 years or more; and that, with new risks being added to old in an increasingly fragmented world, security and stability are vastly harder to achieve than during the bipolar age of the Cold War.

Nunn observed that networks could become more powerful than governments: who controlled the networks? Cyber-attack is emerging as the most dangerous new risk, with most States and many non-State actors developing offensive cyber capabilities. Attributing the origin of an attack is very difficult. I have heard it said elsewhere by a hacking expert that no system connected to the internet is safe from penetration, whatever security measures are applied. This creates a hierarchy of risks, from critical infrastructure and nuclear power stations to weapons systems. What if an attacker could penetrate an opponent’s ballistic missile or missile defence systems? Has this already happened (eg in North Korea)?

The Case for Re-engagement; Motherhood and Apple Pie

Within this global picture, it is not hard to make a rational case for the resumption of a strategic dialogue between the United States and Russia.

The agenda more or less writes itself. Strategic stability, including the INF Treaty, New START, missile defence and space-based systems; but also including understandings about non-interference in nuclear warning and command and control systems (not to mention elections). Regional issues: Ukraine, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Libya, Afghanistan. Global issues: international terrorism, climate change, communicable diseases and so on.

No shortage of things to discuss. All areas in which cooperation between the USA and Russia is feasible in principle and could make an important contribution to a more stable world.

An equally good case could be made, in theory, for stronger engagement between “Europe” and Russia on many of these issues and others besides – such as trade, investment and freedom of movement.

So What Stands in the Way?

Detailed proposals for normalisation of the Russo-American relationship were reportedly put by Moscow to Washington in the spring. They were dead on arrival. The Kremlin (not for the first time in Russian history) had overestimated the power of the US Presidency; and massively underestimated the backlash in the United States to its apparent interference in the Presidential election.

The result is a situation in which the Russians claim that the Americans and their NATO allies have interfered on their periphery and encouraged opposition (and even regime change) within Russia, and are waging economic warfare; the Americans and their allies are incensed at Russian behaviour in Ukraine and Syria, and at electoral interference; there is a cleavage over Iran which has placed the JCPOA at risk; no consensus on how to handle North Korea; and the conflicting parties can barely talk to each other.

The obstacles to turning this around in the short- to medium-term are daunting.

The USA’s Russia policy is in hock both to Robert Mueller’s investigation and to the continuing (possibly deepening) incoherence of the Trump Administration. It is hard to see the Administration being able to make any significant moves until Russiagate is resolved. Even then, it will require an enormous effort to surmount the current paranoia, change the atmospherics and sell the case for re-engagement.

Europe, too, is incoherent – preoccupied with intra-European issues of Brexit, Catalonia, regression among the newer EU members in Central and Eastern Europe, migration, division over the future shape of the EU – and currently incapable of forging collective initiatives towards Russia. The EU is divided from the USA over Iran, and stymied by the difficulty of communicating with the Trump Administration and of working out its direction of travel.

Putin is part of the problem. He is set to lead Russia for the next six years (possibly longer), but has accumulated a long chain of baggage over the past decade. His credibility as a negotiating partner has been severely damaged.

Looking Further Down the Track

While early progress seems impossible, and we are stuck with the paradox that East and West are not talking when they most need to talk, at some point rationality may assert itself over negative emotion. A diplomatic initiative right now would be futile and misguided; but the manifest threats to stability may eventually force the parties to talk, as they did in the Cold War.

If we are to re-establish a modicum of trust, Russia, Europe and the USA will need to address the fundamental issue which has led to the present rupture and which they have failed to address for the past quarter century: the “In Betweens”, the Russian periphery. Trust is entirely absent at the moment, both within and between the USA and Russia. (One is reminded of Stalin’s remark to Mikoyan: “I trust no one – not even myself.”)

The USA’s borders are clearly defined. The USA has been attacked, but never invaded. Russia has never, throughout its and Soviet history, enjoyed secure borders, and has been invaded at intervals. The need for border security, and therefore the desire for buffers and zones of “influence” denied to potential enemies, is deeply ingrained in popular consciousness and has been the pre-eminent driver of Russian foreign and security policy down the ages. This has not been well understood by most Western leaders.

Concern about the Russian Federation’s periphery did not start with Vladimir Putin. It was strongly felt in Boris Yeltsin’s administration. The Russians are nervous about growing Chinese influence and activity in Central Asia. They have a massive problem in the North Caucasus, which will erupt again in the future; this colours their attitude to the three independent Caucasian States. They are sensitive to intrusion in the Black Sea. They wish to hold on to Moldova. They do not wish hostile powers (ie NATO) to dominate the Baltic. But the countries which matter above all to them are Ukraine and Belarus. The independence of these two countries (not seen as separate nations by most Russians) was a shock which will not be absorbed for years to come. Had Putin been smarter, he would have used the enormous soft power at Russia’s disposal to wrap the FSU in his embrace; but he doesn’t understand soft power. So he has used force in different ways to assert the power of veto.

The Western view of the former Soviet States – that they have the same rights, enshrined in the UN Charter, to sovereignty, self-determination and inviolability of borders as all other independent States – cannot be aligned with Russia’s. The two are incompatible.

Until the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, beginning in late 2004, the West and the Russian Federation were able to manage broadly harmonious relations (with widening and deepening cooperation in many areas) while ignoring the incompatibility. The Orange Revolution, and the perception in Moscow that Russia was “losing” Ukraine to the West, was not something that Vladimir Putin and his colleagues could tolerate. The rift has widened ever since and became a chasm with the events of 2013 in Ukraine.

How and when can the USA, Europe and Russia move forward from this impasse and start to rebuild the more rational forms of relationship which would suit the interests of all?

Some in the West would argue that the best we can do is to wait out Putin & co, and allow time for the yeast to work. The Putin regime is not going to change its course. We can maintain a transactional relationship with it, as we have done (the Iran agreement having been a successful example). In today’s world, in contrast to the Cold War, intergovernmental relationships do not determine everything. Russians are plugged in to the changing world. At some point after the mid-2020s, we shall be dealing with a new generation of leaders and elites in Russia – not Western-style liberals, but smart, well-travelled and highly educated people whose outlook was not formed in the Cold War. They will have to confront the reality of Russia’s declining power and sclerotic economy; and will seek the long-delayed “new model of development” not based on hydrocarbons (in a world in which the demand for oil, if Thane Gustafson is right, will shrink substantially as internal combustion engines are phased out). This in turn will require Russia – as many Russians have argued – to work with the West on technology and investment and to change “the spirit of Russia’s relations with the West from confrontation to mutually beneficial cooperation in the modern polycentric world” [1]. Within that environment, it will then become possible to deal with the issues which presently divide us.

That may indeed turn out to be the best we can do: hold tight, seek to avoid a further worsening of the relationship, and get on with sorting out other problems of more immediate priority. But doing nothing is not the only option, and is not without risk, not least because the Kremlin, uninhibited, will continue with its tactics of disruption and asymmetric conflict – whether through cyber-trolls or support for far-Right extremist parties or funding the Taleban or meddling in the Near and Middle East or pressurising neighbouring countries.

An alternative approach, once Putin settles into his fourth (in reality fifth, and not necessarily last) term of office, would be at least to explore the possibility of a dialogue about the fundamental issue of European security and Russia’s borders. Within this context, a settlement of Ukraine would be a necessary but not sufficient step. Such a settlement is potentially negotiable: the lack of any recent progress is because continuation of a low-intensity conflict suits both the Kremlin and President Poroshenko (whom it empowers). On the wider security issue, Russia would have to back away from the thinly disguised demand (in proposals put forward after the 2008 Georgian conflict) for recognition of a “zone of influence” limiting the sovereignty of the States therein; and would have to accept that the future of these States could not be resolved, Yalta-style, over their heads. The Western parties would have to revisit the questions of the EU’s and NATO’s approach to the former Soviet area, and of NATO’s interaction with Russia. There are many subsidiary questions which could in time come into the discussion.

None of this would be easy, and none of it would be quick. Nor was the Helsinki process. A structured dialogue would of itself act as a constraint on behaviour and could, indeed should, lead to better mechanisms for crisis pre-emption or management than currently exist.

Right now, there is no appetite and no bureaucratic capacity for such a dialogue. This is all fine for think-tanks, but European governments have too much else on their plates. A three-cornered discussion of the kind we had in Washington illuminates, depressingly, how short-term politics are suffocating vital longer-term needs. To return to my starting point, some day the task of regenerating trust will need to begin.

1. Theses on Russia’s Foreign Policy and Global Positioning. Joint paper by the Centre for Strategic Research and Russian International Affairs Council, June 2017.


(votes: 2, rating: 5)
 (2 votes)

Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
For business
For researchers
For students