Why cordial relations between Russia and the West are in the interest of everyone
In the preface to his just-published novel 2017 War with Russia, recently-retired North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) General Sir Richard Shirreff describes his depiction of a Russia-NATO war as not fiction, but “fact-based prediction”. He quotes a U.S. Army Chief’s testimony to the Senate that Russia’s nuclear capability poses an “existential threat” to America.
On the other side, Russian President Vladimir Putin last month threatened retaliation against U.S. missile defence system deployments in Romania and Poland.
Such sabre-rattling reminds us that even as a challenge to post-Cold War “unipolarity” is being mounted in the east, an ongoing game in the west remains in play.
As nature abhors a vacuum, so geopolitics abhors “unipolarity”. Post-Cold War Europe sought to emerge from the American shadow into an independent global personality. In anticipation of its forthcoming expansion, the European Union (EU) unveiled an ambitious agenda in 2000, to make EU “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world” by 2010. Reinforcing this “Lisbon Agenda” was a Common Security and Defence Policy, envisaging inter alia an autonomous EU military force to respond to international crises beyond Europe’s borders. Europe thus declared its ambition to become a dominant global power by 2010.
The rise of Putin
The European resurgence coincided with the rise of Mr. Putin in Russia, with his declared goal of restoring Russia’s political, economic and military strength.
European and Russian aspirations were compatible. Russia needed European technologies and investment. Europe needed cheap Russian gas and could use Russia’s technical manpower. A broad-based mutually beneficial Russia-Europe engagement appeared in prospect.
These first challenges to “unipolarity” collided with U.S. neo-conservatism, which aimed to scotch any threat to U.S. global power. In 2002-03, the EU conceded NATO’s (and the U.S.’s) primacy in its defence and security policy. The U.S. invasion of Iraq divided EU politically even before it expanded in 2004. The Eurozone crisis then created new fault lines. The EU formally buried the Lisbon Agenda in 2010.
Mr. Putin restored stability and growth in Russia but encountered headwinds in the external environment. Russia saw NATO’s eastward expansion and missile defence systems in Central Europe as an American drive to box it in. The democratic “colour revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan — in which Western non-governmental organisations and foreign mercenaries were allegedly active — were similarly viewed.
Russia was particularly incensed when NATO moved (in 2008) to offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine: NATO in the Black Sea and on the fringe of the Caucasus threatened its national security and strategic ambitions. Mr. Putin’s military response to Georgian operations in South Ossetia (2008) signalled that Russia was prepared to use force to protect its vital interests.
Tensions peaked with the Ukraine crisis in 2014. Russia saw a “foreign hand” in the unseating of the Ukrainian government. Fearing a threat to its naval fleet in Crimea and to its vulnerable Black Sea coastline, Russia acted swiftly. Crimea “acceded” to Russia after a hastily organised referendum. Demands for independence then arose in two regions in Eastern Ukraine, which degenerated into fighting between the separatists and the Ukrainian army.
U.S. and EU sanctions for “annexation” of Crimea included Russia’s international isolation and restrictions on finance and technology transfers. Russia retaliated with an embargo on agro-product imports from Europe.
A propaganda war continues. Accusations of Russian sponsorship of separatism are countered by allegations of Western manipulation of Ukraine’s actions. Russia accuses the U.S. of arm-twisting the Europeans to sustain tensions; a sanctions-induced collapse of the Russian economy is a Western refrain.
The edge of sanctions has blunted, as technology and finance, as well as European agro-products found alternative channels to Russia. The International Monetary Fund predicts restoration of Russian growth in 2017. A fragile ceasefire prevails in Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s “isolation” has been diluted by U.S.-Russian collaboration on Iran and Syria.
However, Russia-NATO relations remain tense and could have far-reaching implications for Asia and Europe.
Implications for India
For India, political, defence and strategic relations with Russia retain great importance. We do not want Cold War-like pressures to curtail this relationship as the price for strengthening another. Some areas of India-Russia relations cannot yet be substituted by other relationships. Our Russian collaboration strengthens our leverage with other partners.
Of wider concern is the recent intensification of Russia-China cooperation. Until lately, a history of strategic rivalry ensured that, notwithstanding flourishing trade, Russia calibrated its cooperation in strategic sectors. This reserve progressively weakened as tensions with the West increased and China’s political and economic support (particularly as a permanent member of the UN Security Council) acquired critical importance. Such support obviously comes at a price: reports of recent Russian military transfers to China are not coincidental.
In a single-minded drive to cut Russia down to size, the full implications of its intimate Chinese embrace appear to be underestimated. The thesis that historical rivalries (and Russia’s unwillingness to be a junior partner) will limit Russia-China bonds may not have permanent validity as ground realities transform. Asia and Europe should worry about the geopolitical impact of a Russia-China strategic alliance, but so should the sole superpower: in seeking to vanquish a waning superpower, it may be accelerating the rise of another.
A Russia-West thaw is therefore clearly in the interest of the international community.
For a European nudge
Europe has to be the catalyst for this change, since most action is in Europe which also bears the brunt of its consequences. During the Cold War, Europe played a moderating role in East-West tensions. Today, an expanded Europe has economic disparities between north and south and ideological divergences between east and west.
In the EU’s present course, the pace has been set by its eastern and northern members. Moderating voices have been drowned in the quest for EU unity. A coherent approach is needed in the long-term interests of its entire membership. The transformation of eastern Europe could be pursued in a calibrated manner, minimising confrontation and accommodating interests of Europe and Russia.
The point is not to “legitimise” Russia’s “annexation” of Crimea, but that the present confrontational approach is not achieving its purpose and its wider consequences are unpalatable.
There are signs of a pragmatic approach. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (strongly endorsed recently by Germany’s Foreign Minister) has advocated an independent European position on Russia. These sentiments are echoed in many European political and business circles.
This approach requires statesmanship from leaders of Europe, the U.S. and Russia. Leaders of countries like India and Japan could use their considerable influence to nudge them in this direction.
P.S. Raghavan is a former diplomat who was Ambassador of India to Russia —2014-16. The views expressed here are personal.