Sorry West, Russia’s Just Not That Into You: Preparing for Long-Term Estrangement
BRUSSELS - President Putin is benefitting from the present hostilities with the West, so last week’s attempts by some European leaders and Donald Trump to ease tensions are doomed to fail. In the coming years, the West should expect estrangement from Russia, at best, and hostilities, at worst. The key question for European and U.S. leaders is whether they can commit to a policy that seeks not partnership or friendship but careful restraint.
Russia is making trouble just as the West is seeking to rebuild ties. In Brussels, last week’s summit of European leaders was supposed to begin the conversation on rolling back sanctions against Moscow. But in the weeks leading up to the meeting, the Kremlin broke a ceasefire in Syria, meddled in the U.S. presidential election, called off a cultural visit to France, and practiced firing missiles near Estonia. The country’s top diplomat even insulted both sides of the U.S. presidential race with vulgar language. Clearly, Russia is not interested in extending a friendly hand.
Russia’s military activities in Ukraine and Syria provide President Putin with unprecedented international attention and have buoyed his approval ratings at home, which means that neither Russian policymakers nor ordinary citizens are calling for a quick reconciliation with the West. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov this month alluded to the six years of on-again, off-again negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program as an example for future negotiations with the United States on Syria. The Russian public is equally unlikely to push for a quick change of course. A September poll by the Levada Center found that 62 percent of Russians felt “not too worried” or “unbothered” by Russia’s increasing isolation from the West.
Russian citizens have adapted to their new circumstances and are not leaping to normalize ties. It was easy to watch Moscow turn its back on the West while I lived between Brussels and the Russian capitol for the past several years. When the counter-sanctions on groceries were put in place in August 2014, a run on European foodstuffs left store shelves empty and restaurateurs scrambling. But in the two years that followed, entrepreneurial Russians turned scarcity into a business opportunity, proudly producing cheeses and leafy greens to meet local demand. New shops for locally-sourced groceries opened in my central Moscow neighborhood. And contrary to expectations in the West, the sense of national pride was not limited to old grannies or former apparatchiks. Young people riding trendy bicycles donned Putin T-shirts and flew Russian flags during city celebrations.
Moscow is not serious in its overtures to individual leaders in the West. Russia appears to extend a hand of friendship in order to achieve short-term gain. In Europe, the promise of closer business relations can pit member states against each other on sanctions. In the United States, President Putin can become a major topic in the campaign if he inflates Mr. Trump’s ego. Yet following through with improved ties to Europe or the United States would run counter to President Putin’s objectives of maintaining patriotism through a sense of external siege.
The Kremlin has no intention of being a reliable partner, and the West should embrace this strategic clarity to send a unified message in response. Russia is watching the West’s response to its bombardment of Aleppo, and what it sees are continued calls to normalize relations. At last week’s EU summit, European leaders missed a chance to deliver a stern warning to Russia. Italy was able to thwart efforts by the U.K., Germany, and France to threaten sanctions.
If Moscow is to draw any lessons from the third U.S. presidential debate, it is that when Russia acts freely in Syria, the Republican candidate will consider this “outsmarting” the United States. Even though Donald Trump acknowledged the “disaster” of Aleppo, he still said that President Putin “said nice things about me. If we got along well that would be good.”
If leaders on both sides of the Atlantic acknowledged that Russia considers the present tensions as a new normal, crises like the assault on Aleppo could inspire unified responses and illustrate transatlantic strength. When the Kremlin’s actions indicate that Russia is ready for meaningful cooperation, a tougher West will be ready to talk.
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