The rebalancing of US power and Russia’s more assertive behaviour in the neighbourhood influenced the security environment in Europe. This changing context has implications for the role of the EU, while US willingness to act as a security provider suggests a more active role in European conflicts. However, this US role is also conditioned by the desire to manage relations with a Russia that increasingly sees itself as equal only to the US. The resulting equation is a complex one, and raises questions about the EU as strategic actor.
The first one to take the stage, Robert Nurick argued that the crisis has produced a sea-change in the thinking in Washington concerning not only the relationship with Russia but also European security more broadly. Russia is not getting a lot of kind words in Washington right now, but Europe and NATO are back—central to policy debates—in a way that hasn’t been seen in a long time, Mr Nurick said.
He noted, however, that the deterioration in the US-Russia relationship had started before the Ukraine crisis, although the crisis undoubtedly accelerated the process. It is thus worth recalling a bit of history.
For example, relations had become quite negative by the end of the George W. Bush presidency; and the Obama administration’s ”reset” was meant in part to clear the debris. To an important degree, the ”reset” policy had an instrumental character—that is, enhanced attention to relations with Russia was often a function of other issues (Iran, Syria, etc.) seen as critical to the American policy agenda and which Russia’s policy for better or worse could affect. From this perspective, the reset produced some useful results, but by the middle of Mr Obama’s second term most of those issues were either done or off the table, Mr Nurick argued. At this point, neither the critics nor the defenders of the administration’s Russia policies were providing coherent answers to what had become the central question: now what?
According to Mr Nurick, two general factors conditioned Washington’s debates about Russia policy when Mr Putin returned to the presidency: much of US policy attention was still directed elsewhere, and there was growing concern about the character of the new Putin regime. The increasingly harsh anti-Western and especially anti-American rhetoric, the signs of a domestic clampdown, and the simple opacity of decision-making in the Kremlin (with reports from Moscow that Putin was ”in a bubble”) raised questions about the possibilities of a constructive policy agenda. With the Magnitsky legislation and the Russian response to it (the adoption ban, the foreign agents law, etc.), evident Russian disinterests in further arms control, and increasingly harsh rhetoric from Russian officials, by last fall, it was clear that relations were on a negative slope, Mr Nurick said.
Then came the Ukraine crisis and the American and European responses to it. Several trends are particularly worth noting here. One is the steps NATO has taken, both before and during the recent Wales summit, to reassure allies and reinforce collective defense. Russia has noticed, and has announced steps of its own. Nobody wants a confrontation, Mr Nurick said, and all sides will seek to manage possible military tensions, but the character of East-West security relations is now very different—much more troubled and complicated—than it was.
Another key issue is the sanctions regime. The sanctions that are in place at the moment are more stringent than anything we’ve seen—other than those on Iran, and that level might also be reached soon, Mr Nurick said. A potential complication here derives from the fact that, while the West’s sanctions policies have been driven very much by the US, its economic ties to Russia are narrower than those of Europe. The economic burden of sanctions is thus quite unequal.
To conclude his presentation, Mr Nurick expressed little optimism about the near term prospects for US-Russia relations. Both sides will seek to manage the relationship, and once the Ukraine crisis has settled a bit we can expect some movement to reengage on some issues, he said. But serious reengagement will be inhibited by two things: not only the fact of Russian military aggression in Ukraine, but also the fact that Russian officials from Putin on down have been lying through their teeth. The question in Washington will always be: can we trust Putin? It is hard to imagine that this or the next US administration will be prepared to invest a great deal of political capital into this relationship as long as Mr Putin is in power, Mr Nurick said.
Taking the stage after Mr Nurick, Vladimir Gel’man agreed that many of the problems we are facing now existed already before the Ukraine crisis. In his opinion, the crisis worked as a trigger to set off the events we are seeing now.
The Orange Revolution of 2004 was a trigger event for Russia to eliminate electoral competition and attack the media and NGOs in order to prevent the revolution from spreading to Russia, Mr Gel’man said. In similar fashion, the Yanukovych overthrow in February 2014 was viewed in the Kemlin as both as a direct risk for Russia and also as Western provocation. The line of thought was: today they take Kiev, tomorrow Moscow. Political survival of authoritarian regimes in Russia and beyond became the Kremlin’s priority number one. Thus, the Kremlin’s reaction to the events in Ukraine should not be analysed only as a matter of foreign affairs but domestically as well, Mr Gel’man argued.
Domestically, the annexation of Crimea was approved by the general public. It has also resulted in campaigns against ”national traitors” and an argument for anti-democratic laws, and also furthered the decline of the influence of the liberals in the government, Mr. Gel’man argued
The question now is to what extent will the crises in Ukraine lead to changes in domestic policy in Russia, Mr. Gel’man said. Some say the regime will collapse, that is probably not the case at least in the short term perspective, he argued. There are only limited capabilities of organized dissent within the country both at the level of the elite and the masses, because the opposition was smothered in the aftermath of the 2011–12 demonstrations. The second reason why major changes are unlikely to happen is that even though the economy is doing poorly now, we should not expect nothing like what happened when the Soviet Union collapsed, when the GDP dropped by 20 percent, Mr Gel’man said.
Adding to the domestic economic problems are now also the sanctions, but they do not work immediately, Mr Gel’man argued. In the short term they will only affect Russia’s behaviour in the international arena, but their domestic effects are limited. Overall, if exogenous shocks to Russia will not be strong enough, we should not expect an immediate collapse of the regime, and neither should we expect that changes in the international arena will result in changes in the Russian domestic landscape, Mr Gel’man concluded.
Commenting on Mr Nurick and Mr Gel’man’s presentations, Vesa Vasara pointed out that the fundamental change Mr Nurick said has taken place in the US-Russian relations applies for the EU-Russian relations as well, and it’s a tectonic change. It doesn’t mean that everything that has been built with Russia after the collapse of the USSR will be put aside, but it means that Europe’s behaviour and attitudes towards Russia have changed significantly from what they were before.
During the crisis, the EU has been able to pull its camp together, and the most recent sanctions decision was another example of this, Mr Vasara said. One interesting thing is that the fundamental differences of the European and the Russian values have been brought to the discussion.
The crisis has also affected the high level of international cooperation. To speak about a strategic partnership between the EU and Russian federation is for the time being put six feet under. The imperial aspirations and Soviet nostalgia are both presently in place, but at the same time Europe and Russia are doomed to cooperate with one another and find some sort of modus vivendi, and it will be worked out when the present crisis eases out a little bit, Mr Vasara said.
After the presentations, there was a vivid discussion in the seminar. Below are some of the issues discussed.
How will American participation in Europe develop in the future? How much will the US intervene and invest in Europe’s security?
Mr Nurick: What we can expect and what the Wales Summit documents promise is protection for Europe, and I think we’re going to see more engagement with Georgia as well. There’s a lot of worry in giving lethal aid to Ukraine, Washington does not want to create escalation because no matter what, they’re not going to put troops in. For the time being, there will be a larger US presence in the Eastern Nato countries. The new command in Poland is important: it’s going to keep the US engaged.
What about the enlargement of Nato? Is it in the cards for the coming years?
Mr Nurick: The door remains open in principle, but in reality nothing is going to happen for a while. Before Ukraine happened, the idea was that Montenegro was going to take a step forward. Now that’s forgotten. There will be more engagement in military cooperation, but new members in practise are out of the table right now. Nato thinks this is not the time to push it.
Would the UN be able to do something that would affect Russia’s actions?
Mr Gel’man: Overall, I don’t think whatever comes from the UN affects the Russian general opinion or the policy makers. The signal that comes from the UN only affects Russians that are already critical of the government. Signals that could affect the public opinion in Russia would have to be a lot stronger than what we’re getting now. The fundamental problem is that the Russian public is still very isolated from the outside world. Most of the people still rely on state-controlled media and don’t have passports to travel abroad. I’m sceptical of a UN effect on Russian public agenda.
Do you think it’s possible that the status quo will change in Crimea at some point, or will things remain as they are at the moment?
Mr Nurick: No. I don’t see Crimea returning to Ukraine in our lifetime or even in the lifetime of my grandchildren.
Mr Vasara: It would take a major change in the political realities within the Russian Federation for something to happen in this regard.
Mr Gel’man: Crimea will not be returned to Ukraine voluntarily by the current Russian leadership. And it is not only the current political reality, but it will probably remain so for a long time in the future as well.