After the fall of the USSR, it seemed as if a promising new chapter in western relations with Russia was about to be opened. After centuries of mutual suspicion—at times breaking out into open hostilities—those of a more optimistic bent can be forgiven for back then thinking that a more cordial relationship was about to establish itself, perhaps not all that dissimilar to the way the former adversaries of Europe came together in the years following the Second World War. Fast forward a couple of decades, however, and we find that relations between Putin’s Russia and the western powers have deteriorated to such a point that there’s now serious talk about whether we’re witnessing the beginnings of another Cold War.
How has it come to this? When future scholars attempt to disentangle the process by which so much promise turned so very sour, they’ll doubtless see events in Ukraine four years ago as pivotal. Of course longer-term causes can be highlighted. The failure to properly integrate Russia into the post-Cold War liberal international order and its not unrelated drift towards nationalist authoritarianism under Putin spring to mind in particular. Combined with the damage IMF-sanctioned ‘wild west capitalism’ inflicted on Russian society in the early 1990s, this has left the impression that western interests are more interested in exploiting the beast to the east than allying with her. Then there were were events in Libya in 2011, where Russia tacitly accepted western (i.e. French, British and American) calls for the imposition of a ‘no fly zone’ only to find its trust abused when this turned into a full-blown aerial campaign aimed at helping Islamist rebels overthrow the Qaddafi regime. All that said, however, it was in Ukraine in early 2014 where things finally came to a head; where, that is, tentative allies became open adversaries.
It bears saying that neither side’s behaviour stands beyond reproach. An abortive attempt to draw the Ukraine into the EU’s orbit was seen by Moscow as a blatant provocation. Russia has deep historical links and crucial geopolitical interests in that part of the world, which it will protect at almost any cost. Western meddling in its backyard would not be tolerated, especially given the fear this would culminate in NATO’s reach being extended all the way up to Russia’s western frontier. (NATO, of course, being a military alliance originally established for the purpose of providing a collective counterweight against the advance of Soviet Communism, that’s continued existence and further expansion since the Soviet Union’s collapse has for that reason been viewed in Russia as another indication of western nations less than friendly intentions. As a sign the western world considers Russia an ‘other’ that can never be fully embraced.)
That the Kremlin would have viewed and reacted to European and American politicking in Ukraine as unwanted encroachment onto its doorstep is something western foreign offices no doubt knew, or if not, most definitely should have known. Yet with a dangerous disregard for the consequences of their actions the NATO powers stirred-up a hornets nest nonetheless, by politically and financially backing an anti-Russian, pro-EU ‘Euromaidan’ movement that while in the main liberal and democratic also included some very unsavoury far-right characters within its ranks. The kind of people whose political heritage can be traced all the way back to the Ukrainian fascists who in the last century were more than willing participants in a Nazi invasion which cost some 25 million Russian lives.
In response to the rise of this movement and its toppling of a deeply corrupt, pro-Moscow government in Kiev, under the pretext of protecting Russian speakers from persecution Putin oversaw the annexation in all but name of Crimea while also stoking-up a civil war in the eastern Donbass region that’s still ongoing today. It’s a proxy war in which both sides have funnelled money, arms and propaganda, that’s come at considerable cost to those unfortunate enough to be caught in the middle. What’s more, it’s a power struggle that’s since spread around the globe.
Perhaps most significantly in terms of the balance of international power, Russia has started to muscle in on longstanding western spheres of interest in the Middle East. It’s a strategy that’s delivered, above all in Syria, where in propping-up the Assad dictatorship the Russian government has not only secured the long-term viability of a key naval base in northern sea port of Tartus (just as its actions did in the Crimea); it’s also managed to partially usurp an increasingly indecisive and introverted US as the major outside player in the region. This, needless to say, is an outcome almost exactly opposite to the quagmire then US president Barrack Obama and others confidently predicted Russia was getting itself bogged down in at the time of its entry into the Syrian conflict.
At the same time as all this has been unfolding Moscow’s also been wooing Islamabad. Energy deals, military cooperation and mutual fear of ISIS have been the basis for a courtship which has taken place at the very moment when US-Pakistan relations have been unravelling over Afghanistan. Then there’s the Russian attempts to build stronger links with developing nations in South America, Asia and Africa. Again trade and military cooperation are the means by which the Russian Federation has looked to expand its influence while reducing that of the western powers. It’s a familiar pattern, that in important respects echoes Soviet-era foreign policy of attempting to secure the allegiance of newly-independent former colonial nations through the provision of significant material assistance.
In addition to disrupting Western power abroad, Putin’s regime has also directed its attention at the belly of the beast. There’s an increasing body of evidence which points to an orchestrated and systematic Russian attempt to manipulate public opinion in, and thus subvert the democratic processes of, a number of Western nations, the US, UK, France, Germany and Denmark included. Often via several layers of intermediaries and shell companies, Russian funds (aka ‘dark money’) have played a not insignificant role in bankrolling the rise of a nationalist right which shares many of the Kremlin’s ideological preoccupations, especially in respect of immigration and terrorism. Russian troll farms, meanwhile, like the infamous St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, have also been busy sowing discord on social media via the dissemination of emotionally-charged ‘fake news’. And this is to say nothing of the Russian oligarch money that’s filled Conservative Party coffers. Nor of the role the ostensibly independent news outlet Russia Today plays in rationalising and excusing Putin’s foreign policy approach to international audiences, often with the tacit support of sections of a western left who at times appear intent on fulfilling the caricature of useful idiots.
How much impact these actions have had on actual election results is difficult to quantify. The role Russia played in the shock triumph of Donald Trump is a source of particular controversy. At the very least it’s clear that the Kremlin and its agents put some effort into undermining his opponent, Hilary Clinton. She was Secretary of State at the time the Ukraine situation flared-up and took a stringently anti-Russian line. Most offensively to Russian sensibilities, she even likened what happened in Crimea to the Anschluss. For this it seems Putin, in this narrative cast as the new Hitler, wanted revenge. Whether and to what extent Trump himself and/or those around him were complicit in the subsequent attempts to discredit her—along with other instances of interference in the 2016 presidential election—remains under investigation. What can’t be denied, however, is that he benefited from Russian meddling, with his presidency and by extension US politics forever stained by this inconvenient fact.
Even more alarmingly than interfering in the democratic process of sovereign nations, as Putin has tightened his grip on power he’s not only violently suppressed opposition at home, but abroad too. There are around a dozen suspected Kremlin-ordered assassinations of Russian exiles in Britain alone over past decade or so. The most famous is the case of Alexander Litvinenko, the British-naturalised defector and prominent Putin critic who was poisoned with a radioactive substance in November 2006. The most recent is the poisoning of the former Russian military intelligence officer cum British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury earlier this month. As of writing both remain in critical condition, with the official view of the British authorities being that this attempted murder was carried out using a Russian-made nerve agent, that either ended up used on UK streets by the Russian government’s design or through its carelessness.
Of course a certain amount of caution should be exercised before rushing to judgement. That said, the evidence all seems to point in one direction, no matter who much the Kremlin and its apologists try to muddy the water. In a certain light renegade spies killed on British soil may be little more than a case of live by the sword, die by the sword. Something more suited to the plot of a literary thriller than real politics. However foreign actors carrying out assassinations in other countries, in fragrant violation of international law, is the kind of rogue behaviour that simply can’t be ignored by the rest of the international community. Even more so when viewed alongside Russia’s build-up of military capacity, WMDs included, and its continued intrusions into European airspace and waters.
Simply put, cumulatively, everything together suggests that Putin’s Russia has stopped abiding by the rules and norms that bind civilised nations. The end goal in all this is clear: To sow discord among—and perhaps even split—the western/NATO allies, while at the same time re-establishing Russia as a dominant world power. Granted, this is a problem in part of the west’s making. If only NATO had been disbanded in the early 90s many will say, much of this could have been avoided. Its continued existence was a clear signal to Moscow that while it was perhaps no longer a foe, at the same time it wasn’t a friend either. Moreover, through the War on Terror the west itself has debased international norms and notions of state sovereignty. In this context drone strikes and non-UN endorsed military interventions are just a rose by another name. Yet while there’s undoubted merit to this argument, Russian aggression still needs to be confronted. Putin is not a good guy and his role in world politics cannot be considered in any way constructive. That’s the plain truth.
Churchill once famously observed that while Russia was ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, the key to understanding it perhaps lay in its national interest. This remains as true now as it did in 1939. Nevertheless, even if in the long-term the answer to this problem is to find ways of making it to Russia’s advantage to be a valued and contributing member of the international community. In the short-term, as economic sanctions are imposed and boycotts and other forms of retaliation are threatened by Western governments, it looks like relations are about to get a lot worse before they get better. So hunker down, because another intractable conflict between the democratic west and an autocratic Russia has just begun.