Russia Seeks Engagement, But Offers Nothing

WASHINGTON — Russian authorities now want to reengage with Western capitals and discuss sanctions. But, they are offering no concession to governments that have grown distrustful of Russian words and deeds, and are determined not to let Moscow get away with armed subversion in Ukraine. They want to talk, but do not budge. Their refrain is unchanged: you, Westerners, must make the first step, as you started the confrontation; you were behind the Ukrainian events of 2013–2014. There is no apology, or even a word of compassion for the 10,000 lives lost amid the destruction in Donbas, where, according to the official line, “Russians are not present.” Given this, Europeans, despite their many worries, agreed on July 1 to renew sanctions.

Vladimir Putin is not ready for any opening, even in a context of economic recession and diplomatic isolation. After the United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union, he is pinning his hopes on Europe’s mounting problems and internal divisions: suffering too many headaches, so the theory goes, Europeans will seek to reengage with Moscow and ease sanctions. It is true that Russia can benefit politically from Brexit and EU hardships, but not economically. Putin is putting himself in a weak position if he relies exclusively on Western divisions. Sanctions are still in place as Moscow has not taken any significant step toward implementing the Minsk 2 agreement, not even the withdrawal of heavy artillery. The NATO Summit in Warsaw will reassert unity and consolidation of defense on the Eastern Flank. The U.K. might invest more in transatlantic cooperation and security. And to wait for the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s election to the presidency to reverse the odds would be a silly gamble on the part of the Kremlin.

Russia appears more isolated on the international scene: its military intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime did not win international approval, and now it is banned from the Olympics.

Russia’s military power is a concern, but this works against the Kremlin’s deterrence goals. Russia is newly perceived as a threat because of its unpredictability. A nuclear power governed by an isolated autocrat cannot be influenced, reasoned, and talked into making compromises.

As long as Putin sticks to his narrative and blames Kyiv, Western governments, Turkey, and many other “enemies” for the disorder, no progress is in sight.

The Kremlin may be inclined to misread the temper of European leaders. There is indeed Ukraine fatigue in Europe and America, but there is Russia fatigue too. The French, German, Polish, and other governments are indeed challenged by refugees, terrorist threats, and economic and social churn, with a rise of anti-EU sentiments. On all these issues, Moscow is not helping European countries. The Kremlin supports the EU’s Euroskeptic voices, and Russia’s bombing in Syria aggravated refugee flows.

However, despite many troubles, Europeans are not becoming more lenient toward the Kremlin or more willing to disengage from a slow-reforming Ukraine. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called for mending the relationship with Russia at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in mid-June, but did not renege on Minsk, noting, “the problem of sanctions could be solved…but existing agreements must be respected.” It is very unlikely that Western governments and multilateral institutions will soon reverse major decisions made in 2014: sanctions will stay; the G7 will not revert to the G8; the NATO-Russia Council and the Russia-EU institutional relationship remain largely inactive.

Since last spring, the atmosphere has become less acrimonious. Russian diplomats, experts, and business people have clearly been instructed to engage with their western counterparts. Yet there is still no solid basis for discussion — not least because Putin adamantly clings to his extravagant narratives: that President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed by a U.S.-sponsored coup; Crimea was legitimately and peacefully returned to Russia; and the “Russian” population of eastern Donbas chose of its own free will to be ruled by “separatist leaders” in the new “popular democracies” of Luhansk and Donetsk.

There is indeed Ukraine fatigue in Europe and America, but there is Russia fatigue too.

As long as Putin sticks to his narrative and blames Kyiv, Western governments, Turkey, and many other “enemies” for the disorder, no progress is in sight. NATO countries will not discuss European security above the heads of the Ukrainians, and a Kyiv-Moscow dialogue is the precondition for re-engagement with Europe. The confrontation has had a corrosive effect on relations between the EU and Russia, but also on all bilateral relations between Moscow and every Western capital, as well as Ankara. The Russian leadership needs to adjust its views and its methods if it wants to re-engage with former partners.

As Europeans cannot influence the course of events in Russia and have very little clout over the leadership, a reasonable line of action is to remain focused on Ukraine, on European security, and on the safety of populations in regions neighboring the EU. If the Kremlin interprets this sensible policy as “attacks” by an “enemy,” all we can do is continue to explain to European publics the rationale and goals of our policies. The NATO summit offers a good platform to do precisely this.

Related reading:
Russian Elites are Worried: The Unpredictability of Putinism


Originally published at www.gmfus.org on July 6, 2016.

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