Escalating Russian-Western Tensions Are Reflected in Confrontation in Donbas

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 28

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

In a high-profile interview with Rossiya state TV, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Moscow is ready to “sever relations with the European Union.” The EU is Russia’s most important trading partner, but if it continues to impose additional sanctions and interfere in Russia’s internal affairs, Moscow may go into full confrontational mode, like it already has against the United States. Lavrov castigated the West for supporting opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was arrested on January 17, 2021, after returning to Russia from Germany, and promptly received a 32-month prison sentence on February 2. Lavrov expressed no remorse for harshly treating EU High Representative Josep Borrell during his recent visit to Moscow or for the expulsion of German, Polish and Swedish diplomats that coincided with Borrell’s visit (see EDM, February 11, 15). A further breakup of relations with Europe could harm Russia; but according to Lavrov, the Russian Federation has already reached full self-reliance in defense and must strive to achieve full economic self-reliance: “Russia does not want to isolate itself from the world but must be ready to do it. If you want peace, prepare for war [Si vis pacem, para bellum]” (Vesti, February 12).

Lavrov’s pronouncement caused some commotion in Moscow and in European capitals. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov seemingly backpedaled Lavrov’s statement by accusing the press of taking it out of context: “Russia does not want to break off relations with the EU, but it must be ready to do so if the EU imposes new punitive sanctions” (Interfax, February 12). Lavrov and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were backed up by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service’s (SVR) director, Sergei Naryshkin, who insisted the member states of the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are clandestinely supporting Navalny, “who is not a genuine opposition leader but an agent of hostile foreign powers” (Interfax, February 12). Moscow apparently wants to draw a distinct “red line” by declaring Russian internal issues fully out of reach: “Better no dialogue than a dialogue on Russian internal politics.” It is important to note that Lavrov was talking about breaking off relations with the EU and its Commission but not with individual European (EU) countries. Moscow never much liked the EU and its institutions but always tried to promote relations with Germany, Italy, France, Hungary and other “friendly nations” (Kommersant, February 12).

On February 17, it was reported the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) demanded the Russian authorities immediately free Navalny, whose life may be in danger while in detention, since Russian state agents were allegedly involved in his poisoning by the nerve agent Novichok during a visit to the Siberian city of Tomsk on August 20, 2020. The ECHR is an international court of the Council of Europe, which interprets the European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia signed and ratified. Moscow must abide by the ECHR’s decision, but it has already announced it will not free Navalny, declaring the ECHR ruling invalid, illegal and an infringement of Russia’s sovereign rights. The Navalny case may lead to a renewed confrontation between Moscow and the majority of the members of the Council of Europe, possibly leading to the suspension of Russia’s membership. Russian officials have already announced they are ready to leave the Council of Europe to escape the jurisdiction of the ECHR (Interfax, February 18).

On February 16, at a press conference following a meeting with his Finnish counterpart, Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, in St. Petersburg, Lavrov doubled down by accusing the EU of de facto severing all meaningful relations with Moscow “after 2014.” The EU, according to Lavrov, “allowed and abetted the coup in Kyiv in February 2014 that installed an illegal regime, forcing Russian speakers in Crimea and Donbas to break away.” Of course, as the West sees things, in 2014, Moscow annexed Crimea and supported with weapons and troops a manufactured separatist insurrection in Donbas. Lavrov and Haavisto agreed both Russia and Europe want to keep talking and trading, but the tendency of drifting toward confrontation may become irreversible (Kommersant, February 16).

As diplomatic relations wither, military tensions grow. The Russian military and NATO are preparing plans and rewriting strategies of mutual military deterrence. Both sides say they want to continue to keep the channels of communications open, to find ways to ease tensions, and so on. In reality, each is preparing for the possibility of future conflict at different levels as one field of cooperation closes after another. Russia’s main arms control negotiator with the US, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, told journalists that Moscow recently refused a visa to an unnamed top National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) official—possibly the appointed acting NASA administrator Steve Jurczyk. Nonetheless, Ryabkov assured, both countries continue to closely cooperate in jointly running the International Space Station (RIA Novosti, February 17).

Still, the work to avoid direct military confrontation is proceeding amidst strong diplomatic language, threats and imposed sanctions by both sides—just as during the Cold War. Like during those times, proxy wars along the strategic periphery are increasingly likely. Ukraine may soon turn into a particularly dangerous hot spot. Moscow sees today’s Ukraine as a hostile Western proxy and a failed state—making it a potentially weak link in the fence the West is allegedly building around Russia. Since July 2020, a tentative ceasefire has been holding in Donbas, with some isolated incidents but no serious fighting. Since the middle of January 2021, however, this ceasefire has been repeatedly and deliberately interrupted by the Russian and proxy forces at the frontline. All attempts at progress in negotiating some political solution to the conflict have failed. Moscow blames Kyiv and vice versa. In Kyiv, a new massive flareup in fighting is seen as practically inevitable “in the spring, closer to summer,” but no one knows what the extent of such renewed clashes might be (Kommersant, February 17).

If relations with the West are seen as irreparable, Moscow might consider a victorious local war in Ukraine as a useful pretext to not only decisively suppress its own internal opposition but also to teach the West a “lesson.”