Mid-February registered a remarkable sequence of international forums, whose participants debated and sought to counter Russia’s power politics in Europe and the Middle East. First, defense ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had their regular meeting in Brussels (February 13–14) and then proceeded to the annual security conference in Munich (February 15–17). Meanwhile, the United States–sponsored conference in Warsaw on the Middle East (February 13–14) brought together a number of prominent politicians, including Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Vice President Michael Pence. Simultaneously, Russian President Vladimir Putin greeted his partners in managing the Syrian war—Turkey’ President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani—in Sochi. Irrespective of all these conversations, a bipartisan group of US senators introduced new draft legislation with the self-explanatory name “Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act” (DASKA). The Kremlin has developed a habit of explaining away all Western censure as “Russophobic malaise,” but it can hardly fail to see that each of these events has punched a hole in Russia’s assertive posture (RIA Novosti, February 14).
Twelve years ago, Putin made a strong impression at the 2007 Munich Security Conference with a speech expressing Russia’s readiness to oppose Western policies. But today, Russian self-justifications and recriminations recycled by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov register little shock or sympathy (Kommersant, February 16). In Munich, last week, Russia’s top diplomat depicted the world as a broken puzzle. Yet, Russia has clearly made its own contribution to the global confusion—even as it pretends to be upset that its troublemaking is treated accordingly by the West (Russiancouncil.ru, February 14). The breakdown of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty constitutes Russia’s latest demolition of the European security system—Washington pulled out of the treaty based on years of frustration over Moscow’s violation of this arms control agreement. Yet, commentators in Moscow prefer to focus on whether or not European states are reluctant to host new US missiles and nuclear warheads (Gazeta.ru, February 15). Damaged regional security indeed upsets many Europeans, but the debates in Munich show a growing determination to unite efforts aimed at countering various challenges coming from Russia, from nuclear modernization to its developing capabilities to jam GPS navigation systems (Novaya Gazeta, February 14).
The Warsaw conference focused on the mutating instability in the Middle East, which had been heavily impacted by Russia’s intervention in Syria. In the course of this operation, Moscow had to forge a “brotherhood-in-arms” with Tehran, itself a major conflict entrepreneur in this area of instability (Kommersant, February 15). The organizers sought to avoid a narrow focusing of debates on the Iranian problem; but Netanyahu nevertheless called for more determined joint efforts at combating Iranian advances (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 13). Russia can neither accept nor oppose this tough Israeli course, and it has apparently backed off from the threat to counter Israel’s airstrikes on Syria. Netanyahu plans to travel to Moscow in order to talk Putin out of such intentions—and to try yet again to dissuade the Kremlin leader from partnering too closely with Iran (RBC, February 5).
The trilateral Russian-Turkish-Iranian summit in Sochi was supposed to produce a decisive breakthrough in sorting out the Syrian deadlock. But it fell far short of this ambition (Kommersant, February 15). Each of the three leaders sees new opportunities opening up as a result of the announced forthcoming withdrawal of US forces; but these expectations go in rather different directions (Russiancouncil.ru, February 13). Putin tried to secure Erdoğan’s consent on a new offensive against the rebel-held Idlib province, but he had to accept further delays because Turkey does not want to deal with a new wave of refugees and persists with building a “buffer zone” in northern Syria (Izvestia, February 16). Iran, meanwhile, seeks to alleviate Russia’s worries about its military buildup in Syria. General Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, had a meeting in Sochi with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, February 13). The official façade of partnership looks amicable, and reports in various Russian media outlets about alleged clashes between Russian-trained and pro-Iranian forces in Syria remain unverifiable. Nevertheless, mutual suspicion between Moscow and Tehran is clearly building (Svobodnaya Pressa, February 10; Rosbalt, January 31).
Congressional lawmakers cite Russia’s “malign influence” in Syria as one of the main reasons for reintroducing the DASKA legislation, and the scope of punishing measures has been significantly expanded by the three Democratic and two Republican senators who co-authored the draft bill (Novaya Gazeta, February 14). Russian officials have issued the proper reassuring noises about impact minimization; but in fact, the only way the government is able to create economic growth is by doctoring the macro-economic data (Moscow Echo, February 11). Significant financial reserves exist that could help in mitigating the initial impact of new sanctions on the targeted banks and businesses. But for the general population, the only way to insure against losses is to convert its savings into US dollars (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 14).
The Kremlin propaganda incorporates all news on sanctions and censure into the theme of the West’s “inherent hostility” toward Russia, which is allegedly destined to stay the course of authoritarian consolidation (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 11). The effectiveness of this drumming is declining, as exemplified, for instance, by the fact that 40 percent of young Russians wish to emigrate to the West (Levada.ru, February 4). And even though few of them actually go through with such plans, they obviously are not buying into Lavrov’s lamentations about Western “Russophobia” or Shoigu’s appeals for mobilization against Russia’s implacable foes in NATO (Republic.ru, February 12).
An irreconcilable conflict can be observed between the Kremlin’s desire to prove that its norms- and rules-breaking behavior works, on the one hand, and the West’s need to establish that it does not, on the other. International conference debates, like those that took place last week in Munich, might appear frustratingly inconclusive. But they uphold and reinvent Western solidarity necessary for constraining Russia’s provocative behavior with sanctions and more. Putin seeks to cultivate ties with every global pariah or rogue regime, from Iran to Venezuela; but international solidarity is an unnatural motivation for his counterparts by default. The best bet for these would-be-partners-by-necessity is Western disunity, and Putin employs every “hybrid” means to deepen the divides and promote such dissent in the West. Yet, his intrigues repeatedly backfire not only by animating Europe to follow the US’s lead in enforcing more punishing sanctions, but also by energizing resentment inside Russia against policies that have attracted international ostracism.