Western Engagement Strategies Encourage Russia Not To Change

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 113

Russia-EU summit in Nizhny Novgorod, June 10, 2011

There has been a remarkable variety of engagements with the West for Russia last week, and it has achieved exactly what it wanted to achieve – nothing. Moscow played rounds of gas diplomacy with Ukraine and missile defense diplomacy with NATO, sanctions diplomacy in the UN and even cucumber diplomacy with the EU, and impressed upon its partners that the key problems in international affairs were generally where Russia wanted them to be. Some breakthrough might appear to be tantalizingly close but each would open space for further progress, and Moscow is apparently not ready for closer rapprochement with the West, which also appears to prefer this pro-forma engagement.

Perhaps one area where the US and some of its key European allies would prefer to make progress is the fast-evolving Middle East, where the NATO intervention in Libya is implicitly but strongly connected with the forceful suppression of the opposition in Syria and with the civil war in Yemen, while the newly re-forged Palestinian unity creates so many complications that the Iranian super-problem has drifted out of attention. Moscow has firmly blocked the draft resolution in the UN Security Council condemning the violence in Syria, and there is more to this stubbornness than just devotion to old friendship in contrast with Washington’s readiness to wash its hands over President Hosni Mubarak (Moskovskiy Novosti, June 8; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 10). The nature of its own corrupt undemocratic regime makes Russia into a counter-revolutionary force, but there is also the desire to prove that the West could not dismiss criticism from Moscow of the clearly deadlocked operation in Libya (Kommersant-FM, June 10; Ekspert, June 8).

Quite possibly, it is this unhelpful criticism that prompted NATO to show a modicum of resolve at the meeting of the Russia-NATO Council, where Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov was told in no uncertain terms that the proposition on a “sector architecture” of the future European missile system is unworkable (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, June 10). It had been clear from the Lisbon summit, where President Dmitry Medvedev presented the idea of a Russian anti-missile shield protecting Europe from the threats coming from the South-East, that nobody in NATO would think about entrusting defense to Russia where missile arsenals are exploding on their own way too often (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, June 6; The New Times, June 13). There was, nevertheless, a pronounced preference in the Alliance for continuing discussions with the hope that the mutual commitment to “reset” would generate momentum on other arms control matters, for instance on non-strategic nuclear weapons (Kommersant, www.gazeta.ru, June 9). Moscow has shown no interest in any new compromises, so NATO had to reduce its hopes for meaningful rapprochement to symbolic joint exercises.

The highest profile event last week was the Russia-EU summit in Nizhny Novgorod, in which the pre-planned agenda was hijacked by the E. coli outbreak in Germany and Russia’s ban on importing all vegetables from Europe. Medvedev graciously agreed to lift the ban providing products’ safety is duly certified (which might be problematic since the source of infection is still unknown), but this deal was a poor compensation for the lack of achievement in the talks on the WTO accession and visa-free travel (Kommersant, June 11). It is only logical that the “Partnership for Modernization” program is reduced to a package of technical projects as Medvedev’s ambitious narrative of “modernization” is overtaken by the slogans of stability and social justice approved by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as the most appropriate for the election campaign. The European Parliament has passed a resolution on relations with Russia that notes exclusion of opposition from these elections, but the Brussels bureaucracy is more interested in securing Moscow’s consent for holding just one summit a year rather than two (www.gazeta.ru, June 10).  

Perhaps the most controversial face-to-face last week was between Putin and Ukraine’s Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov, who saw his hopes and arguments for lower gas prices disappointed and dismissed. Putin and Gazprom see no compelling reasons to revise the deal that ended the “gas war” of winter 2009 and explain away Ukraine’s financial issues as a consequence of the strong rally on the world oil market (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 10). Putin also mentioned casually that gas transit through Ukraine would be reduced with the opening of the Nord Stream pipeline this year and practically eliminated by the planned the South Stream, and reiterated the invitation to join the Custom Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan (Kommersant, June 8). Ukraine finds few incentives in such economic subjugation rather than integration, and those are weakened further by observing how Moscow exploits and exacerbates the severe financial crisis in Belarus (Ogonyok, June 6). Some European politicians might consider it wonderful that Moscow clearly seeks to get rid of President Aleksandr Lukashenka but they should keep in mind that Russian designs for a post-Lukashenka Belarus are hardly liberal-democratic.

What emerges from these multiple interactions is that Russia’s relations with its key partners are not staying at the same level but deteriorating, which is also true for the US-Russian “reset,” which pre-dated and encouraged many positive developments. Moscow finds no problem with this creeping estrangement camouflaged by pledges to promote closer ties, expecting that the Western powers and institutions that have to prioritize pressing needs and budgetary decimations would pay scant attention to the climate change in Russian politics.

Putin has apparently concluded that the effectiveness of his political control has been degraded in the last couple of years not by corruption but by the growth of alternative networks and discourses in the bureaucratically unnatural system of dual leadership. A new tightening of discipline is therefore in order in the course of the parliamentary election campaign, which becomes a means for restoring a purer Putinism cleansed from the dubious deviations towards wider choices and freer media. This reversal of modernization, feeble as it was, is disappointing for many Western politicians who invested much effort in networking with the Russian elites anchored to the West by their mercantilist interests. This disappointment typically translates into the proposition that there is no alternative to engaging Russia, but this invariable engagement strategy conveys to Putin the message that his plan for sham elections is just fine. Diplomatic pretences of cordial ever-lasting “resets” are often very useful until they become nonsensical.