Russia and West: One step forward, two steps back

Russian President Vladimir Putin: “We’re ready for cooperation; we’re open and we’re not going to pout over the sanctions.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin: “We’re ready for cooperation; we’re open and we’re not going to pout over the sanctions.”

AFP / East News
Despite recent attempts by the Kremlin to put a positive spin on the current state of relations between Russia and the West, the year 2015 has brought few crumbs of comfort, with the ongoing confrontation over the Ukraine crisis refusing to fade into the background and a host of other disagreements adding fuel to the fire, even if modest progress on the Syrian conflict has softened the tone slightly. But has 2015 really been the disaster it’s been made out to be?

In a documentary focused on “the new world order,” aired on Dec. 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin explicitly intoned that, despite what he described as the West’s unfriendly policies, Russia will not become introverted and is keen as ever to engage with everyone for a good cause. Addressing Europe, Putin said: “We’re ready for cooperation; we’re open and we’re not going to pout over the sanctions.”

Yet a survey of 2015 Russia’s policy of engaging the West does not look good. The list of setbacks is appalling and can hardly be counterbalanced by random breakthroughs on several contentious issues that are adversely affecting both sides. To put the situation in context, it is worth precluding the comments of Troika Report’s analysts with a brief overview of the landmark events and trends of the year for Russia-West relations.

The undeclared cold war with the United States goes on. The regularly prolonged sanctions launched by the EU are crippling economic performance in Russia but backfiring on European business as well. The aborted visit by Vladimir Putin to Japan to mitigate mutual uneasiness over a tiresome territorial dispute means Russia is unlikely return to the G7 any time soon. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of disappointing geopolitical landmarks in 2015.

In sum, has 2015 really been a lost year in relations between Russia and the West? Anton Fedyashin, assistant professor and director of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History at the American University, provided his assessment of 2015 for Troika Report, counting the feathers in Russia’s cap against the black eyes.

“I do agree with the formula ‘One step forward, two steps back.’ U.S.-Russia relations have hit rock bottom in 2015, and the best part of the story is that there is nowhere to go but up. We are beginning to see this with the compromise on Syria and John Kerry’s latest visit to Moscow. Economically, the relationship will remain highly handicapped, and here the changes will be the slowest.”

– If we split the formula and concentrate first on the “one step forward,” and then on “two steps back,” what does this imply?

“I think the positive step is the developments around Syria: That is the UN resolution and the talks on the future of Syria involving all the parties and starting as early as January 2016. As for the ‘two steps back,’ this is economic relations, which have gone nowhere – the European Union has just extended the sanctions; the other element is very little progress on Ukraine.”

– And yet, would not the Minsk peace agreements fall into the category of “assets” of 2015?

“This is an important stabilizing factor, yet the signing of a paper is one thing but delivering on its implementation is another. The Ukrainian side has been very slow to fulfill its end. The Russians have responded in kind. Unfortunately, we are not moving fast enough on the Minsk agreements.”

Attempting to define the state of play, do relations between Russia and the West deserve the term of “disengagement” or “handicapped engagement”? Troika Report addressed the question to Dmitry Polykanov from the Center for Policy Studies in Russia, a Moscow-based independent think tank.

“I’d rather prefer the term ‘handicapped engagement’ because we have seen ups and downs in relations throughout the year. There were hopes that a global threat such as that posed by Islamic State would bring both sides together and make them understand the need for team work. Instead we witnessed disintegration and divergence.

“There is some kind of a preparation for a new modus vivendi. There is recognition that the two sides can cooperate on certain minor issues; no one is interested in open and large-scale hostilities; at the same time, they are building a wall to separate themselves from each other. Unfortunately, this is becoming a systemic process.”

– What qualifies, in your view, as a “step forward” and what deserves to be called “a step backward”?

“A step forward is that Russia and the West realized they do not want open hostilities. On several occasions during 2015 there was a real danger of direct military confrontation, like in Ukraine, where the Russian and American military could have come face to face, and over the downing of a Russian aircraft by a NATO member state, Turkey. It was good that neither side got blinded by the provocation and saw the red line they should not cross. Another positive element is that both sides agreed that these conflicts require a political solution. The Minsk agreements were a step forward, just like the consensus on the UN resolution on conflict resolution in Syria.”

With few successes, the year 2015 will most probably go down in history as a year of broken promises, contained hostilities, missed opportunities and mistreated partners. Is this not a sad fact? Speaking to Troika Report, Dr. Nadia Arbatova, head of the Department of European Political Studies within the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences, supported the verdict but with finely-tuned reservations.

“You are right that 2015 was very controversial and difficult in Russia’s relations with the West. A sanctions war is going on. The stalemate on Ukraine. The deterioration of Russia-U.S. relations. All of this is feeding pessimistic forecasts for the future. However, starting with September, and Russia’s involvement in Syria, some signs of improvement were recorded. After the blowing up of a Russian aircraft over Egypt and the shootings in Paris, the West has somewhat softened its position over Russia’s intervention in Syria. There are indications that the recognition of a common threat can prompt efforts to cooperate not only on Syria.”

– Do you really believe that positive engagement with Russia on conflict resolution in Syria can be “contagious” and have sort of a spillover effect?

“Generally speaking, the growing tension with Russia over Ukraine has created a very uncomfortable environment for EU leaders, who have spent the last two decades in a relaxed mood. The new split in Europe has forced them to seek a way out of the difficult situation. French President Francois Hollande expressed his readiness to discuss with presidents Obama and Putin concerted efforts to fight Islamic State. In November, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker wrote a letter to Putin, underlining the need for good relations between the EU and Russia.”

Troika Report shares the final remark made by Dr. Arbatova that while she is not outwardly pessimistic in her assessment of the year 2015, she would most certainly welcome it if the model of interaction with the West could be reformatted into “two steps forward and no steps back.” Some day, shall we add, in the future?

The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

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