The evolv­ing stale­mate be­tween Rus­sia and the West

Man­ag­ing its re­la­tion­ship with the West is no longer the defin­ing fea­ture of Rus­sia's for­eign pol­icy ef­forts.

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents - “The Evolv­ing Stale­mate Be­tween Rus­sia and the West” is re­pub­lished un­der con­tent con­fed­er­a­tion be­tween Fi­nan­cial Nige­ria and Strat­for.

At the be­gin­ning of 2017, it ap­peared as if the strained re­la­tion­ship be­tween Rus­sia and the West was about to un­dergo a sub­stan­tial shift. U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who had cam­paigned on a plat­form of im­prov­ing re­la­tions with Rus­sia, was about to be in­au­gu­rated. Up­com­ing elec­tions in the core Euro­pean Union states of France and Ger­many of­fered the pos­si­bil­ity that Euroscep­tic par­ties would rise to power, lead­ing to a ma­jor change in those coun­tries' po­si­tions, in­clud­ing on main­tain­ing sanc­tions against Rus­sia. Fur­ther­more, it ap­peared as if sol­i­dar­ity within NATO, as well as sup­port for Western-lean­ing states like Ukraine, Moldova and Ge­or­gia, was in dan­ger of weak­en­ing sub­stan­tially.

But as 2018 ap­proaches, it's clear that in­stead of wan­ing, Western pres­sure against Rus­sia has in­ten­si­fied. In the United States, law­mak­ers wrested the power to with­draw U.S. sanc­tions against Rus­sia away from the pres­i­dent, par­tially as a re­sult of the nu­mer­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tions launched into the ex­tent of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in U.S. elec­tions. Trump es­sen­tially was forced to cede his power to uni­lat­er­ally lift the penal­ties in July, and Congress sub­se­quently en­acted a stronger sanc­tions regime against Moscow.

In France, the Na­tional Front, a Euroscep­tic party, and its pro-Rus­sian pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Ma­rine Le Pen reached the sec­ond round of the coun­try's pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, but Le Pen lost to cen­trist Em­manuel Macron in the de­ci­sive vote. Rus­sia cer­tainly had tried to in­flu­ence the re­sult in favour of Le Pen, but the ex­po­sure of the cy­ber­war­fare and in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns it had used to try to in­flu­ence the out­come of U.S. elec­tions and the rev­e­la­tion that the Krem­lin was em­ploy­ing the same tech­niques in Europe, blunted their ef­fec­tive­ness.

The same held true dur­ing the Ger­man gen­eral elec­tions in Septem­ber, where de­spite Rus­sian ef­forts, the anti­estab­lish­ment Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many party did not gain sub­stan­tial trac­tion, even though it did out­per­form ex­pec­ta­tions. Af­ter the dust of the Euro­pean elec­tions set­tled, the Euro­pean Union main­tained its co­he­sive­ness, and its mem­bers voted unan­i­mously to ex­tend sanc­tions against Rus­sia through the end of 2017.

In the mean­time, nei­ther the Euro­pean Union nor NATO has backed away from the coun­tries on the Euro­pean/Rus­sian bor­der­land. The United States and the Euro­pean bloc have been stead­fast in their sup­port for Ukraine, and NATO has followed through with the de­ploy­ment of semiper­ma­nent bat­tal­ions to Poland and the Baltic states. On its side of the bor­der, Rus­sia has built up its forces as well, and while there has been no ma­jor con­fronta­tion be­tween Rus­sia and NATO, their mil­i­tary stand­off has main­tained the in­ten­sity of past years.

What's Ahead in 2018?

Sev­eral key is­sues will shape the di­rec­tion of ties be­tween Rus­sia and the West in 2018. One is the con­flict be­tween Rus­sian-backed sep­a­ratist forces and the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment in Ukraine's east, which is en­ter­ing its fourth year. Fol­low­ing an es­ca­la­tion of vi­o­lence along the front­lines in the sep­a­ratist Don­bas re­gion shortly af­ter Trump's in­au­gu­ra­tion, mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity has de­creased in in­ten­sity in re­cent months. The con­flict has now taken on the "semi-frozen" na­ture typ­i­cal of those in other Rus­sian-backed break­away ter­ri­to­ries in the for­mer Soviet space. In the mean­time, diplo­matic ac­tiv­ity be­tween Rus­sia and the West over the Ukrainian sep­a­ratist con­flict picked up af­ter a sug­ges­tion by Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in Septem­ber that a U.N. peace­keep­ing force be de­ployed to East­ern Ukraine.

Putin's pro­posal and as­so­ci­ated diplo­matic ef­forts have raised the ques­tion of whether the end of the Ukrainian con­flict could be in sight in 2018. But given the gap be­tween Rus­sia and the West over the na­ture and pa­ram­e­ters of a po­ten­tial U.N. mis­sion in Don­bas, pro­longed ne­go­ti­a­tions are likely be­fore any agree­ment could be struck. Rus­sia, on one hand, has sug­gested the de­ploy­ment of a lim­ited force purely to pro­tect ob­servers from the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Se­cu­rity and Co-op­er­a­tion in Europe on the line of con­tact be­tween Ukrainian se­cu­rity forces and the sep­a­ratists. But Ukraine and the United States have both called for a de­ploy­ment to span all of Don­bas, in­clud­ing along the bor­der be­tween the sep­a­ratist ter­ri­tory and Rus­sia. That op­tion es­sen­tially would rep­re­sent a com­plete aban­don­ment of Rus­sia's strate­gic po­si­tion in Don­bas, given that Moscow is thought to fun­nel troops and weapons to sup­port the rebels over the bor­der.

While Rus­sia can use the peace­keep­ing pro­posal to show its will­ing­ness to ne­go­ti­ate over the con­flict in an ef­fort to stave off ad­di­tional Western pres­sure, it does not mean that Rus­sia will ca­pit­u­late to the Ukrainian-U.S. po­si­tion. What's more, Rus­sia could drive an es­ca­la­tion of fight­ing if it suited its needs.

De­pend­ing on what on­go­ing U.S. in­ves­ti­ga­tions over Rus­sian elec­tion med­dling re­veal, the United States could es­ca­late its sanc­tions regime against Rus­sia. And al­though Trump does not sup­port it, key mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion are openly con­sid­er­ing send­ing lethal weaponry to Ukraine. If the United States de­cides to take ei­ther of those ac­tions, Moscow could choose to re­spond by es­ca­lat­ing the con­flict in East­ern Ukraine — or re­spond­ing else­where in an asym­met­ric fash­ion.

A long-time driver of ten­sions be­tween Rus­sia and the West has been the on­go­ing mil­i­tary build-up by both sides along the Euro­pean bor­der­lands, which shows no signs of slow­ing. Rus­sia is ex­pected to per­ma­nently de­ploy Iskan­der short-range bal­lis­tic mis­sile sys­tems to its Kalin­ingrad en­clave on a per­ma­nent ba­sis at the be­gin­ning of 2018, while NATO will set up new At­lantic and lo­gis­tics com­mands, as well as in­crease co­or­di­na­tion ef­forts on Black Sea pa­trols and cy­ber-de­fence ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The con­tin­ued build-ups could add pres­sure that would in­ter­fere with the re­sump­tion of al­ready stalled arms con­trol talks be­tween the United States and Rus­sia.

Moscow's con­tin­ued use of hy­brid war­fare tech­niques in Europe, the United States and Western-aligned na­tions rep­re­sents an­other front in the stand­off. As Italy pre­pares to hold gen­eral elec­tions by May, Moscow is likely to ramp up its in­for­ma­tion cam­paign in sup­port of par­ties like the Five Star Move­ment and Forza Italia that op­pose Rus­sian sanc­tions. But as in Ger­many, the Ital­ian par­ties that Rus­sia would pre­fer will likely strug­gle to ac­cess power. Rus­sian ef­forts are more likely to be suc­cess­ful in Moldova, where there is a good chance the pro-Rus­sian So­cial­ist Party will un­seat the rul­ing EU-ori­ented coali­tion and sub­se­quently re­verse some of the moves the coun­try has taken in re­cent years to­ward Western in­te­gra­tion in favour of closer ties with Moscow.

Rus­sia's For­eign Pol­icy Fo­cus Shifts

One im­por­tant emerg­ing trend re­lated to the Rus­sia-West stand­off is Moscow's ris­ing in­flu­ence in re­gions other than Europe and Eura­sia. As its iso­la­tion from the West has be­come more pro­nounced, Rus­sia has ex­panded its eco­nomic re­la­tion­ships with China and the Arab states. At the same time, Rus­sia has in­creased its eco­nomic and se­cu­rity in­volve­ment in ar­eas of sub­stan­tial strate­gic in­ter­est to the United States and Europe, most no­tably Syria and North Korea.

Those ef­forts have sub­stan­tially boosted Rus­sian in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East and the Asia-Pa­cific, and it has followed by deep­en­ing its ties in other strate­gic the­atres such as Afghanistan, Venezuela and Libya. Ini­tially, Rus­sia ap­peared to be con­duct­ing the in­ter­ven­tions in ar­eas out­side its tra­di­tional in­ter­ests in the Euro­pean and Eurasian the­atres as a strat­egy to in­crease its lever­age in ne­go­ti­a­tions with the United States over is­sues closer to home. But Rus­sia's re­la­tion­ships in those re­gions have evolved be­yond a ne­go­ti­a­tion strat­egy. In­deed, Moscow has de­vel­oped sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and se­cu­rity in­ter­ests in many of those ar­eas.

Man­ag­ing its re­la­tion­ship with the West is no longer the defin­ing fea­ture of Rus­sia's for­eign pol­icy ef­forts. In­stead, Moscow has cre­ated a much more com­plex and in­ter­twined se­ries of re­la­tion­ships span­ning the globe. While its con­fronta­tion with Europe and the United States is ex­pected to con­tinue and per­haps even in­ten­sify in 2018, that com­pe­ti­tion will be only one facet among many emerg­ing in­ter­ests and pri­or­i­ties for Rus­sia.

One im­por­tant emerg­ing trend re­lated to the Rus­sia-West stand­off is Moscow's ris­ing in­flu­ence in re­gions other than Europe and Eura­sia.

From left: Rus­sia's Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump speak dur­ing their meet­ing on the side­lines of the G20 Sum­mit in Ham­burg, Ger­many, on July 7, 2017

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