Russia needs good ties with the West more than short-term gains in Ukraine and Syria.
By Thomas Graham*
Russia is on the march in Syria and Ukraine, defying predictions that it is walking into a quagmire in Syria while economic turmoil at home – exacerbated by Western sanctions – threatens President Putin’s rule. Meanwhile, a divided West objects, but has yet to come up with a coherent response. Perhaps Russian literary classic author Nikolay Gogol was right in likening Russia to a troika roaring along as “other peoples and states look askance and step aside to give her the right of way.” But the galloping troika might soon find that it’s heading in the wrong direction.
From the beginning of its military operation in Syria, Moscow has operated on the now indisputable proposition that the rampant unrest in the Middle East and the mounting challenges to the unity of the European Union are inextricably linked. The wager was that Europe would eventually seize an offer of cooperation in Syria to constrict the migrant flow and contain the terrorist threat and that such cooperation would sap Europe’s aversion to Russian behavior in Ukraine, leading to a decision to ease sanctions, if not lift them entirely. Moscow remains convinced it made a good bet.
In Syria, Russia has secured its military bases on the Mediterranean. Despite initial setbacks, it has rallied the beleaguered forces of its ally, President Bashar al-Assad. In recent weeks, they have consolidated their position in the west of the country, and with Russian air support and Iranian and Hezbollah troops, they are rapidly encircling US-backed anti-Assad rebels in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub before the onset of the current conflict. Russia stands at the center of negotiations on a political transition, which provide cover for its actions on the ground while the negotiations falter in large part because of America’s inability to keep united rebel forces and coalition partners at the table. No one doubts any longer that Putin has seized a seat at the table in any future geopolitical reckoning in the Middle East. Cooperation must be looming ahead.
In Ukraine, Moscow has launched a vigorous campaign to persuade the West that Kiev bears primary responsibility for the stalled implementation of the Minsk agreements on the resolution of the separatist conflict. The mounting political turmoil in Kiev – frayed relations between the president and prime minister, resignations of Western-leaning senior government officials, and endemic high-level corruption – has only lent credence to Moscow’s claim that Kiev lacks the wherewithal to fulfill its commitment to enshrine in the constitution a special status for the Russian-backed separatist Donbas region. As Western frustration with Kiev grows, Moscow is entrenching its clients in the Donbas. Moreover, the Russians have largely succeeded in removing the annexation of Crimea as an urgent point of contention with the West; in most discussions, it’s little more than an afterthought. How far off can sanctions relief be?
These tactical successes do not yet spell strategic victory, however. Indeed, Putin has inserted Russia in a burgeoning maelstrom in the Middle East with no evident exit strategy, and relations with the West remain on the rocks, as the debate at the just concluded Munich Security Conference illustrated. No one pushed back against Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s warning of an approaching new Cold War.
For Moscow, the Middle East presents an alarming array of potential threats and strategic puzzles. Turkey, a NATO member, poses the most urgent challenge. Amicable relations collapsed last fall after the Turks shot down a Russian fighter they insist violated their airspace, an accusation Moscow vehemently rejects. Now Turkey is threatening military action inside Syria – beyond the cross-border shelling it already conducts – to blunt the advance along its borders of Kurdish forces, which it considers to be affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, an indigenous anti-Turkish terrorist group. It is an open question whether Turkish forces once inside Syria would also turn directly against Assad, whose overthrow Turkish President Erdoğan is actively seeking. In any event, major Russian and Turkish military operations in close proximity would raise the risk of unintended incidents spiraling out of control, as both Erdoğan and Putin would be loath to tarnish their strongman personae by backing down. More worrisome, a Russo-Turkish conflict would inevitably engage in some way NATO, which has been gearing up for renewed conflict with Russia since the onset of the Ukraine crisis.
The strategic puzzles are no less daunting. Tactical successes in Syria barely begin to address the broader challenges in the Middle East precipitated by the collapse of the post-Ottoman state system under the weight of internal rebellion in key states and aggressive actions by Iran, now emboldened by the recent nuclear accord. Moscow’s and Tehran’s interests might align for the moment in support of Assad, but there is inherent tension between two energy-rich countries that will compete for the same European markets and between a regional power with hegemonic designs and an extra-regional power more interested in creating a durable equilibrium among the regional powers. Tellingly, Moscow has already reached out to receptive audiences in Saudi Arabia, Israel and other countries wary of Iran, as its reputation for power and defense of its allies in the region grows and hopes for a strong, forward-looking American policy wane. In the chaos, opportunities abound, but to seize them Moscow will have to exercise deft diplomacy backed up by credible force over an extended period. Its fortune depends to a great extent on its ability to restore robust economic growth, dented by collapsing oil prices, to generate and sustain the required power, military and otherwise.
The economic requirements for strategic advance lead back to the question of relations with the West. For the hard truth is that Russia cannot rebuild its economy without Western investment, technology and know-how. Putin’s much-hyped pivot to China is not a substitute, for China itself needs the West’s technology and know-how. Moreover, China is, not surprisingly, more interested in pressing its commercial interests than helping Russia at a time of need. That is a key reason Russia is seeking sanctions relief.
But sanctions relief, even if accompanied by a steady rise in oil prices, will not produce the long-term growth Russia needs. The economy has been on an accelerating downward trajectory since a brief uptick after the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, well before the imposition of sanctions and when oil prices were hovering around $100 a barrel. As Russia’s leading economists argue, what Russia needs is a new growth model, one that is not hostage to global commodity prices and is capable of making Russia competitive across a broad range of sectors, especially in high technology. For that model to work, Russia needs the West.
So far, however, Russian actions have worked against the normalization of relations. The vigorous support of Assad, coupled with indiscriminate bombing of civilians and Western-backed rebels and infrequent strikes against ISIS, has only multiplied the West’s doubts about Russia. It has alienated even the French, who worked hard last fall after the Paris attacks to bring the United States and Russia together in a grand anti-terror coalition. For the moment, the West may be stepping aside to give Russia the right of way, but Russia itself is roaring along in a manner that has eroded the chances of rebuilding the relations it needs for long-term success.
*Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, was senior advisor for Russia on the National Security Council staff, 2004-2007.