By Arab News
The imprisonment of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny on his return from having been treated for Novichok poisoning in Berlin brought the fissures between Russia and the West to the fore — as did the police’s subsequent heavy-handed response to pro-Navalny demonstrators. The EU and Germany were quick to condemn the actions and the US followed suit.
Both the US and the EU maintain the sanctions they imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and incursion into Ukrainian territory in 2014. That conflict prompted the then-G8 group of countries to kick Russia out, ending Moscow’s 14-year membership of the exclusive club.
The EU sees itself not just as a union of nations, but also as a union of values, standing up for democracy and human rights. This has also traditionally been the US’ position. Former American President Donald Trump was different, however, as he clearly admired Russian President Vladimir Putin and his hold on power. Trump focused less on maintaining multilateral agreements and more on curbing China’s seemingly ever-growing economic and political influence.
New US President Joe Biden is different: He has taken a dim view of Russia’s attempts to meddle in US elections and its cyberattacks. The US and EU once again speak the same language vis-a-vis Russia on Navalny. So far so good but, when it comes to geopolitics, things are never that easy. Despite their grievances, Russia is important to Western nations on many levels and issues.
The Biden administration agreed to extend the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which limits America and Russia to a maximum of 1,550 nuclear warheads, in the nick of time, as it was due to expire on Feb. 5. This was important because, the smaller the global nuclear arsenal is, the safer the world is.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even said that Moscow might consider returning to the Open Skies Treaty, which allows signatory countries to monitor and verify each other’s military forces and weaponry from the air (Trump unilaterally withdrew from the treaty in 2019).
While keeping up sanctions and maybe even tightening them is on the cards for Washington, US foreign policy still needs to deal with Russian influence in the Middle East (Syria, Libya, Iran, Turkey, etc.), where it has steadily been growing, as well as in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and elsewhere.
The strong rhetoric of the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell during a visit to Moscow last week enraged Lavrov, leading him to warn that Russia was ready to break off its ties with the EU if the bloc contemplated further sanctions. A few days later, while talking to Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, Lavrov sounded more emollient, explaining the EU as a bloc was not the same as individual countries, with which he was happy to maintain cordial relations.
Just like the US, the EU also needs to deal with its near neighbor Russia on various levels. There are the obviously contentious points of election meddling and cyberattacks. There are also commercial interests, like the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is divisive in Europe and faces opposition from several EU member countries — particularly those in Central Europe, which fear for their geopolitical influence as the two Nord Stream projects circumvent them. The Baltic states also fear that the projects will run afoul of their security strategies.
Nord Stream has former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on its board and has reasonably strong support on the right and the left of the political spectrum in Germany, but not from the Greens. Its supporters argue that energy security is a matter of national security, which supersedes the opinions of even strong allies. Given that the 1,222 km-long pipeline is only 150 km from completion, we can reasonably expect a compromise among the Western allies.
The EU is also keen to revive the nuclear deal between the P5+1 nations and Iran, its hitherto most successful foreign policy objective. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia is a very important piece in that jigsaw. Its strength in Syria and Libya also matters when it comes to dealing with the constant stream of refugees into Europe.
Russia has played its geopolitical cards well over the last few years, gaining influence in the Middle East and also working with the OPEC member states, forming the OPEC+ alliance, which was pivotal in restoring normality in the oil markets after the historic demand destruction last April, when the coronavirus outbreak went global.
Russia is also on a charm offensive with the help of its highly effective Sputnik V vaccine, which it uses as a foreign policy tool aimed at creating goodwill. While the EU is still bickering over the distribution of vaccines, its near neighbors in the Balkans have been wooed by Russia and China with their respective vaccines. On the global scale, Moscow and Beijing seem to be the great hope for the middle-income countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia to receive vaccines, as the rich nations have grabbed every vial they can get their hands on of the Pfizers and Modernas of this world.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has warned that antagonizing Russia too much would push it into greater alliance with China. Developments in the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as “vaccine diplomacy,” seem to prove his point. One should not forget that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), whose aim is to promote cooperation in the spheres of the economy, defense, research, technology and culture, counts Russia and China among its founding members. Iran, Belarus and Afghanistan are observer states, while Pakistan and India are full members. The SCO has real geopolitical clout in Eurasia, which will only grow in the future.
In other words, while being tough on Russia when it comes to its meddling in other countries’ affairs and especially how Moscow treats its opposition may be justified, ostracizing the world’s largest nation by landmass may backfire.
- Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources