Russia’s recent behaviour in Ukraine has without doubt plunged relations between Moscow and the West to a new low, and the US and Europe are finding it difficult to come up with a coherent strategy to deal with this difficult situation.
The EU has so far managed to speak with one voice on how to tackle Russia’s conduct in this conflict, but adopting the correct approach is always difficult when it is based on a compromise between the different views of the member states.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had signalled his anger at the West as far back as 2007 when he harshly criticised US foreign policy at the annual Munich Security Conference – where he accused Washington of seeking world domination and ignoring international law – but many observers viewed this as a reaction to America’s invasion of Iraq by the administration of George Bush and the subsequent mayhem that followed.
However, by the time Barack Obama took office in January 2009, relations between the US and Russia had cooled considerably, principally over Russia’s role in the war in Georgia, perceived US support for Georgia and Ukraine joining Nato, and the planned US missile shield based in central Europe. In fact, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had given Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a mock ‘reset’ button when they first met in March 2009, symbolising US hopes to mend ties with Moscow.
To some extent, the ‘reset’ button succeeded and the two sides signed the New Start Treaty which reduces the number of nuclear weapons and launchers that the US and Russia deploy (that entered into force in February 2011); they cooperated on sanctions against Iran’s nuclear programme and agreed to a supply route through Russia for Nato forces in Afghanistan. Significantly, Russia also abstained on the UN Security Council vote on Libya, which paved the way for airstrikes against the Gaddafi regime.
I believe Obama genuinely regarded relations with Russia as an important priority for his administration and looked at Russia as an important potential ally on a whole range on issues, namely Iran, the fight against terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, the global economy and climate change, to name a few. His position was no different to that of the EU, which had long considered Moscow as a strategic partner.
The improvement in relations, however, soon lost its momentum. Moscow’s inflexibility over its support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria as well as its behaviour in Ukraine – which presented Europe with probably its greatest security threat since the Cold War – led to a deterioration in ties.
The conflict in Syria is now far more complicated than it was when it first started as the Islamic State controls vast areas of territory – and some sort of engagement with Assad is now necessary – but Russia could have used its influence with the regime in a positive manner. It could, for example, have urged Assad to be more flexible in dealing with the moderate Opposition and in allowing humanitarian supplies to reach the millions of civilians caught up in this war. The only positive action taken by Russia was reaching a Syria chemical weapons disarmament deal with the US in September 2013.
As always, a delicate and careful balancing act is needed
However, it has been Russia’s actions in Ukraine (which started with the annexation of Crimea) which has really strained relations with Europe and the US. Since this crisis began, the Baltic States, which have sizeable Russian minorities, have felt threatened by Moscow; RAF planes have been scrambled about once a month to escort Russian warplanes away from UK airspace, and Moscow has started supporting political parties on the extreme right and left in Europe.
According to a report by a group of members of the UK’s House of Lords, the EU and its national governments made “important analytical mistakes” and “missed the warning signs” in the run-up to the crisis in Ukraine.
The report stated that the EU lacked proper intelligence-gathering, had misread Russia’s intentions and lacked Russia experts in foreign ministries.
“A loss of collective analytical capacity has weakened member states’ ability to read the political shifts in Russia and to offer an authoritative response,” the report said.
It said the EU underestimated the depth of Russian hostility towards Ukraine signing an Association Agreement with the bloc and criticised a “decline” in national governments’ ability to oversee the evolution of the EU-Russia relationship, which was “based on the optimistic premise that Russia has been on a trajectory towards becoming a democratic ‘European’ country”.
Europe and the US, for example, seem not to be sure about whether Ukraine should be supplied with weapons. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not in favour and believes that East-West conflicts cannot be resolved militarily. President Obama is so far against supplying arms to Kiev, believing no amount of weapons would deter the Russian army. Countries like Lithuania and Estonia, fearful of possible Russian threats to their sovereignty, are said to be in favour of arming Kiev.
Some observers believe that even though Ukraine cannot defeat Russia militarily, should Kiev at least be able to withstand the Russian offensive, leading to a stalemate, there will be more of a realistic chance of a negotiated settlement.
The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, which Moscow signed together with Ukraine, Germany and France in Minsk earlier this month, has been massively violated, but last week there was a slight glimmer of hope as Ukraine’s army began the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line and the pro-Russian rebels said they had started withdrawing their weapons.
Russia now has an opportunity to ensure that the ceasefire is adhered to. Should Moscow not respect the truce, the EU and US should strengthen their sanctions against Moscow – which have already damaged the Russian economy considerably – and the EU bloc should unanimously vote to extend these measures when they are up for renewal in July.
Supplying some types of arms to Kiev should be considered. It is of utmost importance, however, that the whole of the EU speaks with one voice and that Brussels and Washington are on the same wavelength when it comes to tackling Russia.
As always, a delicate and careful balancing act is needed. If Nato and the EU appear weak, Putin will take advantage and see just how much he can get away with. If on the other hand, the West overreacts, this could lead to a dangerous backlash from Moscow.
The message passed on to Moscow should be clear, namely that while it does have legitimate security concerns in Ukraine, it will not be allowed to unilaterally redraw borders and threaten Europe’s security. This is a conflict that can easily be solved through diplomacy and a political settlement, and this should be everyone’s goal.
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