Following Russian military intervention in Ukraine in October 2014, there was a popular public opinion that Russia is outmaneuvering the West. Many international media outlets presented it as a strategic surprise for the Western policymakers. However, at a second look military intervention in Ukraine was not really in Russia’s interests. As a result, Moscow lost partners not only in Kiev, but also in Washington and in Brussels, who accounted for the biggest share in Russia’s foreign trade. It did not take long for Russian citizens to feel the negative impact of the terminated international contracts, as the Russian economy started to cripple down. So, what necessitates such stand-off between Russia and the West? It is not ideology.
According to official statistical data from the Russian Federation, overall foreign trade turnover of the country in January 2015 was 34% less than in January of 2014. Prior to sanctions annual trade volume between Russia and European countries was close to $500 billion, which made EU the biggest trading partner of Russia. Consequently, the first round of sanctions, by the European Union and United States, cost Russia $75 billion before July 2014.
Later, Australia, Canada, Japan, and Norway also joined the sanctions and with oil prices falling to a 7 year low, by December 2014, the Russian ruble dropped in value against USD by 40%. According to International Monetary Fund estimates Russian GDP will shrink by 3.8% this year and by another 0.6% in 2016.
Either the Russian President did not foresee the reaction he received from the West or he has a different decision making calculus. If it was the first option, Putin had several opportunities to ease the tensions with Europe after the first round of sanctions. In reality sanctions against Russia come at a very high cost to Europe as well. According to the estimates by the Austrian Institute for Economic Research the sanctions may cost the EU close to $100 billion and around 2.5 million workplaces. So, there is quite a strong political force in Europe that would support lifting or at least easing the sanctions, if Russia offered some compromise.
The EU has made it clear that the “sanctions are not punitive, but designed to bring about a change in policy or activity by the target country, entities or individuals… At the same time, the EU makes every effort to minimize adverse consequences for the civilian population or for legitimate activities”. However, Putin’s Russia continued the aggression against Ukraine by supporting separatist movements in Donetsk and Lugansk. So, European countries imposed a third round of sanctions against Russia, when the Russian backed rebels hit a passenger airliner MH17.
It is also hard to say that the current confrontation between Russia and the West is fundamentally ideological, since Russia and Europe, as well as the United States, can develop in harmony and profit from mutually beneficial partnerships. Unlike the Cold War-era Soviet Union, which wanted to bring communism to every country in the world, or the vicious Islamic State of Syria and Levant that wants to establish a worldwide theocracy, contemporary Russia does not offer an alternate ideology. Officially or on paper, Russia has the same kind of democracy with a similar open economy, as its Western counterparts.
During the Trident Juncture 2015 that was NATO’s biggest military exercise in over a decade, Deputy Secretary-General of NATO Alexander Vershbow mentioned that “Europe whole, free and at peace won’t be complete until Russia is part of it.” Geographically Russia extends from Europe to Far East Asia, but culturally it is much closer to Europe. Reflecting on the outcomes of the EU-Russia summit that took place in January 2014, a month before the Euromaidan revolution, president of Carnegie Europe, Jan Techau, said that “We know that Russia is part of the European family very clearly but we also feel often that Russia is a strange partner, a partner we don’t understand, a partner that we clash with. And then we have Russia, of course, as a country with whom we have technical issues.”
Russia could have chosen Euro-Atlantic integration as a strategic policy course and resolve all the operational level issues within the Euro-Atlantic family, as Poland and the Baltic States do. If President Putin is against certain actions of the United States, as it claimed during the Munich conference in 2007, Moscow could have become a counterweight at the NATO roundtables.
On February 2007 in Munich, Vladimir Putin made his famous speech where he accused the United States of establishing or attempting to establish a unipolar world. Putin remarked that “Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems. Moreover, they have caused new human tragedies and created new centers of tension”. It is an ironic statement considering the Russian intervention in Ukraine, which also violated the “Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances” Moscow signed in 1994 that clearly stated:
“The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations;”
By censoring all popular media outlets in Russia, Vladimir Putin has created a myth that Russia is under an existential threat, and Kremlin’s policies originate from a necessity. The truth is the current stand-off between Russia and the West is harmful for both sides, while cooperation and partnership would be mutually beneficial. The only party that profits from this hostile relationship is the Russian President, whose popularity rating soared to 82% following the occupation of Crimea and stands at around 80% today, despite the economic hardships in Russia.
In order to keep his myth alive the Russian President has opened a new front in Syria, where he is supporting another authoritarian leader. So far Russian Syria campaign has created more problems than it has resolved. However, Putin continues to build up his domestic legitimacy, by bashing the Western policies in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. On a more positive note, in the near future Putin will not be on the political map, but the relationship between Russia and the Western countries will continue. Hopefully, the legacy of the Putin administration will not be as detrimental.