Moscow resets expectations as disorder reigns in Washington

Kathrin Hille
Vladimir Putin orders to Russian army to finish drills in west and center military region in Leningrad, Russia on March 3, 2014.
Kremlin Press Information Centre | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Ten years ago Vladimir Putin angrily declared that the post-cold war order was a sham. Standing before the western military and diplomatic establishment at the Munich Security Conference, the Russian president accused the US of plunging the world into chaos by warmongering, meddling in other countries' affairs and disregarding international law. For many, it marked the moment that Mr Putin became an adversary.

Now, as foreign policy and security officials gather again in the Bavarian city, the western order that Mr Putin railed against suddenly looks fragile. The agenda-setting security report for this year's Munich Security Conference asks whether the west is collapsing after public discontent triggered the UK's exit from the EU and brought Donald Trump to power in the US.

And the sidelined, victimised Russia that Mr Putin described in 2007 is gone, replaced by a country that has forced its way back on to the world stage with the invasion of Crimea, decisive intervention in Syria and western countries' accusations of disrupting their elections.

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At his confirmation hearing last month, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief executive, said Nato allies were right to be alarmed at a "resurgent Russia" — a phrase that has been echoing through western capitals.

Mr Putin has "staked out a position that thrives on asserting Russian interests in the world at the expense of the US," says Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia programme at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. Moscow has "positioned itself as the challenger to the global liberal international order that the US has upheld and promoted the world over since the end of the second world war", he adds.

Cautious Kremlin

But even amid this talk of Russian resurgence, the mood in Moscow is cautious — particularly about the disorder in Washington. In the US there may be a perception that Russia is revelling in Mr Trump's election, but the rollercoaster ride of contradictory policy pronouncements and the failure to quickly establish top-level communication with the US president are upsetting previously high Russian expectations.

Russian officials had been cautiously optimistic that the US under Mr Trump could rebuild relations with Moscow but they have turned guarded and in some cases suspicious and frustrated, mirroring sentiment in European capitals.

"If we wanted, we could have taken advantage of the fact that they are not ready yet over there," says one senior official in the Russian administration. "We could probably have gotten some kind of agreement to have Trump and Putin meet quickly, and they might have hit it off. But what then?"

Even arranging talks between Mr Tillerson and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bonn proved difficult, though a meeting took place on Thursday.

"It looks like the massive western media campaign against Russia has made contact with us so toxic that Mr Trump, a leader who was determined to make a new start with Russia, is now shying away," the Kremlin official says.

Even beyond these difficulties, Russian observers say the west vastly overestimates Russia's power and misinterprets its motives.

"It is not the goal of Putin's foreign policy to become a new superpower or even to establish himself as the biggest dude on the block," says Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the government-backed Russian International Affairs Council. "The Kremlin sees its actions much more as defensive and responsive against moves encroaching on Russia's interests."

However, some Russian ideologues are triumphant, believing that an irreversible decline of the west is lifting their country's status and global weight.

"The golden age of the liberal international order is over," says Natalia Narochnitskaya, a conservative nationalist former lawmaker and diplomat. She claims that many European citizens are disillusioned about the EU's ability to serve the continent. "Putin, for them, is the only leader who dares raise the banner and openly, without excuses, declare that he will defend traditional values," she says.

A postmodernist Europe would fail to survive the challenge by other civilisations, Ms Narochnitskaya says: "Only together can Russia and Europe become one side of the global power triangle — Eurasia, the US and China."

Tackling Nato

It was a long way to this self-assured attitude from Mr Putin's 2007 criticism. Moscow started taking things into its own hands in Russia's "near abroad" — the former Soviet republics that it sees as its rightful sphere of influence. Eighteen months after his Munich speech, Russia waged a week-long war with Georgia ostensibly to protect a pro-Russian minority in a breakaway region. It came only months after Nato's Bucharest summit had issued a declaration that Georgia and Ukraine would become members.

Despite the shock over the conflict, the west tried to seek a new start in ties with Russia. The Georgia war had only been the first shot, however: in 2014, Moscow annexed Crimea while stoking separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine after what it saw as US-backed street protests toppled Viktor Yanukovich, Kiev's Russian-leaning president.

The Ukraine conflict led to a full breakdown of Moscow's relations with the west. But Mr Putin did not stop there. As the US and the EU tried to punish him with sanctions and isolation, he intervened in Syria, helping President Bashar al-Assad regain ground in the civil war and derailing US-led attempts to broker a political transition.

If the US intelligence community is to be believed, Moscow is preparing to reap the top prize. According to the assessment of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Moscow meddled in the US election with an "influence campaign" of hacking and propaganda. Less than a month after Mr Trump's inauguration, the resignation of Michael Flynn over the national security adviser's lies about discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador before taking office has further stoked fears in Washington of a Russian puppet master behind the US government.

Such concerns are fuelled by talk in Moscow of a "grand bargain" that Mr Putin could strike with Mr Trump. At a round table organised by state news agency Rossiya Segodnya late last month, political analysts said they believed Moscow and Washington could make a deal by respecting each other's spheres of influence. Some Russian strategists suggest that resolution of the Ukraine crisis and co-operation in the fight against global terror could become bargaining chips in such a deal.

A senior Russian foreign policy official says the Trump administration's attitude towards who carried the blame for the non-fulfilment of the 2015 Minsk agreement on Ukraine could help isolate German chancellor Angela Merkel in her hawkish stance against Russia. Alexei Chesnakov, a former Kremlin official who heads the Centre for Current Politics, a Moscow think-tank, says he expected the French election this spring to contribute to this shift because the rightwing candidates are more sympathetic to Russia.

Russia has its own post-imperial trauma, like many countries in Europe. A key priority for the Kremlin is therefore to bring Russia back as an important player.
Andrei Kortunov
director-general of Russian International Affairs Council

He floats the idea that Ukraine was starting to resemble a "failed state" and could therefore be seen as a source of terrorism — a characterisation not shared by western capitals. "In that sense, it becomes part of the agenda for jointly countering international terrorism for the US and Russia," he said.

Mr Kortunov believes that under a different leader Russia's search for a new place in the post-Soviet world could have turned out more benign and the Ukraine conflict might have been avoided. But he says Moscow would still have run into disagreements over the enlargement of the EU and Nato.

Mr Putin has compared Moscow's foreign policy and security moves to a Siberian bear that has no desire to leave its habitat. However, that habitat, or the area where Russia sees its national interests, appears to range vastly beyond the country's borders.

In step with the intervention in Syria, Moscow has revived ties with almost every country in the region. Exploiting the US's waning presence, Russian diplomats presented themselves as a dialogue partner for countries with contradictory interests, thus building a network including Nato member Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

As a result, no state will be able to bypass Moscow when resolving regional conflicts. Already, France and Italy are turning to Russia to help integrate Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan military strongman whom Moscow has cultivated, into a UN-backed political arrangement.

Asian pivot

Some of these moves are rooted in Russia's deep misgivings about western-sponsored regime change in countries such as Libya and Iraq. "They are now getting involved themselves in order to keep the west from making more mistakes," a European diplomat in Moscow says half-jokingly. "We like it, because we need them."

Simultaneously, Moscow has jumped in to build ties with leading countries in Asia, the fastest-growing region: apart from its closer relationship with China, Russia is building friendly relations with Vietnam and India, in competition with the US, and wooing populist Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte. And Mr Putin is using the desire of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to settle the two countries' territorial dispute to pull this most important US ally in Asia into his orbit.

These moves could put Russia in a key position in mediating conflict in areas such as the disputed South China Sea, or tension between China and Japan.

"Russia has its own post-imperial trauma, like many countries in Europe," says Mr Kortunov. "A key priority for the Kremlin is therefore to bring Russia back as an important player."

This return has paid dividends for Mr Putin domestically. Although polls show that many Russians think he is doing a poor job on the economy and are concerned over the direction of the country, a vast majority strongly back his assertive foreign policy.

And yet Russia faces constraints in its push for a return to the global stage. "Although we have seen several straight years of big increases in military expenditure, this has mostly gone into rebuilding capacities that had fallen into disrepair after the collapse of the Soviet Union," says Ivan Timofeev, an assistant professor at MGIMO, the Moscow university where the foreign ministry trains diplomats. "In the long term, a superpower-style foreign policy is therefore absolutely unsustainable for Russia."

For all the talk of a resurgent country, Russian experts are mindful that without strengthening its sluggish economy, Moscow's push will be severely limited in the longer term. "There are examples in history of economically challenged nations making a big expansionist push and you could imagine that for Russia as well," says Mr Timofeev. "But the economic and social fundamentals for a long-running, sustainable rise of the nation are not in place. We are not like China or India, for whom bigger global influence comes naturally with their growing economic clout."

Even as Russia's economy emerges from a two-year-long recession, the government, the central bank and independent economists all say growth will remain anaemic.

Mr Putin has proved a cunning tactician in exploiting opportunities around the world at limited cost to Moscow. Both western diplomats and Russian officials say there is no way Russia could do without the US or other western countries in its engagement abroad.

"They are seeking out opportunities . . . to insert themselves as a power to be reckoned with," says Mr Rumer. "Yet it's their insistence on being at the table and having a vote and a veto that makes it very difficult to move forward."

With that approach, even Russian strategists doubt how much Moscow's urge to play a role in so many locations will benefit the country in the long term. "If the assumption that the liberal international order will collapse is correct, there may be more opportunities for Russia in the ensuing chaos," says Mr Timofeev. But he argues that is not the most likely scenario, as even challengers of the old order like China are copying its structures and institutions.

"If we end up with a reformed rather than a collapsing international order with a focus on development rather than security — then Russia will be marginalised."