Tony Brenton is former British ambassador to Russia.
An air of fatalism has overtaken relations with Russia. Western sanctions and the intransigent Russian response have produced a downward spiral. Experts on both sides now anticipate a long cold spell. The need to reverse the slide towards a new Cold War has never been more urgent.
The Pentagon has proposed a quadrupling of U.S. military expenditure in Europe to combat the “number one global threat” facing the U.S. Russia too is rearming, posturing militarily, and reminding the West that it will not balk at using nuclear weapons. The conflict in Ukraine grumbles on, with little sign that the Minsk Agreement will be fully implemented, while the West maintains a sanctions regime that not only has not changed Russian policy but has solidified Russian popular opinion behind their president. And in Syria, despite Russia’s latest withdrawal announcement, both sides remain dangerously close to a proxy war, with Russia backing the Assad regime and the West backing the so-called moderate opposition.
Where is this leading? Many are now talking of a new Cold War — recalling 40 years of deep political hostility, an arms race based as much on overhyped military fears (recall the “missile gap”) as on any objective reality, and the odd unnerving trip to the nuclear brink.
There are differences. The old communist/capitalist ideological split is no more. And the opposing sides are a great deal more unequal than they were last time. It is hard to imagine Europe breaking down into two mutually antagonistic blocs. But we could too easily travel a long way along that road — remilitarizing Europe, deepening mutual hostility, and enhancing the scope for a horrible accident.
It is going to require intelligent statesmanship to walk us back from here. And that is going to have to come from the West.
The West is overwhelmingly the most powerful of the two sides and — as President Obama acknowledged recently in the Atlantic magazine —the Russians know it. NATO has six times Russia’s population, 10 times its defense expenditure, about 20 times its GDP, and has advanced its front line 500 miles closer to Moscow since 1989.
Russia is on the defensive. Their nuclear and overflight posturing amounts to the bristling of a threatened animal. The West, with its concern about the possible destabilization of Estonia, can afford to take risks. Russia, which sees itself as encircled, subverted, and its deterrent capabilities undermined by U.S. anti-ballistic missile plan, cannot.
What can the West do? First and foremost we should urgently reinstate the Russia/NATO Council that was absurdly closed down as part of Western sanctions. We need to task it with finding confidence building measures — on timing and transparency of exercises for example — to counter the military escalation.
Then we need to get real about Syria. We know that the moderate opposition we so loudly support are in fact fractious, unreliable and “intermingled” (according to the Pentagon) with Al Qaeda. They are so unreliable that we won’t even supply them with certain kinds of weaponry because we fear it would fall into the hands of ISIL. Our public position can only be explained by an aversion to siding with the Russians in accepting that Assad has to stay in the short term while we agree on a more sustainable solution.
We should make that shift — as the U.S. is gradually beginning to do — both because it is right for Syria and because it builds up our cooperation with Russia in a policy area where our long term objectives (combatting Islamism) are actually very close.
The other issue on which the West should douse tension is, of course, Ukraine. Firstly the West has to make it clear there is simply no prospect of Ukraine — or Georgia — joining NATO in the foreseeable future.
Secondly, we should tackle the problems of the Minsk Agreement in a more honest way. Both sides have failed to deliver on the ground, where neither has complete control over “their” forces. But the core threat to Minsk lies in the Ukrainian government’s inability, or unwillingness, to deliver on its promise of negotiated autonomy for the Donbass — the condition for closure of the Russian border to movements of arms and men.
[This approach] would also help the West back away from a sanctions regime that everyone knows is not working.
The West should acknowledge that this is where the real problem lies, and press the Ukrainians to overcome it. If they won’t, then, consistent with the West’s position that lifting sanctions depends upon observance of Minsk, some of the Russian sanctions should be lifted on the grounds that Russia is not the main obstacle.
This approach has the additional virtue of increasing pressure on Kiev to deliver. It would also help the West back away from a sanctions regime that everyone knows is not working.
These would only be small first steps, but they may help to turn around what has begun to look like an irreversible dynamic. It will not be easy. Western politicians have invested a lot in being seen to stand up to the allegedly rampant Russian bear. But this is a bear thoroughly, if noisily, on the defensive. The sensible Western approach is to regenerate trust and cooperation. The depressing, costly and dangerous alternative is to maintain what looks like an unthinking slide into long-term confrontation.