The recent nerve gas attack in Salisbury was but another event in Russia’s continued efforts in strategic signaling. By now, the West surely got the message – and cannot give an appeasing reply, no matter how loudly Moscow may shout or misbehave.
Up to the annexation of Crimea just over four years ago, the West lacked a shared understanding about Russia’s goals and methods. Today there is a much clearer, albiet gloomier common assessment, although Russia still has friends in Europe that are ready to give it the benefit of the doubt even in the face of appalling actions such as the use of chemical weapons on the soil of a European country.
Against the backdrop of the latest heightening of tensions, it is useful to recall the broader context of Western-Russian relations. Since coming to power in 2000, Vladimir Putin has aimed at restoring Russia’s great power status. In this pursuit, he has expected the US, NATO and the EU to treat Russia as an equal partner. In line with the Russian understanding of what it means to be a great power, Putin has expected the West to accept Russia’s right to a privileged role in the near abroad. In this understanding of international relations, great powers are more sovereign than smaller ones, and the right of each state to decide on its security relations, as inscribed in the OSCE principles, is subordinate in practice to the security interests of great powers.
In the early 2000s, Putin attempted to reach these goals through building partnerships with major Western countries. As described in Mikhail Zygar’s book ‘All the Kremlin’s Men’, these attempts resulted in little but disappointment. Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference of 2007 served as the first strong expression of Russian discontent, which was met with bewilderment among Western powers. The Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 was a louder warning shot.
At the same time, the Kremlin was still trying to pursue partnership with the West. President Dmitri Medvedev’s proposal for a new European security order, also made in 2008, appeared to be a veiled attempt to achieve a friendly acknowledgment of Russia’s special status and sphere of influence. There was still much uncertainty in the West about Russia’s intentions and the possibility of a strategic partnership.
In recent years the hopes for a strategic partnership have all but vanished. The West has finally got the message. Its reply has been fragile, yet the core position has been made clear: it cannot accept Russia’s vision of European security order and its great power privileges.
The Russian leadership has quite rightly concluded that a partnership on Moscow’s terms will not materialize – and started a heavy push for breaking Western unity. The latest security strategy of the Russian Federation, adopted in 2015, outlines an asymmetric approach that utilizes technological, economic and informational instruments, among others, to weaken the adversary.
The instruments have become increasingly wicked, as the use of a chemical nerve agent shows. International norms are subordinate to Russia’s great power ambitions and do not constrain its actions. What does impose a constraint is military superiority of the West – Russia avoids a war against NATO.
Russia has tried to break the Western consensus by means such as election meddling and support to extremist political groups. The Brexit process turned the UK into a weak link, which was further tested by Russia through the Skripal case. However, the collective response of Europe and the US has been surprisingly strong and united. Imparting on Russia a message, that such It has signaled to Russia that such actions have consequences and will be harmful to itself.
Both sides may still wish to improve relations, yet both Russia and the West are ready to do so only on their own conditions. The conflict is likely to continue for years, as the disagreements are profound. The West is unable to change Russia’s perception of the latter’s strategic interests – and vice versa. Some experts, most recently Dmitri Trenin in a paper published by Carnegie in February, have suggested that a compromise could be reached should NATO promise not to enlarge further. The suggestion hits at the core of the European security order, as it would deny the non-NATO members the right to decide on their own security arrangements. Such a step would weaken European security, except perhaps from the viewpoint of Russia.
Considering such gloomy prospects, the Western countries need to strengthen their resilience, so as to be able to cope with Russia’s malicious actions which may take new surprising forms in future. At the same time, it is crucial to sustain a shared understanding that our current security order and societal model are worth defending. Europe has not experienced a better framework especially for smaller states to be secure and develop, and Russia is not offering one.
A Finnish-language version of this article was published on 30 March 2018 by newspaper Kaleva www.kaleva.fi/mielipide/kolumnit/venajan-toiveet-kaantyivat-kiukuksi/789172/