Russian-U.S. relations seem to have entered a long period of confrontation. Already in 2012-2013 the parties were in a stalemate of utter irritation with each other, and today the interests of both countries’ elites are definitely in a conflict. It is essential that the confrontation does not degenerate into a direct military clash.
First, a look at the United States.
Having won a seeming victory in the Cold War and almost implemented the Pax Americana dream embodied this time in a unipolar world, the American ruling elite tried to consolidate its victory and even extend the Pax Americana into more regions, at times using military force. But in Iraq, Afghanistan, and later Libya the U.S. and its allies suffered political defeats. The financial crisis of 2008-2009 dealt a heavy blow – faith collapsed in the liberal model of economic development, which is based on the Washington Consensus and associated with the United States. The division of the American elite revealed the inefficiency of the U.S. political model in the new conditions and undermined American “soft power,” that is, preparedness of other countries to willingly abide by U.S. rules.
In the decade since the early 2000s, the international position of the United States has almost collapsed, especially considering the height to which it had been raised by U.S. self-conceit and the foolishness of others who subscribed to the myth of a unipolar world.
By the end of the 2000s, responsible circles in the U.S. elite came to believe that the United States should end excessive external liabilities and focus on its own recovery. This was the task of Barack Obama. However, that tactic has resulted in a still deeper division in American society and a denial of his policies by conservative and messianic forces, which borders on hatred. And it is quite probable that the Obama administration will be replaced by a truly revanchist team.
While habitually proclaiming a policy aimed at maintaining peace and stability, the U.S. de facto is proceeding to destabilize key regions of the world. International law – or whatever is left of it—has been undermined by several aggressions and mass killings by drones.
This is a significant—if not a radical—change in Washington’s foreign-policy behavior. I am convinced that even a suspicion that the U.S. is pursuing a policy of destabilization will sound insulting to the majority of the U.S. establishment. Yet this policy is there.
The rearguard strategy of leaving behind zones of instability and potential dependence manifested itself most graphically by first provoking a crisis over Ukraine and then aggravating it.
The Russian leadership was under the influence of anti-Americanism inherited from the Cold War era and the experience of U.S. policy of the last twenty-five years, which was regarded as unjust and even treacherous. Perhaps the point of no return was reached after the bombing of Yugoslavia, which shocked even the most pro-Western members of the Russian elite. But Russian President Vladimir Putin tried again after the terrorist attacks on the United States. After that followed a new wave of NATO enlargement and the U.S withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. And the attempt failed.
And Russia had almost no desire to make a new try with Obama. The last remnants of this wish vanished after NATO, in violation of the UN mandate, directly supported the overthrow of the ruling regime in Libya, which plunged the country into the abyss of total disintegration.
The reset policy was a mistake too.
It was based on an artificial agenda that no one needed and which was inherited from the past (strategic arms reduction). At the same time, this policy ignored issues that were important to both parties—destabilization in the Greater Middle East and, most importantly, the destiny of the post-Soviet space.
Now there is almost no chance for a quick exit from the confrontation. Theoretically, there is always the possibility of a sharp turn. Obama has no reason to fear elections, while Putin has strong positions inside Russia. However, the balance of interests and mutual irritation prevent the two parties from finding a compromise. The more probable turn of events is an escalation of the conflict up to a military clash.
Moscow does not seem interested in withdrawing from the confrontation. Having failed to develop and implement a credible and effective development concept and having only paid lip service to “modernization,” the Russian elite—both consciously and unconsciously—began to look for excuses for its inaction and turned to the idea of an external threat, which had always come in handy for the country that had for thousands of years been built around the idea of defense. At first, the “threat” was consistently inflated, but later it did emerge as a real crisis broke out.
For the United States, at stake is its leader’s declining reputation and the risk of yet another humiliating defeat. The stakes are high also because Russia stands as a symbol of a rising and increasingly anti-Western “non-West.” The West is fighting against Russia, but it wants to intimidate China, India, Brazil, etc. Another factor spurring the confrontation is a feeling, partly false and created by propagandists, that Russia is a “colossus with feet of clay” that can be finished off.
So the U.S. threw prudence to the wind. Not only were proprieties cast aside in the information war, but also an openly hostile policy was launched and a double-edged weapon was deployed that undermines the trend towards economic globalization. These instruments include denial of access to Visa and MasterCard payment services, threats to block Russia from the SWIFT banking system, and personal sanctions against members of the Russian political elite. These sanctions are not only detrimental to Russia, but also undermine the basis of the system of U.S. influence. Although everyone uses these services, they have been bringing the most benefits to the U.S.; namely, the modern financial and free trade system and the model of free trade.
The bell is tolling increasingly louder for the WTO.
If Russia holds out, in five to ten years these foundations of American influence will weaken. Alternative payment and financial systems will emerge along with non-U.S. international banks, new financial centers and reserve currencies, settlements in national currencies, and an increasingly likely flight from the U.S. dollar. There will be a growing tendency to create trade and economic groups outside of the WTO.
For Russia, the stakes are even higher. To lose in this confrontation would mean a real and long-lasting defeat. The hopes of the majority of the elites and population for Russia’s revival as a great power and a strong and independent center of the world economy and politics should be dashed. And, perhaps most importantly for today’s Russia, it would undermine the legitimacy of and support for the ruling regime, based on the revival of national pride and faith inherent in most Russians that “we live in a great power.”
The U.S. elite seems reluctant to step back from Ukraine, although a victory that would entail bringing the country into the Western orbit is hardly attainable considering the state of the Ukrainian economy, government, and society. The game is meant to attain negative goals—preventing Ukraine from coming under Russia’s influence, deepening the division of Europe, and, increasingly obviously, weaken Russia, as the U.S. is barely concealing its desire to topple the ruling Russian regime and personally President Putin. The cost of such a policy for the U.S. is not great yet. The bulk of the price is being paid by Europe, Russia, and, of course, the long-suffering people of Ukraine.
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The scenario performed by the U.S. resembles a tragic farce similar to Reagan’s plan to combat the “Evil Empire,” retrieved from a dust-covered shelf. Only this time, instead of organizing an uprising in Poland, we see Ukraine, and instead of the South Korean Boeing, a Malaysian one. We are witnessing the same attempts to bring down oil prices and prevent the construction of new energy pipelines between Russia and Europe.
The Russian elite is the relative winner for now. Crimea has been incorporated into Russia; the nation is buoyed by feelings of pride and self-esteem; the country has rallied around its leadership; and the president’s popularity rating is soaring. Russia has dealt a telling blow to the Western policy of expansion. The process of the world’s transition from Western domination to a more equitable world order, more advantageous to the non-West, has accelerated, although it is not known whether it is irreversible.
However, having lost the first round, in which Russia converted almost latent soft rivalry into a competition of hard power and will, the United States and U.S.-oriented Europeans are trying to take the fight into areas where they are stronger—by exerting economic pressure and engaging in informational confrontation.
Russia has paid for this initial success with its deteriorating economic climate and image in the West. On the other hand, the Kremlin is not worried about its image in the West any more. Another price is a slowdown of Russia’s long-overdue economic reorientation to Asia through the accelerated rise of Siberia and the Russian Far East. Distracting Russia from an eastward turn is one of the objectives of U.S. and European policies. Such a turn would consolidate Russia’s position in bargaining with the West and would not only strengthen China, but also provide more room for maneuvering to U.S. allies in Asia, thus reducing their dependence on U.S. guarantees.
Russia has much fewer levers to inflict direct damage to its rivals. This is why, apart from the semi-symbolic embargo on food imports from the West, Russia’s strategy is objectively changing into trying to bring about the economic and political collapse of Ukraine—possibly in the hope that the West (Europe) will come to its senses and back down.
Is there any way out? I cannot rule out the worst-case scenario. Mutual distrust is over the top. There may be many more “black swans”—unforeseen disasters or provocations like the destruction of the Malaysian Boeing.
Yet there may be a way out. Inside Russia, this is mobilization of society for radical economic reforms and the development of eastern territories. In his speech in Crimea in August 2014, Putin at last emphasized the need to focus on internal development.
In looking for a long-term settlement the best option is a treaty fixing the new status quo in Europe. The territory of what is now Ukraine should be either divided or, preferably, made an area of joint development.
Russia needs peace in the West, Europeans need peace in Eastern Europe. Both players are faced with the risk of marginalization if they fail to overcome the division and pool their potentials and efforts.
The settlement of the crisis should include the eternal neutrality of Ukraine, codified in its Constitution and guaranteed by external powers; autonomy for eastern and southeastern Ukraine; agreement by Russia and Germany on joint support for the economic development of Ukraine; and mutual renunciation of sanctions and counter-sanctions.
However, this is a distant prospect. The alternative is a lukewarm civil war in the heart of Europe with the growing threat of disasters (there are 15 nuclear reactors in Ukraine), decades of misery for the Ukrainian people, and deaths ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of people—not only in conflicts, but also because of the degradation of vital services and the healthcare system.
The West, too, is putting forward similar proposals; naturally with a bias towards its own interests. One can only hope that diplomacy will be given a chance.
But in any case, all the eggs can no longer be placed into the European basket. Therefore, in parallel with efforts to reach an agreement with the West, Russia should intensify its efforts to develop Siberia and build a new economic and political diplomacy in Asia. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization should step up its activities and integrate with the Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, China’s idea of a New Silk Road (which Beijing does not seem to mind), and the South Korean project of a Eurasian Community. Also, Russia needs a rapprochement with Iran, the future leader of Central Asia. Such a turn would be difficult for the Russian Eurocentric elite, but attempts to integrate with the West have failed. Relinquishing ties with Europe and European roots would be dangerous for Russian identity and development. At the same time, it would be unpractical and dangerous not to use the opportunities opening up in the East.
In four, six, or eight years, after an acute crisis, hopefully not of Caribbean scale, normalization with the U.S. may be possible. Using the political lexicon of the recent past, such normalization objectively meets the interests of the parties and the interests of the entire world.