The Alphen Group V-Conference: “How to Engage Russia?”

March 8th, 2021

“Russia will be the issue of the decade”. 

The West should be prudent without becoming obsessed with Russia or exaggerate any threat it might pose whilst working towards a new balance between dialogue with Russia and deterring it.  The prevailing view was that all and any dialogue must be from a position of pragmatic and flexible strength and that the modernisation of NATO’s deterrence and defence posture will work, although it is still a work-in-progress. Equally, many of the West’s contemporary leaders still do not grasp the “Russian mind-set” and it is highly unlikely that Russia will become a reliable neighbour anytime soon, even if it would be wrong to see Russians as implacable enemies. Where interests align dialogue should be sought on single issues, such as Afghanistan, arms control, cyber-security and climate change, as well as the Middle East and North Africa. It may be possible to co-operate with Russia over the Arctic, but such co-operation is likely to remain limited to issues such as search and rescue and fishing.  Engaging Russia is in ‘our’ interest, although in the current circumstances it should be both limited and tough-minded.  

Putin has successfully reinvented Russia in the image of heroic victim and victor of the Great Patriotic War which is informing a nationalist ideology particularly amongst the young Siloviki.  The narrative also informs assertive policy that seeks to exploit the many vulnerabilities of open Western societies through attacks at the ‘sub-threshold’ level of threat. Unfortunately, the West lacks both dynamism and imagination in challenging the revisionist Putin narrative and his stance as a bulwark for Holy Russia against Western secularism. Many leaders “got Russia wrong in the 1990s” and some more inflection points may be in the offing, such as the completion of NORDSTREAM 2 and the removal of Lukashenko in Belarus, after which Moscow could again become more assertive.  The Biden administration has learnt the lessons of failed resets and will not ‘trade away’ relations with allies (Ukraine) for a better relationship with Moscow.  The Administration has also set the threshold for the return to normalcy in its relations with Russia: the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Donbass.  Washington will also seek NATO and EU support for raising the costs to Moscow of further aggression, while reaching out to the restive younger generation of Russians who may choose more constructive relations with the West after Putin departs the scene. 

Much will depend on the future of the Sino-Russian relationship which is likely to endure, driven by the Machiavellian imperative that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.   The West is unlikely to tempt Russia away from China because Beijing is likely to be able to offer Moscow far more.  The relationship is also informed and reinforced by nationalist revisionism as both China and Russia are seeking to create a post-Western world.  The closeness of the respective Chinese and Russian general staffs attests to the strength and closeness of the relationship. The Western response is lost between partnership and punishment. At the very least, a new conceptual and policy framework might help Western leaders better understand and in time engage Russia.  Western leaders must also accept their own culpability in helping to create the “Russia problem” through ill-advised policies such as NORDSTREAM 2 and irresponsibly low levels of defence investment.  German policy and attitudes will be key to future Western policy. NORDSTREAM 2 has damaged trust in Berlin and is already seeing allies distance themselves. 

Engagement with Russia must be undertaken collectively as Moscow does not accept dialogue on equal terms with Europe’s smaller powers, particularly the Baltic States. A new NATO assessment of Russia is also needed to re-align Allied thinking as a basis for applying greater pressure on the Putin regime. Above all, the West should start thinking about who it is, how it can adjust to global power transitions and what it will need to do to avoid, or best mitigate, a post-Western World.

Julian Lindley-French