Vodka on the Rocks

 In China, C4ISR, GDI, Defense, France

US-Russian rela­tions con­tin­ue to dete­ri­o­rate. Expectations on both sides are extreme­ly low. Arms con­trol is unrav­el­ing fast, with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion seem­ing­ly more likely to let the New START treaty expire within a year than to extend it. Opens Skies may be anoth­er agree­ment that US President Donald Trump would like to dis­card. The coming US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion might well result in new accu­sa­tions of Russian med­dling, which would lead to new sanc­tions against Russia.

But what­ev­er the out­come, more sanc­tions are a near cer­tain­ty. As has been the case for the past six years, the most one can real­is­ti­cal­ly achieve in the fore­see­able future is to pre­vent an inad­ver­tent direct mil­i­tary col­li­sion between Russia and the United States. In the absence of mean­ing­ful US-Russian dia­logue, com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels between the two coun­tries’ top defense and secu­ri­ty offi­cers remain the only instru­ments of keep­ing the peace between the two adver­saries.

Dmitri Trenin

Trenin, direc­tor of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has been with the center since its incep­tion. He also chairs the research coun­cil and the Foreign and Security Policy Program.

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Russia’s rela­tions with Europe con­tin­ue to dis­ap­point. Expectations of a break­through or at least sig­nif­i­cant progress on Donbass, which were raised as a result of the Ukrainian pres­i­den­tial and par­lia­men­tary elec­tions of 2019, have had to be sig­nif­i­cant­ly rolled back. It is pos­si­ble that the line of con­tact in Ukraine’s east may see a pro­longed lull in shelling and shoot­ing, with more civil­ians freely cross­ing the line to go about their daily busi­ness and pris­on­ers still kept by both sides return­ing to their fam­i­lies. What also seems prob­a­ble, how­ev­er, is a long-term freeze of the polit­i­cal status quo in Donbass.

The Minsk agree­ment, whose imple­men­ta­tion is a sine qua non for the lift­ing of EU sanc­tions against Russia, will remain unful­filled. Moscow’s insis­tence on a spe­cial con­sti­tu­tion­al status for Donetsk and Luhansk remains anath­e­ma to Kyiv. The late-December Russian-Ukrainian gas tran­sit agree­ment, under which Moscow agreed to honor a court deci­sion in favor of Kyiv, has failed to avert the US impo­si­tion of sanc­tions on com­pa­nies involved in laying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline across the Baltic Sea. The German gov­ern­ment called the US action unac­cept­able, but the con­struc­tion has stopped and the com­ple­tion of the project will be delayed.

Even with the sanc­tions in place, it appeared at one point that the lead­ing EU member states were poised to ini­ti­ate a rap­proche­ment with Moscow. French President Emmanuel Macron invit­ed Russian President Vladimir Putin to his summer res­i­dence for a wide-rang­ing pri­vate dis­cus­sion of the rela­tion­ship. Coming on the eve of the G7 meet­ing, this sparked a brief debate on the merits of invit­ing Russia to re-join the group from which it was expelled in 2014. In a sub­se­quent inter­view with The Economist, which caused quite a stir, Macron, while pro­nounc­ing NATO “brain-dead,” talked of the need to open a dia­logue on European secu­ri­ty with Moscow. Some in France and Germany voiced con­cern that iso­lat­ing Russia would only serve to push it even closer to China, with neg­a­tive impli­ca­tions for Europe.

These argu­ments have been less than com­pelling. The formal can­ce­la­tion in 2019 of the INF Treaty raises the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a new US-Russian mis­sile stand-off in Europe. Yet, to Moscow’s sur­prise, this wor­ri­some prospect has failed to stir European gov­ern­ments into action to pre­vent an addi­tion­al con­fronta­tion. Indeed, European calm has only con­firmed the fact that Europe’s secu­ri­ty on the Western side is fully man­aged by NATO. French lead­ers can make state­ments, but little more, par­tic­u­lar­ly when their views are not even sup­port­ed by France’s clos­est part­ner, Germany, which remains stead­fast in its Atlanticism. Chancellor Angela Merkel recent­ly made a rare visit to Moscow, but only to dis­cuss Libya’s secu­ri­ty, not Europe’s, with Putin.

The coming 75th anniver­sary of the vic­to­ry over Nazi Germany in World War II has opened a new front in European-Russian rela­tions. Moscow angri­ly rejects the notion, con­tained in the European Parliament’s res­o­lu­tion, of the joint respon­si­bil­i­ty of the two total­i­tar­i­an regimes, Hitler’s Nazism and Stalin’s Soviet Bolshevism, for the out­break of World War II. Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941 – 1945 is key to both the offi­cial and pop­u­lar Russian his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive as well as the country’s very self-image; any attempt to under­mine it is widely regard­ed as a vicious case of Russophobia.

Against this back­ground, Moscow’s rela­tions with – and public atti­tudes toward – a number of Eastern European coun­tries, from Poland to the Baltic States to Ukraine, have reached new lows.

Looking ahead, Russian-Western rela­tions are unlike­ly to improve in the next few years. If his­to­ry is any guide, US sanc­tions, enshrined in law, will out­live most of today’s politi­cians. There are limits to the day­light that can be allowed to emerge between US and EU poli­cies on Russia. As for Moscow, while the cost of adver­si­ty is con­sid­er­able, Russia’s resources are not exhaust­ed. Putin’s posi­tion remains more or less solid, so strate­gic con­ces­sions are out of the ques­tion. The past six years have proven that the Kremlin’s for­eign policy will not change under Western pres­sure.

Even as the Russian pres­i­dent has now launched a long process of polit­i­cal tran­si­tion, it has become clear that while Russians will vote for a dif­fer­ent head of state in 2024, the new gov­er­nance struc­ture and the per­son­al­i­ties fill­ing it will be Putin’s choic­es. It is widely accept­ed that Putin him­self will likely act as the country’s top author­i­ty for years after 2024.

The bad news is that the Moscow-Washington con­fronta­tion will con­tin­ue; the good news is that there will be some guardrails built around it. Russia’s rela­tions with European coun­tries will vary from the prag­mat­ic, such as with France, Germany and Italy, to the highly toxic, such as with sev­er­al Eastern European neigh­bors. The con­flict in Donbass is unlike­ly to rekin­dle or esca­late, but nor will it be solved any­time soon. Crimea will stay Russian, but will not be inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized as such. There will be no hos­til­i­ties in the Baltic Sea area, but hos­til­i­ty on both sides of the NATO-Russian divide will become more deeply entrenched. The Arctic will become busier com­mer­cial­ly, but more mil­i­ta­rized as well. The Balkans, while no longer an East-West bat­tle­ground, will be a sand­box for small-time geopo­lit­i­cal games. The Eastern Mediterranean, how­ev­er, is emerg­ing as an area where Russia, again, is com­pet­ing with the West.

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the Security Times

Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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