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Why the West must tighten the nuts on Russia once and for all

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A more aggressive approach in some respects could achieve more results than the naive idea of believing that by restarting the relationship with Moscow, Russia will be kinder

Pragmatism is a very useful geopolitical tool. Alexei Navalny’s poisoning last year and his imprisonment this year has led to new lows in relations between Russia and the US and the EU. However, both Washington and European capitals continue to think of new ways to achieve a good relationship with Russia.

And there has been some progress: the US and Russia have extended the Treaty for the Reduction of New Strategic Arms, while Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin have already announced their intention to “maintain transparent and continuous communication.” The EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, was visiting Moscow at the beginning of the month to exchange information but also to look for ways to relaunch friendship with Russia.

This does not mean that relations with Russia are being “rebooted”. But to move forward – there are many ways forward – you first need to understand where the West has gone wrong the half dozen times it has tried to start over with Russia.

Obituaries of the “reboots” with Russia

In the last decade, both the EU and the US have tried both officially and unofficially to seek new approaches to Russia. The first, of course, came with Barack Obama at the helm. At the time, the US-led reboot was matched by the EU, with the Association for Modernization and the so-called “Meseberg process”, driven by Germany. They both failed even before they started. Even the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas did not end the appetite to continue to restart the relationship.

Two years after the invasion of Crimea, in March 2016, the EU raised the initiative called “five principles” on Russia, which called for a “selective engagement”. In the summer of 2019, Emmanuel Macron again tried to relaunch the relationship with Russia. However, all these attempts have failed. The question is why?

Why don’t they work?

The West always offers a fresh start with Russia thinking and the restarts are based on the idea of ​​making mutual concessions, more or less freezing the status quo in security (also in Eastern Europe), added to a myriad of good diplomatic gestures.

Russia sees it differently. Although it does not mind carrying them out, it does not like to change its foreign policy. Quite the contrary: it insists on it over and over again. Russian thinking theorizes that Moscow made too many strategic concessions unilaterally in the 1990s and 2000s and now it is the West’s turn. 

Moscow is not interested in maintaining the status quo, especially with regard to its borders. Instead, what Moscow wants is to regain – and not maintain – influence in its shared backyard with the EU. If the West wants a reboot, says Russian thinking, the first thing it has to do is pull out.

While Western ideologues advocating these reboots have collided time and again against the wall of Russian foreign policy, Moscow has found a way around EU and US foreign policy: hold on until a new offer arrives for start from scratch. To some extent, each new reboot rekindles Russian resistance to compromise: Why make concessions if there is a chance that in a few years the new leaders of Western countries will offer a new reboot? This rewind and repeat approach suggests to Russia that the West is softening.

From protagonist to spectator

Cooperation with Russia is stagnant. Despite political tensions, there is still considerable dialogue with Moscow and, in some quarters, it is increasing. Russia’s gas sales to the EU have reached new records in recent years. Western investment in Russia continues to rise. The West has accepted some Russian interests on many issues.

For example, NATO expansion with Ukraine and Georgia has been frozen. The position of the US and the EU in Belarus or in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan also shows that the West prefers to be cautious and try not to upset Russia. Looking at Russian politics in places like Libya, the Central African Republic and Serbia, one cannot say the same about Moscow.

This lack of reciprocity in the deal raises the question of how the US should react to the geopolitical mindset of powers like Russia or Turkey. As in the 19th century, the important thing is to stand firm. The powers force themselves to enter the scene, move quickly and aggressively, mark the territory and then use it to negotiate and interact with other regional actors. But by now and more often the EU is being pushed out of the most sensitive crises, even those that take place in its own neighborhood: Libya, Syria, the South Caucasus, parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Kindness and “reboots” will not move the EU from being a mere spectator to a leading player or actor. Only action will do it. Russia will only be incentivized to seek a “restart” of relations when it bumps into the wall of Western intransigence while still hoping that intransigence can be overcome. Right now, offering Russia a reboot every year will only lead them to despise Western interests in Eastern Europe or the Middle East.

Paradoxically, a more confrontational approach in some respects, while offering to open new conversations, could lead to better results than current “reboots.” That means keeping up the sanctions pressure, scrapping Nord Stream 2, and tightening security ties with Eastern European partners can lead to more tense but long-term, more secure relations to reroute the relationship with Russia. A “muscular” approach is more likely to pay off than diplomatic pleas and unpersuasive attempts at geopolitical praise, something that Europe and the rest of the West have tried repeatedly for 10 years and repeatedly failed.

* Analysis published in the European Council on Foreign Relations by Nicu Popescu and entitled ‘Why attempts to reset relations with Russia will fail’

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