PULASKI COMMENTARY – R. PSZCZEL: Russia on the path of confrontation

PULASKI COMMENTARY – R. PSZCZEL: Russia on the path of confrontation

Only those, who want to practice the three wise monkeys pose (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) can continue pretending that a direct confrontation with Russia is not upon us. No exercise in wishful thinking can obscure the threat to the post-Cold War stability, brought about by Russia’s recent actions targeting Ukraine, the West and international norms in general.

Examples abound. Continued massing of troops and military equipment on Ukraine’s borders; illegal closing of the Kerch Strait passage to foreign, non-commercial vessels; refusal to acknowledge virulent propaganda, disinformation, and cyber-attacks; exposed spying in such diverse countries as Italy or Bulgaria and most recent revelations of state-sponsored terrorist attack against the Czech Republic in 2014 – take your pick. Taken together, they paint a grim picture of Kremlin’s documented determination to subvert, intimidate, and undermine other countries. No wonder that even Pope Francis is expressing public alarm over the fate of people in Donbas and President Macron started talking about a need to draw red lines with Moscow. [1]

Russia is not hiding its actions or intent – internet is full of satellite photos of new military deployments in Crimea and in vicinity of Ukraine, press releases of the Russian MoD specifically describe naval vessels being moved to the Black Sea. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister calls the United States an adversary,[2] while his colleagues in Vienna refuse to offer any transparency on Russia’s military posture. Russian agents and proxies in eastern Ukraine prevent the OSCE monitors from reporting on violations of cease-fire on the conflict lines. In short – Moscow is engaging in a public political-military chest pumping display, designed to frighten and dissuade international actors from resisting it. Moreover, it shows predictable loyalty to fellow autocracies, spurred by strategic self-interest (vide coordinated provocation with Minsk with absurd accusations of putsch preparations ascribed to Ukraine and Poland).

The authorities are even more brutal in their behaviour internally. Alexei Navalny is on the verge of death in prison, while a proliferation of new decrees and court decisions systematically closes every avenue, no matter how narrow already, for democratic dissent. If the threat to legally brand Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF) an “extremist” organization is carried out, anyone caught discussing participation in ACF’s activities (or even watching a video report on the now famous villa-complex in Gelendzhik for example) may find himself/herself behind bars.[3] Reflect on this for a minute. No wonder that Russia’s best, brightest and bravest are leaving the country. Soon, any dictator’s dream may come true – there will precious few left inside the country with enough courage to protest.

At the beginning of 2021 many smart Russian commentators were predicting a tilt towards a more aggressive policy by the Kremlin. But even the biggest pessimists (probably even Navalny himself) were not expecting such brutality, internally and externally. Precarious economic and social situation, in-built rejection of reform option (because it would undermine the system), poor handling of the epidemic and more blatant corruption, mixed with a cultivated conviction that a new global conflict is just around the corner, have proven to be a powerful set of drivers. At inflexion points such as this, Kremlin rulers see only upsides in engaging in a crackdown at home and provocations abroad.

International response to all this has been consistent, even if lacking some punch. On the plus side, Washington has introduced sanctions spurred by earlier Russian activities, (mainly the SolarWinds cyber assault). The Biden administration showed political agility by keeping further (more painful) sanctions in reserve – indicating clearly that this was a deterrent message to dissuade Moscow from invading Ukraine. The US has also shrewdly played to Putin’s ego, by offering a perspective of a bilateral summit. NATO and EU members have displayed political unity, showed solidarity towards Ukraine and each other, e.g. over expulsions of Russian diplomats, and promised further actions.

But so far it has had a minimal effect on Moscow. It has pocketed implied de-escalation concessions (US naval vessels did not enter the Black Sea after all) and responded to justified reactions with disproportionate tit-for-tat (vide action against the Czech Embassy in Moscow).  Various communiques following new evidence of Russia’s misdeeds have begun to sound somewhat repetitive (the phrase “strongly concerned” has even become a subject of bitter jokes). Putin and company no longer show concern for their international reputation – relying on fear and betting on divisions within the West. Their message seems to be – we don’t care about your carrots and your condemnations.

Well, this leaves the West, including Poland, with two primary options, intertwined. Sticks (harder sanctions, increased military assistance to Ukraine, further isolation of Russia) and some form of calibrated dialogue with Moscow, which would provide an opportunity to convince it that the costs of continuing with the current confrontation will be prohibitive for Russia – even for the Kremlin.

Ultimately, the West can function without Russia. The opposite is not exactly true.[4] We have the economic, technological, not to mention political and legal, arguments on our side. It is time to use them with more conviction. But make no mistake – current leadership in Russia will not leave the path of confrontation quickly and without a strong pressure.

Author: Robert Pszczel, Senior Fellow at Foreign Policy Programme of Casimir Pulaski Foundation

Photo: Kremlin, http://en.kremlin.ru/

[1] Quote from “Macron says world must ‘define clear red lines’ with Russia as tensions rise over Ukraine,” France 24, April 18, 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/europe/20210418-macron-says-world-must-define-clear-red-lines-with-russia-as-tensions-rise-over-ukraine

[2] “Russia calls US an adversary, warns its warships to avoid Crimea,” Reuters, April 13 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia-warns-us-warships-steer-clear-crimea-for-their-own-good-2021-04-13/

[3] Full analysis of the consequences of expected court ruling can be found in “The Russian authorities want to designate Alexey Navalny’s political and anti-corruption network as ‘extremist.’ This would be the legal fallout,” Meduza, April 17, 2021, https://meduza.io/en/feature/2021/04/17/what-comes-next

[4] Perhaps this was best expressed recently by Edward Lucas: “It’s a reminder: Russia needs the West as a place to invest (i.e. launder money), to relax, to educate its children. The West does not need Russia. Western leaders and their families can survive missing the chance to see Lake Baikal, open a savings account in Sberbank, or educate their children at MGIMO. For the Russian elite, the thought that they and their families are cut off from the fleshpots of France, the Ivy League, and the London capital markets is rather more serious.” Full text in U.S. Sanctions on Russia: Spies Expelled, Debt Financing Targeted, CEPA, https://cepa.org/u-s-sanctions-on-russia-spies-expelled-debt-financing-targeted/ published on April 15, 2021