14 December 2017

The Evolving Stalemate Between Russia and the West

Tensions between Russia and the West will remain high in 2018, with the United States and European Union likely to maintain — if not expand — their economic sanctions. 

Negotiations between Moscow and the West over contested hot spots like Ukraine and Syria will take place throughout the year, though talks ultimately will not lead to any breakthrough agreements. 

The importance of Russia's relationship with the West to Moscow will gradually ebb as the Kremlin increasingly turns its foreign policy focus to other regions of the world. 

At the beginning of 2017, it appeared as if the strained relationship between Russia and the West was about to undergo a substantial shift. U.S. President Donald Trump, who had campaigned on a platform of improving relations with Russia, was about to be inaugurated. Upcoming elections in the core European Union states of France and Germany offered the possibility that Euroskeptic parties would rise to power, leading to a major change in those countries' positions, including on maintaining sanctions against Russia. Furthermore, it appeared as if solidarity within NATO, as well as support for Western-leaning states like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, was in danger of weakening substantially.

But as 2018 approaches, it's clear that instead of waning, Western pressure against Russia has intensified. In the United States, lawmakers wrested the power to withdraw U.S. sanctions against Russia away from the president, partially as a result of the numerous investigations launched into the extent of Russian interference in U.S. elections. Trump essentially was forced to cede his power to unilaterally lift the penalties in July, and Congress subsequently enacted a stronger sanctions regimeagainst Moscow.

In France, the National Front, a Euroskeptic party, and its pro-Russian presidential candidate Marine Le Pen reached the second round of the country's presidential election, but Le Pen lost to centrist Emmanuel Macron in the decisive vote. Russia certainly had tried to influence the result in favor of Le Pen, but the exposure of the cyberwarfare and information campaigns it had used to try to influence the outcome of U.S. elections and the revelation that the Kremlin was employing the same techniques in Europe, blunted their effectiveness. The same held true during the German general elections in September, where despite Russian efforts, the anti-establishment Alternative for Germany party did not gain substantial traction, even though it did outperform expectations. After the dust of the European elections settled, the European Union maintained its cohesiveness, and its members voted unanimously to extend sanctions against Russia through the end of 2017.

In the meantime, neither the European Union nor NATO has backed away from the countries on the European/Russian borderland. The United States and the European bloc have been steadfast in their support for Ukraine, and NATO has followed through with the deployment of semipermanent battalions to Poland and the Baltic states. On its side of the border, Russia has built up its forces as well, and while there has been no major confrontation between Russia and NATO, their military standoff has maintained the intensity of past years.

What's Ahead in 2018?

Several key issues will shape the direction of ties between Russia and the West in 2018. One is the conflict between Russian-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian government in Ukraine's east, which is entering its fourth year. Following an escalation of violence along the frontlines in the separatist Donbas region shortly after Trump's inauguration, military activity has decreased in intensity in recent months. The conflict has now taken on the "semi-frozen" nature typical of those in other Russian-backed breakaway territories in the former Soviet space. In the meantime, diplomatic activity between Russia and the West over the Ukrainian separatist conflict picked up after a suggestion by Russian President Vladimir Putin in September that a U.N. peacekeeping force be deployed to Eastern Ukraine.

Putin's proposal and associated diplomatic efforts have raised the question of whether the end of the Ukrainian conflict could be in sight in 2018. But given the gap between Russia and the West over the nature and parameters of a potential U.N. mission in Donbas, prolonged negotiations are likely before any agreement could be struck. Russia, on one hand, has suggested the deployment of a limited force purely to protect observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe on the line of contact between Ukrainian security forces and the separatists. But Ukraine and the United States have both called for a deployment to span all of Donbas, including along the border between the separatist territory and Russia. That option essentially would represent a complete abandonment of Russia's strategic position in Donbas, given that Moscow is thought to funnel troops and weapons to support the rebels over the border. While Russia can use the peacekeeping proposal to show its willingness to negotiate over the conflict in an effort to stave off additional Western pressure, it does not mean that Russia will capitulate to the Ukrainian-U.S. position. What's more, Russia could drive an escalation of fighting if it suited its needs.

Depending on what ongoing U.S. investigations over Russian election meddling reveal, the United States could escalate its sanctions regime against Russia. And although Trump does not support it, key members of his administration are openly considering sending lethal weaponry to Ukraine. If the United States decides to take either of those actions, Moscow could choose to respond by escalating the conflict in Eastern Ukraine — or responding elsewhere in an asymmetric fashion.

A longtime driver of tensions between Russia and the West has been the ongoing military buildup by both sides along the European borderlands, which shows no signs of slowing. Russia is expected to permanently deploy Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems to its Kaliningrad enclave on a permanent basis at the beginning of 2018, while NATO will set up new Atlantic and logistics commands, as well as increase coordination efforts on Black Sea patrols and cyberdefense capabilities. The continued buildups could add pressure that would interfere with the resumption of already stalled arms control talks between the United States and Russia.

Moscow's continued use of hybrid warfare techniques in Europe, the United States and Western-aligned nations represents another front in the standoff.

Moscow's continued use of hybrid warfare techniques in Europe, the United States and Western-aligned nations represents another front in the standoff. As Italy prepares to hold general elections by May, Moscow is likely to ramp up its information campaign in support of parties like the Five Star Movement and Forza Italia that oppose Russian sanctions. But as in Germany, the Italian parties that Russia would prefer will likely struggle to access power. Russian efforts are more likely to be successful in Moldova, where there is a good chance the pro-Russian Socialist Party will unseat the ruling EU-oriented coalition and subsequently reverse some of the moves the country has taken in recent years toward Western integration in favor of closer ties with Moscow.

Russia's Foreign Policy Focus Shifts

One important emerging trend related to the Russia-West standoff is Moscow's rising influence in regions other than Europe and Eurasia. As its isolation from the West has become more pronounced, Russia has expanded its economic relationships with China and the Arab states. At the same time, Russia has increased its economic and security involvement in areas of substantial strategic interest to the United States and Europe, most notably Syria and North Korea.

Those efforts have substantially boosted Russian influence in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific, and it has followed by deepening its ties in other strategic theaters such as Afghanistan, Venezuela and Libya. Initially, Russia appeared to be conducting the interventions in areas outside its traditional interests in the European and Eurasian theaters as a strategy to increase its leverage in negotiations with the United States over issues closer to home. But Russia's relationships in those regions has evolved beyond a negotiation strategy. Indeed, Moscow has developed significant political, economic and security interests in many of those areas.

Managing its relationship with the West is no longer the defining feature of Russia's foreign policy efforts. Instead, Moscow has created a much more complex and intertwined series of relationships spanning the globe. While its confrontation with Europe and the United States is expected to continue and perhaps even intensify in 2018, that competition will be only one facet among many emerging interests and priorities for Russia.

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