Transatlantic Conference 2016: Putin Ante Portas & How to Handle Russia – A Polish and Transatlantic Perspective

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Source: FNF

The occupation and annexation of Crimea and the subsequent war in Eastern Ukraine indicate that Russia is both able and willing to use military force against neighboring nations. Over the past couple of years, the international community has been observing major exercises on NATO’s Eastern flank such as Russian aircrafts violating NATO airspace, snap exercises, and Russian warplanes flying ‘simulated attack’ passes near a US-guided missile destroyer in the Baltic Sea. Furthermore, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned that Russia will implement military measures in its northern territories, should Sweden decide to join NATO. Participants of this year’s Transatlantic Conference of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) reflected on the events of the past years and discussed transatlantic strategies for dealing with Russia.

Is Russia really a Global Player?

In the United States, the Kremlin is considered one of the toughest international opponents. Presidential candidate Donald Trump even puts it into the same category as ISIS. Yet, his foreign policy priority would be to engage with Russia and reset US-Russian relations. President Putin promotes a picture of Russia as a global player and future military power, and the public overwhelmingly believes him.

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Source: FNF

At the conference, Bartek Nowak, international affairs expert and foreign affairs secretary of Poland’s liberal party Nowoczesna, argued that Russia is neither a global threat nor a global player. Though Russia thinks of itself as a global player, the country is actually facing major challenges at home. Modernization of the economy and society is a problem that Russia has been trying to resolve for many centuries and there seems to be no progress under Vladimir Putin. In addition, the country is more isolated on the world stage today than it has ever been in history. However, Nowak referred to Prof. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former US National Security Advisor, who shortly before the annexation of Crimea believed that there is a new civil society on the rise in Russia: a generation of Russians which better understands the West and is longing for progress. Thus, according to Brzezinski, for the first time in history, there was reason for optimism that Russia can modernize from the bottom up instead of from the top down. A first glimmer of hope appeared in 2012 when waves of protest broke out motivated by Russian and foreign journalists, political activists and the public, who asserted that the election process was flawed. Despite the mood in the country, Putin was able to strategically unite the majority around him and today he has a constant approval rating between 80 and 90 percent.

With regard to the annexation of Crimea, Nowak stated that this was not simply an act of revenge against the West. Putin invaded the country because a Ukraine that is governed in a way Western European countries are governed would pose an enormous challenge to his own model of Russia. Therefore, Putin’s goal was to ensure his power in Russia and to avoid some kind of revolution coming to Russia. Yet, the Western reaction to Putin’s invasion was much stronger than he anticipated.  All he did achieve in case of Ukraine is that a nation which had a mixed identity is now completely anti-Russian.

Beyond that, Putin’s legitimacy has changed with the annexation of Crimea. Nowak argued that before the invasion Putin had a legitimacy based on output. The President had started to deliver a more social policy to Russian citizen and used the Winter Olympics in Sochi as symbol of Russia’s growing economic and social capabilities and his willingness to be part of the international community. With the invasion of Crimea, Putin’s legitimacy has shifted to a legitimacy of a war leader, which was further reinforced by Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. When the conflict stops, Nowak argued, Putin will lose all legitimacy.

Transatlantic Strategy toward Russia

Very large 3D render of blended US and EU flags.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to Ludger Siemes, fellow at WCFIA, Harvard University, the biggest challenge for the West is that Russia’s policy is no longer predictable. With regard to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine it became clear that Putin had no clear strategy and that he operated on a day-to-day basis, making it even more challenging for the West to react. But the conflict about Ukraine highlighted a much more fundamental rift with Russia. The acute problem that the West is facing is Russian exceptionalism. Despite a growing new “secret society” that Nowak had mentioned before, Ludger Siemes underlined that Russian leadership was still supported by many groups that have deep grievances with the current global order which has been established since World War II.

The aforementioned military exercises, the breach of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the cyber activities against Estonia, the support for anti-EU forces across Europe – recently during the Dutch Referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement – are all instruments of Russia’s hybrid approach as well as instruments used by Putin to test the transatlantic community and to sow division in Europe among policy makers and the public.

Still, the EU as well as transatlantic strategy towards Russia can be considered a success. While Central and Eastern European countries have quite different views with regard to Russia, they do stay united and hold on to the EU-imposed sanctions. The EU is making considerable efforts to support Ukraine in its efforts to reform, modernize and stabilize itself. That Ukraine is looking even more strongly than ever to the West is surely not what Putin initially tried to achieve. Bartek Nowak argued that the EU should remain united and maintain sanctions against Russia. In addition, NATO has to remain united and should be further strengthened by developing a common understanding of hybrid war and deterrence as well as an open door policy towards new member states.

Ludger Siemes agreed and underlined that right now the transatlantic alliance has to continue to focus on doing no harm – on both sides – which requires a balanced approach of reassurance/deterrence and dialogue. In essence, it follows the successful philosophy of the “Harmel Doctrine” of 1967. On the latter issue, there is very little progress despite all efforts on part of the transatlantic community, as Russia is undertaking no effort to overcome the standoff. While the Russian propaganda is not successful in general, some propaganda attacks have had an impact. Therefore, it is integral that the transatlantic partners constantly work on their cohesion. The next challenges that are coming up are the NATO summit in Warsaw and the renewal of EU sanctions, as it is not a given that the imposed sanctions will be extended. The two-pillar approach of deterrence and dialogue should remain in focus of a transatlantic strategy toward Russia.