Back from the Brink: Russia and the West Move from ‘Isolation’ to a Potential ‘Coalition’

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Bryan MacDonald


There’s something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. The King James bible, in Ecclesiastes 9:11, opined “that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong… but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Yet, modern business consensus believes that, as a result of thorough planning, people ultimately make their own luck.

Of course, for every right time, there are thousands of wrong. Whether Vladimir Putin has been merely lucky in the biblical sense or used clever strategy as commerce exhorts, there’s no doubt the Russian President has an extraordinary knack for good timing. From winning the patronage of St Petersburg’s powerful Mayor, Anatoly Sobchak in Russia’s early post-Soviet days to being in situ at the Kremlin just as Boris Yeltsin gave up the ghost, Putin’s prescience, or serendipity if you prefer, has been extraordinary.

Now, he appears to have done it again.

Before 2013, Ukraine was a dysfunctional, but fairly anonymous, basket case. However, backed by the full force of the US media machine, it was transformed into the global cause of 2014, even as ISIS ran wild through the Middle East. Currently, Ukraine is hurtling back into obscurity, the speed of its reverse concurrent to the acceleration of Syria in the other direction.

Over the past 12 months, there was constant talk of “isolating” Russia. Western powers kicked Moscow out of the G8 and Moscow was subjected to a smorgasbord of trade sanctions, asset freezes and visa bans. In November 2014, UK Prime Minister David Cameron told Putin his country “will be isolated from the world community if the crisis in Ukraine is not resolved.” Last week, he spoke of compromising with the Kremlin to end the Syrian Civil War.

Of course, Ukraine remains unsettled, its economy battered with corruption at unprecedented levels and the status of the eastern regions apparently frozen. Suddenly, for Cameron, this seems about as relevant as sand prices in the Sahara. All he can say now about Putin – to America’s CBS – is “I built a relationship with him, he’s a very strong Russian nationalist”.

Over in Washington, Barack Obama actually ranked Russia a greater danger than ISIS in September of last year. That said, he did rate both of them a lesser threat than the Ebola virus. Since then, the US Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter, has described Russia as an “existential threat”. Republican party senator John McCain was less concerned, dismissing it as a “gas station masquerading as a country”.

Change of tone

Quickly the rhetoric has been dialled down. After two years of barely even speaking to Putin, since a stoney-faced 2013 chat at a G8 conference in Ireland, Obama has personally met his counterpart twice in the last two months. Last weekend, he held discussions with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at the East Asia Summit in Malaysia.

It’s impossible to convey just how chary Moscow-Washington relations were until recently. Aside from interaction between foreign emissaries John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, who appear to have a good personal relationship, high-level contacts were almost non-existent.

Matters seem to have fundamentally altered since Kerry visited Sochi in May.

After a long period of sabre-rattling, Russia and the west seem set to engage in a warm embrace. How did we get from the realm of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” to Chekhov’s ”The Lady With The Dog?” The answer is fairly simple, as the late British Prime Minister Harold McMillan is alleged to have once said, “events, dear boy, events.”

In late September, when Russia began its military intervention in Syria, much of the western media initially greeted the move with alarm. Amid unrelenting negative propaganda, the neoconservative comic, The Daily Beast, which has deep ties to the US military establishment, even suggested that Russia was “providing ISIS with an airforce.”

NATO condemned the move, holding an emergency meeting after a Russian jet accidentally entered Turkish airspace “for a few seconds” due to bad weather.

The “information” apparatus was in full swing with Jens Stolenberg, the alliance’s chief, claiming that “Russia’s actions are not contributing to the security and stability of the region.” Nobody seemed to mind that Turkey, a NATO member, is widely understood to be one of the actors responsible for stoking the Syria war. Russian sources have even alleged that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has played a “double game” with ISIS. Those suspicions were more-or-less confirmed by a August 25 front-page story in Turkish newspaper Bugün showing the alleged transfer of weapons and explosives from Turkey to ISIS through the Akcakale border post.

Britain responded, somewhat bizarrely, by sending extra troops to the Baltic region in an attempt to intimidate Moscow. This would be roughly equivalent to Russia sending reinforcements to Murmansk in response to security concerns in Abkhazia.

All changed utterly 

On the other hand, Kurdish leaders warmly welcomed Moscow’s actions, even asking the Kremlin to supply their forces with armaments. Russia’s battle against extremism is also supported by Iran and Iraq. ISIS currently controls vast swathes of the latter’s territory, including important cities like Fallujah and Mosul. Moscow’s aspiration is that Western nations will ultimately either join or ally with its coalition to destroy ISIS. That would leave Saudi Arabia, Qatar and NATO member Turkey alone in their patronage of Al Qaeda. At first this seemed like a forlorn hope.

Then tragedy struck on the last day of October – a Russian passenger plane was lost over Egypt’s Sinai region. A few days later, when whispers began to suggest that ISIS might have downed the jet, Western rhetoric changed markedly. After all, claiming that Russia was helping the terrorists now looked completely bonkers.

While the 224 deaths generated reasonable amounts of sympathy in Europe and North America, hopes of an alliance between Moscow and NATO members still seemed ambitious. However, exactly two weeks later when ISIS terrorists killed 137 innocent people in Paris everything changed. France, a pillar of the Western establishment, was under direct attack and the NATO attempt to ‘isolate’ Russia was over.

France has always been a reluctant supporter of the American-led campaign of belligerence towards Russia. As far back as 2008, it was Nicholas Sarkozy who intervened to stymie Mikhail Saakashvili’s war-mongering in South Ossetia and Abkhazia at a time when the ex-Georgian President still hoped Washington would ride to his rescue. All through the Ukraine crisis, Paris has avoided verbal tussles with Moscow and Francois Hollande has never been enthusiastic in his support for Kiev’s present regime. Indeed, last December, at the height of Western antagonism towards the Kremlin, Hollande personally flew to Moscow to meet Putin. In doing so, he broke an informal boycott which had existed since the Crimea annexation/reunification.

Another factor that has altered the dynamic is Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian bomber this week. No matter how complicated the reasons, the loss of a Russian pilot in combat will hurt. Nevertheless, the episode has exposed a deep fissure in NATO. According to Western media reports, some alliance members were deeply critical of Ankara’s actions. This serves as a reminder of a massive problem in NATO’s construction. Not all members are equal. While an attack on France or Germany would no doubt lead to war, it’s not certain that all members would actually commit to backing the likes of Turkey if push really came to shove.

A fine example is when Mikhail Saakashvili’s Georgia, which was then moving towards NATO membership, baited the Russian bear in 2008. Many serious analysts believe that the disgraced former President genuinely believed that Washington and its allies would come to his rescue. This is a flaw. The American security umbrella can embolden fringe members of NATO (and even applicants) to talk much tougher to Russia than they would without this security blanket. It’s somewhat akin to a mouse roaring at a Labrador while believing that a Rottweiler has its back.

Never isolated 

Now that Russia is regarded as a major power fighting terrorism, we can now safely say that the country is not ‘isolated’. Yet, was Russia ever truly sequestered and segregated from the rest of the world? The answer is no.

Russia is the largest country in the world. By all accepted metrics it’s the 2nd biggest military power on the globe. Before the late-2013 Ruble crisis, it was either the 5th or 6th wealthiest country on the planet and was vying with Germany for top spot in Europe. Even now, it remains a top 10 economy, according to both the World Bank and the IMF. As the fiscal situation stabilises and oil prices, inevitably, rise it should regain plenty of lost ground. In demographic terms, Russia is by far Europe’s most populous country, with almost double the numbers of Germany, in 2nd place. Furthermore, the fertility rate (1.8 births per woman) is well in excess of Spain (1.32), Italy (1.4) and Germany (1.38) but behind France (1.98) and Britain (1.85).

Also, this might come as a shock to some analysts, but the West is not the world. During Russia’s estrangement from NATO powers and their Asian allies, such as Japan and South Korea, Moscow has carried on business as usual with other major powers. Relations with China (now the world’s largest economy by some measurements) are at an all time high and positive bilateral cooperation continues with India, Brazil and South Africa, through the BRICS club. Due to naval tensions, Beijing’s bonds with America are currently under strain, which has accelerated China’s willingness to coalesce with the Kremlin.

Despite this, there is no doubt that perceptions of Russia reached rock bottom in North America and parts of Europe IN 2014. However, demonstrating the power of propaganda, there has been a rapid reversal in anti-Russian sentiment in recent weeks. Popular American media outlets like Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have eased up on their attacks and even begun to, for the first time in years, carry some articles sympathetic to Moscow.

The UK’s Economist magazine, which is notoriously hostile to the Kremlin, even admitted that “in the face of a common threat from Islamist terror, Russia and the West may be moving closer”. The $64,000 question remains. Will cooperation on Syria herald a brave new dawn in relations between Russia and its NATO partners, or is it only a temporary respite from a long-term war of attrition? As Bob Dylan sang: “the answer is blowing in the wind.”

Meanwhile, Putin himself is expected to outline his vision for future cooperation between Russia and the West on Thursday. The President will be addressing the Russian Parliament then and may call for both sides to abandon their differences and team up in the fight against terrorism. 

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