There are so many global threats impacting the future of the Earth but Western democracies fear only one person – Vladimir Putin. That’s because on almost all geopolitical fronts of the emerging multipolar world, Russian President is deftly striking a blow against the collective challenge mounted by the West. It is thus no surprise that the West’s endless dread of Russia’s military power has made Putin the world’s most powerful man.
What’s happening in West-Russia relations right now is not a new Cold War. It is not even a renewed East-West divide. It is rather an incredibly high-stakes geopolitical grand game fueled by decades of long-time mutual distrust and competing great power interests.
The current situation is like playing chess, moving kings, queens, and pawns without recognizing the presence of an opponent and without seeing the positions of the opposing chess pieces. This is a very difficult chess game that illustrates a very large battlefield in which are ranged the current global chess hotspots such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea and other crucial pivot states of the modern age. The ability to see a big battleground is therefore very important. As the true positions of the rival players on the Eurasian chessboard are unknown to Western decision-makers, they are just moving chess pieces around without knowing how to take the king. That’s precisely why the United States, NATO and the EU often move their chess pieces down the flanks of the grand chessboard to avoid the center, where it is more dangerous.
Russia in turn not only sees where major players are on the chessboard but also sees the whole geopolitical battlefield with great clarity, 24 hours a day, real time, and in all types of situations. Whereas Putin sees a battleground with that kind of fidelity and his Western opponents do not, Russia has domination in battlefield awareness, and that can determine victory. It is no coincidence that the Kremlin leader makes moves on the battlefield with masterful skill – going after the West’s strategic centers of gravity with much more efficiency.
Perhaps more than any other leader, Putin by virtue of his longtime Soviet intelligence experience understands how the Western democracies operate in contemporary world. If it indeed be so, then he likewise knows how to use the West’s clout against the West itself. But while Russian President has been making bold moves with the right motives at the right moment, his Western opponents aren’t standing idly by as Russia rapidly returns to global power politics. They are relentlessly trying to deter, contain, and if necessary, reduce Russia’s growing role in international affairs.
The most striking thing for the West as Putin is advancing Russia’s national interests against those of her world rivals. True, it is the boldness, creativity and independence that characterize his leadership. He always plans and thinks ahead, and then makes the right move that brings him success. Better for Western leaders to try to realize how Putin has thus far managed to keep Russia ahead in the geopolitical game. Notwithstanding that the United States and the EU are obsessed with weakening Russia at all costs, Western efforts to sanction and isolate Moscow have so far proved futile. Instead, the current containment strategy is fueling anti-Western sentiment in Russia, deepening considerable strains in the EU-Russia relationship and raising the risk of unintended flare-ups with the United States.
More recently, Putin’s announcement of new nuclear weapons has sharply raised the stakes of a direct U.S.-Russia confrontation which currently risks reaching a dangerous point. If Russia’s nuclear strategic posture has indeed undergone profound changes, then this is not just an improved Russian nuclear arsenal but is part of the shifting balance that could be called a genuine revolution in military affairs. Yet even despite Putin’s nuclear sabre rattling, he is unlikely interested in the prospect of a broader conflict. Rather, reconstructing Russia’s relations with the West would be essential to addressing many of today’s more difficult challenges to international peace and security. After all, both sides share far more than just common history and geography. Their strategic, long-term interests also often overlap to a significant degree over a variety of global threats, including proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism.
However, a constant barrage of mutual accusations, allegations and claims has created a framework within which mutual estrangement, misunderstandings and different perceptions have divided Russia from the Western world, and have divided the West itself over the question of how best to proceed on Russia. Areas of serious disagreement include U.S.-Russian competing military operations in Syria, Ukraine’s prolonged crisis, NATO enlargement, missile defense system, never-ending conflicts in the post-Soviet Eurasia, escalating cyber breaches, and dependencies in the field of oil and gas. The fact that these disputes remain very much at the core of what divides Russia and the West today, and have not yet been seriously addressed through common effort, means both sides are ill-prepared to hammer out a new grand bargain that accounts for joint security concerns.
More Eurasian and Less Euro-Atlantic World
Against a markedly different geopolitical backdrop compared to the cold war era, the sharp deterioration of Russian-Western relations has a negative impact on the unfolding security environment in the vastly turbulent Eurasia of the twenty-first century. Not for the first time in its long history, grand geopolitics is emerging as a powerful tool in the shaping of the Eurasian security system. As always, Eurasia, which sits at the heart of a knot of strategic issues that surround international politics, is dominating the global chessboard. Several big players such as the United States, Russia, the EU, China, and the Islamic world have arisen today on the Eurasian chess game. Realizing that the emerging global order is being shaped by various twists and turns in an ever-changing Eurasian geopolitics, they all are vying for regional preeminence. Each of them has its own strategic goals in this resource-rich continental landmass. Each actor plays on its own and against each other, without siding openly with anyone for the moment.
Perhaps more strikingly still, renewed great-power rivalries for spheres of influence and struggles for control over energy reserves and pipeline routes have presented an opportunity to look at the shadow sides of the Eurasian high-stakes game. The crux of the issue lies in the geopolitical behavior of major regional actors which may have developed covert relationship. The key that unlocks the puzzle concerns true intentions and genuine stances most regional powers are hiding at present, all the while flirting with the West, but taking joint steps behind the scenes to end an American unipolar world order. This is especially true when it comes to the Middle East, where the United States and the EU have displayed a discord over peace efforts, let alone sharpening regional differences between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel.
More fundamentally, the Kremlin’s military victory over the Islamic State in Syria has recently signaled Russia’s renewed assertiveness in the Greater Middle East, provoking enormous dissatisfaction among Western powers that are not willing to share power with Moscow in the expanded region. Reinserting itself as a major power broker into the peace process, Russia has made sure its serious interests are protected not only in the Arab world but also in the entire Middle East where oil prices are set. How events in this long-troubled region will play out is anyone’s guess, but Eurasia’s future geopolitical landscape will primarily depend on the fluidity of the strategic situation in Syria, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, North Korea and the CIS countries.
Already now, however, quite noticeable is a new Eurasian geopolitical axis formed steadily and quietly by the Russian-Chinese tandem. The simple fact that Putin’s heavyweight partners in the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) continue to back Moscow in its sharp tussle with Washington and Brussels proves that Russia is far from being isolated. Aligning itself more closely with China, Iran, India, on the one hand, and forging good partnership relationships with Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel against all odds, on the other, Russia appears well prepared to confront a disordered world that NATO and the EU built after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. The more the West tries to rally the world against Moscow and Beijing by demonizing Russia and containing China, the sooner Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will expand the wider region’s political-strategic axis that may well include the post-Soviet countries.
A great Eurasian alliance may indeed abruptly appear in resistance to America’s claims to world superiority, triggering a new unintended shift in geopolitical alignments. If Beijing, Tehran, Delhi and Ankara finally get sided with Moscow, then the game will stop and the battle will end. Something like that will happen sooner or later, even despite the West’s attempts to slow down the final stage of the Eurasian chess game. Perhaps more to the point, most regional powers understand their relationship with Russia as an interest-driven partnership. They might have intention to develop new relations as allies and to commit themselves to continuously maintain strong interaction on the grounds of their mutual interests and actions prompted by shared concerns.
While uniting with Moscow in reaching common objectives, their solidarity with Russia will rather be motivated by pragmatic reasons. Such a possible outcome might arise from region-to-region cooperation and strategic partnership-type relationship. Should this scenario happen, then the world will eventually be more Eurasian and less Euro-Atlantic. But this aim will be achieved only if Russia becomes ready to assume a more meaningful leadership in global affairs that will be necessary to ensure that this full-scale shift can make the world more stable and secure than it has been.
Post-Soviet Realpolitik Russian-Style
In the meantime, the post-Soviet territory likewise represents one of the major theaters of great power competition between the United States, Russia and the EU. None of the CIS countries can cope with regional security problems without external help. Most of them expect principal powers to focus their resources, determine their priorities and thoroughly review the instruments in their foreign policy toolkit. Even as several countries of Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia are seeking greater intermediary assistance from well-respected global forces, Russia and the West have become involved in the geopolitical tug-of-war over dominance in Eurasia, continuing to draw up war plans against one another. Such a complicated state of affairs explains why geopolitical shifts adversely affect peace process in Eastern Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniester.
Clearly, Russia has always considered itself a great power that should be surrounded by semi-sovereign buffer states. Even today, the Russian factor plays a key role in the unfolding security situation in the entire post-Soviet space. Despite outside strategic concerns like the ongoing crises in Ukraine, the South Caucasus and other parts of the former Soviet Union, Russia has so far taken a proactive stance in CIS affairs, trying to convince the West that the Kremlin has major potential in resolving security issues in their own backyard. Indeed, Moscow is seeking to create strong new content-based relations with CIS countries, and all the latest political steps by the Kremlin have been aimed at enhancing Russia’s geopolitical position in post-Soviet Eurasia.
Russia’s successful foreign policy in the region also results from the failure of Western powers in the CIS, or at least the systemized weakening of their stances. Washington’s failure to craft any coherent vision as to how the post-Soviet territory fits into broader U.S. strategy has allowed its role to be increasingly defined through the prism of Russia. The lack of a meaningful U.S. response to the challenge presented by the protracted conflicts in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus not only highlights the low level of U.S. engagement in the conflict-torn regions but also casts doubt on America’s ability to be an effective player in international organizations like the UN and the OSCE.
Much the same is true of EU’s Eastern partnership policy, which reflects a lackadaisical attitude and offers a pitiful sop to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – six countries that the EU does not want to invite as full members. In effect, the EU lacks a visionary and principled approach in its policy toward resolving post-Soviet regional security issues. Brussels has practically no role in conflict settlement and therefore does not have the necessary tools to intervene in the peace process, offering only confidence-building activities. Such a situation strongly limits the influence of the EU in the Eastern neighborhood and dramatically hinders Brussels’ capacity to formulate meaningful policy to deal with simmering secessionist conflicts.
This means that neither the United States nor the EU are ready to offer CIS countries a real alternative to Russian policies. The failure of the West to design a sound workable action plan for dealing with Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors indicates that it is nearly impossible for the United States and the EU to make good on security guarantees for these nations. It is thus no surprise that Western powers are unsuccessful in their post-Soviet strategies. The resulting lack of a common and integrated strategy may lead to a gradual withdrawal of Western democracies from the CIS and the loss of ground to Russia’s more assertive foreign policy.
Consequently, Russia is seen as essentially having a monopoly over reshaping the contours of regional security architecture in the post-Soviet space. While the Kremlin views the security of the CIS as fundamental to their interests, Western powers simply underestimate Russia’s increased role in orchestrating today’s geopolitical processes in post-Soviet Eurasia.
The Kremlin may be successful in helping some CIS countries resolve ethnic conflicts, thus fostering greater stability of the entire region. Most local leaders know full well that Moscow’s blessing will be a necessary precondition for any political solution or peace agreement because the Kremlin holds the key to the major security puzzles. Some states may decide that Russia is not necessarily their main threat, and instead view Moscow as a natural ally against domestic and external threats.
The already-strained Russia-West relations could easily contribute to the future isolation of the CIS region. The Kremlin is talking more and more about the need to protect the state’s frontiers and turn them into an impenetrable barrier against terrorists, criminals and would-be enemies of the state. A stronger Russia than in the 1990s may further enhance its geopolitical clout in various, subtle ways so as to develop and execute problem-solving scenarios that would gratify not only Russia’s interests but also the entire post-Soviet neighborhood. Such a move could urge CIS political leaders to accept the Kremlin’s rules and eventually integrate their countries more fully into a Eurasian Union.
Strategically, however, the Kremlin may still see former Soviet countries as protective buffer states. Through BRICS, SCO and in scores of joint energy projects and counter-terrorism manoeuvers, Russia collaborates closely with China, Turkey and Iran to keep CIS countries peaceful, compliant and relatively free of Western penetration. The return of global Russia may even push Moscow to view the post-Soviet world in a completely new way. The very fact that President Putin once famously noted that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century demonstrates his long-term goal to restructure the CIS by shifting away from confederation to a much more consolidated form of a new union in which economic, political and military characteristics are expected to predominate. Such a regional perspective best illustrates Russia’s broad interests, of which Putin’s Eurasian Union is but one important part.
As Russia and the West have entered a tense period of prolonged mutual distrust, the way forward for CIS countries is indeed difficult to discern. But yet the Kremlin seems to be waiting for a suitable time and favorable circumstances before putting Russia’s weight behind a solution to regional security issues in the region: when a new, beneficial geopolitical situation that fits well into Russia’s strategic interests is finally formed in the CIS territory. This is why the next few years will prove decisive in the struggle to reshape the post-Soviet neighborhood and incorporate Russia’s ‘near abroad’ countries into a new cohesive integrated union. The final chapter of the post-Soviet states is therefore still being written, and there is much work to do before long-term stability and lasting peace become firmly rooted in this part of the world.
Looking Ahead: Forever Adversaries or Genuine Partners?
Evidently, Russia remains a vital element of a rapidly developing European security order. Rethinking Russia could therefore start with considering it not primarily as a threat to the West but rather as a critical contributor to Europe’s evolving security system. Instead of blaming President Putin for everything that goes wrong in world affairs, Western leaders should raise one fundamental question that could rethink their stance on a present-day European security order: can Russia and the West ever become genuine partners or will remain forever adversaries?
This poignant question then leads us to consider broader, more politically sensitive questions:
Do Russia and the West have the capacity to learn from history? Are they destined to go on making the same mistakes over and over again? Are they going to cooperate internationally in ventures that unite them and that help in the reconstruction of a safer Europe and hence a peaceful world, or will they fail that test? These are perhaps the most difficult and time-consuming questions confronting the international community today because it is about what future awaits Russian-Western relations in the coming years. The answers to them may be yes and no.
Both sides may still seek to understand the implication of past follies and errors, and to commit themselves to the hope that they can learn from the signs of the times that are around them and from the lessons of the past and understand the meaning of change. True, geopolitical games are endless in nature. Sometimes they even become dangerous, especially when players breach the established rules and cross the red lines. A very simple example can be seen in Ukraine’s prolonged conflict – quirky, infuriating, intriguing, and wearying – that has definitively posed a new ‘Eastern Question’ to which Moscow, Brussels and Washington have so far failed to find a clear answer. That’s mainly because Russia and the West are engaged in fighting the Ukraine problem instead of solving the crisis itself.
Deciding the Eastern Question requires building a new European security architecture that is comprehensive, flexible and acceptable to all. Neither Russia nor the West needs the reemergence of Cold War-like security blocs which present serious risks for the stability of Europe going forward. Instead they need a new model of international relations that would convert Europe to a better and safer system of comprehensive security. This is a policy of necessity to forge a new cooperative security order in which Russia, the United Stated and the EU may well become founding members.
As has been true so many times in the past, the United States and the EU have no credible strategies for containing Russia. Yet, even in the highly violent, imperfect world that exists today, finding a middle ground between reconciliation and confrontation could be a positive outcome. Delaying to do so would merely make the endgame much worse. If the United States and the EU want to keep the door open for revising the European security order for the future, then a cooperative security relationship between Russia and the West may become real.
To succeed, Western leaders must reframe their approach to the Eurasian endgame, rejecting the assumptions that have shaped their policies since the beginning of the post-Cold War crisis of the world order. In order to confront emerging global challenges together and to fortify tomorrow’s prospects, this time both sides will need to demonstrate a willingness to enter into talks without any taboos or preconditions. The key to success in the negotiating process will be finding harmonizing mechanisms between NATO and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and between the EU and the Eurasian Union. And perhaps attempts to design a roadmap for a new mutually beneficial bargain may ultimately enter the endgame.
Obviously, the security of Russia and the West cannot be guaranteed if both are isolated from each other. Thoughtful statesmen in Moscow, Brussels and Washington need not relearn the painful lesson that isolationism is the road to disaster. Although the voices of division remain strong, the new security environment facing both Russia and the West is so varied and challenging that only continued dialogue will help them find responses. But those challenges can indeed be transformed into opportunities if Russia and Western powers take responsibility and decisive action. Those who argue otherwise are caught up in the precepts of the nineteenth century global geopolitics – oblivious to the reality of today’s world.
Although the endgame to any crisis is difficult to predict, already now is a better time for top leaders of both Russia and Western powers to nudge their nations away from the brink of a no-holds-barred nuclear arms race and to reconstruct global security order in the harmonious symmetry of major world powers in international relations. Otherwise, the future of European security will look too gloomy, as neither the West nor Russia will be capable of meeting new threats and challenges in the twenty-first century.
Elkhan Nuriyev is Expert Advisory Board Member at the Reconnecting Eurasia in Geneva, Switzerland. He is also a Global Energy Associate at the Brussels Energy Club. In 2014-15, he worked as a DAAD Senior Policy Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations and was a Humboldt Senior Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.