How did Russia and the West get here and how do we move forward? (Part 4)

How did Russia and the West get here and how do we move forward? (Part 4)

Ola McLees
St Antony's College, University of Oxford

Ola McLees (Oxford) provides the fourth and final part in our series of responses to the current state of Russia-West relations, following her participation in the inaugural UC Module at the Harriman Institute.

Fundamental disagreements between Russia and the West on policy and practice did not arise overnight. They have been shaped over the last 25 years, since the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union, through differing interpretations of events, the misinterpretation of intentions and increasingly divergent interests. The West finds itself continuously surprised and caught off guard by Russia’s actions, beginning with Putin’s Munich speech through to the Ukraine Crisis and invasion of Crimea. There have, however, also been unexpected positive surprises from the Russian side, be it the proposal and implementation of the removal of chemical weapons from Syria or the success of the Iranian deal. This paradox points to either a genuine unpredictability of the Russian leadership or our fundamental misreading of their intentions and aspirations.

Even the most pro-Western Russian politicians early on highlighted time and again that Russia does not want to be treated by the United States or Europe as a junior partner in particularly regional but also global decision-making. The West, however, intent and optimistic about integrating Russia into Western institutions, glossed over these concerns with the confidence that true and complete integration would alleviate Russia’s sense of being treated as a second-tier power and help align our interests going forward. The failure of this integration policy has refocused attention on the divergence of our interests and emboldened the Putin regime to act as a spoiler.

One key opportunity is recognition by both sides of the fact that the current global system is unsatisfactory and unable to meet the new forms of challenges, primarily of international terrorism but also of a global refugee crisis. American politicians on both sides of the aisle have come to recognize that the cost is too great for the U.S. to continue to act as the global policeman. Reliance on partnerships, balanced and equal in their contribution and voice, will be the way of the future, most immediately in dealing with ISIS regionally and terrorism globally. This should not be interpreted as a decline in American power or influence, as the U.S. certainly still has the capacity to act as a moral and motivational leader on global issues. It is time for pragmatism to overcome ideological divisiveness.

Figuring out an effective and collaborative form of engagement in Syria would be a huge first step. Understandably, we differ in both which factions to support and how to best effect the situation to bring about a conclusion to a civil war, which has spiralled out of control and become a huge international challenge. There is, nevertheless, agreement regarding the dangers of allowing the conflict to perpetuate. For Russians there is the very real fear of Syria being a training ground for militants from the North Caucasus, which will likely have serious domestic security repercussions. The U.S. and EU have also felt the reach of ISIS, and recognize the domestic threat caused by the growing numbers of Western fighters engaging in Syria and Iraq. Intelligence sharing and coordination of efforts to prevent the reverberation of terrorism from the region is in both parties’ interest, and would go a long way in building trust between the West and Russia by providing us with greater understanding on both sides and open channels of communication on an operational level. Though there is an understandable concern that this kind of issue-by-issue approach obscures the main divisions and concerns on both sides, I would argue it is the first step to bridging the gap by recalibrating dialogue into productive and trust-building interaction, allowing us to tackle the greater disagreements in an effective and constructive manner.