How did Russia and the West get here and how do we move forward? (Part 5)

How did Russia and the West get here and how do we move forward? (Part 5)

Hanna Notte
St Antony's College, University of Oxford

Hanna Notte (Oxford) returns to the question of how we reached the present state of Russia-West relations. Her analysis provides the next in our continuing series of responses from our Consortium Fellows, who participated in the second UC Module at the Davis Center in February 2016.

If we want to arrive at a nuanced understanding of why crises in West-Russia relations keep occurring, looking at past instances in which the two sides have actually cooperated – and especially at Russian expectations attached to such cooperation – can generate interesting insights. Following 9/11, for example, the US and Russia united in a partnership to fight international terrorism and there was much optimism on both sides for a qualitatively better relationship. But cooperation rarely comes “for free”: Russia at the time adjusted its policy in support of the US – for instance, by providing material assistance for the war in Afghanistan, or supporting UN Security Council Resolutions on Iraq following the March 2003 invasion (even though Moscow had been against the war!) – with a view to realising joint gains. For Moscow, these gains needed neither be identical, nor were they necessarily concerned with the actual theatre of cooperation (Afghanistan and Iraq). Instead, Russian objectives related to other issue areas in the bilateral relationship.

At the time, Russian rhetoric, proclaiming Moscow to be a partner of the US in the ‘Global War on Terror’, was aimed not only at deflecting international criticism of its own ‘war on terror’ in Chechnya. Russia also hoped for increased US willingness for intelligence sharing with Moscow. More broadly, Russia expected to be treated like an equal partner of the US, which was to entail recognition of special interests in its so-called near-abroad. While these expectations might not have been explicitly articulated to US officials, they resonated in the broader strategic dialogue at the time.

To what extent, then, were Russian objectives fulfilled? Certainly, whereas the US government had often criticised the Chechen war, it indeed changed its rhetoric after 9/11, admitting that “Russia is fighting terrorists in Chechnya”. It designated some Chechen groups as terrorist organizations. Yet, officials also repeatedly stated that a political process was needed to end the conflict and that “not every Chechen is a terrorist”. In Russia, such talk was received as evidence of Western hypocrisy in the ‘war on terror’. Moscow’s hopes for improved counterterrorism cooperation with the US also proved exaggerated. Given residual Cold War mistrust, Russian officials actually expected little from working with the Americans. Russians, in research interviews with me, have occasionally invoked a rephrased joke from the Brezhnev era to describe the mood at the time: “They (the Americans) pretend that they are really sharing information with us, and we pretend that we’re acting on the basis of that information”.

But most importantly, Moscow was unable to rewrite the rules of the West-Russia relationship via its ‘war on terror’ partnership. Early on, the US’ missile defense plans and abrogation of the ABM Treaty angered Putin, but the Kremlin yielded to Bush's initiative. When the Baltic states were invited to join NATO, however, anger was brewing in the Kremlin. Russia felt it was not treated like an equal partner at all. Then, a firm belief that the West had staged the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine dealt the ultimate blow to the ‘war on terror’ partnership. As it turned out, Russian expectations that cooperation in the ‘Global War on Terror’ could bring rewards in areas as strategically important as NATO expansion simply seemed far-fetched.

The post-9/11 experience shows that Russia might be particularly induced to support US policy, for instance in the Middle East, when it expects some rewards in other policy areas, which it believes will outweigh what it could gain from playing “spoiler”. Of course, the above discussion is not intended to suggest that Western officials should simply accommodate Russian expectations in order to elicit the desired behaviour. But I think they should at least be more aware of them, so that possible disappointment and evolving crisis – like the one that unfolded after the Iraq invasion between 2003 and 2005 – can be better managed or altogether avoided. Such a more nuanced, possibly more empathetic, approach towards Russia appears especially urgent today, given exacerbating security challenges in the Middle East, Moscow’s arguably greater role in that region, yet also a serious crisis in West-Russia relations, which means prospects for cooperation are far from promising.