In their own ways both Russia and the West consider themselves at war with each other. A political war, one fought by diplomacy and destabilisation, economics and espionage, memes and misinformation, but a war nonetheless. Wars bring their own zero-sum logic, so it would seem appropriate to ask the most basic of questions: who ‘won’ 2018? Our columnist Mark Galeotti weighs in.
Opinion tends to be shaped by feelings more than facts on the ground. Those in the West who see Russian interference behind every protest or reversal insist that an aggressive, Machiavellian Kremlin is still setting the pace. Divisions in Europe, riots in France, 'authoritarian democracy' in Hungary, the bulwarks which once contained Putin appear to be fracturing. The continuing 'collusion' controversy in the USA, rekindled by revelations from Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, have also provided more ammunition for those who assume that the White House will soon be sporting onion domes. In the Middle East and Africa, Moscow is acquiring new allies and clients, and where overt Kremlin will not reach, the proxy instruments of spies, mercenaries and gangsters will.
Seen from Moscow, though, things look a lot less clear and much less encouraging. The European Union may well be going through a period of redefinition, maybe even crisis, but four years on, the sanctions regime is holding. Many countries, if one were honest, would love to see at least a partial relaxation, but none are yet willing to be the first to break the consensus. Meanwhile, pressed by a US president who sees security in balance sheet terms, European nations are spending more on defence and adopting an increasingly tough line on Russian espionage. Even Greece and Slovakia – which held back from joining the coordinated expulsions of diplomat-spies following the Skripal case – have since thrown out Russian agents for reasons of their own.
Trump may sometimes sound like a Putin fanboy, but the irony is that US policy towards Russia is tougher than under his predecessor. The sanctions regime, now controlled essentially by a Moscow-unfriendly Congress, is here to stay, for the foreseeable future, with more to come in 2019. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF nuclear treaty because of alleged Russian infractions may have relatively few security implications for Moscow, but is an undeniable political blow. For a Kremlin so desperate to assert Russia’s place as a great, global power, that Washington can tear up an agreement that gave Moscow some kind of special status in such a cavalier manner emphasises just how far this is from true.
Success is expensive
To be sure, Moscow is accumulating clients and customers in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America, but it is also becoming reminded of one of the bitter truths the Soviet Union had to learn: empires cost. Russia can sell weapons to Venezuela, be a patron to Syria, and cultivate rebel Field Marshal Haftar in Libya, because it is willing to discount and subsidise its sales to the first, deploy airpower to protect the second, and give a maverick official status in the third. Whether treasure, or blood, or political capital, Moscow is having to pay for the privilege of feeling like a global player.
And how much such 'success' can it afford? Its economy is surviving the sanctions – and will continue to do so, even if they 2are extended – but it is hardly thriving. For every small cheesemaker rejoicing in its new markets, there is a major hydrocarbons player worrying about access to technology and investments. The inflation rate is crawling up towards the Central Bank’s target rate of 4%, while the economy is heading for a mild slowdown, with predicted growth of no more than 1.4%. In part, the West can smugly claim the credit, although it also reflects policy, with the government seeking to buy long-term stability at the cost of near-term growth. The defence budget is at best plateaued, but spending on a range of public services has actually fallen, the impacts of which have begun to be felt.
So, who is winning? The obvious answer is that this is a childish question. At best, one could talk about which side is losing the most.
The way the West chose to handle its relations with Putin’s Russia before 2014 and then after the Crimean annexation and Donbas intervention, have managed to convince the Kremlin and a powerful minority of the national elite that they are implacably hostile. The later US sanctions, with their lack of any clear conditions for lifting, and the over-loud but under-perceptive hysteric wing of the punditocracy, who affect to see Putin’s hand in everything that goes wrong, only serve to reinforce this inaccurate perspective.
The Kremlin is driven by insecurity, isolation and the belief that it faces a competent and powerful enemy
Of course, Russia is the aggressor in the current political conflict. It stole Crimea, stirred up a toxic mix of rebellion and proxy war in the Donbas, unleashed its spies, trolls and assassins in the West, encouraged all manner of populists, racists and demagogues, and covered up atrocities such as the rebels’ downing of the MH17 airliner. Most recently, it has begun treating the Azov Sea as its private lake, strangling the port trade of Mariupol and Berdyansk and shooting up Ukrainian ships that tried to run the gauntlet of the Kerch straits.
It is not, however, engaged in an attempt to reconstitute the USSR (or the tsarist empire), trying to shatter the whole global order, hell-bent on territorial expansion (beyond Crimea), or even that effective in magnifying the very real internal tensions and divisions of the West. The Kremlin is driven by insecurity, isolation and the belief that it faces a terrifyingly competent and powerful enemy determined to see it humbled.
This is the tragedy: everyone feels they are under threat, and losing. A much-diminished Russia sees its subaltern status in the world not as a natural adjustment to its new economic and soft power capacities but the result of malicious foreign plots, especially for those members of the elite whose instincts are conspiratorial and whose experiences disproportionately in the shadow wars of espionage. Meanwhile, a distracted West that expected Moscow obediently to adapt to its new role as a bit part player in its story, responds to the Kremlin’s antics with a counter-productive and incoherent mix of bluster, sanctions and invective.
In their inability to understand the other and their willingness to blame everyone else, there is not an iron curtain but a mirror along Russia’s western border. I was, for example, once asked by a Russian diplomat in alarmed perplexity, why Western governments pay so much attention to one particularly rabid and Russophobic pundit. I explained that in reality they did not, and this individual’s self-publicity ought not to be taken at face value. I could just as easily have been reassuring Western counterparts why they ought not to believe that Putin’s worldview is shaped by such nationalists and downright imperialists as Alexander Dugin, who for no good reason has been termed 'Putin’s Rasputin' by some foreign journalists.
The West responds with a counter-productive and incoherent mix of bluster, sanctions and invective
Meanwhile, according to recent polls by the Pew Research Centre, over a third of Germans trust Putin to do the right thing in world affairs, almost as many Italians, and even in the UK (which experienced the Skripal attack) and the USA (despite interference in the 2016 election), it is more than one in five. Is this genuinely because they respect Putin’s (minimal) governmental skills or his (questionable) moral authority? Hardly; it is because they feel so unmoored from their own leaders and the society in which they live. Just as Brexit was as much as anything else about a national sense of powerlessness, and Trump anger against the elite. So too this geopolitical war is more than anything else about other things. About a country trying to adapt to the end of empire and a bloc that didn’t care then, and doesn’t know what to do now.
So who is winning? None of us are.