As chasm grows between a resurgent Russia and a divided US and Europe, diplomats say conflict is now more dangerous, with ‘no clear rules of the road’
Gen Sir Richard Shirreff remembers the moment he realised Nato was facing a new and more dangerous Russia. It was 19 March 2014, the day after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Shirreff, then deputy supreme allied commander Europe, was at Nato’s military HQ in Mons, Belgium, when an American two-star general came in with the transcript of Putin’s speech justifying the annexation. “He briefed us and said: ‘I think this just might be a paradigm-shifting speech’, and I think he might have been right,” Shirreff recalled.
The Russian president’s address aired a long list of grievances, with the west’s attempts to contain Russia in the 18th to 20th centuries right at the top.
Putin said: “They have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact. This happened with Nato’s expansion to the east, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders.”
He warned that Russia would no longer tolerate such pressure: “If you press the spring it will release at some point. That is something you should remember.”
Warnings of a return to cold war politics have been a staple of European debate for three years, but in recent weeks many western diplomats, politicians and analysts have come to believe the spring has indeed been released. Russia is being reassessed across western capitals. The talk is no longer of transition to a liberal democracy, but regression.
The post-cold war era is over, and a new era has begun. Cold war 2.0, different in character, but potentially as menacing and founded not just on competing interests but competing values.
The French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said: “The reality is that behind the appearance of consensus … a form of world disorder took hold. We are now paying the price for that error of assessment that gave westerners a feeling of comfort for two decades”.
In the UK, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said in his party conference speech that the west had been mistaken in its belief that “the fall of the Berlin Wall meant the world had come to a moment of ideological resolution after seven frozen and sometimes terrifying decades of communist totalitarian rule”.
Others such as Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, warned: “We are moving into an era that is as dangerous, if not more dangerous, as the cold war because we do not have that focus on a strategic relationship between Moscow and Washington.” But unlike the cold war, there are now “no clear rules of the road” between the two countries.
The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, an advocate of dialogue, made the same point: “It’s a fallacy to think that this is like the cold war. The current times are different and more dangerous.”
The reasons for all this anxiety are not hard to find. The accumulation of recent Russian provocations is daunting. The hybrid frozen war in Ukraine and the bombardment of Aleppo in Syria, revealing a determination to keep Bashar al-Assad in power, top the list.
Add to that Putin’s sudden scrapping of a 20-year-old US-Russian agreement to reprocess excess plutonium to prevent its use in nuclear weapons. He also deployed short-range, nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave in eastern Europe, unnerving Nato members Poland and Lithuania. He moved advanced S-300 and S-400 ground-to-air missiles, and radar into Syria in a sign that he now regards the country as his preserve, and can see off any plan for a Turkish or American no-fly zone. In a display of military reach he dispatched the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, and its taskforce, to the waters off Syria so its SU-30s and MiG-29 aircrafts can drop yet more bombs on Syria.
He even raised the spectre of the Cuban missile crisis by saying he was considering reopening military bases in Cuba and Vietnam, a move calculated to unnerve US public opinion. At the same time, Putin is trying to challenge western diplomatic alliances – notably with Turkey, Egypt, China and Libya.
All the while he experiments with new techniques – the unprecedented use of cyber warfare, including the hacking of Democratic politicians’ emails, and wider use of information wars to destabilise the Baltics or fund parties of the right in eastern Europe. The only common factor, apart from the aggression, is his unpredictability, adding to Putin’s self-image as a master of political intrigue.
Putin hopes he is striking at a moment of peculiar western vulnerability, making the west look flat-footed. Hugo Swire, a Foreign Office minister under David Cameron, explained: “The truth is that with America increasingly absorbed by a sometimes surreal presidential election, France and Germany facing elections of their own next year, [US secretary of state John] Kerry soon to leave office and a change of leadership at the UN, a degree of paralysis has entered into our relations with Russia.”
Many acknowledge the west must take its share of the blame for the collapse of relations. The mistakes are real, notably the scale of Nato expansion to the east and in the Baltics. Russia also feels deeply that it was duped into accepting a UN resolution criticising Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, only to find it was used as cover for regime change. Hillary Clinton, then at the State Department, did little to mange the Russians. Russia has not voted for humanitarian action at the UN since.
Britain acknowledges errors over Ukraine and Syria. The former Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Simon Fraser recently accepted: “With hindsight we might have foreseen in 2013 that the combination of formally signing a deep free trade agreement [with Ukraine], with the internal unrest facing President Putin on his return to office, and the perception that had arisen of greater reticence in western foreign policy, could result in a more aggressive Russian response in Ukraine, and opportunism in Syria.”
By refusing to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013, Sawers argues, the west “vacated the theatre and the Russians moved in. It was certainly a mistake. Chemical weapons were being used against civilians in Damascus by their own regime. We had upheld a taboo against the use of chemical weapons and we failed to uphold it on this occasion.”
The issue in Europe and the US now is how to respond to Putin? Some believe Russian statehood requires a more aggressive foreign policy. The Kremlin, faced by an ailing economy and declining population, needs external threats of war and violence in the media because Putin “has no civilian project to offer to society”, said Dr Andrew Monaghan at Chatham House. Putin instead offers a mobilisation strategy. The answer is to confront and push back, acknowledging that Putin sees offers of dialogue as a sign of weakness.
Others insist the west must continue to engage and keep pressing the reset button because coexistence is the only option.
In the US and Europe, the question about what to do with Russia is far from settled, something Putin is likely to continue to exploit.
A Europe divided between sanctions and detente
The French foreign minister has probably led the European outrage at Putin’s behaviour in eastern Aleppo, describing the crisis as the worst for Europe since the second world war. Ayrault has been the most forward in accusing Russia of war crimes.
In a recent lecture he said: “It is self-evident Russia experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc as a downgrade … A new balance, based on less confrontation and more on cooperation, unfortunately has not spontaneously emerged from the rubble of the cold war.
“To those who turned to Paris, telling us for months that just get behind Moscow to solve the Syrian problem, I say, you were mistaken.”
But Putin has sympathisers on the French right. Some, including Front National leader Marine le Pen appreciate his authoritarianism and fight against Islamic extremism. The former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who met Putin in June, has promised to lift economic sanctions against Moscow. He has derided François Hollande’s refusal to meet Putin in Paris last week as irresponsible. By contrast, his rival for the nomination on the French right, Alain Juppé – the favourite to win the race for the Élysée – said the weakness of the US has been a “source of disquiet”, and that he would welcome the election of the more interventionist Hillary Clinton.
In Germany, where the contest over Russia and sanctions has been most intense, Putin can also exploit divisions. He can see the SPD, the junior partner in the coalition, trying to manoeuvre itself once again into the party of detente, knowing this will be electorally popular, particularly in the old East Germany.
But faced by the scar of Aleppo, even Rolf Mützenich, the party’s deputy floor leader in the Bundestag and an opponent of Nato’s buildup against Moscow, harshly criticised SPD “rapprochement romantics” last year and warned against the “misconception that old-style Ostpolitik was possible following the annexation of Crimea”.
The Greens’ foreign policy spokesman, Omid Nouripour, is more confrontational, calling for the end of Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that will make Germany even more dependent on Russian energy. He has called for sanctions against the bosses of Rosneft and Gazprom, the two firms that will benefit from the pipeline’s construction.
Manfred Weber, the head of the Conservative European Peoples party group in the European parliament, declared: “Appeasement of Russia has failed. As long as Putin is shelling civilians, he cannot be a partner.” But Angela Merkel’s CDU is reluctant to impose sanctions over Syria, arguing they only have an effect in the long term, and Aleppo requires an immediate solution.
The German chancellor, who has probably devoted more hours to the Putin relationship than any other western politician, is exasperated. She is a dealmaker, but in 2014 – following a conversation with Putin on Ukraine’s annexation – she told Obama that the Russian president was “living in a different world”. But a second round of sanctions in an election year is not attractive.
In Britain, the pre-eminent home for anti-Russian rhetoric since Cameron’s failed attempt at detente in 2011, Johnson has warned Russia that if it continues on its path it could be deemed a rogue nation.
But there are British voices urging calm. Tony Brenton, Britain’s ambassador to Moscow from 2004 to 2008, calls for realism. He argues that the post-war international system – or “liberal hegemony” as he puts it – no longer works. “We have failed with Russia and we are failing with China,” he said.
Brenton’s answer is to accept the limits of 21st-century western influence. “We are going to have to moderate our own ambitions. We can defend ourselves. We can protect our interests. But telling other bad countries how they should behave is less and less possible,” he said.
On Syria and “the whole mess in the Middle East”, Brenton said that there was not a lot the west could do. He said Putin’s goal was to gain a clear military victory in Aleppo so he can negotiate with the US and its allies from a position of strength. In this scenario, Washington would be left with “unattractive options”.
The US: ‘We took our eye off the ball’
Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has viewed Russia largely through the prism of its ailing economy and early on concluded Moscow was essentially a weak adversary trying to compensate for its impotence with shows of military bravado. Putin was “pursuing 19th-century policies with 20th-century weapons in the 21st century”, the president told at least one foreign visitor.
During his 2012 re-election campaign, when his opponent Mitt Romney suggested Russia might be the country’s “No 1 geopolitical foe”, the president led the derision.
“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the cold war’s been over for 20 years,” Obama said in one of the presidential debates.
More recently, he has adjusted his rhetoric to claim Putin was over-stretching Moscow’s capacity and would ultimately become trapped in Syria as the US was trapped in Iraq and Afghanistan. The word “quagmire” began to appear more frequently in the talking points being distributed by senior administration officials.
A President Clinton would take a more hawkish view, and she would find support in the Senate. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee and a Russia specialist, said the US needed to revisit its whole approach to Russia. He said: “Through its words and deeds, it appears Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not a partner for peace.”
That view has extended to the US military. General Tommy Franks, head of the US army, said: “I think we were all optimistic. Perhaps [we] misread certain things, but also in the last 15 years our focus has been on Iraq and Afghanistan. We reduced the volume of people who could speak and read Russian. We were so busy trying to produce Arabic and Pashto speakers. We took our eye off the ball.”
What’s next? How the west could respond to Russian threats
The EU, in search of a policy response, is reaching again for sanctions. They have been estimated to have cost the Russian economy $280bn in capital inflows and to be taking roughly 0.5% a year off the GDP. In a society devoid of internal political and institutional constraints on the behaviour of the elite, extended sanctions could weaken Putin’s grip on power.
John Lough, a Chatham House associate fellow, said sanctions now needed to be extended to target the individuals responsible for and contributing to the policies designed to destabilise the EU’s eastern neighbours.
“These should include all senior civilian and military officials in occupied Crimea, the heads of Russian state media as well as editors, news presenters and reporters engaged in state propaganda operations designed to provide falsified reporting of western policies towards Russia and neighbouring countries,” he said.
Bill Browder, a former investment banker whose lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in Russian custody in 2009, is another exponent of sanctions. Magnitsky was jailed after exposing a $230m tax fraud carried out by corrupt Russian officials and involving taxes paid by Browder’s firm, Hermitage Capital.
“What you do is go after Putin’s wealth and the wealth of his country,” Browder said. “Putin has been a kleptocrat all his life.” Browder suggests dramatically increasing the US and EU sanctions list, which already features Putin’s cronies but should be expanded to the “10,000 people who’ve stolen all the money”.
The next step, Browder said, was to cut Russia off from Swift, the international banking payment system. Iranian banks were disconnected in 2012 – a move that forced Tehran to negotiate over its nuclear programme. Many Russian state banks are vulnerable to collapse.
But ultimately the key decisions will be taken in the new White House. Anthony Cordesman, a strategic analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the new administration must confront three realities. “First, Russia is a now broad strategic rival and is likely to remain so at least as long as Putin is in power. Second, the US can’t rebalance to Asia away from Europe or the Middle East. And third, short of being chased off the stage, the United States will have to play out a weak hand in Syria to limit and contain Russian influence.”
“There are no easy answers to the Russians,” said a Washington-based European diplomat. “They are deploying such aggressive rhetoric and policy. During the cold war there was an accepted vocabulary between the sides. There was a game, there was an accepted game,” the diplomat said. “Now the danger is there is no order. There is no accepted language. We are not talking the same language”.