A Separate Peace

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No, this isn’t about the tearjerker John Knowles novel. It’s about that question of the day, “what does Putin want?” And a separate peace is also something I think is becoming more likely based on recent events.

My thesis is: Russia’s leadership, and to a large extent the Russian population, want to reach a separate peace with the EU, and would probably be willing to live with much more hostility from the United States (which, as I’ll explain below, serves the same purpose). From the American perspective this goal is lost in the overall narrative of “Russia wants to break up the Western alliance,” but I think it’s a much less principled approach than that and it’s worth looking at without the rhetoric of “Western values” or “liberal democracy.”

I’ve noticed that I tend to bury the lede, so I’ll say up front what crystallized my thinking: when it was announced the other day that the US Senate had reached an agreement on new Russian sanctions, it sparked a gut reaction in some European allies, particularly Germany and Austria, which issued a joint statement condemning the provisions of the new sanctions package which would allow US authorities to punish any companies that provide assistance to Russia with oil and gas exports. This was followed up by a threat of German retaliation (read: EU retaliation) if European companies are harmed by these sanctions.

And this is what the Russian foreign ministry tweeted, through the Russian Embassy in London.

Many Americans would see this and think, “there goes Russia again, trying to drive a wedge between the Western liberal democratic allies.” See the thread below.

As the British say, I almost agree with Bear Market Brief’s assessment, but I don’t think that “political upside” or “US-EU squabbling” is really the goal in and of itself. It is a means to an end: for the US not to be invited to the table in dealings between the European countries and Russia. And the goal of the US not being invited has very little to do with weakening democracy or undermining Western liberal values, but about separating the renewed great-power rivalry between the US and Russia from “business as usual” with Europe.

No More Leading From Behind

Obama’s “Lead From Behind” foreign policy doctrine (though I don’t think Obama himself ever referred to it that way) was frequently criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike, though many Democrats also praised it. It is easy to criticize the results of this approach as seen in the US actions in Libya and Syria, but I have long thought that if the goal was to get under the skin of the Russian leadership, the “lead from behind” approach worked very well with Russia.

Russia’s direct and proxy intervention in Ukraine in early 2014, culminating in the Crimea referendum in March 2014, caught the West off guard. From a Western perspective, this was a scenario so dire, and yet so hackneyed and unlikely, that only foreign policy neophyte Sarah Palin seriously believed it could happen.

As is typical in any world crisis, European allies looked to the US and asked, “what are you going to do about this?” Note: not “what are we going to do.” Europe depends on Russia for its energy security, but lots of European companies, tourist attractions, real estate markets, banks, and regular people were making a lot of money from business with Russia and Russians–in some cases hard-won business backed by many years of investment.

Obama’s answer to the Europeans was basically that the US was ready to impose tough sanctions against Russia but would only do it in lockstep with the EU. John Kerry, Joe Biden and an army of State Department arm-twisters were deployed to Europe to get everyone in line–total EU unanimity is required to impose international sanctions.

There were other options available, of course: the most obvious being that the US could have implemented unilateral sanctions against Russia without Europe, like the ones in place against Cuba (and now Iran). And frankly, that would’ve suited a lot of Europeans just fine. But it wouldn’t have hurt Russia very much, because US-Russia trade is miserly compared to Russia-EU trade, and it would’ve meant not only that European companies would quickly move in to replace the American companies that were forced out of Russia, but that Russia and the EU would continue to strengthen economic ties with the US on the outside looking in.

So the current Western sanctions package in place against Russia is basically defined by what Europeans could stomach–that’s the lowest common denominator. And they don’t affect Russian exports of oil and gas to Europe at all.

The problem with the sanctions, from a behavior-modifying perspective, is that Russia has adjusted quite well to living under them. While there’s been some pain, the Russian economy hasn’t collapsed by any means, and is now returning to growth–weak growth, but growth all the same. As a matter of fact, the Russian stock market was the world’s top-performing stock market in 2016.

However, seeing the Western countries act in complete lockstep was a startling and even frightening thing for the Russians. It made them feel small and vulnerable at a time when they wanted to feel great. It made them feel hated and misunderstood, less-than. And it was a mighty display of American power–while Moscow had often chided European governments for “marching under the Americans’ flute” (it sounds better in Russian), it was shocking to see it actually happen, 25 years after the end of the Cold War.

But now, with Russia hysteria spreading like wildfire in the US in the wake of the 2016 election, it doesn’t sit well with many people that the Russian economy is still chugging along, and the position of the Russian ruling elite is as secure as it’s ever been. Hence, new sanctions. But there’s no appetite amongst the Western allies for the US to lead from the front on new sanctions against Russia.

Will Putin Extend the Olive Branch?

Ironically, what would really drive a wedge between the US and Europe on Russia is if Putin begins to make concessions on divisive issues, particularly Ukraine. While Russia will never return Crimea, no matter who is running it, Putin could easily stop standing behind the Minsk Accords, unilaterally push the Donbass towards reuniting with Ukraine and turn the screws to deconflict the situation there–Putin could offer asylum to the leaders of the separatist republics, withdraw Russian military support, hand the border back to Ukraine and basically let the Ukrainian army roll into the Donbass. He would lose some face at home but it would be a strategic retreat.

Doing that would cost nothing, financially, and the main non-political risk would be a refugee crisis if citizens of the breakaway Eastern Ukrainian republics flee into Russia fearing reprisals from the Ukrainian military and prosecution from Ukrainian authorities. However, if Ukraine really wants to return the Donbass, they should be amenable to an amnesty. There are some Ukrainian nationalists who don’t care to see the Donbass return to Ukraine, but if Russia were willing to withdraw support for the separatists the Europeans would bring intense pressure to bear on Ukraine to reintegrate.

If that were to happen, there would be very strong pressure in key EU countries, especially Germany, to roll back a huge chunk of the EU sanctions (there is a part of the sanctions package dealing only with Crimea but it is something Russia could live with indefinitely).

Knowing that German public opinion is the key to lifting the EU sanctions, Putin would also make sure that there’s not even a whiff of Russian interference in the German parliamentary elections in September.

At the same time, there’s almost no chance that, given the Russia hysteria in the US, that the United States would lift any sanctions no matter what Putin does. And with Trump in the Oval Office (and, if he leaves, the Bible-thumping Pence), from a political culture perspective it’s inevitable that the EU and US will continue to drift apart no matter what happens.

As any knowledgable Russia expert will tell you, Putin is not an ideologue or a strategic genius–he is a bold opportunist who is skilled at seeing an opening. And there is an opening right now. Putin has surprised the world in the past by acting quickly against Western interests. A strange moment has arrived, where Putin can confound the West by doing (part of) what the West wants.

Back to Pershing 2

If you’ve read my previous post on Trump’s Inverse Wolfowitz Doctrine, you know that I think that the Reagan Administration’s deployment of Pershing 2 midrange nuclear missiles in West Germany in the early-to-mid 1980s was a pivotal and illustrative moment in intra-West relations. To my recollection, this was the last time that the United States successfully shoved a decision down the throat of a European ally despite it being massively politically unpopular among that ally’s people.

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And the Germans never forgot about it–they were still writing about it last week, saying “the country had irrevocably changed,” even before Helmut Kohl died on Friday, which has resulted in even more retrospectives of his controversial role in the Pershing 2 deployment.

So you have to remember: for Germans, and some other Europeans (but let’s get real: in the context of the EU, Germans are enough), the thought of Americans imposing foreign policy decisions on them conjures a more recent, visceral disgust than that of the threat of Russian expansionism. I would say “American lawmakers should keep this in mind” but that’s impossible–the Russia hysteria genie has long left the bottle and probably won’t return until well after Democrats have retaken the White House.

 

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