Will the US and Russia dance or duel?

Why Russia is playing a more muscular role in the world and how that may prevent closer ties between Trump and Putin. 

Dmitri Lovetsky/AP
Wooden dolls depict President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a shop in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Twenty years ago, Russia was a member of the Group of Eight industrialized democracies, a NATO partner, and a fledgling but enthusiastic new recruit to a budding “new world order.” Today, Russia has been kicked out of the G8, NATO has suspended all cooperation with Moscow, and Vladimir Putin says his nation is engaged in a “civilizational” battle with the West over “dueling values.”

Is a historic reconciliation between Washington and Moscow, which President Trump has hinted at, a real possibility? Recent pushback in Washington against the idea from leading Republicans and others has cast a shadow over the prospect. So, too, has the growing controversy over Trump presidential campaign contacts with Russian officials – including most recently revelations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions's conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US in 2016. And as President Putin charts a prouder and more assertive course for his vast nation, operations such as Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea in neighboring Ukraine point to much broader changes afoot that pose hard questions about the balance of power in the world.

From the Middle East to Latin America, from Ukraine to China, Russia is flexing its diplomatic and military muscles in a manner not witnessed since the cold war. And the world had better get used to it. “Russia is not some regional dwarf,” says Andrei Klimov, deputy head of the international affairs committee of the upper house of parliament, “but a world power with its own zone of influence.” 

That attitude spells trouble for the international system that America has dominated for decades. “Russia has positioned itself as the challenger of the global liberal order the United States has promoted,” warns Eugene Rumer, head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank in Washington. “Russia will continue to poke and prod us.”

So the question remains: Will there be a rapprochement between the US and Russia or a dangerous new era of bellicosity and brinkmanship? 

•     •     •

From Moscow’s perspective, a more assertive role in the world was inevitable as Russia grew back into its historical identity, defining itself in contrast to the West.

The post-Soviet experiment in free market capitalism, steered by Western advisers, left the jewels of the Russian economy in the hands of a few billionaire oligarchs – and hundreds of millions of Russians in penury. While Russia was weak, the Western military alliance extended itself to include former Soviet republics. Moscow felt threatened, humiliated, and forced to swallow Western values.

From the Western perspective, Russia has flunked the key test for membership in the club: democracy. And as Moscow has fallen back into its old autocratic ways, it has revealed revanchist territorial instincts and a determination to claw back lost influence in its neighborhood and beyond.

Amid deep mutual distrust and disillusion, Moscow has changed tack. In its 2013 “foreign-policy concept,” Russia referred to itself as “an integral, organic part of European civilization.” The new version that Putin approved last November drops that phrase and instead talks of “dueling values.” It blames “western powers” for “imposing their points of view” on the world and sees “the struggle for dominance in shaping the key principles of the future international system” as “a key trend” in world affairs.

Moscow cast aside one such key principle – nation-states’ territorial integrity – when neighboring Ukraine showed signs of aligning itself with the West. In 2014 Russian special forces invaded Crimea, historically a part of Russia but which more recently belonged to Ukraine, and annexed the region.

That move was illegal under international law; it provoked international sanctions that are still in place. But the annexation was massively popular among ordinary Russians, who saw it as a big step toward recovering their nation’s lost prestige, status, and authority. Indeed, 87 percent of respondents to one poll approved the move. Putin’s popularity rating stands at 86 percent, according to a poll last November.

Russia shows no sign of ambitions to reestablish the Soviet-era worldwide network of allies and client states. Rather, Moscow is concentrating on efforts to stifle any tendency among former Soviet republics to move closer to the West. That appears to be what is behind Moscow’s support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, where fighting flared up again in February.

Roman Dyuzhikov, a factory worker, and his family had survived three years of fighting unscathed until early February. Then, suddenly, one evening during a heavy rebel bombardment of their village of Avdiivka, a shell exploded in their kitchen.

Roman’s wife, Olga, had just left the room. “My first reaction was fear, fear for my children” who were sleeping, she says. She grabbed them from their beds and took shelter in the bathroom. 

Now Roman is trying to fix the gaping hole in the kitchen wall so that they can move back in. “I don’t know whether it is safe, but it’s our home,” says Olga.

Though loyalties are divided between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels in Avdiivka, Roman says, everyone shares a sense of desperation as the war drags on, claiming more civilian victims. “If you ask someone ‘who are you for?,’ the only answer you will get is, ‘we are for peace,’ ” he says.

Russia, though, is readying itself for more such conflicts. It is spending $300 billion to replace 70 percent of its military hardware by 2020, developing a professional army to replace the traditional mass conscript force, and building up rapid deployment forces capable of intervening in neighboring states. Moscow has boosted troop numbers and military hardware along Russia’s western border and in Kaliningrad, its Baltic enclave. NATO has responded by planning to deploy rotating troop units in Poland and Baltic member states Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Moscow has also launched more peaceful initiatives to consolidate its influence in countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, but without much success. The Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, a six-member post-Soviet military alliance, has been plagued by a lack of cohesion, and the Eurasian Economic Union, a new free trade bloc of five former Soviet republics, has not yet brought prosperity to any of them.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Two anchors prepare for a broadcast on Current Time, a global Russian-language TV network funded by the US government aimed at providing an alternative to Kremlin-controlled media.

In Western Europe, Putin seems to be applying principles he’s learned as a black belt judoka to geopolitics, using his opponents’ strengths to his advantage.

Here, say political leaders and intelligence agencies, Russia is using Europe’s culture of free speech to spread fake news, rumors, biased reports, and hacked secrets. The idea is to destabilize the European Union and promote far-right, anti-EU populist parties in the run-up to elections in Germany, France, and the Netherlands this year.

In echoes of the leak of Democratic National Committee emails that embarrassed Hillary Clinton, which was blamed by US security agencies on the Russian government, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has told a Russian newspaper he has “interesting” emails concerning French center-left presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. Mr. Macron is a leading contender for a place in the presidential runoff next May against National Front candidate Marine Le Pen.

RT, the official Russian TV station broadcasting internationally, has speculated that America was behind the Ebola virus epidemic. Sputnik, a news agency with ties to the Kremlin, made no secret of its editorial support for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. A fake news website in Russian-controlled eastern Ukraine spread a false story about NATO preparations for war with Russia that ended up in a mainstream Swedish newspaper, among other places.

“The aim of this sort of outlet seems not to be to convince Western audiences but to confuse them,” says NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. “Propaganda and disinformation can be part of a bigger project with political and military goals. If you poison the well with half-truths and fabrications ... you make it harder for people to make informed decisions.”

“The overriding objective is to show that the West is in chaos and decline,” adds Paul Stronski, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington.

So Russian news outlets harp on Europe’s problems, its migrant crisis, terrorist attacks, and social problems, depicting it as a place that has lost its moral moorings. The goal, says Stefan Meister, a Russia-watcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, is “to undermine the West as the global values center.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has worried publicly about Russian interference in Germany’s elections next September through cyberattack “bots.” Votes in Dutch parliamentary elections in March will be counted by hand amid fears the electronic system could be hacked. “No shadow of doubt can be permitted,” said Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk.

Europe is fighting back. The EU has set up a “mythbuster” task force that debunks fake news, putting out a weekly compilation on its website in both English and Russian. NATO recently created a “Setting the Record Straight” website to counter Russian propaganda about its actions and intentions. Facebook, Google, and the French newspaper Le Monde are teaming up in a project called Crosscheck, designed to filter out fake news. The Czech government set up a special unit in January to monitor security threats, including disinformation campaigns.

Some analysts suggest that Moscow’s use of information to boost Western populist parties sympathetic to the Russian government could have been foreseen. Back in 2013 the military chief of general staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, wrote an article arguing that 21st-century rules of war make use of “nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals” such as “political, economic, informational” and other measures “applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population.” In many cases, he wrote, “they have exceeded the power of the force of weapons.”

Other observers see less sinister motives behind Russian “mischief” on the internet, as veteran Russia analyst Dmitri Simes describes it. “For many years the US and the EU have been very active in trying to influence Russian domestic politics” through nongovernmental organizations and other means, he points out. “I think the Russian actions are part of an effort to demonstrate that both sides can play this game.”

•     •     •

It was no game in Aleppo, the Syrian city where Russia has shown off its military capabilities most dramatically. Russian airstrikes in support of Syrian ground troops, who captured the city at the end of last year, tilted the war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

Mahmoud Azza, a physiotherapist working in Aleppo’s rebel-held hospitals, witnessed the brutality of the bombardments firsthand. “It makes a lot of changes,” says Mr. Azza of Russia’s role in the war. “Russian airstrikes make more damage, and more fear and more death and more bodies and more everything.”

The assault on Aleppo was bloody and controversial, as Syrian and Russian planes strafed hospitals and other civilian targets. By the end of last year, Azza was working in Al Qods hospital, the last one left in a rebel-held area of the city. “It was unbelievable,” he recalls now from the safety of a Turkish city where he took refuge after Syrian government troops captured Aleppo. “The patients were all over ... in corridors, on the floor, without any kind of heat or feeding. It was bad days in Aleppo.”

Brutal though it was, Russia’s intervention decisively tipped the war against the rebels and made Moscow a key player in the conflict, an indispensable partner in any search for peace in Syria.

While Putin may have muscled his way to the table and increased Moscow’s leverage in the region, he hasn’t been so successful at using diplomacy: Syrian peace talks that Russia sponsored last January in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, made no more progress than earlier US-led efforts.

“The primary purpose of [Russia] asserting military might in the region – projecting itself as a global power that is key to resolving the conflict – has been achieved,” says Julien Barnes-
Dacey, a Middle East analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations in Brussels. “But it’s easier to inject yourself militarily into a conflict. It’s much harder to juggle the competing interests needed to force a settlement.”

On the ground, Russia has secured itself new 49-year leases on an expanded Mediterranean naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, and on an airbase at Latakia – hard-power assets that Moscow could use as a springboard for future operations elsewhere in the Middle East. On the diplomatic front, Russia has grown closer to regional superpowers Turkey and Iran, and is building economic ties with some Gulf states.

But Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq, not to mention US allies Turkey and Israel, all look to Washington to secure the region’s security. That is unlikely to change anytime soon.

•     •     •

For the first time in nearly three decades, Moscow and Washington are engaged in proxy wars – backing opposite sides both in Syria and in eastern Ukraine. At the same time, they share a common interest in defeating the so-called Islamic State (IS) jihadist movement. Just how the new US administration will handle Russia is still unclear and subject to continued debate.

Mr. Trump has signaled that he could be ready for a strategic realignment with Russia, making a deal to fight IS together and reorder international relations. But the new president is vague about what this might mean in practice, none of Trump’s aides has yet clarified the administration’s goals, and the White House’s ties to Moscow have become the most controversial aspect of its nascent foreign policy.

Indeed, some top officials appear to see Russia as a threatening adversary, not a potential friend. At his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Russia a “danger.” Defense Secretary James Mattis put Moscow atop the list of “principal threats” to the US.

Observers in Washington are divided in the advice they are giving Trump. “As long as Putin is in charge in Russia, Russia cannot be a credible partner for the US,” says Luke Coffey, director of foreign-policy studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“What we’re dealing with is an imperial Russia; this is how Russia behaved during the time of the czar,” he adds, reflecting a widespread view that Putin is an authoritarian who crushes human rights at home and has blood on his hands in Syria.

Others say it is possible to work with Putin and make headway on issues of importance to the West – but only if Western powers, especially the US, treat Moscow as an equal. “Putin wants a relationship with the United States, but for him it must be on the basis of major power to major power,” says Mr. Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “When dealing with another major power you have to ask what is in it for them and what is their perspective, but I would say it’s been a while since the US has approached Russia in that way.”

Trump could start by reassuring Putin that the West does not seek to be the sole “global political arbiter,” says Simes. But it may be too late for that.

“Russia has grown disillusioned with the West and its values through bitter experience,” complains Sergei Markov, an adviser to Putin. “What the West does is contrary to what it says.”

Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
Members of a Hungarian opposition party protest a visit by Mr. Putin to Budapest, Hungary.

To counter US clout, Moscow has turned east toward a former rival, China – another nonbeliever in Western values and a lucrative market for Russian gas.

The governments of the largest country in the world, Russia, and the most populous, China, find many affinities. They share an authoritarian political system, a traditional social outlook, great power ambitions, resentment of the West’s dominance, and complementary economies. Russia was further encouraged by Beijing’s refusal to take a stance on the crisis in Ukraine.

“Western countries wished China would join in the sanctions against Russia, but China didn’t and instead strengthened economic cooperation,” says Li Xing, professor of international relations at Beijing Normal University.

“The strategic nature of the relationship has been fortified,” agrees Alexander Gabuev, who researches Russia-China ties at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “There are fewer barriers to cooperation in the long term than there were pre-Ukraine crisis.”

That is evident on the military front, as the two Asian giants step up efforts to offset US influence in the region. Last September their two navies held eight days of maneuvers in the South China Sea, the largest joint operation between the two countries.

At the same time, Russia has brushed aside an old taboo against selling advanced weapons systems to China, doing $8 billion worth of business, including sales of surface-to-air missiles and the latest-generation fighter jets. In 2014 Russia and China signed a 30-year $400 billion gas deal, the biggest Russia has sealed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Russia’s changing orientation is mainly due to objective factors ... not the deterioration of relations ... with the West,” argues Dmitry Orlov, head of an international affairs think tank in Moscow. “Russia sees Asia as the most significant and fastest-growing market; political reasons are not as important as economic ones.”

Whatever the motivations, predicts Mr. Markov, “our pivot to the East is permanent.”

•     •     •

Russia is expanding its footprint in Latin America, too, both as a way of boosting its strategic interests and evaluating what the US response might be.

“Russia, and China to a certain degree, use Latin America as a kind of place where they can test each other and test the US to see exactly what game the other side is playing,” says Hannah Thoburn, a Russia expert at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

Russia sold $4.5 billion in weapons to Latin American countries between 2005 and 2015, with most of it going to longtime Washington irritant Venezuela. But the Russian presence involves more than missiles and MIGs. Moscow has also been involved in antidrug efforts, such as in Peru, and in trying to pitch itself as an alternative to the “decadent” West – for example, sending the Russian Orthodox Church patriarch on a two-week visit to the region.

“The Kremlin’s new line is that Russia is a bastion of conservative values in a world overcome by liberalism and homosexuality and all the things you’ll hear [that] Russia disdains,” says Ms. Thoburn.

In the end, Russia’s moves around the world – its military adventurism in Syria, its cyber-troublemaking in Europe, and the common front it is forging with China – bespeak a country no longer willing to cede the role of global sheriff to the US.

The world awaits, with considerable trepidation, what Putin and Trump will do next. 

Contributing to this report were Fred Weir in Moscow; Sara Miller Llana in Paris; Michael Holtz in Beijing; Scott Peterson in Istanbul, Turkey; Howard LaFranchi in Washington; Yevgeni Rysunkov in Kiev, Ukraine; and Whitney Eulich in Mexico City.


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