September 23, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Russia, the West, and Common Challenges

• This week’s UN General Assembly will focus on some but not all of the world’s problems

• The UN Climate Summit today may well end up demonstrating more difference of opinion than common resolve

• Tensions between Russia and the West are also a major concern, with the two sides making different calculations based on the same facts

• The US could take advantage of shared challenges, such as combating violent extremism, to establish a more positive relationship with Russia.


As the leaders of the world gather in New York for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) this week, there is almost obsessive concern about the so-called Islamic State and the potential threat posed by its foreign recruits. The overnight strikes by the US and five Arab Sunni states on Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked targets in Syria will certainly be the talk of the day. Ebola, too, is an issue that has captured world attention and challenges the international community to find an adequate response. But two issues that have a longer pedigree and could have far greater impact on the peace and stability of the world are climate change and the uneasy relationship between Russia and the West.

Climate change, and the role that human activity plays in accelerating the degradation of our environment, is of huge concern, but it is a problem that may have become just too difficult to resolve. Modest efforts are underway, and today’s Climate Summit at the UN may help us inch forward, but conflicting short-term interests continue to prevent the necessary focus on shared long-term objectives.

The regrowth of tensions between Russia and the West, evident in particular—though not solely—in Ukraine, should be easier to deal with. Putin’s Russia is not so very different from the Russia that called itself the Soviet Union. There is a long history of success and failure in managing the relationship between East and West that today’s leaders can draw from. One thing that should be evident to all is that the last 25 years have neither eroded Russian insecurities nor stilled Russian ambitions. In fact, Russia seems to be in an increasing hurry to regain ground lost so that it might look out beyond the horizon for new opportunities, whether it be in Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, or the Far East.

The problem Russia faces is that the space relinquished after the fall of communism has since been occupied and is no longer so easily available. Furthermore, what Russia could get away with in the Cold War was a result of an imperfect understanding in the West of its resolve and capability that tended to exaggerate both. In the meantime, the United States has continued to grow, China has become more assertive, both economically and militarily, and the NATO alliance has held together, even if it is far less keen on protecting its members than on fighting in small wars at a distance.

By this point, Russia has likely gotten away with its annexation of the Crimea, and will be able to continue to discourage Ukraine from making any attempt to reclaim it by supporting the rebels in the East of the country and threatening to help them spread further West. Even though Western sanctions have had a negative impact on the Russian economy, it is nothing for a country and a people that have suffered so much worse—even in recent history—in protecting its territory and heritage.

But it is not just about history and heritage. Russia does not believe it is weak and is not prepared for anyone else to treat it as such. The expansion of NATO into former Soviet territory in Northern and Eastern Europe continues to rankle, and in hindsight, may not have been such a clever move by the alliance. The Baltic States and the Eastern European members of NATO have gained far more security by joining the European Union than by becoming members of a military bloc. Let alone one that will likely act like a deer in the headlights if it is challenged to fulfill article V of the Washington Treaty—committing its members to regard an attack on one as an attack on all.

Russia is more than capable of making mistakes and miscalculations, the consequences of which will be more serious for the West than for itself; and in this sense they may not be regarded by its leadership as mistakes at all. The huge rolling landscape of Russia, stretching across five time zones and centuries of history, has imbued its people with a sense of fatalism that not only accepts disaster but expects it, and by accepting its inevitability mitigates its impact.

So the General Assembly, with all its bilateral side meetings and lunches and dinners should not just provide an opportunity to build and consolidate a new coalition of international partners to meet the immediate challenges of the Middle East or Ebola; it should also provide a forum for considering the consequences of any hardening of the differences between traditional rivals, and doing something to prevent it. The threats posed by the so-called Islamic State, Ebola and Climate Change effect all countries and the need to address them is uncontroversial. Close cooperation between the United States and Russia on these issues would provide an excellent opportunity to reset relations on a positive trajectory rather than making the currently negative trajectory worse by reaching agreements without Moscow’s involvement.


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