Editorial: Russias behaviour on the international stage is unsettling. But the western reaction should be neither aggressive nor complacent and it should be based on transatlantic unity
Recent warns about Russias behaviour have become as numerous as they have been, from time to time, alarmist. Which isnt to say they are unfounded. The director general of MI5 in a Guardian interview has now added his voice to a widening group of western officials who describe Russia as a threat, and against which new reasoning must be developed. In the past months, Russia has been accused of trying to disrupt the US election through hacking, it has deployed nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad and flown bomber aircrafts across Europe. Moscow has pursued policies in Syria that have less to do with opposing Isis than with carpet bombing civilians.
If Vladimir Putins narrative is to make Russia great again, there is by now little doubt he will resort to a broad spectrum of actions, both hard and soft power, to attain that goal. That western officials have been repeatedly caught off-guard says perhaps as much about the illusions or shortfalls of past reset policies as it does about the slickness with which the Kremlin has learned, over the years, to read western societies and the way their leaders react or fail to. More than ten years ago Mr Putin uncovered his thinking in an annual address to parliament comparing the US to a Russian folk tale character, remarking: Comrade wolf knows who to eat . Few, at the time, could have predicted what would unfold: the first redrawing of perimeters in Europe through use of force since the second world war( annexation of Crimea ), and a pattern of geopolitical confrontation that some have dubbed cold war 2.0.
The Kremlin believes the time has come to seek a sort of retaliation on the west for having humbled Russia after the dissolution of the USSR. That Russias economic breakdown in the 1990 s and the expansion of Nato and the EU resulted from decades of communist mismanagement and the legitimate aspirations of nations factors little into this vision. Today the west and Russia find themselves talking past each other on almost all issues. Putins propaganda machine has induced inroads into the west by exploiting its openness, all the while repressing the individuals who, inside Russia, dare dissent.
What is to be done to avoid escalation? Talk of nuclear confrontation has become very common in Russia, something that points to the need for renewed deterrence. Inducing sure eastern European allies are protected is not provocation. Natos new deployments in the Baltic region and Poland are a reaction to, and not the cause of, Russias military adventurism in its neighbourhood. The best way to discourage more Russian revisionism is to make clear that red lines will be defended. Europe can ill afford to let the worst of the 20 th century catch up with it in the 21 st century. On wider international problem, pressure must be applied wherever it is smart and effective to do so. Spains recent refusal to refuel Russias aircraft carrier on its way to Syria was an example of how to catch Moscows attention. Sanctions over Moscows activity in Ukraine should be kept in place until ceasefire requirements are fulfill. Europeans would do well to forge a common response to Russian policies in Syria, which should be seen as part of a wider pattern: chaos on Europes doorstep, including refugee motions, serves Mr Putins interests because they feed the illiberal forces-out of which he approves.
This is not to say Russia must be quarantined , nor its leader entirely shunned. Partly what matters is speech. Speaking of Russia as a partner no longer equates to realities, if merely because Moscow consistently relinquishes genuine cooperation and openly casts itself as an alternative, hostile model no longer very interested in international rules. Diplomacy without leverage can be empty choreography, as talks over Syria have shown. Nor should Russias power be exaggerated. Its economy is ailing. It has few allies, with China an awkward friend. Mr Putin may choose to designate external foes and encourage a fortress mentality for domestic consumption, but that does little to bring the investments his country badly requires if it is ever to modernise. The Russian chairperson has shrewdly exploited whatever gap western powers have offered him, whether through forget, divisiveness or miscalculation. Mr Putin once said: the weak get beaten. He believes the west is weak, hypocritical and decadent. The short-term answer should be a resolute indicate of transatlantic unity a question that hangs over the US election. Dialogue with Russia should come with smart leverage neither aggressive nor complacent. Its likely the Russian question will not go forth for a long time yet Mr Putin plans to get re-elected in 2018.
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