Russia in the New World Disorder

Russians have a bracing midwinter tradition of cutting a hole in the ice and plunging into the icy water beneath. That is what has just happened to US/Russia relations. They were bad before, but President Biden’s televised remark last week that President Putin is “a killer” followed by Russia’s recall of its Ambassador from Washington (the hardest possible diplomatic slap in the face) saw the temperature plummet to new depths.

A bit of context. This is not just Russia and America. This is increasingly, on one side, the “Authoritarian Axis” of Russia and China and, on the other, the US with the support of some of its key allies, notably the EU and the UK. Donald Trump, alarmed by China’s rise, had already launched trade and technology wars to try to stop it. And the EU, US and others had built up an impressive array of sanctions against Russia for its interventions in Ukraine, electoral interference, cyberattacks and so on. Now what arrives into this minefield is a new US President who used his election campaign to call out Russia and China as “adversaries” and who, unlike Trump, has placed concern for global human rights at the centre of his intended foreign policy.

So, in addition to the diplomatic freeze with Russia, the first weeks of Biden’s Presidency have seen a series of sharp skirmishes. The EU’s top diplomat was humiliated on a visit to Moscow for criticising the arrest of Russia’s leading opposition politician, Alexei Navalny. The West introduced a (rather feeble) set of sanctions on Navalny’s behalf which led to an instant Russian promise of countersanctions. The first meeting between top US and China policymakers since Biden took power saw a truly remarkable exchange of public abuse. And a round of Western sanctions against China for its repression (the US would say genocide) in Xinjiang province provoked a tough set of Chinese countersanctions which may well have the incidental effect of killing off the recently negotiated EU/China investment agreement. All of this led directly to a very public meeting at the start of this week between the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers to affirm their solidarity and to condemn Western “interference” in their affairs.

Is this the much advertised New Cold War?

Not yet. Conceivably the Biden administration, which (unlike its predecessor) is staffed by experienced professionals, is simply establishing an early credential for toughness (and earning credit with its electorate) before getting down to serious business with Russia and China (as, with Russia, it has already done on strategic nuclear weapons). But a couple of features of the latest round of spats suggest that Cold War is certainly closer. The first is the introduction of human rights into the mix, and the very clear refusal of Russia and China to be dictated to by the West on what they regard as their internal affairs. And the second is the new readiness of Russia and China to retaliate against Western measures rather than, as up until recently was the case, grumble but in effect accept them.

Focussing on Russia specifically, things are certainly not going to get better soon. The US has assembled a long charge sheet – The Nord Stream gas pipeline being constructed from Russia to Germany, which the Americans want to stop; alleged Russian interference in the 2020 US Presidential election; the vast Solar Winds hack of US confidential data; the Navalny arrest – on which they are promising further sanctions in the near future. Meanwhile, the Russians, having budged not an inch under Western pressure over the last decade, show no more sign of doing so now; the Chairman of the Russian Central Bank quietly announced last week that Russia was ready for any attack on ownership of Russian sovereign debt – a much touted possibility for US action.

Looking ahead, it is hard to see how the current stalemate might end. The economic damage of sanctions is marginal (0.5% of GDP per year it has been authoritatively estimated) The Russian economy has weathered the far more serious impacts of a series of oil price collapses (most recently in 2020) and the COVID pandemic. For the present it looks stable if undynamic. Economic management is good, assets are remarkably cheap, and any post-COVID global recovery would undoubtedly give a boost through raw material prices. The real constraints on growth are domestic corruption, weak property rights and official predation, not external hostility. The political picture shows similar stability. The Putin regime, whose fall has for the past decade been regularly predicted by the West, is still there and very probably has the means (including significant Russian public support) to remain around for the foreseeable future. Perhaps, as we reflect on where Russia might be going, we should recall Winston Churchill’s observation that the country is never as strong as it looks, nor as weak.

Sir Anthony Brenton was formerly UK Ambassador to Moscow from 2004-2008. He recently joined as a strategic advisor to Audere International.

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