It is always tempting to be captured by the moment, to see everything through the prism of now, without realising that the circumstances of today may be the exception and not the rule. So it would be both short-sighted and unrealistic to regard the rapid descent of relations between Russia and much of the West - the UK, the European Union countries and the United States - that has taken place in recent weeks as necessarily setting the tone for the next five years.
Even in current circumstances, where the West seems on the point of declaring a new Cold War, appearance may diverge from reality. There are long-standing hawks about Russia – such as the UK and some of the former Soviet-bloc countries - but the European Union as a whole takes a more differentiated attitude, and even the UK has done nothing so far that would seriously disturb its own economic interests.
In the unlikely event that London acts on its statements about investigating the sources of Russian money, the UK’s bigger economic interests – as in Gazprom’s recent Eurobond sale – and needed purchases of LNG can be expected to prevail. Consider also Germany: the expulsion of four Russian diplomats is short-term; its approval for Nordstream 2 is the long term.
In other words, where Europe is concerned, economic and commercial considerations are likely to prevail over politics. Geographical proximity, Russia’s mineral wealth, and the EU’s energy requirements are going to dictate a transactional cohabitation well beyond five years. It would be desirable, of course, if this was accompanied by a warming of relations in other areas, but that is not strictly necessary if mutual self-interest dictates otherwise.
Less drama and more realism, I suspect, will characterise another confidently forecast trend: a realignment of Russia towards the east. There is a popular Western view that Russia, disillusioned by what it might see as its failure to be fully accepted by the West – in particular, the lack of any post-Cold War European security arrangement - will simply turn its back and forge a new alliance with China. Every high-level Russian visit to Beijing (and the other way) is scoured for supporting evidence.
While it makes complete sense for Russia to signal to the West that it has alternatives, any prospect of a new Sino-Russian alliance looks improbable in the near future, if ever. The growing wealth and power of China presents as much of a threat to Russia’s development and territorial reach as it does an opportunity. Energy deals have so far been disappointing, even though this would seem to be a natural area of cooperation. Meanwhile Beijing’s “belt and road” project, hailed on both sides as a chance for cooperation, risks in the end only reigniting age-old geopolitical suspicions.
Russia’s interests – especially President Putin’s modernisation ambitions – could actually be better served by moves to improve relations with Japan, South Korea and India. A Russia enjoying flourishing trade with these countries would look quite different – more normal and less potentially menacing – than one making common cause with China. It would also fit with an international future based on multilateralism – or multipolarity – rather than one based on great-power blocs.
This might be also be a world in which Russia would feel more comfortable, as a country of enormous size, but with a population that can never fill its space. Any trend in this direction, however, will take a lot longer than five years and perhaps require the United States to feel more threatened by China’s rise than it currently does.
The war in Syria has also drawn comparisons with the proxy wars fought of the Cold War period, with the United States and Russia supporting opposite sides, while insisting that they are both fighting fundamentalist Islam in the shape of ISIS. But the many different forces involved make it more complicated than most Cold War conflicts and Russia’s intervention, at least looks less like the pursuit of an old-style proxy conflict than an attempt to make a new template for a post-Soviet Russia with a desire not to be confined within its immediate region.
The decision to intervene was legal – by invitation of the UN-recognised government. Direct military involvement was – and remains – limited, and Russia adopted techniques borrowed from the US and the UK: the use of special forces, private security companies and air support in order to minimise its presence, and risks, on the ground. With the fighting over, Russia would then play the diplomatic mediator and leave a country that is stable, if not actually at peace, where its influence still counts. Syria could then be presented as evidence that intervention can work, just not as the US and the UK tried in Iraq and Libya.
This last part – moving from armed conflict to the negotiating table - is proving more difficult, because Russia requires the consent, if not the actual cooperation of many other parties, including (in the case of Syria) the United States, and this has not been forthcoming. With the main war, against Bashar al-Assad, however, nearing its end, the continued US involvement looks more like .an effort to maximise advantage in the talking that must follow rather any attempt to start any new Cold War. In any case, if the US and Russia were to clash in, or over, Syria, this would not be anything like the Cold War, but a hot war of the sort that was mercifully avoided. The recent calming of rhetoric on both sides suggests that the dangers have been recognised and efforts made to avert them.
Which brings us to the United States, which is still the country – perhaps more accurately – the great power against which Russia still measures itself. During the 2016 US election campaign, it seemed that Donald Trump understood this and was prepared to treat Russia without the condescension that so often accompanies an imbalance of wealth, if not military power. The US Congress, however, had other ideas, as did the defeated Democrats, and the claims – still unproven – of Russian interference– have thwarted Trump’s hopes for a rapprochement. The mutual expulsions of diplomats – loosely linked to the Salisbury poisoning - suggest that any improvement in the atmosphere will have to wait.
That said, though, there still seems to be a personal rapport between Trump and Putin – as evinced by reports of their phone calls, and both leaders seem reluctant to make the hacking accusations personal. Trump congratulated Putin on his re-election (apparently against advice), and is speaking of a face-to-face meeting before long. As an inveterate optimist, I would not exclude the chance of an initiative less dramatic, but as mood-changing as Trump’s hand stretched out to North Korea.
What is beyond doubt, as the ice melts in Moscow and spring finally comes to London, is that much is in flux and could go either way. In Europe, the departure of the UK from the EU could strengthen the European Union – which is what has happened so far – or sow the seeds of a much looser grouping. But ambitions for enlargement have gone; Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are destined to remain the borderlands. The prospects of a political thaw in north-east Asia could offer Russia a choice of partners aside from China; or it could fail and raise tensions even higher than before. In the United States, Trump could still harbour hopes of changing the atmosphere with Moscow; equally, though, everything could turn even more sour than it already is, and the Mueller inquiry into alleged Russia hacking goes on.
But something, perhaps a lot, also depends on Russia. Before Putin’s pre-election state of the nation address, with its show of virtual military hardware, Moscow had - it seemed to me at least – been experimenting with a new, quieter, approach to international relations, which made it harder for the West to condemn. With the election over, which way will Russia go? The temptation, given the anti-Russia front mobilised post-Salisbury, will be to hit back, hard. But if the UK-led rush to revive the old adversary is the exception, rather than the rule, a longer view might be the wiser course.