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Russian–Western Dialogue: All Thoughts, No Action

Although Russia’s relations with key Western partners remain tense if not deadlocked, there is no shortage of suggestions coming from Moscow for cooperation.

Not all ideas about Western–Russian cooperation are necessarily new, and most remain unpalatable to the West, a reminder of the clear mismatch in expectations between Moscow and most other key European and North American capitals. However, that mismatch cuts both ways.

Russia has repeatedly stated that it wants respect from the West and also expects to be treated as an equal partner in any dialogue or action. Moscow has not always been clear what these somewhat abstract requests mean for Russia, other than the West accepting its right to veto actions of non-EU countries of the post-Soviet space – something the West will not acknowledge.

However, in a recent interview with Kommersanta Russian business and politics newspaper, Anatoly Antonov, the new Russian Ambassador to the US and former deputy defence minister, set out some specific, seemingly modest, steps of how this new relationship framework with the US might look.

He suggested the re-establishment of more regular high-level contacts, particularly between Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu and US counterpart James Mattis, the re-establishment of previous political platforms, such as the ‘two-plus-two’ format between the ministers, and increased cooperation between security services to counter terrorism.

Russia has repeatedly stated that it wants respect from the West and also expects to be treated as an equal partner in any dialogue or action

Although directed at the US, these kinds of Russian proposals could feature in any bilateral conversation with other Western governments.

However, there remains a snag; the problem is less one of frameworks and more one of substance.

Jumping straight into restoring ‘cooperation’ is not feasible, given the lack of movement on de-escalating the crisis in Ukraine and the emergence of new challenges that tend to put Russia and the West at odds with each other.

Antonov’s proposals suggest a Russian desire to the return to ‘business as usual’ on diplomatic practices, which Western governments are for the most part ruling out, fearing that these will signal the abandonment of the quest to see Ukraine’s territorial integrity restored.

An additional challenge is the absence of suggestions for compromise. In his plans to restore dialogue, Antonov cites cases whereby the West has violated international law.

This implies, as a result, that Moscow feels it is under no obligation to concede anything on Ukraine or other conflicts in return for rebooting cooperation with the West. The substance of international order is often subordinated to national interest.

There seemed to be a glimmer of real cooperative effort from Russia embodied in President Vladimir Putin’s suggestion last week of UN peacekeeping forces in Eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has been requesting such an arrangement for a few years.

However, Moscow has made it clear that this will happen only with pre-conditions. Forces would be deployed only after heavy weapons had been withdrawn from the conflict zone.

They would be deployed only along a demarcation line and not in the territory of the so-called ‘People’s Republics’ of Donetsk and Lugansk, the two Moscow-leaning enclaves supported by Russia’s armed forces, although a subsequent conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel implied they could be deployed in Eastern Ukraine.

Moscow feels it is under no obligation to concede anything on Ukraine or other conflicts in return for rebooting cooperation with the West

Any peacekeepers would be there mainly to ensure the security of the OSCE monitoring mission, which already operates there. In addition, the UN would need to make direct contact with the leaders of Donetsk and Lugansk, implying that these separatist leaders will acquire a measure of legitimacy.

Although Germany seemed to welcome this Russian framework idea, there is also a healthy degree of scepticism about the viability of the project. The prevailing Western opinion is that the UN suggestion is really a way for Moscow to offer something seemingly constructive, while also consolidating its territorial carve-up of Ukraine, given that peacekeepers would not be stationed on the internationally recognised Ukrainian–Russian border.

It may also be a way for Russia to preclude and deter emerging US plans to provide Ukraine’s armed forces with more substantial weapons.

Overall, therefore, although some cooperation on certain international security issues is desirable on both sides, the expectations of what is feasible are clearly mismatched between Russia and the West.

It is often a purposeful tactic by Russia to make the West seem the uncooperative side by putting unrealistic suggestions on the table, in the full knowledge that these will be rejected.

However, if engagement is desirable and risk-reduction and crisis management are priorities, then Western governments need to take each Russian proposal seriously, and communicate clearly how and why it may not be workable, with alternative proposals where possible.

The views expressed in this Commentary are those of the author, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


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