LONDON – Recent articles by two of the smartest analysts writing on Russia today argue that it is time to reengage with President Vladimir Putin, following his decision to draw down its military intervention in Syria. Whether the conditions exist to end sanctions over Ukraine and establish a new working relationship with Russia is the right question to ask — if not, we are guaranteed a repeat of the Cold War. The answer, however, can’t be based on assumptions of good faith. Normalizing relations with Russia now would be premature.
Fyodor Lukyanov, who heads Russia’s Council of Foreign and Defense Policy, says nobody should have been surprised by Putin’s decision to decelerate in Syria: Russia said all along the plan was for a short intervention, with the limited goal of securing the survival of the Syrian state. Mission accomplished. Now Russia can sit down with Assad’s opponents, and the West should be ready to reengage over Ukraine — for which read, lift sanctions.
Anatol Lieven, a Georgetown University professor based in Qatar, goes a step further in an article headlined: Don’t Fear the Russians. Not only were Putin’s goals always limited in Syria, but so were they in Ukraine, says Lieven. Last year’s Ukrainian cease-fire has largely held. Putin did not give rein to Russian nationalist desires to continue the offensive and recreate the 18th century Russian imperial territory of Novorossiya, because that was never his intent.
Yet this is not as clear as Lieven makes out, and Russia’s leaders do little to reassure that their ambitions pose no further threat to Ukraine or other neighbors.
Listen, for example, to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in an article for the journal Lukyanov edits, Russia in Global Affairs. He too makes the case for normalizing relations. Yet what follows is a lengthy historical analysis of Russia’s perennial victimization by the West, from the days of Kieven Rus, to Napoleon, the Crimean War and the present.
On the start of World War II, for example, Lavrov skips over Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler — under which the two men began the war by invading Poland — to blame an anti-Russian plot:
Clearly, the anti-Russian aspirations of the European elites, and their desire to unleash Hitler’s war machine on the Soviet Union played their fatal part here.
Again, after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Lavrov’s view of the desperation of the ex-Warsaw Pact countries to join the European Union and NATO absolves the former Soviet Union of any responsibility for more than 40 years of occupation:
If you take an unbiased look at the smaller European countries, which previously were part of the Warsaw Treaty, and are now members of the EU or NATO, it is clear that the issue was not about going from subjugation to freedom, which Western masterminds like to talk about, but rather a change of leadership.
There are two questions to separate here. The first is whether the world is better off with Russia inside or outside the tent. That’s easy: inside. The second is trickier. It concerns whether Russia can be a partner in determining the continent’s security, so long as it insists this can only be achieved by eliminating NATO; that membership in the EU is equivalent to occupation by Soviet tanks; that all popular protests are CIA plots; and that the West is reflexively anti-Russian, rather than reacting to actions Russia may have taken.
It isn’t obvious that recent developments in Syria and Ukraine have cleared up this second question.
Russia’s intervention in Syria, as Lukyanov set out when we spoke weeks after the intervention began last year, was aimed at ensuring that jihadists didn’t topple the regime in Damascus. What remains uncertain, though, is whether Putin’s end-game in Syria is genuinely aligned with that of the U.S.; namely, to create a power-sharing government in Damascus that protects the security and interests of Alawites and Sunnis alike.
This seems unlikely, simply because it would be so very difficult to achieve and the attempt would require a commitment to democratic principles that Putin doesn’t share. But as I’ve argued before, both U.S. and Russian goals are unrealistic: It is hard to understand how the fighting ends without some form of soft partition for Syria, at which point the interests of the outside powers can indeed be aligned. If not, Putin may feel the need to restart airstrikes to secure the outcome for Assad that he wants.
Lieven is probably right that Putin has no desire to invade the Baltic States or Poland; the risks he takes are calculated. Yet he is also unpredictable. Putin has sent strategic bombers into NATO airspace, submarines into Swedish waters, missiles to the Kaliningrad enclave and his security forces into Estonia on a kidnapping raid — all to make his opponents believe that he is ready to escalate to any point. This resolve has not been tested and we don’t know how Putin would respond if it were.
In the same way, we don’t know what might have happened had Putin faced no cost to expanding the fight in Ukraine. Nor do we know what would have happened if Russia’s initial efforts to duplicate Crimea’s bloodless coup across “Novorossiya,” from Odessa in Southern Ukraine to Kharkiv in the northeast, had succeeded. The evidence, however, suggests that Putin shaped his military decisions in response to events and setbacks, not out of self-restraint.
Lieven also believes Putin has abandoned his plans to build a Eurasian Union to rival the EU and restore Russian influence, which drove his responses in Ukraine. But I see nothing in what he or Lavrov have said or done to give confidence that is true.
So, yes, Putin contributed to a cease-fire in Ukraine’s Donbas region. But Russian operatives and military equipment remain on Ukrainian soil. Russia still controls the border and the threat of further offensives and escalation remains. Until that changes and until Russia has fulfilled the requirements for lifting sanctions, they should remain in place. We still don’t know how far Putin is willing to go. He may not either.
Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs.