AT A TIME WHEN the world is battling the COVID-19 pandemic, dealing with the subsequent economic crisis and racing to develop a vaccine, global news seems to continuously feature the following stories: investigations finding that the assassination attempt on the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny involved a large group of high-ranking officers of the country’s secret service; groups of Russian hackers, backed by the FSB and the Kremlin, are suspected to have been behind the cyberattacks on the United States departments of Homeland Security, Trade and the Treasury, as well as thousands of businesses; the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov met German far-right politicians in Moscow and later caused a scandal during his visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina after having been accused of meddling in the country’s foreign policy. While the world is changing; nothing has changed regarding the approach employed by the Kremlin.
Other things are already long-known to us: even the most innocuous one-man protest on the streets of Moscow or Saint Petersburg ends in arrest; the Russian legislation serves the purpose of promoting Vladimir Putin’s “immortality” and guaranteeing his personal security; Russia has long meddled in the elections, referendums and other important domestic issues of foreign countries; Russia has been waging full-scale information wars; Russia is constantly working to destabilize Belarus, Moldova and Georgia at all costs, and is directly interfering – openly or covertly – in the affairs of sovereign states; to this day, sections of the regular Russian army are involved in military activities in eastern Ukraine; Russian mercenaries remain in Libya and Syria, while old and new military bases in Syria and the South Caucasus constitute a source of destabilization. In short, wherever there is bloodshed, tension and confrontation, Russia’s presence is guaranteed.
What is the West doing in the meantime? Thinking, debating, bickering amongst each other, and finally agreeing to either extend or impose sanctions. Nobody denies that sanctions are important, but they will never be enough to put an end to everything listed above. Naturally, it causes great discomfort for Russians, and Vladimir Putin’s closest allies, to have their western bank accounts frozen, or to be unable to travel to the United States and Europe, stay at their own expensive villas and visit their family members. Nevertheless, years of experience have shown us that these sanctions do not go far enough to bring the Russian regime to its senses and prevent cases such as Skripal poisoning, the Khangoshvili assassination in broad daylight in the heart of Europe, or the attempts on the lives of Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza and many others. To put it simply, sanctions will not bring Russia onto a righteous path.
What is the reality in Russia today? Like most other countries across the world, Russia has been economically hit by the pandemic, particularly due to falling oil and gas prices. According to UN data, Russia is a rapidly aging nation. Outside of Moscow, Saint Petersburg and a few other cities, the current situation is akin to the Tsarist era. There has been a significant outflow of foreign capital over the past few years, and Russian businesses have seen their revenues plummet. On the foreign front, aside from a somewhat forced strategic partnership with China, the country has been largely ostracized by leading economies and the democratic community. Relations between the United States and Russia are, by all accounts, at their lowest point since the Brezhnev era. Relations with the United Kingdom have never been particularly warm but have also hit rock bottom since the Skripal affair. Relations with Germany and France have significantly deteriorated. Russia could now be described as a pariah state.
On the 20th of January 2021, the United States will inaugurate a new president. Joe Biden will be facing a far more difficult reality than during his time as vice-president in the Obama administration – prior to the Russian annexation of the Crimea. At that time, there was no pandemic, no economic crisis, no Wagner Group mercenaries unleashed by ‘Putin’s chief’ Prigozhin, or the latter’s troll factories. We had Reset 1.0, Reset 2.0, and most importantly, numerous bilateral and multilateral control mechanisms for nuclear arms and other types of weapons. Today there is little possibility of another reset or a significant new nuclear deal.
President Biden will need a new vision and long-term strategy with regards to relations with Russia. At the same time, the new administration of the United States must move quickly to repair ties with strategic allies and restore the country’s leading positions in international organizations. Naturally, it is not only Russia that the new government will have to contend with. However, it will inevitably have to decide how to deal with the issue of Russia.
Defending human rights, respecting democratic values, and strengthening the shaken foundations of the liberal order will be high on the U.S. President’s global agenda. However, it will also be important for him to direct additional efforts towards the following:
– Strengthening the security of Ukraine by supplying certain means of self-defense;
– Active involvement in Moldova’s democratization and Europeanisation process;
– Creating a path for Georgia’s NATO membership and a mutual security mechanism;
– Developing a new vision for the South Caucasus region to reflect the new reality;
– Actively supporting the people of Belarus and enabling the fulfilment of their democratic will.
It is especially important for the Biden administration to show that the aforementioned countries are not Russia’s back yard, and that the security and democratic development of these nations will not become a bargaining chip that can be traded over other issues.
As for Russia itself, the Kremlin is currently actively preparing for next year’s parliamentary elections. In light of growing discontent within Russian society, local activists, opposition forces and civil society will need support from the West. Experts believe that the Russian government expects domestic tensions to reach boiling point next year, or during the next presidential elections at the latest.
We understand that Russia has a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. We understand that Russia will always try to use the nuclear security issue and its strategic partnership with China as bargaining chips. However, the United States and the West have more than enough leverage of their own that Russia would struggle to neutralize. Take major energy projects such as Nord Stream 2, for example – any delay to them would place further strain on the Russian state budget. Exclusion from the international banking system and activation of further economic and financial levers would be another possibility.
I have said this before, and I will say it again: The Russian regime only understands statements that are made from a position of strength. It will only yield its positions when faced with a show of force. This was the case before the pandemic, it is the case now, and it will always be the case. The world is changing rapidly, but it will take generations for Russian to change.
I am not naпve enough to believe that from the 21st of January 2021, the United States will start prioritizing the issue of security and democratization in the aforementioned countries, particularly in Georgia. However, I am certain that the question “how do we deal with Russia?” will be one of the first to come up when discussing foreign policy challenges.