The Hotline: May 2018

This is the first installment of a new series focusing on Russian foreign policy, in brief. Each month Lincoln Pigman will give you an overview and analysis of Russia’s foreign policy landscape from the previous month. We hope you enjoy reading.

By Lincoln Pigman

With enemies like Trump, who needs friends?

At first glance, a month of US President Donald Trump at his most erratic—announcing the US’s withdrawal from the JCPOA on 8 May, opening the US’s embassy in Jerusalem on 14 May, and, ten days later, abruptly cancelling a summit with North Korea, scheduled for 12 June—appears to have benefited Russia.

For now, Trump’s decisions have left Russia on the same side as an international community increasingly at odds with the US, a situational convergence of interests that was on display at last week’s St Petersburg International Economic Forum. There, French President Emmanuel Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—world leaders who have found a common language with Trump while finding his policies deeply frustrating—joined Russian President Vladimir Putin in castigating the US’s destabilizing behavior. In a charm offensive that recalled the French leader’s visit to Washington in late April, Macron went so far as to offer recognition of Russia’s “irreplaceable role…in certain international matters”. His remarks led television presenter Dmitry Kiselyov to enthusiastically declare the emergence of a “new Macron…a politician with more potential than we thought”.

Putin may hear echoes of 2003, when he, Jacques Chirac, and Gerhard Schröder built a coalition to oppose the Iraq War. However, just as that entente proved to be short-lived and limited to a single issue, today’s version is unlikely to last. These developments will not ameliorate the major issues in Russia’s relations with the international community, especially amid revelations about Russia’s role in the downing of MH17, the implications of which are explored in further detail below. Both in 2003 and in 2018, mutual anxiety over US foreign policy cannot serve as the basis for a lasting partnership.

Even if Russia has made diplomatic gains as a result of the deterioration of the transatlantic alliance, these pale in comparison to the potential consequences of escalation in the Middle East. This outcome is more likely given the US’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the relocation of its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As Iran, its proxies, and Israel intensify their confrontation in Syria, and the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia form something akin to a war coalition, Russia’s Middle East policy, which relies on Russia’s ability to work with all regional actors without becoming wedded to or alienating any of them, is threatened with total collapse.

Indeed, Russia cannot afford to stand aside or take a side; the former would undercut its claim to be a major regional player and the latter would jeopardize its carefully cultivated regional ties. For instance, although Russia has looked the other way and allowed Israel’s air force to target Iranian and pro-Iranian forces in Syria, it could not decisively take Israel’s side over Iran’s without dealing a fatal blow to Moscow’s relationship with Tehran, straining its ties with the Syrian government, Iraq, and political elements in Palestine. As analyst Vladimir Frolov recently wrote, Russia’s choice is to “[r]emain above the fray, demonstrating [its] marginal influence, or take a side,” the first an option that Frolov says is decidedly “not in Russia’s interests”. For now, Moscow benefits from US actions that have alienated its European allies and escalated tensions with Iran, but Russia should be careful what it wishes for: Donald Trump’s last month has also hardened cleavages in the Middle East, creating potential challenges for how Russia operates in the region.

As for the US-North Korea summit, there does not appear to be a clearly preferable outcome for Russia. As one of Pyongyang’s main trade partners, Moscow stands to gain from the lifting of international sanctions on the DPRK. Yet, if talks take place and succeed in producing a nuclear agreement, there is no reason to believe that Russia will have a role in the resulting arms control regime, despite Moscow’s repeated insistence on being part of the solution to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

A pariah state in the making?

On 24 May, the Dutch-led Joint Investigative Team announced that a Russian military missile system downed MH17 in July 2014; the following day, investigative group Bellingcat established a GRU commander’s complicity in the civilian airliner’s explosion. Coming on the back of the Sergey Skripal affair, these developments cement Russia’s growing image as a rogue state indifferent to the rules and norms of the international order—at least in the West.

The erosion of Russia’s willingness to conform to the rules-based order has made it easier for Western countries to overcome their usual reluctance to punish Russia’s transgressions in a meaningful way. In the aftermath of the poisoning of the ex-spy and his daughter, the United Kingdom launched a campaign against illicit foreign capital, while 28 states expelled a combined total of 342 Russian diplomats, a response unheard-of since the Cold War. Immediately after the dual revelations concerning the downing of MH17, both Australia and the Netherlands formally charged Russia with responsibility for the civilian airliner’s explosion, and it remains to be seen whether other countries will join them in doing so and whether their formal accusations will come to serve as a basis for additional sanctions against Russia or even international charges of war crimes.

Moreover, worsening relations with the West will almost surely complicate any efforts to capitalize on the rapid deterioration of the transatlantic alliance and the generally divisive behavior of the current occupant of the White House.

No tears shed for the opposition

That said, the month of May has reassured Moscow in one important respect: regime security. Preoccupied with Russia’s behavior on the international stage and the tumult caused by President Trump’s decisions on Iran, Israel, and North Korea, few in the West found time to shed tears for those caught up in what Alexey Navalny’s team called a “full-scale campaign of political persecution” launched by the Kremlin following a series of protests on 5 May.

By its estimate, approximately 1,500 people—including Navalny himself and nearly 20 of his aides and allies—have been jailed for organizing or participating in the protests, a crackdown that would have been widely condemned in the West at one time. Today, it barely registers, obscured by Russia’s assertiveness and the erratic behavior of the US. Moscow, whose twenty-first century worldview has been heavily shaped by regime security concerns from external actors, can at least take solace in that as it enters Putin’s fourth presidential term.

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