A one-way arrow saying "Plan A" with the "A" crossed out and a "B" written in in red instead.

Russia’s Plan B: Divide and Conquer?

July 28, 2017
Nikolas Gvosdev

Seven months ago, Vladimir Putin’s election-related gambles appeared to be paying off. Hillary Clinton, who had pledged to be tougher on Moscow than her predecessor, was unexpectedly defeated by outlier Donald Trump, who, during his campaign, had broken with America’s bipartisan orthodoxy on Russia to proclaim his willingness to find areas of common cause with the Kremlin. At times, Trump suggested that Russian control of Crimea would not be a deal-breaker to improved relations, while intimating that he would suspend or roll back sanctions imposed during the Obama administration. The leading candidates to replace Francois Hollande in the Élysée Palace were conservative and nationalist politicians who pledged to improve ties with Moscow. Throughout Europe, populist parties that leaned pro-Russian in their foreign-policy platforms appeared to be on the ascendancy, calling into question whether the broad policy direction—including greater pressure on Russia—championed by Germany’s long-serving chancellor, Angela Merkel, could be sustained.

By summer 2017, however, these apparent wins had all gone bust. Unable to shake allegations that his election to the presidency was the result of covert Russian assistance, Trump has been likewise unable to change the course of U.S. policy toward Russia. Despite his campaign rhetoric of engaging Moscow, Trump ended up selecting Russia skeptics to populate his national security establishment. NATO deployments and missile defense have proceeded apace, and a Congress that is highly distrustful both of Putin and of Trump’s relationship with him has moved to not only codify but strengthen sanctions on Russia, while removing the president’s ability to modify or lift them. Emmanuel Macron’s surprise victory in the French presidential race and his partnership with Merkel—who now is, effectively, the senior stateswoman of the Atlantic alliance and herself likely to beat back the populist tide to remain in office as the longest-serving Western leader—has also dashed Moscow’s hopes that the elections of 2017 will bring about major sea changes in European policy toward Russia.

There were expectations in Moscow that, by this time, we would be witnessing changes in Western policy toward Russia through the modification or even outright suspension of sanctions. Instead, the EU has renewed its semi-annual measures and the United States is tightening its restrictions. Up to this point, a true schism in Western solidarity has not yet emerged. An important benchmark has been the strength of Japan’s commitment to enforce the sanctions despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s evident desire to improve relations with Russia; earlier in July, plans for a Japanese consortium that was set to begin drilling in the Pacific with Rosneft were put on hold.

Should Moscow therefore be prepared to alter its behavior in the international arena, since its initial expectations have not borne fruit? This seems unlikely. For the past three years, the Kremlin has doggedly stuck to its guns. In Syria, it has continued to back Bashar al-Assad and to stabilize his position. Russia is not going to disgorge Crimea nor will it abandon its separatist proxies in Donbass. Moscow also shows no willingness to give up its tools of influence or to acknowledge any involvement or confess any guilt for things that have happened in recent election campaigns in the West. At the same time, Moscow has wanted to demonstrate its potential usefulness and international clout by working to broker ceasefires in Syria and in Libya, and to show that, given the proper incentives, it could use its influence to assist Western objectives. Seen in this light, the southern Syria deal announced during the G-20 meeting in Hamburg seems to have been a preview of what Russia might be prepared to do on a larger scale, assuming that there was a positive reaction in turn from the West, starting with the United States.

However, these small steps have, from the perspective of Russia skeptics, particularly in the capitals of Eastern Europe and in the halls of the U.S. Congress, been far too little. In their view, Russia maintains an adversarial position that must be met with additional pressure to bring Putin to heel—from further sanctions to expanded security cooperation with Russia’s neighbors. Thus, Putin is likely to conclude from the U.S. reaction that the strategy of incrementalism will not work vis-à-vis Washington; that is to say, positive steps taken by Russia will not necessarily be reciprocated by shifts in U.S. policy. The terms of the recent debate in Congress indicate that U.S. sanctions are likely to be lifted only after major reversals in Russian policy, if at all. Moreover, the nature of the legislation has the possibility of creating a new Jackson-Vanik situation. Russia was in full compliance with those Congressionally mandated sanctions by 1994, but it took nearly two decades for Congress to choose to lift them. Putin, who is likely to remain in office through 2024, may conclude that no matter what steps he takes on Syria or Ukraine, the U.S. Congress will never choose to lift sanctions as long as he stays in the Kremlin.

The Russia-skeptic view, however, is not shared uniformly across the entire Western world. In other countries, Russia’s troubling behavior in some areas is balanced by the prospects of substantive cooperation in other matters. This could encourage the Kremlin to default to a time-honored strategy of looking to divide the U.S. from the rest of its Western partners on the question of Russia policy.

Putin may possibly get a lifeline from the lack of substantive U.S. consultations with key European allies over the wide-ranging provisions in the new American legislation, especially the third-party sanctions that would penalize European firms that already do a lot of business with Russia, and the sense that, once again, Europe is being dictated to by Washington (in this case, the Congress rather than the president). The new sanctions, if enacted, run the risk of rupturing the heretofore unprecedented degree of trans-Atlantic unity and coordination on policy toward Russia. At a time when European, particularly German, leaders are cautiously exploring greater flexibility in their approach to Russia—and looking to compartmentalize, separating positive areas (such as cooperation in brokering a ceasefire in Libya, for example) from the Ukraine crisis—the U.S. approach seems to be far less discriminate. Even though subsequent drafts have removed some of the provisions Europeans found most onerous in the original bill passed by the Senate—particularly named sanctions against the Nordstream pipeline expansion, which is viewed as a national energy security project in Germany—there is still plenty that Europeans find objectionable. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was quite blunt when he said, with regard to the latest draft, that “America First cannot mean that Europe’s interests come last.”

Putin has shown a willingness in the past to accept strategic compromises. Making concessions that satisfy European concerns in return for rupturing Western unity on sanctions may be a bargain he is prepared to countenance. Similarly, if Russia continues to show greater flexibility to Japanese concerns regarding the Kuril Islands, Tokyo will want to continue its policy of encouraging the development of the Russian Far East as part of its strategy of encouraging alternatives to China.

This could create real problems for a Trump administration that already has strained ties with Europe over trade and climate issues, and must also contend with a Congress that increasingly does not trust his stewardship of foreign policy. That does not bode well for re-establishing what had been an unprecedented degree of synergy between Europe and the United States in holding the line on Russia sanctions after 2014, and it also suggests that Putin will succeed in obtaining the maneuvering room he needs to outwait the West without having to make fundamental concessions to their demands.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.