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Valdai 2019 Shows Russia’s Disappointment with West Amid Hopes for New Kind of Link With Europe

October 25, 2019
Anatol Lieven

The conference of the Valdai Club in Sochi took place before the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and the new surge in Russian influence in the Middle East; but the increase in Russian confidence was already very marked. The mood, however, was one of sober confidence rather than arrogance. As Marc Champion remarked in his report for Bloomberg, “President Putin delivered his least vituperative performance for a decade or more” of annual speeches to the international gathering of policymakers, academics and journalists. There was in fact a good deal less for journalists at this year’s Valdai than previous ones. Rather, it was interesting as usual for the chance to gauge the current mood and attitudes of the Russian foreign policy establishment, and for a chance to look at global issues from a different perspective.

The Valdai this year reflected, and was intended to reflect, a certain turning away from the West. The topic of the conference was “The Dawn of the East and the World Political Order.” Particular emphasis was naturally given to speakers from China, India and to a lesser extent the Middle East.

On the Middle East, not just Putin but the Russians in general took the view (more or less politely phrased) that the U.S., and by extension Britain, have created such disasters in the region, from Iraq through Libya to Syria and acquiescence in Netanyahu’s aggressive chauvinism, as to forfeit any legitimate claim to a leading role. At the same time, I detected a certain nervousness among some of the participants about what Russia might be getting itself into by seeking predominant influence in a region that has generated (even without Western encouragement) so many terrible and insoluble crises in the past.

The number of Western participants was somewhat reduced, and the number of Western journalists greatly reduced compared to the conferences of earlier years. As one of the Russian participants told me, the Russian establishment has more or less given up on hoping for more balanced and objective coverage of Russia from the Western media (not, of course, that most of the Russian media coverage of the West is exactly fair and balanced either).

Concerning Ukraine and relations with Western Europe, the initiative of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was welcomed by Russian participants as an attempt to implement the “Steinmeier Formula” for a settlement of the Ukrainian crisis, drawn up by Germany’s then Foreign Minister (now President) Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2016. French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative in September to “ease and clarify” Europe’s relations with Russia was also welcomed.

However, compared to some of the conversations I took part in at Valdai from 2005 to 2008, the Russian participants had no very great hopes that these moves would come to anything much. In the case of Ukraine, this is because of a belief that the Ukrainian government (even given Zelenskiy’s impressive electoral victory) is too weak to push through a compromise in the face of radical nationalist opposition, and because the critical issue of security in the Donbas during and after a peace process remains wholly unresolved. I could detect no readiness at all to hand the Donbas over to the unqualified control of the Ukrainian security forces—though of course this issue could in principle be resolved, as in other settlements, by the presence of U.N. peacekeepers.

In the case of wider West European relations with Russia, this lack of hopefulness dominates because, as a number of Russian participants told me, they have been disappointed so often in the past. Again and again, the Western European countries have failed to side with Russia against the U.S. even when they agreed with Russia’s positions—most notably on the maintenance of nuclear agreements. The European failure to stand up to Washington on sanctions against Iran has only strengthened this Russian view. Moreover, Sweden, Poland and the Baltic states are regarded by the Russian establishment as implacably, unchangeably hostile to Russia, meaning that for a long time to come any collective EU move toward improved relations is likely to face their veto.

Concerning the U.S. specifically, the general feeling was that U.S. politics and policies have fallen into such a state of unpredictable chaos that the best policy for Russia is simply to sit things out. Of course, Russians absolutely loathe the idea of a Joe Biden presidency; but they also point out that any benefits that Russia has derived from the Trump presidency have been the result of the chaotic dysfunctionality of that administration’s policies and the general decline of U.S. authority and prestige, not from anything concrete that Trump has actually done (or been able to do) to improve U.S.-Russian relations. As to the possibility of Elizabeth Warren as president, I got the impression that the Russians do not really know what to make of her, and so are ready to wait and see.

The Russian pivot to the East is therefore real, and the endless past predictions by Western “experts” that Russia would never turn away from the West and form a close partnership with China have proved empty. At the same time, this shift is by no means unqualified. Russia and China have a partnership, not an alliance (this crucial distinction has been obscured by loose and careless phraseology on the part of media and think tanks). Russians do not expect China to fight alongside them in Ukraine, the Caucasus or Syria, and have no intention of fighting alongside China in the South China Sea.

Throughout the conference, the emphasis was on Russia as a Eurasian—not an Asian—great power; and in the long run, the great hope of the Russian establishment remains that the U.S. will continue its retreat into isolationism and that Russia will have a cooperative partnership of equals with Europe as well as with China. Russians also do not wish to be drawn into an alignment with China against India, though there is a recognition that the growing Indian alignment with the U.S. may make this ultimately unavoidable.

You do not have to dig very deeply to find considerable anxiety about the colossal economic and demographic weight of China, and worry that China’s Belt and Road policy will reduce Russia essentially to a mixture of a trade corridor (albeit a handsomely remunerated one) between China and Europe and a source of raw materials for China. This would be a high price to pay for the exclusion of U.S. economic and geopolitical power from Eurasia. The long-term aspirations for partnership with Europe are also rooted in a hope that sooner or later the West European states will recognize that their only chance of balancing against China (without being drawn into potentially catastrophic U.S. anti-Chinese strategies) will be a close relationship with Russia.

An intriguingly speculative idea emerged, in the context of discussions on climate change, of Russia as a future food and, above all, water superpower, providing crucial supplies to both China and Europe to help them survive their own deepening ecological crises. Where Putin stands on climate change remains extremely unclear. In his speech he managed at once to cast doubt on whether it is really happening and to promise that Russia will do everything possible to counter it. One thing seems clear: He and any chosen successor will try to make sure that Russia derives the utmost benefit from a changing climate. (On the question of the succession, a majority of the Russians who expressed a private opinion said that they thought Putin would step down as president when his constitutional term expires in 2024, would choose a loyal successor and position himself as an éminence grise. But as they all acknowledged, nobody actually has the slightest real idea but Putin himself.)

One thing that seemed to me quite marked was the decline in Russian hopes for the Eurasian Union, which prior to 2014 was the centerpiece of the Putin administration’s geopolitical strategy. Participants from the Central Asian states were extremely firm, in public as well as private, that the Eurasian Union would remain a bloc for trade and economic cooperation, with some security aspects—not a close security alliance, let alone some kind of confederation under Russian dominance. At the same time, the neo-totalitarian Chinese repression of the Muslim population of Xinjiang (which includes many ethnic Kazakhs) has caused great concern in Central Asia, though this has been kept quiet in public by a mixture of censorship and self-censorship. This concern, and China’s overwhelming size, does mean that the Central Asians remain anxious to maintain partnership with Russia as a balancing factor.

Concerning Russian hopes for the Eurasian Union, there seems now to be a very general recognition that for the foreseeable future Ukraine cannot possibly return to an alliance with Russia, and without Ukraine the Eurasian Union is a shadow of what Putin previously hoped it would be. On the other hand, Russians are now extremely confident that Ukraine will never be able to join NATO or the EU; and there seems a willingness to let Ukraine decay quietly in the hope that time will generate a new equilibrium.

There is however concern that a new internal crisis in Ukraine could lead Russia and Europe into new confrontation; and I think most of the Russian establishment would welcome a new consultative architecture between the West and Russia to help avert such crises. This was proposed in one form by Dmitri Medvedev during his term as president (and ignored by the West), and has recently been set out in another in a paper prepared for the RAND Corporation by a group headed by an American Valdai Club member, Dr. Samuel Charap. Of course, Russians are extremely insistent that this would have to be a genuinely consultative process and not another mechanism—like the NATO-Russia Council or, as the Russians see it, the OSCE—in which Western states group together to dictate to Russia.

Finally, two things need to be said given the hysterical tone of both the Western and the Russian media and of many Western and Russian military figures. The idea of a Russian attack on the Baltic states or Poland has always been dismissed by every Russian I know as absolutely ludicrous. Quite apart from the colossal short-term risks involved in an attack on NATO and EU members, such a move would bring Russia absolutely no advantages while terrifying all the Europeans back into permanent close alliance with the U.S.—and, once again, the hope that this will progressively decay is at the heart of Russia’s long-term strategic vision. At the same time, no sensible member of the Russian establishment whom I know believes that the U.S. is actually going to attack Russia. This being so, under all the screaming and shouting, the relationship between the West and Russia is probably a good deal safer than appears from the news headlines.

Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and a member of the Valdai Discussion Club and the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. His next book, “Climate Change and the Nation State,” will be published in Spring 2020 by Oxford University Press in the U.S. and Penguin in Britain.

Photo: President of Russia Vladimir Putin, President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Federal Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and President of France Emmanuel Macron meeting in Istanbul to discuss Syria, October 2018.