On Jan 25, 2017, the Valdai Discussion Club organized a debate on the foreign political challenges to be faced by Russia in 2017. Director of the Foreign Policy Analysis Group Andrey Sushentsov presented a report on the international challenges of 2017.
In fact, there was no debate as the participants – Sushentsov and his colleagues, assistant professor at the Moscow State University of International Relations (MGIMO) Andrey Bezrukov, senior researcher at the MGIMO Nikolay Silayev and Program Director of the Valdai Discussion Club Dmitry Suslov - were mostly unanimous. The most interesting fact about that meeting is that the experts discussed Russia’s relations with the West disregarding the current escalation in Donbass.
Sushentsov appeared with quite an interesting vision of the ways to overcome the Russia-West crisis. He believes that the anti-Russian sentiments in Europe are the result of the United States mistake. But for the Americans this is not a mistake but a consistent policy. Why a mistake? The Americans have put a hedgehog into Russia’s pants and the hedgehog is Ukraine. They have fragmented the Soviet Union and are now setting the biggest fragments against each other. This is not a mistake but a strategic move requiring an appropriate strategic response. But since the Americans have received no response to their move, they can regard it as successful.
Sushentsov advises Russia to be restrained if some new crisis is provoked near its borders so as to have a new ground for a dialogue with the United States. So, according to the expert, the purpose of any conflict in the post-Soviet area is dialogue with the United States. But why then should Russia be “indecisive”? Sushentsov believes that in the future the Americans will realize (or have already realized) that their strategic enemy is the Chinese and that they need the Russians for opposing them. So, Sushentsov sees Russia as the United States’ assistant in Eurasia.
In his opinion, the Ukrainian problem is going into the background of the global politics. But is it? Sushentsov believes that very soon they in the West will stop imposing sanctions because of the Ukrainian crisis as they are already tired of their Ukrainian partners and are well aware that it is they who are delaying the peace process. As a result, according to Sushentsov, the process will be frozen as in the case of Transnistria. But are Kiev’s partners actually tired of it and why should they be tired? Sushentsov suggests that for them the key priority is to preserve social-political stability in Ukraine and, first of all, the transit of Russian gas to Europe. The expert believes that for Russia too the wish to continue supplying gas to Europe is superior to the fear of losing a geostrategic territory. “For Russia gas is more expensive than the radical nationalist regime in Kiev,” Sushentsov says. But if that regime continues to be stable, it will continue its attempts to get back Donbass and Crimea, won’t it? For Sushentsov the goal of the ongoing conflict is the “stability” of the Kiev regime. But for the Kiev regime it is the defeat and disintegration of Russia – something the expert neglects as if being unaware of Kiev’s aggressive anti-Russian policy.
But should Ukraine fall into pieces, Sushentsov advises Russia not to overreact. He probably means refraining from establishing control over some of the pieces. This is the strategy the Valdai experts recommend to Russia.
Sushentsov’s colleague, senior researcher at the MGIMO Nikolay Silayev believes that Russia has managed to push the post-Soviet threats away from its borders and the biggest challenges for it now are the crisis in Syria and relations with the world’s greatest powers. Silayev doubts that Ukraine will join NATO soon and even if it does, it will be a liability rather than an asset for the Alliance. The expert neglects the fact that the current level of informal contacts between the Kiev regime and NATO is the key asset of NATO and the key liability of Russia in the conflict in Ukraine. Today Ukraine’s territory is open for NATO and so, the proxy war mode is the best way for the Alliance to act against Russia without any risk of a direct clash with Russia. This is exactly what real modern war strategists need.
Silayev’s opinion that Russia has managed to push the post-Soviet threats away from its borders sounds paradoxical now that Donbass is facing a new wave of hostilities as does his suggestion that Ukraine is isolated from the broader context of Russian-U.S. relations now that Germany and the other concerned parties are actively discussing the Ukrainian problem with the new U.S. administration and have used the escalation in Donbass as “pepper” for the Ukrainian dish served to Donald Trump. And quite contrary to Silayev’s expectations, NATO is already negotiating air defense partnership with Ukraine – something that cannot but worry Russia.
The escalation in Donbass has become a serious challenge for the Minsk agreements. In 2015, they were not implemented and were prolonged. In 2016, they were not implemented either but nobody suggested prolonging them again. Early 2017 has shown that they were meant not as a key to the Ukrainian conflict but as a format of proxy war against Russia. Germany and France - the key guarantors of the agreements – have shown that they do not take them seriously.
When Petro Poroshenko said that he was not going to implement the Minsk agreements, his allies in Germany and France confirmed their commitment to the Minsk process but specified that they would lift the anti-Russian sanctions only if Donbass was given back to Kiev. But now that we have seen that the Minsk agreements were a fraud and just a way for the West to keep Russia back in Ukraine, we have no more grounds to believe Europe that it will lift its sanctions if Russia goes away from Donbass.
Now we see that Europe’s fraudulent diplomacy is just one of the fronts of the proxy war against Russia. It turns out that Russia’s partners in the Minsk process have just been feigning commitment to settle the Donbass conflict. It was a kind of a slap in the face for Russia. But despite this, they in Moscow continue insisting that the Minsk agreements have no alternatives. But the Europeans are deaf to their complaints and continue blaming them for everything happening in Donbass.
So, we can say that the Ukrainians have been given the carte blanche to break the ceasefire stipulated by the Minsk agreements and they will not be blamed for it. The very signing of the Minsk agreements implied concessions on Russia’s part. So, logically, the Russians were supposed to show very tough reaction to any non-compliance. But instead they are waiting for Trump’s reaction.
Some Russian experts believe that the current escalation in Donbass was a feeler for the West. The crisis has displayed the reaction of all concerned parties. Obviously, it was provoked by Germany is using Poroshenko as an instrument for influencing Trump’s position on the conflict in Donbass.
The crisis in Donbass has shown that the hopes that now that Obama has gone, Europe will become more restrained with respect to the Donbass conflict have not come true. Now Russia’s only hope is Trump.
The Valdai experts believe that for the time being Ukraine is quite a dubious asset for both the United States and Russia. But the crisis in Donbass shows that they in the West see Ukraine as a big asset and will not let President Trump to turn it into a liability.