The foreboding in Moscow of a new escalation of tensions with the West has given way to feelings of almost disappointing anticlimax. United States President Joseph Biden’s attestation of President Vladimir Putin as a “killer” was taken for a sure sign of a surge in confrontation (see EDM, March 18, 22). Instead, it was a plain statement of fact, and Biden indifferently shrugged off Putin’s challenge to have an open debate on contentious issues (Newsru.com, March 22). Putin’s subsequent photo-session with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the Siberian taiga became a target of jokes rather than a meaningful political message (Meduza.io, March 21). Most importantly, the expected revision and reinforcement of the European Union’s strategy for relations with Russia was postponed (Kommersant, March 26).
The EU summit last Thursday (March 25) featured Biden’s video-address focused on rehabilitation of US-European relations and jointly countering Russia’s provocative and aggressive moves (Izvestia, March 26). The main theme of the summit, however, was devoted to the urgent need to address the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit some European states with deadly force, while the dynamics of vaccination has clearly been unsatisfactory, even if significantly faster than in Russia (Forbes.ru, March 9). A tantalizing opportunity, thus, seemed to open for Moscow to engage the EU on fighting the pandemic together; but instead, the Europeans called out Russia for engaging in unfair competition with Western vaccine manufacturers, which French President Emmanuel Macron even described as a new type of a world war (RBC, March 26). The Kremlin objected to the accusations, but its propaganda campaign promoting the Sputnik V vaccine, which is produced in quantities insufficient for domestic immunization but is nevertheless exported in symbolic amounts, fits in with other Russian subversive activities (RIA Novosti, March 26; Carnegie.ru, March 25; see EDM, March 25).
China wages a similar campaign, and the question of building a common Transatlantic position vis-à-vis this major geopolitical competitor received greater attention at the EU summit than Russia-related matters (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 25). Moscow found it necessary to re-energize its strategic partnership with Beijing, so Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled there last week, seeking to strengthen bilateral solidarity in countering Western pressure and sanctions (Izvestiya, March 26). China responded with the proper “best-friendly” gestures; but in real terms, it prefers to keep a safe distance from Russia’s dangerous and unequal confrontation with the West (Russiancouncil.ru, March 23). At the same time, every step toward expanding the much-trumpeted partnership signifies a deepening of Russia’s dependency upon its economically powerful Asian neighbor (Rosbalt, March 24). Seeking to assert that it does need to follow China’s lead regionally and can even go a step further, the Kremlin made a show of support for the military rulers in Myanmar, sending a deputy defense minister to attend the parade in Naypyitaw last Saturday (Mil.ru, March 27).
Yet Moscow is much more eager to show its capacity and readiness to engage in direct and “hybrid” projections of military power in the Middle East—a region where Beijing has been much more reluctant to behave so assertively. Syria is the main base for Russia’s Middle Eastern operations. But ten years after the start of the mass uprising against President Bashar al-Assad—whose regime Russian efforts have helped sustain since 2015—the country remains unstable and economically bankrupt (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 21). Moscow cannot possibly provide sufficient funding for Syria’s necessary reconstruction, and its goal to make the victory final by “liberating” the rebel-held Idlib province is effectively blocked by Turkey (Kommersant, March 23). The Russian military sought to test the rebel positions in Idlib last week with several airstrikes, but Ankara responded with sharp demarches (Rosbalt, March 25). President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is also playing a shrewder game than Russia with Europe, alternating tough steps in domestic politics with reconciliatory gestures toward Greece: so the EU summit drafted a positive agenda rather than sanctions against Turkey (Izvestia, March 18).
Unable to attract sufficient Western attention any other way, the Kremlin has again resorted to its instrument of choice—demonstrations of military might. Several days ago, three Russian nuclear submarines performed a unique (even if not tactically sensible) maneuver of surfacing from under the Arctic ice to within 300 hundred meters from one another (RIA Novosti, March 26). In another show of Moscow’s long strategic reach, two MiG-31 interceptors performed a flight over the North Pole, which Russia claims as a tip of its continental shelf (Interfax, March 26). These bellicose demonstrations hardly set the right tone for Russia’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which Moscow assumes in May, since this organization aims to promote international cooperation in the global north (TASS, March 26).
Russian military activities have been generating the most alarm in Ukraine, however. For months, exchanges of fire in the Donbas war zone have been intensifying, while the diplomatic exchanges in the Minsk format have remained entirely fruitless (Novaya Gazeta, March 27; see EDM, March 15, 24, 25). President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hopes for a new start in relations with the US and knows that a key to success is in advancing reforms, including military modernization. Moscow’s window for preempting these developments is narrowing (Kommersant, March 27). But diverting Russian attention from Ukraine is the gathering “spring offensive” by the opposition in Belarus, which finds support from its European neighbors (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 25). Putin has been unable to impress upon fellow-autocrat Alyaksandr Lukashenka the need to show some flexibility (see EDM, March 24), but he also cannot afford another mass mobilization of protests in Belarus, which might resonate inside Russia (Rosbalt, March 24).
The continuing contraction of incomes and flourishing corruption produce an accumulation of discontent in Russia (VTimes, March 24; see EDM, March 8). It may be barely visible in the streets, but willingness to partake in a mass action in support of jailed and badly mistreated Alexei Navalny quickly gathered 350,000 responses across the country (Navalny.com, March 23).
Putin has long sought to assume the mantle of leader of a global movement against the US-dominated world order; instead, he finds himself becoming a champion of desperate dictators, from Venezuela to Myanmar. Many democracies are struggling with the severe consequences of the pandemic, but populists of various persuasions are faring even worse; so there is hardly any sign of an anti-democratic uprising, on which the Kremlin counted. As the world’s recovery from the hard but transformative crisis gradually gains momentum, Russia discovers that its stance against the purportedly weakening but in fact reuniting West aggravates its own decline. Washington’s leadership in turning the crisis into an opportunity gives new energy to the Transatlantic alliance and helps the EU to regain the integration momentum. But it leaves Russia hopelessly marginalized.