A week after the Malaysian airline accident in the Donetsk suburbs the Russian government has come under unprecedented international pressure. Guided by the dubious facts presented by Kiev, Western politicians and the Media have rushed into making the south-east Ukrainian rebel forces responsible for the accident. British Prime Minister David Cameron came up with the formula: ‘if it was the rebels who crashed the plane, it is Russia who is to answer for it’. Freedom House director David Kramer, in his turn, pointed out the moral side of the accident, comparing President Vladimir Putin with Muammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il.
The pressure that Moscow is enduring may be compared to the accusations towards Iraq, which was alleged of possessing WMD in 2002, or Syrian authorities, who were unfoundedly blamed for using chemical weapons against its people in 2013.
The aim is to make the Russian leadership stop supporting the rebels in south-eastern Ukraine under the threat of international isolation.
Nonetheless, it seems relatively harmless in the West to blame Russia. The Russian-US economic ties are rather weak, and Russian relations with the EU, as close as they may be, are not yet tightened with structures like funds, or think-tanks, or TV-channels, or social services. And the business circles and the Russian lobby groups will just shy away again, stung with the US and EU criticism toward Moscow. Which is why, the day before the Malaysian Boeing accident the US a new package of sanctions against Russia was approved with little resistance. This week the EU Council of Foreign Ministers and the Parliament under the impression of the tragedy are discussing the possibility of an arms embargo against Moscow, and the Republicans in Washington are working on a «Russian aggression prevention» bill. Consequently, it may block Russians from the world financial markets and modern technologies as well as hinder the economic modernization of the country.
However, accusations against Russia are not only harmless, but also useless. A formula proposed by former Soviet vice-minister of Foreign Affairs Julius Kvitsinsky, which states ‘there are some negotiations that Russia can afford to ignore’, is generally followed by the current Russian leadership.
Moscow sees its strategic goal in supporting Russians in the south-east of Ukraine without losing its economic ties with the West.
Clearly, the Russian-Western economic relations are vital, for it is the sustainable growth of Russia’s economy and GDP per capita that help to escape threats to home security and integrity in the long-term perspective. Yet, the support for Russians in south-eastern Ukraine, who are counting on Moscow to help, is even more important. This support is the question of the all-Russian solidarity with compatriots, whose right to life is denied by Kiev.
The two components of the Russian foreign policy are difficult to combine. Fortunately, there are three facts that seem advantageous to Russia in these circumstances.
Firstly, the Ukrainian government allegations against the rebels in the Malaysian Boeing accident have turned out to be ill-founded. Any convincing evidence of their responsibility for what happened has not been produced yet, and the allegations are built upon some faked videos and emotional remarks of the OSCE mission members. Moreover, on July 23 it became clear that the US did not have any proof of the rebels’ responsibility either, and it could only judge by the evidence that Kiev has provided, i.e. faked videos and social network screenshots. Meanwhile, the Russian General Staff of the Armed Forces and Russian Air Forces have also presented their evidence. They point out Kiev’s responsibility for the accident and seem more convincing.
Secondly, Russia is ready to put up with the sanctions, for they cannot bring serious damage to its economy.
With the current EU-Russia correlation, the weakening of cooperation will be harmful for the both sides. Apart from that, it would take a lot of effort to isolate such a big country as Russia. Hence the attempts to block it from financial and technological markets may cause a certain reaction of world non-Western powers and encourage them to arise and grow. Obviously, the US and EU hardly want this to happen.
Finally, for the Russian leadership this burst of criticism is obvious to fade out soon. Moscow has got used to not being heard or understood as far as its needs and peculiarities are concerned. The West has never comprehended Russia’s fragility and has never been able to read its true motives. This has brought Russian politicians to pursue the national interests exclusively, without seeking approval of their foreign partners.
Taking into consideration that the US lacks a long-term perspective policy plan towards Russia, the future American political course will be shaped by emerging problems and new circumstances. Therefore, cooperation with Russia is sure to become urgent again.
The Russian-Western relations have seen many crises, and the current situation follows the same pattern.
Russia cannot see how the new period of relations with the West, which may be described as rivalry, is different from the previous one, characterized by selective cooperation and neglect. The rivalry is certain to continue with continuing difficulties on the role of NATO in European security and Moscow’s anxiety about the US ABMs in Europe. Washington’s plans to limit Russian access to the new technologies are nothing new, and hindering Russian Sberbank’s purchase of Opel in 2009 is just one of the examples of this policy, not to mention the discrimination of Russian energy companies in the US and Europe. Furthermore, the EU and the US have been encouraging and supporting anti-Russian regimes along the Russian boarders. These policies were controversially combined with intensive trade and mutual investments, cooperation with Moscow in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and North Korea as well as space exploration counterterrorism and drug-trafficking prevention activities.
In the end, Western governments locked up in short electoral cycles are bound to continue same policies towards Russia.
Russia, in its turn, does not have a plan either to confront the West or to isolate itself on the international arena. And it does not challenge the post-Cold war order in Ukraine as well. After the shock caused by the Crimean events the Americans have finally realized that Russian policies are a reaction to violations of its vital interests and an attempt to protect them. This includes the Ukrainian south-east, where Moscow is firmly demonstrating its commitment to protect the Russian-speaking population oppressed by Kiev and support the rebels. At the same time Russia is willing to develop its economic ties with its American and European partners. Russian foreign policy goals are stable and the strategy is long-term. Moscow has enough power and resources to implement it, and Malaysian Boeing crisis has clearly shown that Russia is strong enough to stand up for itself.
One way Russia has confronted this challenge is by creating bureaucratic organizations for each major religion that are monitored by state organizations. In Russia, the Muslim Spiritual Board is responsible for managing Islamic groups, including worship communities and educational institutions.
Last week saw increased international security concerns as North Korea claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb and the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran took another turn for the worse. However, there has been no credible evidence that North Korea actually did test such a device, and even if it did, little is known of the weapon's characteristics. Similarly, Saudi Arabia's provocative behavior could be nothing more than a show of force. Even so, Russia cannot ignore either of these events and the risks that they bring.
During the two wars Russia fought in Chechnya in the 1990s, the militants’ primary goal was to create a state separate from Russia. In the 2000s, however, the militant groups changed character and took on more explicitly religious goals and an ideology that shared more with the militant Islam of groups such as Al-Qaeda.
Waning of the Ukrainian crisis may recreate conditions favourable for the meeting between the Russian and Georgian leaders. However, normalization in relations of the two countries has distinctly set limits, for the global strategy of the Georgian leadership remains unchanged.