Putin may never change but he must be contained
The greater connectedness of the West since the end of the Cold War has caused cracks in the security framework of states, which Russia has been only too keen to take advantage of. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its manipulation of democratic elections and its posturing on international crises has highlighted how its foreign policy is increasingly of concern. UK Prime Minister Theresa May was right to call for unity: “The United Kingdom will stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies to face down these threats together,” to defend “our institutions and our values against attempts to undermine them.” With Western democracies increasingly behind the curve in the face of Russian activity, the most recent crisis is an opportunity to show a united front.
The supportive stance of the White House has been greatly important. “With these steps, the United States and our allies and partners make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences,” a spokesperson said. The critical issue is that the Skripal affair has shown that an assassination attempt in a European city with a Russian nerve agent is completely unacceptable. The episode highlighted how, to Vladimir Putin, perceived Western decadence has implied diplomatic weakness and an unwillingness to challenge him. The immediate reaction to the affair is an important sign to Russia that a nerve agent attack represents a clear threat to the rules-based international order.
Russian officials have been keen to respond to the expulsion of their diplomats by giving Western representatives their marching orders. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia would respond to the expulsion on the “principle of reciprocity.” For the zero-sum strategists of the Kremlin, the episode is an excuse for the usual tit-for-tat maneuvers that Moscow has become associated with. It is for this reason that Western decision-makers must treat this episode as one of several courses of action they will pursue in order to change Russia’s indiscriminate activity. For the world to be continually held to ransom by a country with an economy the size of Italy’s is testimony to how Western leadership has dwindled.
Putin plays a strong game with very weak cards. Without the resources and diplomatic clout to overtly challenge other powers, Russia has pursued asymmetric tactics to destabilize others.
A coordinated campaign on the interests of Putin and the Russian elite, beneficiaries of crony capitalism, would help force Russia’s hand and encourage it to behave like a member of a global system
Zaid M. Belbagi
Events like the current episode repeatedly highlight how isolated Russia has become. Whether the Skripal incident was a not-too-subtle message to his opponents or a flagrant challenge to the sovereignty of a leading global power, Putin’s tactical calculations have increasingly become more reckless. With his 2014 incursion into Crimea and even the 2008 conflict with Georgia, he acted within Russia’s traditional zone of influence. However, repeated attempts to manipulate the internal politics of Western powers have illustrated how he has begun to overplay his hand.
Transatlantic divisions and trouble within the European Union have allowed Putin to gamble that yet again his acts will not warrant a coordinated, collective response. This is therefore why Russian policy-makers seem to be genuinely surprised at the extent of the world’s reaction, as 27 countries expelled more than 150 diplomats. It is critical that, this time, the Kremlin’s predictions have turned out to be incorrect. Diplomacy has the potential to alter Putin’s course through coordinated pressure — though his adversarial politics may never change, he must at least be contained.
Support for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is the perfect way for states to collectively present a coalition that is effective in countering Putin’s alleged use of chemical agents in brazen overseas assassination attempts. Though it is harder to work in coalitions, the results can be long-lasting. Putin and the Russian elite, beneficiaries of crony capitalism, are hugely exposed to the international financial system. A coordinated campaign on their interests would help force Russia’s hand and encourage it to behave like a member of a global system, as opposed to pursing policies that are a product of the bunker mentality of its leaders.
Sustaining diplomatic channels throughout such crises is not a sign of weakness. Over time, the Russians will recognize the value of such relationships and, though diplomacy will not change Putin’s worldview, it will allow him to heed the consequences of his actions. According to Tom Fletcher, a former UK ambassador and visiting professor at New York University, agile diplomacy can still land a punch and achieve lasting results. He explained: “There is a tendency to think ‘diplomacy’ means compromise. Sometimes it does. But with Russia under its current leadership, we have all learned that it requires an approach of robust patience, underpinned by the broadest possible coalition of countries that still stand for international law. This can, in time, deliver results. But we can no longer be under no illusions about Putin’s capacity to change.”
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an advisor to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
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