I returned from a week away without internet, newspapers, or email, to discover that Russian-US relations had plunged to a new low following the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the United States. The only positive element of the whole affair is Vladimir Putin’s refusal to play the game of tit-for-tat. Overall, the event does not strike an encouraging note on which to end the year. Nevertheless, I think that there are some grounds for thinking that Russian-Western relations have now reached rock bottom, and might start getting at least a little better.
Reports in the past couple of months have suggested a growing sense of frustration in Moscow as a result of its inability to get an agreement with the US government about Syria. In the end, Moscow bypassed Washington and reached a deal with the Turks and Iranians. Now, Putin has elected not to respond to the American decision to expel Russia’s diplomats. Together, these acts suggest that the Kremlin has given up on the Obama administration and has decided more or less to ignore it.
This has not gone unnoticed in Washington, where the growing impotence of the United States has caused great angst among the hawks in the American foreign policy establishment. These are accusing Obama of making their country ‘irrelevant’ by failing to take a sufficiently robust line against Russia. In reality, the cases above suggest that America’s increasing irrelevance is more a product of Obama’s refusal to cooperate with countries such as Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Fed up with Washington’s behaviour, others have decided to go it alone.
Obama’s critics are thus in some ways correct, but for the wrong reasons. What is clear is that his years in office have not been good for Russian-Western relations. This is not entirely Obama’s fault. The annexation of Crimea and subsequent civil war in Ukraine would have been bound to aggravate relations no matter who had been in the White House. But the United States could have played its cards better. It didn’t have to push forward with plans for missile defence in Europe, encourage revolution in Ukraine and Syria, refuse to collaborate with Russia in the latter, and so on. Obama and his advisors underestimated Russian power and resolve and consequently failed to pay Russia due respect. In the pursuit of what are fairly minor US interests (such as its objectives in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya), the White House lost sight of the far more important interest of maintaining good relations with the world’s largest country.
That may, however, be about to change. The election of Donald Trump has generated a huge amount of anxiety among the chattering classes in the Western world. But it does provide at least a glimmer of hope that Russian-Western relations may begin to improve. It may be no more than a glimmer, but any ray of light which penetrates the lower depths is to be thoroughly welcomed. Obama began his reign using the slogans ‘change’ and ‘hope’. In reality he provided precious little of either. The arrival of a new administration, therefore, makes this new year more hopeful than most.
The title of Maxim Gorky’s play ‘Na Dne’ is often translated as ‘The Lower Depths’ but a more accurate translation is ‘On the Bottom’. That is where we find ourselves today. But the good thing about being on the bottom is that one can only go up.
Happy New Year!