Russia and the West: A Dangerous Crossroads

Alex Gorka

No, it’s not a return to George Kennan and his containment policy. It looks more like a slow strangulation, with mounting pressure everywhere. The furor over the Skripal poisoning case is being raised at a time when moves by the West are going almost unnoticed, eclipsed as they are by the narrative of nefarious Russia. Although it all started in Europe, it’s largely being done the American way.

Recent reports pieced together from different sources lead to the conclusion that a well-thought-out and well-orchestrated campaign is underway. As tensions mount, the US is calling on NATO to step up its combat readiness. At least 30,000 allied troops, accompanied by over 360 fighter planes and roughly 30 warships, should be ready for deployment to a trouble spot within 30 days after NATO commanders put their forces on alert. That proposal is being debated but the US position has generally been accepted. There is hardly any doubt that it will be approved at the NATO summit in July.

This is at a time when the EU is working in unison with NATO to make it easier for those forces to move across Europe. It has been reported recently that US MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will start operating from Greece’s Larissa air base in May. The drones are destined for intelligence missions in sensitive areas. The Greek ports of Alexandroupolis and Thessaloniki have attracted America’s attention as facilities that could bolster the rotating US military presence in the Black Sea. According to media reports, NATO is to have a helicopter base in Alexandroupolis.

After expelling its Russian diplomats, Poland signed a $4.75 billion agreement to buy the Patriot missile defense system from America. The price was supposed to be much higher. Warsaw received a discount because it borders Russia’s Kaliningrad region, where Iskander surface-to-surface missiles are deployed. The 16 launchers cannot protect all of Poland, but they certainly provide more protection for the US forces coming in to reinforce the NATO troops already in place, as well as the American Aegis Ashore missile-defense system that will be operational in 2020. NATO believes that the Patriot Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) upgrade sold to Warsaw will be capable of countering Russian Iskanders.

In their March 15 letter, 39 US senators called on the Treasury and State Departments to utilize all the sanction tools at their disposal to fight the Nord Stream 2 project to bring cheap Russian gas to Europe. On March 29, US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman told Russia’s RBK TV that he cannot rule out the possibility that Russian assets in America could be seized over the Skripal case. If Washington goes that far, it will be pure highway robbery. And the response will not be long in coming. That interview took place right after the British parliament had announced an investigation into some money-laundering schemes allegedly associated with Russia. The UK government has unveiled its “Fusion Doctrine” to counter what it’s calling Russian propaganda.

The US policy of making Europeans bow to pressure has been largely successful. The leading European powers — the UK, Germany and France –— are pushing to force the EU to impose new sanctions on Iran, in order to persuade the US not to pull out from the Iran nuclear deal. This is a last-minute attempt to keep the agreement in effect, as it is widely expected that President Trump will not certify it in May. Europeans may bow to American pressure in a bid to appease Washington, but Russia is also a party to the agreement, which cannot be scuttled without Moscow’s consent. Adding additional conditions will violate the terms of the deal. It won’t be supported internationally. If new Iran sanctions are introduced unilaterally by the West, the issue will become a bone of contention that will further worsen relations with Moscow.

What should we expect? John Bolton, the incoming NSA, has already called for a switch from targeted to broad sanctions, which would include the oil and gas sector. Cyber warfare is another domain where the US might step up its anti-Russia efforts. NATO is making moves to bolster its cyber operations. Information battles to win broad public support are already being waged. The diplomatic offensive will intensify. There will be a fight to diminish Russia’s global influence that has grown so much recently.

These tensions weaken European security and might lead to a balancing act on the brink of confrontation, plus an arms race that the US and its NATO allies are not winning. The plans to undermine Russia from within have failed. President Putin enjoys overwhelming support, as the recent presidential election has demonstrated. The economy is far from collapsing. Russia’s international standing has strengthened. Moscow has just scored another win, with India announcing its decision to buy the S-400 Triumph air-defense systems from Russia, worth over $5 billion. The two countries will jointly build four frigates and set up a facility to produce Kamov helicopters. Russia has scored a victory in Syria and greatly strengthened its position in the Middle East.

Russia and the West are at a dangerous crossroads and tensions continue to rise. The alternative is to set their differences aside and launch a dialog on a broad range of issues. The world has changed. There is a broad security agenda that needs to be addressed. That idea has been floating for some time, but without any serious discussion. Russia has tried to launch dialog but the West has failed to meet it halfway. There are some signs, however, that all is not lost. It’s not too late to switch from hostile actions and bellicose rhetoric to business-like approaches for the common good.