Endless Endgame: Whither Russia-West Confrontation?
Want to know more about global politics?
Subscribe to our distribution list
Elkhan Nuriyev

Expert Advisory Board Member at the Reconnecting Eurasia in Geneva, Switzerland. He is also a Global Energy Associate at the Brussels Energy Club.

The world’s future is currently endangered by numerous fundamental threats, yet Western democracies fear only one – Vladimir Putin. On all geopolitical fronts of the emerging multipolar world the Russian President has smartly backlashed against all collective challenges mounted by the West. Small wonder the West’s incessant fear of Russia’s military power has made Putin the world’s most powerful man.

What is currently happening in West-Russia relations is not a new Cold War; it is not even a renewed East-West divide. It is a grand high-stakes geopolitical game that has been fueled by decades of mutual mistrust and competing interests of great powers.

The current international situation reminds one of a chess game in which kings, queens, and pawns are moved with an illusion of an absent opponent, neglect for his possible moves, and unawareness of potential positions of the opposing chess pieces. Yet in this game the chessboard is a very real battlefield with such hotspots challenging global security as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea and other modern pivot states. The ability to see the entire battleground is therefore crucial. Meanwhile, as the true positions of the rival players on the Eurasian chessboard are unknown to Western decision-makers, they are just moving chess pieces around, without knowing how to take the king. That is precisely why the United States, NATO and the EU often move their pieces down the flanks of the grand chessboard to avoid the center, where their positions are more vulnerable. grasp

Russia not only sees where major players are on the grand chessboard, it sees the entire geopolitical battleground with great clarity, round-the-clock, real time, and in all types of situations. Since Putin comprehends the global line-up of forces with that kind of lucidity and his Western opponents do not, Russia enjoys an advantageous position that can determine its victory.

It is no coincidence that the Kremlin leader makes moves with masterful skill – going after the West’s strategic centers of gravity with much more efficiency. Perhaps more than any other leader, Putin, by virtue of his longtime Soviet intelligence experience, understands how Western democracies operate in the contemporary world. He likewise knows how to use the West’s clout against the West itself. But while the Russian President has been making bold moves with the right motives at the right moment, and Russia has been rapidly returning to global power politics, the West has not been standing idly by. It has been relentlessly trying to contain Russia, and if necessary, reduce its growing role in international affairs.

The most striking thing for the West is how Putin is advancing Russia’s national interests against those of its rivals. True, boldness, creativity and independence are the main assets of his leadership. He always plans and thinks ahead, and then makes the right move that brings him success. Western leaders just cannot understand how Putin has thus far managed to keep Russia ahead in the geopolitical game. All attempts by the United States and the EU, obsessed with weakening Russia at all costs, to isolate and sanction Moscow have so far proved futile. The containment strategy has had a reverse effect: it has fueled anti-Western sentiment in Russia, deepened considerable strains in the EU-Russia relations and raised the risk of an unintended flare-up with the United States.

More recently, Putin’s public announcement of obtaining new nuclear weapons has sharply raised the stakes of a direct U.S.-Russia confrontation, which currently risks reaching a dangerous point. If Putin’s announcement is not sabre rattling and Russia’s nuclear strategic posture has indeed undergone profound changes, then it means not just an improved nuclear arsenal but a shift in the global power balance that could be called a genuine revolution in military affairs. Yet even so, Moscow is unlikely to be interested in a broader conflict. Rather, it would like to reconstruct its relations with the West as this is essential to addressing many of today’s persisting challenges to global peace and security. After all, both sides share far more than just common history and geography. Their strategic, long-term interests overlap over a variety of global threats, including proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism.

In the meantime, unending mutual accusations, allegations and claims are creating an environment where mutual estrangement, misunderstanding and different perceptions are separating Russia from the Western world and dividing the West itself over how best to proceed on Russia. Areas of serious disagreement include U.S.-Russian competing military operations in Syria, Ukraine’s prolonged crisis, NATO’s enlargement, missile defense system, lingering conflicts in the post-Soviet Eurasian countries, escalating cyber breaches, and dependencies in the field of oil and gas. The fact that these disputes remain very much at the core of what divides Russia and the West today and that they have not yet been addressed through common effort means that both sides are ill-prepared to strike a bargain that would account for joint security concerns.

A More Eurasian and Less Euro-Atlantic World

Against a markedly different geopolitical backdrop compared to the Cold War era, the sharp deterioration of Russian-Western relations has a negative impact on the security environment in today’s vastly turbulent Eurasia. Not for the first time in its long history, big geopolitics is emerging as a powerful tool in shaping the Eurasian security system. As always, Eurasia, which sits at the heart of a knot of strategic issues that surround international politics, is dominating the global chessboard. Several major players – the United States, Russia, the EU, China, and the Islamic world – have arisen today in the Eurasian chess game. Realizing that the emerging global order is being shaped by various twists and turns in the Eurasian geopolitics, they all vie for regional preeminence. Each of them pursues its own strategic goals in this resource-rich continental landmass. Each actor plays on its own and against each other, without siding openly with anyone for the moment.

Perhaps still more striking is that renewed great-power rivalries for spheres of influence and struggles for control over energy reserves and pipeline routes have uncovered shadow sides of the Eurasian high-stakes game. The point at issue is the geopolitical behavior of major regional actors that have developed covert attitudes. While flirting with the West, most regional powers hide their true intentions and genuine stance and are taking joint steps behind the scenes to end the American unipolar world order. This is especially true of the Middle East, where the United States and the EU have displayed a discord over peace efforts, and sharpened regional differences between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel.

More fundamentally, the Kremlin’s military victory over the Islamic State in Syria has signaled Russia’s renewed assertiveness in the Greater Middle East, provoking enormous dissatisfaction among Western powers that are not willing to share power with Moscow in the expanded region. Reinserting itself as a major power broker into the peace process, Russia has made it clear that its serious interests are protected not only in the Arab world but also in the entire Middle East where oil prices are set. How events in this long-troubled region will proceed is anyone’s guess, but Eurasia’s future geopolitical landscape will primarily depend on the volatile strategic situation in Syria, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, North Korea and the CIS countries.

Already now, however, quite noticeable is a new Eurasian geopolitical axis that is being quietly and steadily formed by the Russian-Chinese tandem. The simple fact that Putin’s heavyweight partners in the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) continue to back Moscow in its sharp tussle with Washington and Brussels proves that Russia is far from being isolated. Aligning itself more closely with China, Iran and India, on the one hand, and forging good partnership relationships with Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel against all odds, on the other, Russia appears well prepared to confront a disordered world that NATO and the EU built after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. The more the West tries to rally the world against Moscow and Beijing by demonizing Russia and containing China, the sooner Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will expand the region’s political-strategic axis that may well include the post-Soviet countries.

A great Eurasian alliance may indeed abruptly appear in resistance to America’s claims to world superiority, triggering a new unintended shift in geopolitical alignments. If Beijing, Tehran, Delhi and Ankara finally get fully sided with Moscow, then the game will be stopped, and the battle will end. Something like that will happen sooner or later anyway, even despite the West’s attempts to slow down the final stage of the Eurasian chess game. Moreover, most regional powers view their relations with Russia as an interest-driven partnership. They may have an intention to develop new relations as allies and to commit themselves to continuously maintain strong interaction on the grounds of their mutual interests and actions prompted by shared concerns.

In uniting with Moscow for reaching common objectives, the Eurasian countries may display solidarity with Russia motivated by pragmatic reasons. Such a possible outcome may arise from region-to-region cooperation and strategic partnership-type relationships. Should this scenario happen, the world will eventually be more Eurasian and less Euro-Atlantic. But this goal can be achieved only if Russia displays readiness to assume a more meaningful leadership in global affairs and to ensure that a full-scale power shift will make the world more stable and secure than it is now.

Post-Soviet Realpolitik Russian-Style

In the meantime, the post-Soviet territory likewise represents one of the major theaters of great power competition between the United States, Russia and the EU. None of the CIS countries can cope with regional security problems without external help. Most of them expect principal powers to focus their resources, determine their priorities and thoroughly review the instruments in their foreign policy toolkit. Even as several countries of Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia are seeking greater intermediary assistance from global powers, Russia and the West have become involved in the geopolitical tug-of-war over dominance in Eurasia, continuing to draw up war plans against one another. Such a complicated state of affairs explains why geopolitical shifts adversely affect peace processes in Eastern Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniestria.

Clearly, Russia has always considered itself a great power that should be surrounded by semi-sovereign buffer states. Even today, the Russian factor plays a key role in the security situation in the entire post-Soviet space. Despite outside strategic concerns like the ongoing crises in Ukraine, the South Caucasus and other parts of the former Soviet Union, Russia has so far taken a proactive stance in CIS affairs, trying to convince the West that the Kremlin has a major potential in resolving security issues in their own backyard. Indeed, Moscow is seeking to create new strong meaningful relations with CIS countries, and all the latest political steps by the Kremlin have been aimed at enhancing Russia’s geopolitical position in post-Soviet Eurasia.

Russia’s successful foreign policy in the region also results from the failure of Western powers in the CIS, or continuous weakening of their positions, in the least. As a result of Washington’s failure to craft any coherent vision as to how the post-Soviet territory fits into U.S. broader strategy its role is increasingly defined through the prism of Russia. The lack of a meaningful U.S. response to the challenge posed by the protracted conflicts in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus not only highlights the low level of U.S. engagement in the conflict-torn regions but also casts doubt on its ability to be an effective player in international organizations such as the UN and the OSCE.

Much the same is true of EU’s Eastern Partnership policy, which reflects an unconcerned attitude and offers a mere pittance to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – six countries that the EU does not want to invite as full members. In effect, the EU lacks a visionary and principled approach to resolving post-Soviet regional security issues. Brussels has practically no role in conflict settlement and therefore does not have the necessary tools to intervene in the peace process, offering only confidence-building activities. Such a situation strongly limits the influence of the EU in the Eastern neighborhood and dramatically hinders Brussels’ capacity to formulate a meaningful policy to deal with simmering secessionist conflicts.

This means that neither the United States nor the EU are ready to offer CIS countries a real alternative to Russian policies. The failure of the West to design a sound workable action plan for dealing with Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors indicates that it is almost impossible for the United States and the EU to guarantee security for these nations. It is thus no surprise that Western powers have been unsuccessful in their post-Soviet strategies. The resulting lack of a common and integrated strategy may lead to a gradual withdrawal of Western democracies from the CIS and the loss of ground to Russia’s more assertive foreign policy.

Consequently, Russia is seen as essentially having a monopoly over reshaping the security architecture in the post-Soviet space. While the Kremlin views regional security of the CIS as fundamental to their interests, Western powers simply underestimate Russia’s increased role in orchestrating today’s geopolitical processes in post-Soviet Eurasia.

The Kremlin may be successful in helping some CIS countries resolve ethnic conflicts, thereby fostering greater stability in the entire region. Most local leaders know well that Moscow’s blessing will be a necessary precondition for any political solution or peace agreement because the Kremlin holds the key to the major security puzzles. So, many states see Russia not as a threat, but a natural ally against domestic and external threats.

The already-strained Russia-West relations could easily contribute to the future isolation of the CIS region. The Kremlin is talking more and more about the need to protect the state’s frontiers and turn them into an impenetrable barrier against terrorists, criminals and would-be enemies. A stronger (than in the 1990s) Russia may further enhance its geopolitical clout in various, subtle ways to develop and execute problem-solving scenarios that would gratify not only Russia’s interests but also those of the entire post-Soviet neighborhood. Such a move could urge CIS political leaders to accept the Kremlin’s rules and eventually integrate their countries more fully into the Eurasian Union.

Strategically, however, the Kremlin may still see former Soviet countries as protective buffer states. Through BRICS, SCO and scores of joint energy projects and counter-terrorism maneuvers, Russia collaborates closely with China, Turkey and Iran to keep CIS countries peaceful, compliant and relatively free of Western penetration. The return of global Russia may even push Moscow to view the post-Soviet world in a completely new way. The very fact that President Putin once famously noted that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century demonstrates his long-term goal to restructure the CIS by shifting away from confederation to a much more consolidated form of a new union in which economic, political and military factors are expected to dominate. Such a regional perspective best illustrates Russia’s broad interests, of which Putin’s Eurasian Union is but one important part.

As Russia and the West have entered a tense period of prolonged mutual distrust, the way forward for CIS countries is indeed difficult to discern. But yet the Kremlin seems to be waiting for a suitable time and favorable circumstances before putting Russia’s weight behind a solution to security issues in the region: when a new, beneficial geopolitical situation that fits well into Russia’s strategic interests is finally formed in the CIS territory. This is why the next few years will prove decisive in the struggle to reshape the post-Soviet neighborhood and incorporate Russia’s ‘near abroad’ countries into a new cohesive integrated union. The final chapter of the post-Soviet states is therefore still being written, and there is much work to do before long-term stability and lasting peace are firmly rooted in this part of the world.

Looking Ahead: Forever Adversaries or Genuine Partners?

Evidently, Russia remains a vital element of the rapidly developing European security order. Rethinking Russia could therefore start with considering it not as a threat to the West but rather as a critical contributor to Europe’s evolving security system. Instead of blaming President Putin for everything that goes wrong in world affairs, Western leaders should answer one fundamental question that is essential for building an up-to-date European security system: Can Russia and the West ever become genuine partners, or will they remain forever adversaries?

This poignant question makes us consider broader, more politically sensitive questions: Do Russia and the West have the capacity to learn from history? Are they destined to go on making the same mistakes over and over again? Are they going to cooperate internationally in ventures that can unite them and help build a safer Europe and hence a peaceful world, or will they fail that test? These are perhaps the most difficult questions for the international community to answer as they concern the future of Russian-Western relations in the coming years. The answers to them may be yes and no.

Both sides may still find understanding through leaning the implications of past follies and errors, and committing themselves to seeing the signs of the new times and the meaning of change. True, geopolitical games are endless in nature. Sometimes they even become dangerous, especially when players breach the established rules and cross the red lines. An illustrative example is the Ukraine prolonged conflict – quirky, infuriating, intriguing, and wearying – that has definitively posed an “Eastern Question” to which Moscow, Brussels and Washington have so far failed to find a clear answer. That is largely because Russia and the West are engaged in fighting the Ukraine crisis instead of trying to solve it in earnest.

Addressing the Eastern Question requires building a new European security architecture that is comprehensive, flexible and acceptable to all. Neither Russia nor the West needs the reemergence of Cold War-like security blocs which present serious risks to European stability. Instead they need a new model of international relations that would convert Europe to a better and safer system of comprehensive security. This is a policy of the necessity to forge a new cooperative security system in which Russia, the United Stated and the EU may well become founding members.

Time has shown that the United States and the EU have no credible strategies for containing Russia. Therefore, even in the highly violent, imperfect world that exists today, finding a middle ground between reconciliation and confrontation could be a positive outcome. Delaying to do so would merely make the endgame much worse. If the United States and the EU want to ensure a safe future for Europe, it should reconsider the European security order and keep the door open for a cooperative security relationship with Russia.

To succeed, Western leaders must change their approach to the Eurasian endgame, rejecting the assumptions that have shaped their policies since the beginning of the post-Cold War crisis of the world order. In order to confront emerging global challenges together and to enhance tomorrow’s prospects, both sides will have to demonstrate willingness to enter into talks without any preconditions. The key to success in the negotiating process is finding mechanisms that would harmonize relations between NATO and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and between the EU and the Eurasian Union. And perhaps attempts to design a roadmap for a new mutually beneficial agreement may ultimately end the endgame.

Obviously, the security of Russia and the West cannot be guaranteed if both are isolated from each other. A prudent attitude would save the trouble of   Moscow, Brussels and Washington top officials to relearn the painful lesson that isolationism is the road to disaster. Although the voices of division remain strong, the new security environment facing both Russia and the West is so unstable and challenging that only continued dialogue will help them find solutions. But those challenges can indeed be transformed into opportunities if Russia and Western powers take responsibility and decisive action. Those who argue otherwise are caught up in the trap of outdated nineteenth-century geopolitics that has nothing to do with today’s realities.

Although the endgame to any crisis is difficult to predict, today is a better time for top leaders of both Russia and Western powers to nudge their nations away from the brink of a no-holds-barred nuclear arms race and to reconstruct global security order in a harmonious international arrangement of major world powers. Otherwise, the future of European security will look too gloomy for the West and Russia to be able to survive in.