The End of Diplomacy? Seven Glimpses of the New Normal

Moscow: Historians will probably label the eight-year period between 2014 and 2022 as a time of transition for the European politics in the 21st century. Many trends and processes that first emerged in 2014 to take their final shape and consolidate eight years later. Looking back, we can conclude that the dramatic and unexpected events of 2014 only resulted in a temporary truce between Moscow and the capitals in the West, reflecting the precarious balance of power and the mutual unwillingness of the parties to escalate immediately.

With a temporary truce recorded, both sides commenced active preparations for another round of confrontation. Neither the tumultuous four years of Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, nor Britain’s dramatic retreat from the European Union, nor the chronic crises in the Middle East, nor the persisting rise of Beijing’s global influence, nor the coronavirus pandemic—nothing prevented these preparations.

Russia proceeded with a rapid modernization of its armed forces, pursuing programs of import substitution, accumulating foreign exchange reserves, expanding trade with China and deepening political and military-technical cooperation with its partners across the CSTO. The West has established various formats and mechanisms of sanctions pressure, boosting NATO’s eastern flank and increasing policy coordination both within the Alliance and within the European Union as well as military-technical assistance to Ukraine, while consistently attacking Russia in a variety of international settings ranging from the UN General Assembly to OSCE and the Council of Europe ministerials.

Was another collision—of a larger scale—inevitable? During the eight years of relative calm, attempts have repeatedly been made to turn the temporary truce into a lasting and stable peace. On both sides, diplomats, international experts, and public figures worked hard to solve this difficult task. Many practical proposals have been prepared on both Ukraine and broader issues pertaining to European security.

Unfortunately, none of these proposals have been heard to become a cut-off point for an agreement. The gap between Russia and the West was widening, while tensions around Ukraine continued to build up. As a result, the eight-year truce ended in February 2022 with Moscow’s diplomatic recognition of the DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and the LNR (Lugansk People’s Republic) in the Donbass region as well as with the Russian military operation on Ukrainian soil. The conflict has once again entered a dangerous phase, and on a fundamentally different level. The transition ended with a new crisis with inevitable and irreversible consequences—not only for Ukraine but also for the relations between Russia and the West as a whole.

It probably wouldn’t be quite correct to draw parallels between the coming European reality of 2022 and the Cold War of the second half of the past century. In all probability, times lie ahead that are darker and more dangerous than even those that ended in Perestroika and “new thinking” or in the final collapse of the socialist system globally and the Soviet Union regionally.

During the Cold War, especially in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the parties had a sound understanding of each other’s red lines, trying not to cross them whenever possible. Today, red lines are not recognized as truly red, while repeated statements about such lines are perceived on the other side as bluffing and empty rhetoric.

During the Cold War, a stable balance was maintained between the two military-political blocs in Europe. Today, NATO is much stronger than Russia in most military-technical parameters, even if we consider the potential of Minsk as an ally of Moscow.

During the Cold War, the relations between the West and the USSR—despite all the differences and contradictions—were rooted in mutual respect and a certain climate of trust, which gave hope for predictable relations. Today, we are talking about respect, and there is more about trust, there is no more talk, the relationship has entered a phase of unpredictability.

The current unpredictability does not allow us to draw definitive conclusions about what the “new European reality” may become in the years, let alone for decades, to come. This depends on the final outcome of the Russian military operation, the nature and results of Ukraine’s forthcoming “political transit”, the stability of the West’s anti-Russian unity, the general dynamics of the balance of power, the severity of common problems and many other factors. However, some preliminary assumptions can already be made.

1. Russia has inadvertently recaptured China’s seemingly entrenched role as a major international villain and opponent of the West. Surely, restraining China’s foreign policy ambitions is not off the agenda for Washington and its European partners, but this is now pushed to the sidelines. Moreover, Beijing has adopted an extremely cautious, even outspoken, position on the Ukrainian issue, emphasizing its respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, Ukraine included. Only explicit and unequivocal attempts by China to resolve the Taiwan issue by military means can change the current system of Western priorities, but such attempts are unlikely to come in the near future.

2. Moscow has virtually no allies or—at least—sympathetic observers left in the West. After the events of 2014, there remained significant forces in Europe, who were calling for taking Russia’s interests into account and combining pressure on the Kremlin with the possibility of some concessions to the Kremlin from the EU and NATO. Today, even such figures as the leader of the French far-right conservative National Union Marine Le Penn or the Czech President Milos Zeman are unanimous in their condemnation of Russia’s actions. As for the United States, the anti-Russian consensus in Washington has grown stronger than ever in the last third of a century.

3. Russia faces an inevitable and a likely long pause in high-level political dialogue. In the foreseeable future, the Kremlin is unlikely to see a string of presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, and foreign ministers waiting in line to meet with Russian leaders. Numerous visits of Western leaders to Moscow on the eve of the crisis are among the foreign policy failures, and the Russian side failed to persuade anything, with political and diplomatic compromise considered unattainable. An at least partial political and diplomatic boycott by the West seems likely; in some cases, it will be complemented by closures of diplomatic missions, recalls of ambassadors and even (following the example of Ukraine) severance of diplomatic relations.

4. Moscow will have to endure a long and costly arms race. Considering the events taking place on the territory of Ukraine, the West will set itself the task of making the most of its obvious economic and technological advantages in order to devalue Russia’s military potential, both nuclear and conventional, over time. Although it is still premature to proclaim the death of arms control in general, the competition with Moscow in various qualitative parameters of armaments will only intensify. Amid the current circumstances, it is unlikely that we could return to negotiating a moratorium on NATO enlargement or other options for legally-binding guarantees of Russian security.

5. Russia has long been a permanent and priority target of Western economic sanctions. Sanction pressure is expected to augment, gradually but steadily. It will take a long time to get rid of the existing dependence on Russian supplies, hydrocarbons primarily—but the West will hardly step away from this path. The abandonment of Nord Stream 2 will be followed by a reduction in purchases of Russian gas from other pipelines, even if alternative sources of hydrocarbons prove to be more expensive. The same applies to other raw materials or other world markets, in which Russia still maintains a prominent position.

6. Russia will consistently be pushed away from the existing and emerging global technological chains—ones that define the transition of the world economy to a new technological mode. To this end, efforts will be made to limit the participation of Russian scientists in international research projects through creating obstacles for the activities of joint ventures in the field of high technology as well as for high-tech exports from Russia (and imports to Russia). As a result, Moscow’s technological cooperation with the West will decline, while Russia’s technological dependence on China will increase.

7. There will be a fierce struggle between Moscow and the West for the minds and hearts of the rest of the world, especially in the countries of the Global South. For Russia to be finally labelled as a rogue country, the West needs to turn its narrative of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict into a global, universal narrative. To this end, efforts will be made to promote this narrative across South and South-East Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa and in Latin America. Russia will be presented as a country that has challenged the fundamental norms of international law, undermining the foundations of global—rather than merely European—security. The strategic goal will be to isolate Russia on the world stage as much as possible, as this will supposedly set limits on Moscow’s ability to diversify its foreign policy, economic and other ties, partially making up for the damage caused by the collapse of cooperation with the West.

Will Moscow manage to withstand such pressure for a long time? Will Russia succeed in mounting an effective counterattack to pose counter-threats and challenge the Western opponents? Will Russia strengthen its current position in world trade and major international organizations as well as in bilateral relations with its key partners? Will it be able to find and mobilize non-Western resources for economic and social modernization? In the “new reality” of 2022, all these issues—if nothing new for Moscow—become all the more relevant.

In the last quarter of a century, Russia’s political and socio-economic systems, for all their many shortcomings, have demonstrated a high degree of resilience. Still, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has yet to face challenges of a crisis of such magnitude.

From our partner RIAC

Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council.