As 2020 drew to a close, Russia finds itself more isolated than ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia is at odds with most of its European neighbors, except Belarus, headed by dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
While the concerns of Russia’s European neighbours stem from historical experience, Russia’s current foreign policy does little to assuage them. Joe Biden’s nominee for US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, views Russia’s conduct as aggressive and erratic. He wants to hold Russia accountable for dangerous actions like sending troops to Ukraine and supporting Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
Thus far, Moscow has been unfazed by Blinken’s statements. But that will change if the US imposes stricter sanctions on Russia, which could well happen next year. Washington has not yet, for instance, imposed sanctions over the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. It may also exert more pressure to thwart the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
Most members of Biden’s Cabinet are political veterans, many of whom previously served in Barack Obama’s administration. They, like Biden, have experience in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Washington refuses to accept a world divided into spheres of influence, as it did during the Cold War.
The US, therefore, wants Russia to steer clear of Belarusian politics, even if most people there want to see Lukashenko gone. Washington, similarly, wants Russia to accept the country of Georgia as a possible NATO member. Wherever it can, the US will push against Moscow’s influence. And there is little Russia can do about this.
Russia is growing weaker. The Kremlin has failed to take action these past years.
The modernisation of Russia’s economy, touted by Putin a while back, has not happened. Profits accrued by Russian banks and other businesses are trickling away. Russia’s economy still relies on exporting natural resources. Highly trained graduates keep leaving Russia to find work abroad.
Real wages have been declining for years and capital flight is costing the country billions. At the same time, foreign investment in Russia is down. Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine, Syria and Libya, celebrated in patriotic propaganda in state-controlled media, are little consolation for ordinary Russians.
Russia will only change its behaviour if it must. Washington and Europe are prepared for years of confrontation with Russia. Still, Russia and the West will cooperate on fighting international terrorism, restoring the Iran nuclear deal and tackling climate change. Nevertheless, Russia will be perceived as a foe, rather than friend.
Moscow needs Beijing
How will Russia react? It will seek closer ties with China, for economic reasons alone. The relationship between both will be clear: China will remain the economic giant, while Russia will be the weak junior partner.
Moscow’s military might change little about its foreign policy status. NATO remains more powerful and even more so now that President-elect Biden and Europe will once more coordinate their foreign policy.
Moscow is isolated, yet refuses to acknowledge this fact, as became evident at Putin’s annual year-end press conference. It seems Putin has lost touch with reality. DW