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15 September 2017

Is Russia Thinking About a Pivot Back to Europe?

With US-Russia relations still getting worse rather than better, and Russia’s Pivot to the East having limited success, is Moscow now seeking reconciliation with Paris and Berlin over Ukraine?

The ongoing “diplomatic war” between Russia and the US is getting worse. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently stated that the US diplomatic mission to Russia might be cut by another 155 people. That is on top of the 755 cut already. This Monday, it was revealed how else Russia might respond to the US closure of Russia’s San Francisco Consulate and its two trade missions in New York and Washington, DC. One path Russia might undertake is limiting the number of entry points for American diplomats into Russia, effectively limiting unrestricted diplomatic travel and revoking special parking privileges for the US mission.

It seems that neither country is ready to end this feud, which has become an acrimonious downward spiral of mutual accusations and restrictions. It is hard to say how far Washington and Moscow might go, but a rapprochement looks unlikely considering neither side wants to be seen to be giving in. What is quite clear, however, is that all hopes Moscow policy makers had for strong relations between US President Donald Trump and Putin are gone. The same goes for any hopes of even marginally better relations between Russia and the US.

The level of confrontation from 2014 to 2016 - which some labeled a “Cold War 2.0.” or a “Hybrid Cold War” - was only a forerunner for the heightened tensions of the last few months.  It should be noted that Moscow’s foreign policy establishment was hoping for a friendly Trump until very recently, even when most of Russia’s more conservative international relations experts were proposing at best to hunker down and carefully calculate every move or to prepare for “inevitable military and political confrontation with the US” and even to boost Russia’s military presence in Venezuela.

Moscow, it would seem, does not have a formulated strategy right now on how to deal with a United States run by an “unfriendly Trump”. Instead, it is reacting without an end goal, to what is effectively just a series of “diplomatic slaps in the face”.  Still, Moscow, slowly, but inevitably is realizing that Trump in fact is going to play by establishment rules when it comes to US-Russia relations. Investigations into Russian involvement have made improved relations with Russia too politically toxic an area for Trump to venture into. Any calculations based on Trump’s election race promises of better times ahead for the two countries will have to be dumped. Besides, the initiative in US-Russia relations is now in Washington’s hands; it is yet unclear how far the US is willing to go with this “punishment of Russia” alongside its doubling down on sanctions.  The fallout from the freshly signed US sanction law is still to come. And as correctly noted by Vladislav Inozemtsev – the “black mark” for Russia’s elite, the reports on Russia’s oligarchs and quasi-public organizations would be presented only in January of 2018. The campaign against Russia’s state-run media outlets RT and Sputnik is most likely going to be the next reason for Moscow’s retaliation.

Most likely, Moscow will be incapable of formulating a wholesome new approach in US-Russia relations any time soon. First of all, it would need to see the whole list of complaints that Washington is currently formulating. Moreover, it is already clear today, that the scope of these complaints are comparable to those of the Cold War, something that the Russian Federation has never actually had to deal with before. So what are Moscow’s options?

Today’s state of affairs are in some senses more similar to the early 2000s rather than the Cold War times. Back then Russia wanted to win round George W. Bush, but when the Iraq campaign began it has switched to Paris and Berlin, eager to restrict transatlantic relations. Of course, in the 2000s there was no Crimea, Donbas and Russia was considered to be a “young democracy”. Clearly, today it is not the case.  Russia’s reputation and its relations with the West is in much worse shape, but it seems there are no other options. The capacity of the “pivot to the East” is being exhausted, all easy victories are already won and to further any positive developments Russia has to do some serious work on its institutions which it is quite reluctant to do. In any case, any progress that could be made is only economic. It is rather pointless to wait for China to back Russia in its struggles against the West, even more so Japan and South Korea.

For the last two years Russia has been actively trying to jump across Europe and deal with the US directly whether it is the case of Ukraine or general “world governance” issues. What we have today is basically the situation when those talks have barely begun and Moscow is looking at two options: things might get worse, or they would get radically worse, both for Kremlin’s foreign policy objectives and its domestic stability.

That is why Moscow, just as after the US Iraq invasion, has no other option but to try to smooth things a little bit by approaching Berlin and Paris and somehow convince them that Trump and the United States have “gone mad” and if Europe does not push back against him, the argument might run, the consequences of uncontrolled escalation could be dire.  In order to properly attract the attention of his European counterparts, Putin has publicly changed his position on one of the most pressing issues of 2010s – the war in Ukraine. During the recent BRICS Summit in Beijing, Putin voiced his support of a UN peacekeeping mission for Donbas. In his talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, he went even further, agreeing to peacekeepers to protect an OSCE mission in the area. Not only on the contact line, but in other parts of Donbas as well. 

Considering that the devil is always in the details, and it is still too early to be trumpet any “de-escalation" from Russia over Ukraine, the reaction in some of the Europe’s capitals is surpassing all expectations. The most flattering reaction for the Kremlin came from Germany’s foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel (although he was criticized for it heavily):  “the initiative of the Russian Federation on the deployment of UN peacekeepers to Donbas should induce Europe to a new detente with Moscow. Russia has changed its policy on Ukraine. We should not miss this moment; sending peacekeepers to Donbas can be the first step towards lifting the sanctions imposed on Russia”. Not all in Europe agree with Gabriel’s enthusiasm, of course, but a new round of talks is on. Moscow is back setting the agenda that might once again split Europe, even more so than it would split the transatlantic unity between Europe and the US.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry will now have to include all major European partners in discussing Putin’s proposal, parallel to launching yet another talk on the “meaning of the sanctions and the logic of its lifting”. Russia is drawing attention away from its confrontation with the US, reviving a prospect of an eventual solution in Donbas, and offer Europe a choice between an unpredictable, haphazard US, and a “new” Russia, this one seemingly ready for compromise and dialogue. Of course, no one is hoping to win Europe as an ally against the US; that would never happen, even in the time of Trump. The main goal is to secure its European neutrality, or perhaps even Europe’s pressure on Washington to ease its spat with Russia.

Considering the futility of any dialogue today with the current White House administration, the Kremlin is maximizing its chances for staging a long and complicated dialogue with Europe.  If in the process it succeeds to drive a wedge between the USA and Europe – it would be an achievement great for the Kremlin, but also not likely. Having Europe pacify the US at least a little bit would be more achievable, and would already constitute a relative success. 

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