We Need to Rethink how We Engage with Russia

There are compelling reasons to de-escalate the crisis between the West and Russia over Ukraine. To do this Russia must stop seeing the world in zero-sum terms, and the West must understand Russia’s security concerns.

Western policymakers need to reassess how they engage with Russia. Although Russia would claim otherwise, during this Ukraine crisis Russia has clearly violated international law. Evidence has mounted of Russia’s direct support of and even participation in military action in eastern Ukraine.

Truth has become a relative term amid the unverified claims, manipulation of information and denials emanating not only from Russia, but also from the separatists and Ukraine itself. Although diplomatic discussions between Russia and the West happen behind closed doors, there is an apparent lack of understanding amongst Western policymakers as to how Russia thinks, its perception of Western actions and its motivation in this conflict. This has contributed to the conflict’s continuation. This is not to say that by understanding Russia, the world should appease Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine or its deception in the conflict. But an understanding of Russian logic in the crisis is crucial to ending the conflict and preventing such conflicts in the future.

Russia has been tireless in its provision of counter-arguments to any accusation of its culpability in Ukraine. A prime example is the accusation that Russia supplied the BUK missile system to rebels that was used to shoot down flight MH17. Russia not only denied this but also made sure that the Russian media released alternative reports implicating the Ukrainian government in the tragedy. One such story suggested that the real target of the missile had been Putin’s presidential plane, which shares similar airline tail colours to that of Malaysian Airlines. In support of proving Russia’s involvement, Ukraine’s security service offered photos of a truck allegedly carrying the missile system across the Russian border and Western media cited US officials’ stated inferences that Russia had supplied the missile.

Russian Advantage in the PR Game

Russia has created an atmosphere of distrust which has subsequently led to the Western presumption that Russia will use deception to achieve its ultimate aims. In such a situation, evidence becomes key in highlighting Russia’s culpability. Due to Russia’s use of media to manipulate facts, a variety of truths coexist, and each is hard to verify. Moreover, Russia capitalises on instances where Western powers admit they cannot provide the one thing that supports their accusations against Russia: indisputable proof. Intelligence definitively ‘proving’ Russia’s direct involvement in the shooting down of MH-17 could not be verified by the United States.  

This is not to say Russia did not supply the BUK missile or did not provide direct assistance in shooting down the plane. However, the situation not only placed Ukraine’s intelligence under question but also produced a PR victory for the Russian government. The pursuit of fact verification has led to an international blame game, which distracts from the real issues facing Ukraine. This plays in Russia’s favour, as it is a game that Russia is much more adept at than the West, given Russia’s control of the media and information made available. It is a way in which Russia can demonstrate it is on a level playing field with the West, validating its own narrative of events as much as the West validates its own.   

As part of its desire to deny responsibility, Russia also uses such PR coups to draw focus to what it perceives to be Western hypocrisy. The idea that this conflict is a result of America interference is a prevalent opinion amongst the Russian population. 52% of Russians believe that the Ukrainian officials are ‘puppets’ of the West. Although it is Russia’s default position to blame the West for causing conflict, the USA in particular, in this instance there have been some events that add plausibility to this opinion. Among other things, the leaked conversation of the US’s Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland appeared to show America’s interest in determining the composition of the Ukrainian government. . To Russia, such instances justify the unfairness it feels when the West appears to lecture the world on how to respect other countries’ sovereignty.

Russia views the US and EU’s seemingly unquestioning support for the shift from a pro-Russian government in Ukraine to a pro-Western, and more significantly a pro-NATO, administration with suspicion. Images of the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, walking arm in arm with opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk and cheerfully received by Maidan grassroots protestors as she visited Kyiv in December 2013 seem provocative to Russia. Although she also held meetings with Yanukovych at the time, Russia sees only Western encouragement for change that encroaches on Russian territory.

Russia of course must learn that Ukraine is independent and has the right to choose its partners and global outlook. However, Western powers must also demonstrate an understanding of Russia’s concerns. NATO is an organisation that was, in part, founded to curb the expansion of the Soviet Union. NATO still exists, but the Soviet Union does not. Ukraine’s membership of NATO is unlikely to be considered any time soon. But for a country that values security, and also favours conspiracy theories, it is a potential security concern if NATO’s reach is seen to spread to Russia’s neighbours. 

The West needs to decide what its priority is in this situation. Punishing Russia for violating international law and responding with strength against aggression is one. However, Russia has shown that it will not respond in the short-term to what it sees as threatening behaviour, such as sanctions, even if they are justified and will cause economic pain to the country.

De-escalating the situation in eastern Ukraine so that Ukraine’s government can concentrate on the constitutional reforms promised when it came to power is another. To achieve the latter, the West and the Ukrainian government must engage with Russia in a way that acknowledges Russia’s concerns. Simultaneously, Russia must stop seeing the world in zero-sum terms and seeing Ukraine as an extension of Russia. Europe will have to re-engage with Russia given the economic interdependence. Furthermore, in light of the rise of brutal terrorism in the Middle East, the West needs to bring Russia as an ally in the fight against it.



Sarah Lain

Associate Fellow

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