After months of issuing anti-American rhetoric, including an accusation that Hillary Clinton was seeking to destabilize Russia, the Kremlin appears to be easing its hard line toward Washington.
That would be part of a predictable cycle: threats and outrage have little use if relations remain consistently rock-bottom. Offering the chance to improve ties gives western countries greater interest in treating Moscow seriously and increases the impact of a fallout if it decides to lash out instead.
Although the thawing attitude should be welcomed, the United States and other western countries shouldn’t react naïvely by simply responding in kind. Instead they should make it clear more will be needed — action and not mere words — by doing more to defend their common values.
It’s no secret that although President Barack Obama’s laudable policy of improving ties with Russia known as the “reset” helped achieve some cooperation over Afghanistan and Iran and established a diplomatic infrastructure, it didn’t succeed in its main aim of getting Moscow to stop treating relations as a zero-sum game.
That’s because Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy has always been about achieving what’s good for him, not the country. When circumstances worsen for the president at home — as they appeared to do when mass protests broke out last year — or elections loom, he blames Russia’s problems on the West and courts popularity by issuing threats, if not worse.
Whether or not the current warming trend continues, the West should develop a sensible approach to breaking the cycle, starting by seeking solidarity on Russia. It’s no accident Putin has expended great energy to undermine western policy toward Russia precisely by splitting unity. Chief among his methods has been for Russian energy companies to make lucrative bilateral deals with western firms that effectively become Kremlin advocates inside their countries.
Germany, whose economic boom depends on Russian natural gas — the country buys 40 percent of its supplies from Russia’s Gazprom — has been among the most guilty, partly because its energy industry is highly influential.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel took office in 2005 promising to help forge a common EU energy policy. But Germany soon appeared to be Russia's biggest booster in Europe. When the Bush administration campaigned in 2008 to put Ukraine and Georgia on a path to NATO membership, which provoked fury in Moscow, Merkel led the opposition to the plan.
NATO rejected the initiative, despite international outrage over Russia's summer invasion of Georgia. Merkel went on to head the effort to block proposed EU regulations that would have restricted foreign companies from buying European energy utilities, measures aimed at slowing Gazprom's drive to expand control over energy supplies.
There are signs attitudes may now be changing in Berlin.
German legislators have called on Merkel to raise concerns about Moscow’s growing authoritarianism when she meets Putin on Friday. That will take place as part of her visit to attend the so-called St. Petersburg Dialogue, a conference about civil society set up under her predecessor and close Putin ally Gerhard Schroeder to show Berlin is working to improve Russian civil society.
In fact, the conference — largely organized by Gazprom and lacking in all but symbolic participation by grassroots organizations — has been a sham. Merkel could try to begin changing that by using the conference to accomplish its ostensible aim — challenging the Kremlin to democratize.
If she does, it would reflect more than simply a realization that Germany’s cozy relationship with Russia is at odds with western values. It would provide another signal dramatic changes in the global energy industry are having political effects.
The exploitation of new oil and gas supplies around the world — the International Energy Agency predicts the United States will soon take over from Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer — and the development of liquid natural gas are opening the market. That’s decreasing Russia’s geostrategic leverage.
The US Congress could help set Merkel an example this week, when it’s set to vote to repeal the Jackson-Vanik agreement, a set of Cold War-era sanctions, on Friday.
The vote in the House of Representatives is expected to be on a combined measure that would include new sanctions against officials connected to the prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who exposed massive police corruption.
Even if Moscow’s rhetoric is changing, it is continuing to obstruct international action over Syria, use energy as political tool in Europe, consolidate the Kremlin’s control over Russian business — the state will soon own more than 60 percent of the oil industry — and crack down against critics at home. A sweeping new law redefining treason went into effect yesterday.
The changing energy market — along with predictions Russia’s economy will worsen —may constrain Russia’s actions and give it more motives to become a responsible actor in the world. The United States and its allies should encourage that by seeking to engage Moscow in a way that would discourage its cycles of improving and worsening relations. Standing up for western values this week would be a good start.