Constructive Disengagement: Do the West and Russia Need a Timeout?
Do both the West and Russia need to call a timeout to give both sides time and space to more thoughtfully consider what they both want the relationship between the West and Russia to be? I think so. Call it constructive disengagement. This informal paper will explore this notion.
I won’t recite the long list of difficulties that the relationship between Russia and the West has encountered over the past decade, but I will attempt to enumerate the factors that have tended to make the relationship troubled and problematic.
And I will offer a near-term suggestion, not intended to cure the difficulties of the relationship, but to both give it time to be evolved, and to prevent it from deteriorating unnecessarily.
My thesis is that it would be more constructive for both sides to move forward with what I call constructive disengagement rather than merely butting heads incessantly in a non-productive manner.
Constructive disengagement would not be construed as a declaration of war. Nor would it preclude transactional engagement on specific issues where common ground exists.
Each party would be strongly encouraged to create and appoint its own constructive disengagement commission which would provide a more politically neutral arena for discussing, debating, and pursuing matters related to the disengaged relationship without needing to directly engage at the normal political level.
The intent is not for constructive engagement to go on forever or be an absolute separation, but simply to be a constructive placeholder until such future time when more normal relations can be pursued.
No, we’re not limited to precisely two outcomes
To listen to many pundits, you would think that there were only two possible paths for the relationship between the West and Russia:
- Russia acquiesces, gives up all superpower status, and devolves into just another one of the states of Europe, fully adopting and following Western values and interests.
- All out World War III. Well, or at least a New Cold War, for the indefinite future, with constant chattering about World War III and nuclear annihilation.
No, it’s not a simple black vs. white issue, not by a long stretch.
Armageddon is not in the cards.
But neither is rapid Russian evolution into a prototypical Western-styled democracy. Whoever believed that was even possible, let alone likely or even desirable was seriously misguided. And they still are — they’re living in a fantasy dream world.
Rather, there are a variety of pragmatic paths, depending on how pragmatic we wish to be, and how much of our overly-vaunted idealism our over-inflated egos can manage to put in check.
The option proposed by this paper is one of many. Others could be more or less pragmatic and more or less idealistic.
Do we really want to be in the same boat?
The ultimate question for all sides is whether we really want to be in the same boat, rowing in the same direction, headed for the same destination, for the same purpose.
Or are our respective intentions too distinct and conflicting to waste so much energy on our constant squabbling?
What is the West?
The West is such a vague, artful term. What is it, really?
Western Europe and the United States define the bulk of what is commonly referred to as the West.
The West can also be defined as the countries and institutions which derived their political, economic, social, religious, and philosophical beliefs primarily from the traditions of Western Europe, primarily the UK, France, and Germany, with influences from Spain and Italy as well. And further back, Greece.
Countries with a similar heritage and commitment would be included as well, such as Canada.
Australia and New Zealand would generally be considered part of the West as well, due to their British heritage as well.
Japan, India, and South Korea would not quite fit this definition of being integral with the West, but India did have a strong British colonial influence and Japan and South Korea have a strong alliance with Western interests.
Eastern European countries are more of a gray zone, sometimes closely associated with Western interests but sometimes no so much.
Ditto for Austria, Greece, and Turkey.
Israel is in a category of its own, sometimes having a strong alignment with the West, but sometimes putting its own peculiar security and religious and cultural interests first.
Generally speaking, the West refers primarily to American and Western European interests.
In truth, the West, like democracy, is more of an idea, an ideal, rather than some fixed, stationary, geographic region.
Too much unfinished business yet to be resolved
Currently, both sides are trying to move forward as if there was a mutually agreed upon game plan, which there is not. Each side has its own, undisclosed agenda.
The first big question is whether the breakup of the Soviet Union was the end or just the beginning of a long process.
I think the latter.
But so-called Western triumphalism treated the process as if it was over as soon as it began.
That seems rather hardly more than a little wishful thinking.
Who gets to drive the process going forward?
Great question, for which there is no clear and mutually agreed upon answer.
The West appears to have believed, and still believe that the West and Western interests should be driving the process. Such as the eastward expansion of the European Union and NATO. Efforts in Georgia and Ukraine exemplify this belief.
Meanwhile, many of the republics of the former Soviet Union, and Russia itself seem to believe that they and not the West should be and are driving the process.
Who should be entitled to drive that process?
Probably the individual republics.
But that’s in an ideal world.
Both Russia and the European Union seem to believe that they should be driving the process.
Visualize a continual series of train wrecks happening both in sequence and in parallel over an extended period of time. Not a pretty site.
Who is really meddling in whose internal affairs?
Sure, clearly Russia is trying to meddle in the affairs of the former republics of the Soviet Union.
But the European Union, NATO, and the United States are meddling as well. Not in the precise same way that Russia is meddling, but in their own way and meddling nonetheless.
The process is a mess. With no clear process to resolve it.
Perception is as important as reality
The West may technically be in the right and on the so-called right side of history, but perception still matters.
Russia has its own perception of the state of affairs, history, and prospects for the future.
The great difficulty with perception is that it:
- Is subjective.
- Is transient.
A timeout would give all parties a great opportunity to:
- Gain some fresh perspective of their own.
- Begin to appreciate the perspective of the other side.
In any case, the West merely asserting that its perspective is the only true, correct perspective is not going to resolve a nasty situation. In fact, that posture is much more likely to only make matters worse.
Moral high ground
The perception of the West appears to be based in large part a belief that the West has the moral high ground, and by implication that Russia and other authoritarian countries have no strong moral claim on their side.
In truth, Russia and other authoritarian countries don’t seem worried about moral issues at all.
But for the West, the moral stakes are an urgent matter.
Once again, this is fairly strong evidence that the interests of the West and Russia simply aren’t aligned even remotely close enough for truly constructive engagement.
They both appear to need an arrangement that permits them to pursue their own interests with a minimum of interaction, except for the small number of situations where they really do have a common ground.
Who is the aggressor and who is playing defense?
Western politicians and commentators assert that Russia is the aggressor, and that the West is merely defending itself.
On the other side, Russia asserts that the West is the aggressor, with its provocative eastward expansion of Western interests into Russia’s sphere of influence, including aggressive democracy promotion and regime change in the Middle East, and that Russia is merely defending itself.
Who’s right, and who’s wrong?
The point is that a problematic relationship is not resolved merely by pointing fingers and taking sides.
The real answer is that the relationship isn’t working and continuing to talk and act as if the relationship were worth pursuing with no changes to both sides is sheer fantasy.
The simple truth is that perception matters.
Each side has a perception that the other side is engaged in provocative behavior, even if the actual behavior is completely well-intentioned.
In short, both sides are provoking and both sides are defending against the provocations of the other side.
The essence of the problem is that efforts by the West to push western-style democratic governance and security eastward has triggered alarms in Moscow, which views this perceived encroachment as having crossed a red line across which no further encroachment is to be permitted.
Meanwhile, nobody in the West considers this eastward encroachment as being intended to threaten Russia in any way. That’s the consistent story from the West, from both Europe and the United States.
Needless to say, Russia is not buying that story for one moment.
It’s not my intention to decide which side is more right or more wrong, just to point out the nature of the fault lines in the fractured relationship.
Eastward expansion of Europe has included:
- Membership in the European Union.
- Economic ties with the West.
- Membership in NATO.
- Deployment of ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems in Eastern Europe, which the West claims merely defend Europe, while Russia claims they are a threat to Russia (impacting its strategic missile deterrence.)
- Public statement of intentions to pursue any of the above.
Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia joined NATO in 2004. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland had joined in 1999. Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, and Montenegro in 2017, but those three were too insignificant to matter significantly in the bigger, more problematic picture.
The remaining Eastern European countries not in NATO are:
It’s unclear how willing Russia was to accept NATO expansion in 1999 and 2004. They did accept it, but what is not clear is whether it caused any significant alarm within the power centers in Moscow. Maybe not, but there is a fair chance that it did.
What is very clear is that Georgia and Ukraine were viewed by Russia as clear red lines for NATO expansion.
In 2008, there was outright fighting and counter-encroachment by Russia in Georgia. In fact, Russia still occupies two significant portions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, recognizing them as independent republics. Needless to say, the West does not agree.
In 2011, NATO formally recognized Georgia as an aspirant country. The West views that as a good thing, but to Russia it would appear to be yet another instance of encroachment, a clear provocation by the West.
Ukraine remained relatively safely within the Russia sphere of influence, until the Maidan or Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity in 2014. There had been an earlier revolution, the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, but Russian influence had kept Ukraine and eastward European encroachment in check, or so it seemed.
The success of westward leaning groups in 2014 in Ukraine were clearly a very bright red line for Russia. Occupation and annexation of Crimea and support for ongoing unrest in Eastern Ukraine were fairly dramatic moves. Not unlike Russia’s reaction in Georgia in 2008, but clearly Russia was no longer taking any chances with western intentions.
There is significant tension related to foreign-funded NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) or civil society organizations (CSOs) operating in Russia and other countries that Russia might see as allies — funded primarily by the EU and US. Russia sees such organizations as dangerous efforts to destabilize authority and order. And quite provocative.
The West sees their efforts to fund NGOs in non-Western countries as innocent and sincere efforts to spread democracy, economic freedom, good governance, and to fight authoritarianism. In fact, the West sees such funding as freedom of expression that is supposed to be protected as a universal human right.
The West sees its active encouragement of popular protests against corruption and weak democratic governance as strictly positive, while Russia considers such protests and their encouragement by the West as strictly provocative and a threat to their sovereignty.
Needless to say, the West and Russia (and other authoritarian countries) don’t see eye to eye on these matters.
That said, although this issue of foreign-funded NGOs was indeed a major threat to authoritarian leaders everywhere (talk to Mubarak), that threat has diminished greatly since 2014. According to a report by the European Parliament, by 2017 over 100 countries had enacted laws specifically targeting these NGOs and CSOs, either outright banning them, limiting their funding, or requiring onerous registration requirements.
Authoritarian countries have also schooled themselves in the Internet, social media, and social justice organizational methods so that this threat from both foreign-funded and indigenous civil society actors has been largely neutralized. But, it is still a real threat, or at least a potential or at least perceived threat.
These foreign-funded or influenced organizations may no longer be a practical threat to an authoritarian country such as Russia, but they remain enough of a bogeyman for authoritarians to use them as a scapegoat and tool for repression.
Some believe that Russian involvement in Syria is less about protecting their interests in Syria, but more more about drawing a very hard, very bright line against so-called popular revolutions, which they feel are being inspired and instigated by the west. So-called color revolutions. As in the 2004 Ukraine Orange Revolution.
Even in the face of significant sanctions, Russia persists in struggling against the West, whether in Georgia, Ukraine, or Syria.
There’s no great clarity in the West as to whether Russian moves in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere are truly offensive moves, or whether they actually constitute defensive moves, defending from the relentless encroachment of Western interests into Russia’s perceived sphere of influence. Or maybe I should say that there is clarity in the West, a belief that Russia is engaged in aggressive and offensive moves, but hard evidence to backup such a belief is rather lacking.
It’s relatively clear that Russia has now drawn a rather bright red line in the sand and won’t tolerate any further political, economic, or military encroachment by the West into Russia’s perceived sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
Meanwhile, Moscow has cranked up significant influence and information and disinformation efforts to counter Western efforts to persuade central and eastern European countries of the merits of deeper integration with the West.
In fact, it would seem that Moscow has decided that such influence efforts must be extended into Western Europe itself, even the UK, and even to the U.S., to attempt to undermine any and all efforts to advance U.S. and European Western interests in Russia’s perceived sphere of influence.
None of that is to suggest that Russia is right or that the West is wrong, but simply to indicate the factors that have led us to where we are.
Prospect of color revolution in Russia proper
Russia has fretted over so-called color revolutions outside its borders, such as Ukraine, Belarus, Egypt, Syria, etc., but they have a concern about Western attempts to incite similar popular uprisings in Russia proper.
There have already been attempts, but so far they have failed. Severe constraints on foreign-funded civil society organizations since 2014 have greatly dampened a lot of the enthusiasm of activists.
But Russia still considers the prospect a threat.
Literally, an existential threat.
And Russian efforts in Syria are an indication of how extreme Russia perceives that threat.
Generally, the threat is greatly reduced in the last few years as authoritarians everywhere have wised up to the Internet and social media, and are now deploying technology in their own defense against popular uprising.
And the poor record of progress since the initial successes of the Arab Spring and Maidan have put a significant damper of their own on popular interest in rising up.
Ukraine is struggling with corruption and economic despair despite the success of the so-called Revolution of Dignity.
Economic conditions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya are in as much despair as before their uprisings, with no prospect for improvement on the horizon.
And then there is Syria. No country or people in their right mind would want to try to go that route again.
There are occasional protests in Russia, but mostly they are fizzling, dying on the vine, or being too modest to make much of a dent in authoritarian rule.
Still, the prospect that eventually the populace might rise up, due in large part to Western influence — or perceived influence, keeps Russia very reluctant to bend to any Western efforts to bring them closer to Europe and Western interests.
As inscrutable as Russian intentions might be, Western intentions are equally inscrutable. For example,
- Do Western European countries really want Russia sitting at their table as an integral part of the European Union, having a veto voice on the affairs of Western Europe?
- Do the U.S. and our European allies really want Russia to be a full-fledged member of NATO?
- Do Europe and the West really want Russia as an integral economic and trading partner in Europe?
- Do Western leaders truly believe that Russia could ever be one of them?
- Does the West trust the intentions of Russia any more than Russians distrust western intentions?
- Does the West want anything other to completely rebuild Russia to be a Western-style country, government, culture, and values?
- How much of a Russia distinct and separate from European traditions and values is the West willing to accept?
- Will the West accept Russia as a world power, or does the West demand that Russia give up its superpower status and devolve into simply another European state?
- Would the West ever permit Russia to be an integral part of Europe — and retain its nuclear weapons?
- Minor detail: the vast bulk of Russia is Asian and Eurasian — stretching to the Pacific Ocean, further east than all of China, Japan, and Korea, so how much sense does it make to consider all of Russia as integral with Europe?
- Will the West ever abandon concerns that nationalists and ultranationalists in Russia might seize control even if more moderate leaders did accede to demands of the West for Russia to integrate with Europe?
- How can the West view Russia’s nuclear arsenal with anything less than very deep suspicion?
Western leaders can talk a good story about not threatening Russia and encouraging Russia to integrate more tightly with Europe, but Moscow will continue to be faced with the prospect that stated Western intentions may be merely more of a ruse to get Russia to disarm and acquiesce rather than being wholly honest and sincere.
And even if Western leaders are honest and sincere in their intentions, there can be no guarantee to Russia that those leaders might get voted out of office within a few decades or even a few years, to be one day replaced by hard-line nationalists and Western-centric leaders who then seek to gain advantage over a crippled Russia.
Needless to say, Moscow appears to be rather skeptical of joining or even tolerating the whole European project.
Factors dividing the West and Russia
In no particular order, the following factors act to keep Russia and the West on different wavelengths:
- Security interests.
- Commitment to internationalism and the liberal world order.
- Commitment to Western-style democracy.
- Commitment to human rights and fighting human rights abuses.
- Economic system.
- Trade interests.
- Role of the military.
- Differing views on the value or threat of ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems.
- Spheres of influence.
- Superpower status.
- Sense of place in the world.
- Value differences.
- History and heritage.
- Cultural differences.
As far as I can tell, there are no easy, quick fixes to mend the relationship between the West and Russia.
Rather, the fault lines seem quite clear, with no bridge in sight. If anything, they seem likely to worsen.
My solution: timeout
Okay, clearly a timeout is not a solution or cure to the fractured relationship.
But, I contend it’s the best we can do, for now.
And that it will be much better for all involved than continue to stumble in the dark as we are doing right now.
I’m certainly not advocating for any permanent separation between the West and Russia.
Rather, more of a temporary separation is needed, to give each side enough time to more thoughtfully consider all aspects of their respective situations, values, and intentions.
After sufficient time for reflection, both sides will be in a much better position to discuss precisely what their future, permanent engagement should look like.
U.S.-Iran relations as model for disengagement?
I’m loathe to point to U.S.-Iran relations as a model for how any two countries should engage, but it does provide a starting point for a model.
The main point is that these two countries do manage to go about their business with virtually no formal engagement.
They each criticize the other.
There are no formal diplomatic relations.
Trade is minimal and strained at best.
Cultural exchange is essentially nonexistent.
There is no near-term prospect of any warming of relations.
Both parties have antithetical and conflicting geopolitical aims in the Middle East.
But there are backchannel diplomatic relations, of a sort.
Their military forces swirl around in fairly close proximity without any significant difficulties.
And they were able to come to a deal, or sorts, on nuclear weapons. Granted, it involved heavy reliance on intermediary countries, but it did happen.
Again, I wouldn’t use the specific relations between the U.S. and Iran as the final model, but they do illustrate how disengagement can work, in a fashion.
Constructive disengagement as envisioned in this paper is a hybrid of:
- Structured engagement
The goal is to ultimately engage again eventually, but recognize that disengagement is best at the current time.
The basic idea is to take steps to assure that reengagement can and will occur when it becomes feasible, while recognizing that premature engagement is counterproductive.
The essence of disengagement, whether constructive or not is to formally disengage, which means that the parties will be formally adversaries. Not outright enemies, and not engaged in kinetic combat, but adversaries nonetheless.
If the parties don’t truly feel that they are adversaries, then there is no reason for them to actually disengage.
Disengagement is the easy part. Actually, that’s not really true — existing treaties (including nuclear arms control), contracts, and social and cultural arrangements can be difficult to disentangle.
Structured engagement can involve several elements:
- No accommodation is desired or needed or necessary or advisable. Otherwise, disengagement would not be warranted.
- Independence of the parties has some value. A unipolar world is not necessarily in everyone’s best interests. Diversity has some significant survival value for human societies.
- Narrow, tailored transactional engagements, when feasible, as opportunities present themselves.
- Disengagement commissions on each side.
- No leadership-level interaction.
- No principal-level interaction. Maybe sometimes, but generally rare.
- Sub-principal level backchannel interaction. Relatively common, but not typically made public.
Formal declaration of adversarial relationship
The essence of disengagement, whether constructive or not is to formally disengage, which means that the parties will be formally adversaries. Not outright enemies, and not engaged in kinetic combat, but adversaries nonetheless.
This needs to be an explicit declaration.
Not a declaration of war or intent for armed conflict, but formal recognition that the parties are more than mere competitors or rivals.
And that any more than simple, transactional interactions is out of the question.
Disengagement is not a declaration of war
Formally disengaging, with termination of diplomatic relations is an extreme move, but not equivalent to nor does it imply a declaration of war.
Disengagement can be more of a cold war, but most definitely should not be treated as a declaration of war.
Disengagement would not amount to an intention to engage in armed hostilities.
An adversarial relationship would not necessarily mean that the parties would be absolute sworn enemies.
Under constructive disengagement, backchannel interaction is critical.
- Frequently only through third-party contacts.
- Interaction only on the sub-principal level.
- Occasionally significant contact.
- Always low-key contact.
- Always seeking opportunities for common ground.
- Always seeking very small, very modest opportunities that have a significant chance of success.
- Never in the public.
- Always denied.
Formal disengagement would mean a general disengagement but would not preclude transactional engagement on specific issues.
Any time there is common ground, opportunities to pursue common interests should of course be exploited.
That’s precisely the kind of interaction that makes constructive disengagement constructive.
Look for the little door
The whole point of disengagement is that relations between two countries are so bad that any significant cooperation is out of the question.
But that doesn’t mean that absolutely no cooperation is possible.
Instead, both parties should seek only the most modest of opportunities for cooperation.
These are the so-called little doors.
Both parties should continually look for the little door. Major opportunities for cooperation are unlikely, but small but still meaningful opportunities can usually be found.
And it is not that one must struggle to search for such little-door opportunities, but that they are usually quite common, if the parties are open to noticing them.
In fact, part of the point of disengagement is to lower direct tensions so that emotion, passion, anger, and rage don’t so cloud vision that small but meaningful opportunities cannot even be seen when they are right in front of us.
Constructive disengagement commissions
My great idea here is what I call constructive disengagement commissions.
The goal is to enable all parties to make constructive progress without requiring formal engagement.
This concept is neither central nor required to pursue the overall thrust of this paper, but is at least one option which would greatly facilitate the overall concept of constructive disengagement.
There are many different ways the commissions could work, the approach described here is only one, to illustrate the concept.
The simple way to conceptualize them is as government-sponsored think tanks. They would hold internal deliberations, develop and publish policy papers, hold public discussions, and discuss their own policy papers and those of other groups.
Rather than having direct talks or secret talks through third-party backchannels, they allow all sides to air their grievances and differences in public, but in a non-political manner that has some chance of making forward progress.
The basic idea is that each party appoints its own constructive disengagement commission for the problematic relationship to be addressed, whether it be Iran, Russia, China, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, or whoever else is next on the list.
The political leaders of the country would appoint the commission members. Sure, political factors will of course affect such appointments, but once appointed, the commissioners would be free from any overt political control or manipulation.
Each commission would be semi-autonomous from government. Created, funded, and appointed by government, but once in operation it has a life of its own.
The only job of the commission is to gather, process, and discuss any and all information related to the problematic relationship, and the then offer advice to the national political leaders in the form of recommendations whenever they feel there is any opportunity to move forward. Or, in some cases, to move backwards, to further disengage.
Private recommendations would also be permitted, but expected to be the exception rather than the norm, except when particularly sensitive matters or classified information may be involved.
Recommendations would be focused on moving forward, eventually towards greater engagement, but moving forward might also mean moving towards greater disengagement if that would lessen tensions between the parties.
Commission discussions and deliberations can indeed be held in private, but the intention would be to hold proceedings fully in public with full transparency as much as possible. Executive session would be more the exception than the rule.
The commissions of each pair of adversarial countries would not need to work closely together and would not be expected to negotiate or have private or even backchannel talks, although any third party or backchannel information would certainly be welcomed.
The whole point of the commissions is to allow all parties to go about their business with as little friction as possible, while enabling and facilitating effective public discussion of the problematic relationship whenever that has any perceived value.
One could think of the commissions as think tanks, constantly publishing policy papers embodying their recommendations.
The idea is that eventually some sort of opportunities will present themselves where suddenly the respective commissions from opposing sides issue close to the same recommendations, which might then enable their respective political leaders to realize that at least a minor thaw in relations might be possible.
The goal is not a complete thaw overnight, but incremental improvement in engagement over an extended period of time.
The theory is that eventually this incremental improvement in engagement will lead to a situation where disengagement is no longer required.
Or, maybe that happy ending never happens, but at least opportunities for partial engagement can be detected, recognized, facilitated, and exploited as often as possible.
And if one side chooses not to appoint a commission, that’s fine. Not preferable, but still workable. The fact that the whole arrangement is completely voluntary and discretional is central to its merit.
It would be good for each commission to use the red team/blue team model, where whatever position or posture is being reviewed or espoused will have an opposing team assigned the task of pursuing and evaluating opposing positions and postures.
Free politicians to be as angry and nationalist as they need to be
The formal constructive disengagement commissions would take a lot of the burden for dealing with soured relations off politicians, whose main focus is commonly dealing with domestic politics.
Since the commissions shoulder the role of being the adults in the room, politicians can be more free to more thoughtfully address domestic concerns.
Not to encourage anger and nationalism, but struggling too hard to suppress anger and nationalism can be a losing proposition. It can cost moderate politicians their jobs and result in more extremist politicians seizing control.
So, let moderate politicians publicly and loudly express their frustrations with adversary countries. Knowing all the while that the constructive engagement commissions will be doing the most responsible things possible in terms of fashioning the most workable recommendations for foreign relations.
Arm’s length relationship
To key to success at constructive disengagement is to keep all activities at an arm’s length distance, to avoid the intrusion of emotion and passion into the situation.
Separation is the answer in such dysfunctional relationships.
Not a permanent separation, although that may be called for in some instances, but a temporary separation, for as long as it takes for all parties to fully come to terms with their differences.
In the interim, keeping some degree of distance in the relations can make them more bearable.
Be more thoughtful about democracy promotion
Interests in the U.S. have been very gung ho about promoting democracy.
It seems as if a fair fraction of our efforts have been somewhat counterproductive.
In fact, despite our intensified efforts over the past decade, the world has experienced so-called democracy recession over that period.
What should we do?
Hard to say.
What is clear is that we need to be a bit more thoughtful and clear-headed.
And, clearly, the constructive disengagement commissions can and should take up this matter. In some cases they may indeed decide to double down and intensify our democracy promotion efforts in a particular country. Or, in some cases, they may decide that it is either counterproductive or simply not effective.
How long a separation?
How long should the West and Russia maintain a separation and policy of disengagement?
Should it be:
- A few months?
- Six months?
- A year?
- Two years?
- Five years?
- Ten years?
- Fifteen years?
- Twenty years?
- Twenty five years?
- A generation?
- Event driven rather than time alone?
It may well be that only generational change will cure the differences. That’s the ultimate backstop.
I lean towards an event-driven approach, but a mandatory two year cooling off period seems particularly well-advised.
One scenario for the flow of events might be:
- Initial timeout to just enable independent soul-searching. Two years, minimum.
- Then begin informal, slow, wide-ranging public discussions.
- Initially primarily think tanks exchanging relatively formal papers. Plus lots of public discussion, but more focused on civil society than the politicians who are in power.
- Then encourage non-government leaders to weigh in. especially business leaders, religious leaders, and academics.
- Civil society actors can weigh in at any time. But with all agreeing that individual civil society actors — or even groups of them — are not necessarily representative of the whole of society. Special interests abound, but should not be the dominant guide.
- Then gradually encourage gradually increasingly more ambitious proposals for future engagement between Russia and the West.
Process for constructive disengagement
There is no precise roadmap, but this is a starting point for discussion:
- Take stock. Serious reflection and public discussions. Do we have any other options for a path forward that feels likely to succeed?
- Publicly state intention to pursue constructive disengagement.
- Develop a formal plan to pursue that intention.
- Thoroughly review and discuss this plan.
- Last chance. Does anybody have a better idea?
- Wait a year for any lingering passions concerning the plan to cool.
- Proceed to execute on the plan.
- Put constructive disengagement commissions in place. Give them time to get started.
- Begin disengagement. Fast or slow? Nobody knows for sure. Whatever there is the political will for.
- Sit back and let the commissions do their thing.
- Periodically monitor the work of the commissions.
- Take advantage of every opportunity for incremental re-engagement — but only if there is a general consensus that it’s the right thing to do. Nobody needs to break their back trying to push a rope up a hill. Always look for the little door.
- Rinse and repeat with ongoing periodic monitoring.
- Exit when full engagement feels achievable.
Some of the factors which could prevent pursuit of a policy of constructive disengagement are:
- Inertia. Momentum.
- False hope.
- Bad intelligence about what the other side is up to and their true intentions.
- Too wildly divergent political views, even within the same country. Although, such divergence of views might be precisely the reason to pursue disengagement.
- Lack of consensus.
- Irrational fear.
Constructive disengagement is not about irreparably burning bridges.
Rather, it’s more about withdrawing from bridges in the near term, abandoning them rather than overtly burning them, in the hope that further down the road such bridges or other bridges will be more appropriate to pursue than at the present time.
Is Brexit a good example for constructive disengagement?
Brexit is still completely up in the air, so it doesn’t amount to either a good example or a bad example of constructive disengagement.
Besides, Britain and Europe are not adversaries and they have significant, positive relations.
That said, Brexit may eventually turn out to be a good example for partial disengagement.
But relations between the West and Russia are far more problematic than the relatively minor disputes between Britain and Europe.
Loss of leverage?
One could argue that engagement with Russia offers the opportunity to use the benefits of the West as leverage to influence and nudge Russia into a more Western-style of democratic governance, so that any form of disengagement will reduce or eliminate that leverage.
Possibly, but it could be argued that the leverage of the West is rather minimal at present as evidenced by egregious Russian behavior that goes unchecked despite the best efforts of the West to use the leverage that it does have.
In short, the perceived leverage of the West appears to be more of an illusion than a reality. So, disengagement will not change the effective leverage significantly.
Some unresolved issues
Some of the issues that continue to complicate the relationship between the West and Russia:
- Western triumphalism after dissolution of Soviet Union. How much is still alive and kicking, and quite problematic?
- Is Russia essentially European or Eurasian?
- Where does Europe end?
- Who defines Europe?
- Did Europe ever really want Russian influence sitting at its table?
- Or did the west fully intend that Russia would merely be an obedient lapdog?
- What do Russia and the Russian people really want? Short, medium, and longer term.
- What are Russian values? How do they compare to European (or American or Western) values? How do they differ?
- Ultimate question for all sides: do we really want to be in the same boat, rowing in the same direction, headed for the same destination? Or are our respective intentions too distinct and conflicting?
- Kaliningrad as a wildcard for regional security. An outpost of Russia in the West.
- Was aggressive EU expansion into the former Soviet Union a mistake?
- Are nuclear weapons a litmus test of trust and stability and risk? If accommodation is possible, why would nukes be needed?
- What to do about nuclear arms treaties and nonproliferation during disengagement.
- What to do about visas and travel during disengagement.
- What to do about property ownership and leases during disengagement.
- What to do about business contracts during disengagement.
- What to do about business joint ventures during disengagement.
- What to do about European energy dependence on Russia.
- What to do about foreign study during disengagement.
- Dubious notion of progress — a belief that Russia would become like us (Western.)
- Is China really a lesser threat than Russia? Treated as a competitor. Larger economic threat. Possible military threat. Just that we’ve avoided crossing swords with them, so far, but South China Sea is looming. Then there is North Korea looming — are they really just a ward of China, an extension of Chinese interests? Then there is Taiwan.
- Nationalism and ultranationalism — are they really only a concern with Russia and other extreme authoritarian countries, or a more general and deeper problem.
- Strange alphabet (Cyrillic) — a minor issue, but clearly an impediment to a Roman-based West. Granted, Ukraine and Bulgaria use the same alphabet, and Georgia has its own strange alphabet, but that only highlights the cultural difficulties.
- Future of the European Project. Was there actually originally any intention for Russia to be included? Or Eastern European countries for that matter? Integration has been somewhat problematic. Doesn’t appear to have been well thought through — seems more of a belief that everyone wants to be like Western Europe.
- Prospect for a Belarus color revolution. Efforts to date have failed, so far, but still a possible threat to regional stability.
- What happens as Georgia makes incremental progress towards economic integration with Europe and military integration with NATO?
- Do we now effectively have a New Cold War? Seems so.
- Do we now effectively have a new iron curtain in Eastern Europe? Not a bright line per se, but more of a gray zone. But a divide nonetheless.
- Fake NATO anxiety over perceived threat of Russia in the region? Was Ukraine a one-off, rather than the first shot of a wider war? The West and NATO are certainly acting as if a wider war was likely, but are they justified in such a posture?
- Are we facing a revival of spheres of influence? Sure seems so. Even before we get to Russia and China, the U.S. and Europe sure seem that they consider the entire rest of the world as fair game for expansion of Western values and interests. And Russia and China are of course treating the regions adjacent to their borders and shores as theirs. Whether this more modern incarnation of spheres of influence is significant is unclear. Is it a legal matter, of international law? How is the term defined precisely? Is there a clear map of the spheres?
- How culturally compatible are Russia and the West? There is certainly some degree of overlap, but are those common interests overwhelmed by their divergent and conflicting interests?
- Human rights. Particularly basic freedoms and protections from abuse by the government. The West has strong feelings about human rights and human rights abuse, or at least they talk a good story, while Russia — and all other authoritarian countries — are indifferent at best and commonly much worse.
- How would disengagement impact multilateral international organizations such as the WTO and the UN?
- How does current integration of international financial systems, including SWIFT for money transfers, make disengagement problematic?
- Does Russia (and China and Iran, among others) critically depend on Western financial integration, or has financial technology evolved to the stage where Russia and other like-minded autocratic governments can realistically go their own way, either individually, or aggregated as an alternative to the West?
Yes, the West and Russia clearly need a serious timeout.
Constructive disengagement is probably the best path forward for all parties.
This does not mean an absolute and permanent separation or a declaration of war, but simply a sincere attempt to minimize opportunities for conflict.
Formalized, government-sponsored, but otherwise independent constructive engagement commissions could greatly facilitate the process and assure that disengagement is as smooth as possible and that opportunities to re-engage can be exploited as they arise.
And small, “little door”, opportunities for limited transactional relations should be of course encouraged and exploited whenever possible.
Time to get started.
That is not to say that constructive disengagement would happen overnight, but like Brexit, implementation would be a drawn out, multi-stage process, so that merely starting discussions about the process does not preclude backing down if new thinking suggests an alternative before implementation rubber actually hits the road. After all, fear for the consequences may be just the incentive that is needed to get the parties into a more constructive state of mind.