Russia's President Vladimir Putin shares a stage with world leaders at the 2016 BRICS Summit in Goa, India (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
On March 3, 2014 US President Barack Obama addressed the press from the White House along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in a brief interaction. Speaking on the issue of US response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict over Crimea, President Obama stated that if Moscow continued on its 'current trajectory' then his administration would consider a 'series of steps' meant to 'isolate Russia' and degrade its economic and global status as retaliation. He confirmed that a number of punitive measures had already been discussed between him and Secretary of State John Kerry, and further showed a willingness to provide assistance to Ukraine.
However, Russia and its local allies managed to hold a highly contentious referendum in Crimea on March 16, 2014 in order to determine the status and future of the disputed region. The referendum — in which the verdict was heavily tilted towards Crimea joining the Russian Federation — was criticized by many states and international organizations as being unfair and illegal. The US and its allies responded with a series of sanctions within 48 hours of the referendum result and began to operationalize a policy of isolating Russia.
Since then the number of sanctions levied by the US and its allies on Russia and individuals and organizations sympathetic to Moscow have only grown in number and severity. To further exacerbate things, Russia's entry into the Syrian conflict on behest of the Bashar al-Assad administration has further alienated the West. Moscow supports the Syrian government — and opposes the US backed 'moderate rebels' fighting against the government forces. The US and its European allies are considering further sanctions against Russia, and calls for engagement with Moscow are gradually giving in to those calling for a more hard-line approach.
Since there have recently been fervent calls for using even more sanctions as means to put an end to the perceived Russian 'belligerence' it would be worthy to find out if the extensive labyrinth of sanctions levied on Moscow thus far have had any noticeable success in 'isolating Russia'. This article thus seeks to examine Washington's 'Isolate Russia' approach.
On October 15 of this year, Russia and India concluded their annual summit on the sidelines of a BRICS meeting in Goa, India. The two sides signed a number of bilateral agreements worth billions of dollars covering such sensitive areas as defense, energy, space, logistics and information technology in Goa. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked an old Russian saying and remarked that 'an old friend is better than two new friends' while addressing a visibly cheerful Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The bonhomie in Goa will not come as a surprise to long-time observers of the traditionally friendly ties between India and Russia. India's National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon recognized that Russia had 'legitimate interests' in Ukraine even before the controversial referendum in Crimea was held. Furthermore, the first foreign visit of Sergey Aksyonov — head of the partially recognized government of the Republic of Crimea — was to New Delhi.
However, the limits of the 'Isolate Russia' approach have become much more apparent in recent times as countries such as Israel, Turkey and Japan — considered as traditional allies of the US — have quietly initiated their own diplomatic measures to forge closer ties with Moscow despite being in full knowledge of the stance taken by the Obama administration.
In a visible setback to the US led efforts to isolate Russia, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Russian President Putin on August 9 of this year during his first foreign visit after successfully having quelled a coup attempt, an act for which he enjoyed Moscow's support despite the diplomatic misgivings that followed in the aftermath of the downing of a Russian Su 24 in Syria by the Turkish Air Force in November 2015. Turkey's outreach to Russia came at a time when many Turkish leaders blamed the US and the EU for not doing enough to support the incumbent AKP administration during the coup attempt and its aftermath. The Turkish President was received favorably by the Russian side during the meeting and a gradual normalization of relations was agreed upon, including a resumption of trade and travel ties.
Japan — another US ally — has also been pursuing a path towards calibrated normalization and rapprochement with Russia. After a meeting in Vladivostok in early September of this year the two sides agreed to enhance ties and work towards a peaceful solution of outstanding territorial disputes. Not only is there substance to the recent warmth in Russia-Japan ties but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has actually been pushing for an entire 'eight point economic cooperation plan' with Russia, the progress of which he wished should be reviewed jointly at the highest levels by both states on an annual basis. Although an assertive China may have contributed to Tokyo's new approach to engage Moscow the approach of engagement itself results in mitigating Russia's isolation to a significant measure.
Israel has also been pursuing a policy of engagement with Russia recently on a level that is unprecedented for the two countries. Damien Sharkov, while writing for Newsweek, observes the many visits that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made to Moscow since the fall of 2015. During a recent visit by Prime Minister Netanyahu to Moscow the Israeli statesman remarked that when it came to fighting terrorism the two countries were 'unconditional allies'. Speaking from the Kremlin, Netanyahu further remarked that 'Israel’s doors are open to Russia and Russia’s doors are open to Israel'. It would bear repetition that President Obama first made his intention to 'isolate Russia' known to the public from the White House in the presence of Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Russia's ties with individual member states of the BRICS grouping, including China, are also warm but — with the exception of India — they do not border on the verge on alliances. There are several other states which have a declared agenda of pursuing closer ties with Russia and these include regional Asian powers such as Iran, Philippines and Pakistan. Overall, it is clearly discernible that despite strenuous efforts to isolate Russia by the US and its European allies in light of differences over Crimea and Syria the strategy does not seem to be yielding its intended effect, and limitations of such a strategy have recently begun to surface openly.
This inference is in no manner intended to suggest that the US and its allies do not have legitimate grievances against Moscow or are not entitled to use their leverages in the international system against a state which they see as pursuing a course that is averse to their collective interests. However, it is the efficacy of such an approach that is questionable. If the sanctions and other manoeuvres were intended to bring about an end to the perceived Russian 'belligerence' they have clearly not succeeded in their purpose.
In fact, between the time of the first sanctions being levied to the date of publishing of this article Russia has put its formidable S-300 surface-to-air missile defense system in Iran; allegedly interfered with its cyber-warfare tools in the 2016 United States presidential election campaigns; carried on with its support to the Assad administration in Syria; and sent a formidable grouping of its navy ships through the English channel. The ongoing sanctions may have succeeded in bringing the Russian economy to its knees and creating hardships for the ordinary civilian population but it appears that they have certainly failed in their stated objective of bringing an end to Russia's 'belligerent behavior'.
Russia remains as one of the most powerful states in the Twenty First Century, and is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The country is a formidable military power at air, land and sea, and further possess a diverse array of sophisticated nuclear weapons. Given a large and vibrant diaspora as well as fully functional media outlets such as Russia Today (RT) it is not entirely devoid of soft power either.
The 'Isolate Russia' approach may also have to contend with further limitations due to a rise in multi-polarity and a gradual decline in US influence. This does not necessarily mean that the US is under threat of losing its place as the sole superpower in the international system. But it does mean that more US allies may have significantly more reason for choosing their own alliances in the international system according to their individual national interest than before, even if decision-makers in Washington, DC may wish otherwise.
Moscow has been able to overcome isolation due to a series of changes in external environment and on the basis its own state power. There is need for a rethink in US strategy and a case for deeper engagement as an alternative policy can also be made in this regard. However, there are constraints that may impede a policy of sustainable engagement in bilateral relations. It is well known that both sides have competing ideas for the international system, and their own place in it. How the US adjusts its Russia policy in a global environment under which voices from Moscow are increasingly being heard will be worth following.
Manoj Saxena is the Editor of South Asia News Review.