With Vladimir Putin admirer Donald Trump due to become president of the United States and Russophiles François Fillon and Marine Le Pen vying for the presidency in France, we can expect calls for a Western rapprochement with Russia to grow louder this year.
But what would be the point?
Russia is not going to give back the Crimea to Ukraine. It is not going to end the insurrection in the Donbas. It is not going to give up Bashar al-Assad. It is not going to stop trying to influence elections, and public opinion broadly, in Europe and North America. What sort of deal is there to be made then?
The Western alliance would benefit from an overall reduction in tension. The risk of an unannounced military exercise or accident involving armed forces from both sides escalating into something more serious is currently too high for comfort.
But it’s not NATO that stages military exercises in Eastern Europe without warning.
It’s not NATO that flies warplanes in and around Russian airspaces without their transponders on.
It’s not NATO that harasses Russian warships.
It is Russia, and Russia alone, that is risking an escalation. And it is doing so frequently and deliberately.
It is also Russia that wants something from the West: relief from sanctions and recognition as a great power with a stake in global governance.
There is clearly an imbalance in East-West relations. Europe has managed all right despite curtailing its business dealings with Russia. Exporters complain, but the economic impact of the sanctions has been negligible.
For Russian companies, by contrast, the damage is enormous. They can no longer borrow in the West and are barred from partnerships and ventures. Russian consumers can no longer buy cheap European food products in the supermarket, because Putin banned them in retaliation.
The West doesn’t have Russia’s inferiority complex. It does self-doubt better than anyone. We don’t need Moscow to tell us to question our elites. It is Russia that craves validation from the West, not the other way around.
A deal with Russia would entail Western concessions. Perhaps recognition of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. Perhaps an understanding that Ukraine will not be let into NATO. Perhaps support for a peace plan in Syria that keeps Assad in power.
A conflict-averse West may once again acquiesce. It turned a blind eye to Putin’s butchery in the Caucasus in the late 1990s. It attached little consequence to Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008.
The trouble is, “strength”-obsessed bullies like Putin learn the wrong lessons from compromise. It only encourages them to push harder — until they push too hard. There comes a time when enough is enough and by then it might be too late for a peaceful resolution.
Better for the West to take a stand now.