Compromise needed to avoid entering a new cold war
The tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats over the poisoning of a former double agent and his daughter has highlighted the growing tension between Russia and the West. Avoiding escalation will not be easy, but doing so will require the West to reassess the pressure it has been piling on Russia through absorbing its neighbours into institutions in the name of stability and security
There is every sense that the world is on the cusp of another cold war. In tit-for-tat measures, the West and Russia have expelled scores of diplomats in unprecedented numbers. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has sent military jets over the Arctic towards North America.
The rhetoric and actions from both sides are worrying; easing tensions amid so much recrimination and mistrust will be difficult, but is urgently needed to avoid the possibility of conflict.
British accusations that Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind the attempted murder of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the English city of Salisbury, sparked the crisis.
Coming amid allegations that Moscow had interfered in elections in the United States and European Union and its controversial military involvements in Syria and Ukraine, an outpouring of support for Britain from its allies in the West was inevitable. Russian diplomats have been expelled from 27 countries, but there is uncertainty whether further action will be taken – for one, no country has yet suggested pulling its team from the World Cup soccer tournament being hosted by Russia in June.
Putin has denied the accusations and mocked the West. The poisoning occurred just before he was overwhelmingly re-elected to a fourth term as president, proving his popularity and how supportive Russians are of his policies.
Among those measures are increasing the strength of the military to counter perceived aggression from the West, which has been wooing former Soviet countries with membership of the EU and Nato. He has been drawing closer to China and boosting influence among supporters in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Russia’s differences with other post-Soviet states meant the West could at best treat it as a partner through a network of organisations that provided dialogue, cooperation and interaction. Those quickly unravelled with Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, destabilisation of eastern Ukraine and backing for separatists who shot down a Malaysian Airlines plane in 2016.
Putin’s strongman image and pledges to restore Russia to its former glory are widely seen in the West as being at the root of the problem. But such thinking does not take into account the nationalism and anti-Western sentiment that is so rife in the nation’s politics.
There is no easy solution. Escalation will only heighten tensions. Pulling back requires the West to reassess the pressure it has been piling on Russia through absorbing its neighbours into institutions in the name of stability and security. A new model will require compromise and will be challenging to put in place.