Commentary: The danger of resetting relations with Russia

The president of the United States, the leader of the UK Labour Party, the prime minister of Hungary and the president of the Czech Republic, among other Western leaders, think a reset of relations with Russia is necessary.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Immortal Regiment march during the Victory Day celebrations, marking the 72nd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in central Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

While their reasons vary, all believe that the world is too dangerous to have a vast nuclear power growling in the East, and that they must try to understand and address Moscow’s grievances. Some sympathise with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s charge that NATO expanded eastward as the Soviet bloc dissolved, even though the alliance promised not to.

Others see Moscow’s wisdom in opposing Western interventions in Iraq and Libya, and in choosing to openly side with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to help crush the Syrian rebel groups, bolster Assad’s rule, retain the Russian bases in Syria and reassert some measure of Russian power in the Middle East.

Those in the West who favour strong states and authoritarian leaders see in Putin a president who has brought much of the economy under state control, ended the political power of the oligarchs and kept the worst excesses of Western consumerism at bay. And many of these on the right share Putin’s dislike of liberals, his public submission before (and quiet control of) the Russian Orthodox Church and his distaste for the West’s array of human rights, especially of protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. They like the idea of using strength to bolster authority and the state, and wish to emulate it.

The only part of any of this pro-Russia thinking that makes sense within liberal democratic thought is the wish for better relations and the fear of a nuclear standoff – both of which are valid reasons for Western and Russian leaders to talk, and for citizens to try to understand a culture and a history both fascinating and sharply different from those of most western states. Otherwise, Russia’s current posture and actions demand continuing vigilance.

We cannot be blind to the authoritarian streak that now dominates Russian governance, or the fact that the Russian ruling class doesn’t have much time for western liberal reforms of the past few decades. They view rights extended to racial and sexual minorities with suspicion at best, active hostility more often. Putin, under pressure from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has announced that an inquiry should be made into “rumours, you could say”, of abuse of those of “non-traditional sexual orientation” – a reference to the torture and murder of gays in Chechnya which, though semi-autonomous, is part of the Russian Federation.

Moscow favors authoritarian nationalists, people in its own mold, and so it hacked into liberal parties’ databases and spread lies about the liberal candidates in both the U.S. and French presidential elections.

Yet though there is an evident Russian threat there is also a less obvious Russian fragility. Demonstrations against corruption by the governing class erupted across Russia in March and April. The March demonstrations, led by main opposition leader Alexei Navalny, expressed a growing disgust – which Navalny and his aides have fostered – with the financial enrichment of the rulers at a time of economic hardship for most Russians. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, now unpopular, is an easier target than Putin, and may have to be sacrificed in a reshuffle expected soon.

Russia has become an intolerant, corrupt and repressive state. Western countries have had, and have still, many such allies: the description applies, in milder form, to some post-communist states within the European Union. But there is no point in seeing Russia as a victim, an admirable wielder of strength, or a welcome bastion against “excessive” liberalism.

Its leaders are ruthless. Any reset of relations must be based on the need to minimise the dangers to a fragile world order and to establish a channel for dialogue in emergencies. It’s back to the Soviet days, with one large exception. The United States is led by a man who doesn’t seem to grasp the limits a democratic state must put on a relationship with Russia. That makes the danger more profound.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror”. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.