Framing ties with Russia in a 'post' post-Cold War era

Jo Biddle
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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on January 15, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on January 15, 2015 (AFP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Washington (AFP) - Whatever happened to that reset button Hillary Clinton gave her Russian counterpart in 2009 as a sign of renewed ties? No doubt gathering dust, while the West figures out how to handle Moscow now.

As the war in Ukraine goes from bad to worse, with more than 5,100 dead in nine months, the United States and its EU partners are pondering what to do about Russia and its President Vladimir Putin, who doesn't seem ready to blink yet in an escalating game of chicken.

"We face a dual challenge to overcome the immediate threat... along the borders, especially of Ukraine," veteran US diplomat Henry Kissinger, who steered the opening up of China, told lawmakers this week.

"But to do so in a manner that leaves open a context for Russia's long-term road in international relations, where it is needed to play an essential role."

And there's the rub.

Russia is blamed for the worst crisis with Europe and the West since the end of the Cold War, with some fearing it could explode into all-out war.

Yet in a chaotic world, Russia is still an important player with ties to many countries from the turbulent Middle East to the emerging economies of Latin America.

"Some people say this is a beginning of a new era, they call it 'post' post-Cold War," Slovak Deputy Prime Minister Miroslav Lajcak told a Washington think-tank on Friday.

- Into a new era -

Urgent discussions are needed on "how we see this new era. How we see Russia's place in this era, how we see our place in this era and most importantly what are we going to do to get there," Lajcak told the Atlantic Council.

So far, the West seems to be banking on sanctions, which have seen the ruble plunge and a massive capital flight, to change Moscow's calculations perhaps through popular discontent.

At "kitchen tables across Russia, citizens are once again asking why their government prioritizes foreign adventures over the well-being and quality of life of its own citizens," Victoria Nuland, the top US diplomat for Europe, said this week.

And in some areas in which it has a vested interest such as the Iran nuclear negotiations, Russia has remained steadfastly engaged with the West.

"Our basic problem is how do we stop the hot war on the ground in Ukraine, and not get into a more and more escalatory relationship with Putin," said Fiona Hill, director of the Brookings Center on the United States and Europe.

"It's a really tough challenge and I can't say that anybody's got all the answers now," she told AFP.

"But we need to start working on a frame right now where we figure out how we manage this relationship and how we put it on a different footing."

Waiting to see how the sanctions bite, or whether in a next step the West should begin to funnel arms to the Ukrainian military, would just be courting disaster.

"It's completely and utterly a game of chicken, and Putin's not going to back down," Hill said.

There are fledgling signs that a reflection on the shape of future ties is already under way.

A leaked EU document earlier this month suggested the annexation of Crimea should be put to one side to focus on how to talk to Moscow.

- The bear next door -

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini insisted no one was forgetting about Crimea, but she warned the 28-nation bloc had to learn how to live with its giant neighbor.

It "would be naive to think that Russia is just going to disappear from the scene," she said, arguing that "you cannot change geography."

"So the question is now how do you deal with that neighbor, today while we have a conflict going on, and in two years' time and in five years' time and in 10 years' time."

Top US diplomat John Kerry will meet again with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov -- the same man who got the reset button from Clinton -- on the sidelines of security talks in Munich next weekend.

The two wily diplomats have met many times in various European cities in the past months.

But in a sign of the tensions, very tentative plans for Kerry to travel to Moscow as part of a trip that will also take in Ukraine were put on hold.

Eastern European ministers Friday urged Europe and the United States to show they are sincere in embracing them into the Western fold, and to ensure security guarantees for states feeling under threat.

Unity between the EU and US was also essential especially as Moscow seems to be trying to split Greece from the EU in the wake of the election of the radical left Syriza party seen as more pro-Russian.

And Kremlinologists should end the decades-old game of trying to get inside Putin's head.

"Stop pyschoanalyzing Putin, and recognize that there is a certain mind set," said Hill.

The West must draw a line under 'Putinography' and just get on with it... how much longer can we go on writing books basically while Ukraine is burning?"