A year since MH17, Russia’s foreign policy is as problematic as ever

Sifting the remains. EPA/Alexander Ermochenko

For most of the world, the circumstances behind the MH17 crash have been all but settled.

The Dutch-led investigation into the incident is convinced that the weight of evidence points to a Russian-supplied BUK missile system fired by eastern Ukrainian separatists, and then returned to Russia. Ever since the disaster, citizen journalist groups such as Bellingcat have been producing persuasive evidence that Russia has doctored satellite imagery from the day MH17 was shot down.

But Russia, of course, continues to vociferously dispute that version of events, as it has done ever since the disaster.

Four days after Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine in July 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defence presented its report on the tragedy. Coupled with Vladimir Putin’s admission that he initially lied about Russian involvement in Crimea, this has only given fodder to those who argue Russia is an unreliable ally and a deeply disruptive force in the global order.

Nevertheless, Russia remains a vital player in global geopolitics.

Stirring the pot

In the Iranian nuclear negotiations, Russia proved determined to shape rather than merely sign the final peace deal. Elsewhere, progress has been held up as Russia has time and again shown it can be a spoiler wherever it wishes. Its differences with the US extend to the removal of sanctions against Iran, especially the UN arms embargo, which Russia argues should be lifted regardless of proof that Iran has complied with the deal. This is a particularly loaded question for Russia, given the sanctions it has itself endured since the MH17 incident.

Russia’s role in Syria is more ambiguous. As the threat from IS terrorists has grown and Bashar al-Assad is increasingly seen as a necessary part of the solution, so Russia has been able to claim with some credibility that it was right to caution against intervening in this highly complex situation. On the other hand, Russia’s UN vetoes stood in the way of an early intervention to end the conflict, and there is good reason to wonder whether it has inflamed the conflict by supply of arms and resolute support of the Assad regime.

Meanwhile, Russia has itself become the target for IS and its sympathisers. This gives the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, yet more political capital in Russia. His hold over Chechnya is a vital element in Russia’s self-defence regime, but Kadyrov is a double-edged sword too, posited as a rival to Putin even as he is condemned for human rights abuses.

Russia’s vulnerability to external terrorists may be a problem only partly of its own making, but its poor relations with the West have drastically shrunk the circle of friends it can rely on for help.

Damn the consequences

In a March 2015 interview, the head of the Russian Security Council, Nikolay Patrushev, commented both on the threat Russia now faces from Islamic State, and the role of the West in exacerbating that threat by its demonisation of Russia. It seems the Kremlin refuses to admit this is the direct consequence of Russia’s extravagant opposition to the West. This failure to acknowledge openly that actions breed reactions is not untypical of powerful states, but Russia is taking it to an extreme. There is no evidence that Moscow has any intention of backing down to help clear the air for more co-operative relations.

Instead, Russia continues to pursue strong relations with China and regional organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an important asset for combating terrorist threats. Meetings in these types of multilateral forums, coupled with an intensification of bilateral relations have resulted in speculation about whether these two powers are forming a new power axis to challenge the weight of the US.

Not exactly Mr Popularity. EPA/Kirill Kudryavtsev

Since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, Russia’s relations with both the EU and NATO have continued to deteriorate. Sanctions have been deepened and extended as the EU has expressed doubt about Russia’s commitment to full implementation of the Minsk Agreements. Russia’s behaviour has particularly troubled the Baltic states, Russia having threatened to revisit the legality of their 1991 declaration of independence while also raising fears of a Russian invasion (however unlikely). The spectre of nuclear conflict has also made an unwelcome appearance.

Meanwhile, Russia is trying to maintain influence in the Balkans by whatever means necessary. On July 9 2015 it vetoed an attempt at the UN to recognise the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Muslim men and boys as an act of genocide. That was unsurprising given Russia’s close relations with Serbia, but it was a deeply unwise act of signalling, since it only fed perceptions of Russia as anti-Islamist. Once again, Russia ended up on the side opposing justice and reconciliation – necessary components of any post-conflict transformation.

That same destructive bent has been further laid bare in Greece, where Russia has been quick to take advantage of the EU’s homegrown problems. Meetings between Putin and the Greek Prime Minister, Tsipras, in April and June 2015, raised fears that Greece would break the EU’s sanctions regime against Russia. Most recently, Greece has admitted signing a gas pipeline deal with Russia worth two billion Euros.

Mischief-making

Looking over even just a little of the last year’s foreign policy, it’s clear that Russia feels under threat from a number of directions – and indeed, in some ways, it is. Russia does not have the resources, whether material or cultural, to sustain the array of questionable relationships it has gotten itself into, particularly since not all of them are guaranteed to serve its national interest.

At the same time, Russia cannot be credited for all the good or blamed for all the bad. Its greatest foreign policy success has lain in recognising the weaknesses and concerns of others. Its main weakness lies in exploiting them for its own ends.

It is not Russia’s fault, for instance, that the EU is in crisis, its future uncertain. But the year of Russian foreign policy since the MH17 disaster has been more about meddling, undermining and mischief-making than constructive dialogue and helping others mend their fences.

Until Russia starts to use its power and influence to find solutions, the world will always see it as a problem.