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Russia Is a Strategist, Not a Spoiler

From Iran’s audacious attack on major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia to the launch of an impeachment inquiry against US President Donald Trump, the last month has underscored the volatility gripping the international order. Now, three major players – Europe, Russia, and the US – are transforming their global roles.

MADRID – On October 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced his government’s support for an agreement that would lead to elections in the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk – large parts of which were seized by Russian-backed separatists in 2014 – with the ultimate goal of granting them special self-governing status. It was an important development, not only because it signaled Ukrainian acquiescence to a process that could end hostilities in the country, but also because of its implications for a world order in turmoil.

From Iran’s audacious attack on major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia to the launch of an impeachment inquiry against US President Donald Trump, the last month has underscored the volatility gripping the international order. As Saudi Arabia and Iran vie for dominance in the Middle East, and as China’s position in the international order continues to evolve, three other major players – Europe, Russia, and the United States – are transforming their global roles.

Begin with Russia. Since 2014, when the country invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea, the conventional view has been that President Vladimir Putin had decided to act as a spoiler in international affairs. After all, while the country was powerful enough to cause trouble – and, it hoped, to safeguard its sphere of influence – it lacked the resources to reprise its role as a global heavyweight.

In line with this perspective, when Russia intervened in Syria to prop up its embattled ally, President Bashar al-Assad, many viewed the move as simple opportunism: Putin was taking advantage of the chaos to show that he could still thwart the West’s plans. Growing Russian involvement in Venezuela and Africa was regarded in much the same way.

Yet, today, Russia is a genuine global power broker. In Ukraine, Zelensky’s acceptance of the so-called Steinmeier formula represents a major step toward normalizing Russia’s presence in the country and its ties with Europe and the US. As such, it was a significant victory for Putin on his quest to revive Russia as a global power.

Similarly, in Syria, the United Nations announced last month the finalization of a 150-member committee – comprising pre-approved representatives from government, civil society, and the opposition – to re-write the constitution, a plan initially proposed at a Russia-hosted peace conference in 2018. Even as Syria moved towards stabilization, the Kremlin signaled its intent to maintain its long-term presence, releasing within days of the UN announcement plans to expand Russian air and naval bases in the country.

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Russia’s renewed prominence has come partly by default, owing to America’s retreat from global leadership. The contrast was on stark display following last month’s strikes on Saudi Arabia.

On the US side, Trump immediately tweeted bellicose threats: the US was “locked and loaded,” he boasted, and was only waiting to hear from the Saudis “under what terms” to proceed. But, as is so often the case, Trump didn’t follow through. Instead, he ordered another round of sanctions and deployed a small number of troops and some additional military equipment to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Putin, by contrast, presented Russia as a potential underwriter of regional stability. Careful not to assign blame – Iran continues to deny its involvement in the attacks – Putin made it clear that he would work with all parties. Russia’s state arms exporter also announced that it would meet with Middle Eastern countries to sell them anti-drone weapons systems – a clear bid to usurp a key American role in the region. This is the approach of a strategist, not a spoiler.

The US is moving in the opposite direction. Despite its gradual departure from global leadership – a process that began during Barack Obama’s administration – much of the world continues to regard the US as the primary status quo power. But this is more a force of habit than a logical assumption, given that the US has shown no inclination to lead.

Indeed, judging by its withdrawal from major global initiatives like the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement, the US seems to have little impulse even to participate. Given America’s clout – in many ways, it remains an indispensable actor – this retreat is sometimes tantamount to behaving like a spoiler. As the impeachment inquiry monopolizes America’s attention, this trend is likely to accelerate.

That leaves Europe. Neither strategist nor spoiler, Europe is essentially a systemic facilitator. For example, France and Germany played a vital role in bringing about the October 1 agreement in Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron also reportedly attempted to broker an agreement on framework negotiations between the US and Iran on the sidelines of the recent UN General Assembly, albeit unsuccessfully.

Such efforts should inspire optimism; Europe still has a role to play, and it is attempting to play it. But, at a time of shifting global power dynamics, European leaders must approach this responsibility with great caution, taking care to consider all the potential consequences of the agreements they facilitate within a shifting global order.

As a key global facilitator, Europe needs to know exactly whom its efforts serve. After all, as the protests that have erupted in Ukraine underscore, even a deal that promises to bring an end to years of hostilities can be riskier than it might seem.

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