Aurel Braun is a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto and an associate of the Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.
Russian relations with the West appear to be settling into a desultory summer calm. The two sides may be facing each other with clenched teeth, but with the West preoccupied with multiple crises – from ISIS to Greece – it appears increasingly inured to confrontational Russian rhetoric and multiple periodic provocations. The Western desire to contain and calm may be understandable. But complacency could prove to be really dangerous in an atmosphere ripe for miscalculation.
At best, we have a mixed picture. Crimea remains in Moscow's hands, Russia's rebel proxies in Ukraine are doubling down, Moscow has greatly increased the capacity and readiness of its forces in Ukraine's vicinity and the West has extended its sanctions for another six months. All this, however, seems part of a weary geopolitical choreography coloured by dissatisfaction and suspicion, but one that is still seemingly preferable to confrontation.
To be sure, Russian poses and provocations do increase tensions but are viewed more as isolated incidents. On closer examination, however, the situation in Russia points to fundamental problems that might easily shatter what we hope to be a summer of calm.
First, in Russia, internal and external factors are very closely intertwined. This linkage has a particularly strong potential for international volatility. It is especially evident when it comes to political legitimacy. Russian President Vladimir Putin has primarily based his government's legitimacy on appeals to ultranationalism rather than modernization and democracy. With a stagnant economy (as energy prices remain low), legitimacy built on the basis of ultranationalism is especially fragile.
Consequently, Moscow is continually emphasizing real or imagined foreign threats to the population. It uses "controlled confrontation" with the West as a tool to divert the population's attention away from fundamental domestic problems, and we see this in provocative Russian military flights challenging Western forces and air defences, in nuclear threats, in the announcement of new nuclear-tipped ICBMs and in cyberwarfare. We have also witnessed this in increasingly threatening rhetoric. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin noted ominously during this spring's vast Russian military exercises that "tanks don't need visas."
Second, the foundations for a spiral of confrontation may be taking shape even though the various parties may not wish this. Massive Russian arms spending and increased provocations are generating a Western response that, in the longer term, may negate Russian gains and increase the chances for misperception and missteps leading to confrontation. Reticent Europeans, even the reluctant Scandinavians, are beginning to increase their defence expenditures; NATO will triple its Response Force to 40,000 and deploy a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force of 5,000; and the United States has begun to prestation heavy weapons in the NATO states bordering Russia.
Third, Russia's corrosive corruption is now also manifest in the Kremlin's use of Russian money to buy the goodwill and support of extremists and ultranationalists in Europe, including in Hungary, to create Western disunity. Yet this only increases Western suspicions of Russia and adds to the lack of trust that can contribute to accident and escalation.
The risks then are that Russia may inadvertently glide from provocations to confrontation and conflict. Unwilling to engage in needed fundamental reforms and haunted by the spectre of democracy in Ukraine, which the West is promoting, the Kremlin, fearing for its legitimacy, recklessly keeps playing the ultranationalist card. It feels safe to do so because it counts on Western disunity and weakness. Therefore, despite its desire for calm, the West needs to reach into its vast economic and political toolbox as the early warning signs of trouble multiply to send Moscow an unambiguous message that provocations are not cost-free and that confrontation and conflict are in no one's interest.