Russia is celebrating a thaw with the West prematurely
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron attend a news briefing after the talks in St Petersburg, Russia on May 24, 2018 [Grigory Dukor/Reuters]
For the past few days, the pro-Kremlin media has been celebrating the enormous “success” of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted French President Emmanuel Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan – among others.
“Crack in the isolation. Why everyone started wanting to cooperate with Russia” – that was the title Russian state agency RIA ran after the conclusion of the forum.
Macron’s presence and statements made it very much seem like there was indeed a “crack”. The French president avoided difficult topics such as the war in Ukraine, the Skripal case or the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and focused solely on discussions of cooperation. In general, Macron’s rhetoric seemed more peaceful, if not more ingratiating towards Putin, than Trump’s in early 2017.
At a time when the White House is imposing new sanctions on Russia, bombing its mercenaries in Syria, and piling more pressure on Russia’s main ally, Iran, Macron was talking about engaging in dialogue.
What is more, the Joint Investigation Team tasked with investigating the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 had announced its findings just days before the forum. The JIT officially accused Russia’s 53rd Brigade of being responsible for the downing of the plane. Around the same time, another investigation had also revealed that Oleg Ivannikov, a Russian military intelligence general, played a role in the attack.
Of course, President Putin tried to dodge questions about the investigation during the forum. But when Bloomberg editor-in-chief John Micklethwait shot a question at him about whether it was a Russian rocket that downed the plane, he responded: “Of course not!”
Macron, who was sitting right next to him, did not react at all. In fact, he also avoided talking about the accusations, saying: “I think that President Putin is absolutely right that we have to remember the victims of this tragedy and their families. An independent investigation was done, and I agree with what President Putin said yesterday: cooperation with the Dutch judiciary is needed.”
He also went as far as calling on French business to invest more in Russia and spoke of the need to “reconsider the very architecture of our relations” and “work together”.
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Just a week before the forum was launched, Putin met another European leader – German Chancellor Angela Merkel – which also contributed to the celebratory mood in Moscow. Merkel did not hold back what was on her mind and spoke openly about problems, even referring to human rights issues in Russia. Yet the overall tone of the visit was peaceful, and it was seen as another indication of a thaw in relations.
These are encouraging signs for the Kremlin – the first since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine – indicating that its international isolation might soon be over. On its end, the Kremlin has also eased its anti-Western rhetoric. The spike in oil prices has poured more money into the state coffers, enabling the government to temporarily alleviate some pressing domestic economic problems and making it less necessary to use hostile rhetoric to control public anger.
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This rapprochement is especially important ahead of the World Cup, which – just like the Olympic Games in Sochi – is meant to be a major PR campaign for Russia.
In any case, celebrations in Moscow are premature. Russia is getting some attention from France and Germany now because they are pursuing a number of pragmatic short-term goals: both countries want to use Putin to increase pressure on Iran (so that it does not exit the nuclear deal) and Syria (to engage in peace negotiations). In addition, Germany needs to sort out some issues with the gas pipeline project, Nord Stream-2, which is to deliver Russian gas to the country through the North Sea.
This thaw in relations, however, will not continue for long. Germany and France will always consider their Western allies more important than Russia and those allies are currently not interested in normalising relations.
In the United States, the Congress and White House are both intent on increasing pressure on Moscow through sanctions, and it is already clear that Trump will not try to stop them, especially because Special Counsel Robert Mueller is still investigating Russian interferencein US domestic affairs.
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Moreover, the Democrats have a chance of capturing the majority in Congress in the November mid-term elections, which does not bode well for Putin.
Russian-British relations are at an all-time low, and the ongoing investigation into the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergey Skripal in Salisbury could make things even worse. The United Kingdom threw its weight around by organising a major diplomatic offensive against Russia, which included Germany and France. Eastern Europe has traditionally high anti-Putin sentiment, which has been growing with the influx of Russian political asylum seekers.
Then, there are also the member states of the JIT – mainly the Netherlands, Belgium and Australia – which have retained their harsh rhetoric against Russia. Taken together, they certainly have greater sway with Germany and France than Russia does right now.
The final results of the MH17 investigation will be announced in a year’s time and will undoubtedly provide more evidence of Russia’s involvement in the incident. This would also officially confirm its military engagement in the Ukrainian conflict.
Ukraine has already submitted a lawsuit at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague against Russia, accusing it of military interference. The downing of MH17 and the shelling of Mariupol will be two major points in the court case. Russia has not ratified the ICC treaty, but if the court rules against it, this would be a significant diplomatic blow for the country. It would also be an important reason for Western leaders to avoid Putin.
The only way to actually break international isolation would be for Putin to make a concession, but he would never do it. Russia can’t admit to downing the MH17 because that would mean admitting to involvement in Ukraine and lying about it.
Russia can’t implement the Minsk agreements with Ukraine because that would mean leaving the Donbas, which could anger Putin’s supporters.
Russia can’t stop supporting Bashar al-Assad because if it does, the Syrian leader will meet the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein – and Putin does not want to suffer through seeing that again.
Russia also doesn’t want to help with the nuclear deal with Iran because this would lead to a dip in oil prices and it definitely cannot afford that right now.
Perhaps Russia can curtail hacking attacks, trolling and political assassinations abroad, but that might not be enough to lift the international isolation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.