“Vladimir Putin is not the man we hoped he would be or we thought he would be.” David J. Riley, 1st Secretary, foreign and security policy, British Embassy to the U.S., made this remark on a fascinating panel discussion in Seattle about Russian sanctions and the future of the U.S.-EU and Russia relationship convened by the Jackson Foundation, in partnership with the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle, in early October. William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Washington, DC-based Kennan Institute, and Nelson Dong, partner, Dorsey & Whitney, head of its National Security Law Group, also joined the panel. I moderated the discussion, which veered toward the pessimistic, particularly in light of the very recent Russia move into the Syrian conflict.
There was considerable speculation about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motives, both in seizing Crimea and moving into Eastern Ukraine, and in the Syrian situation. “Putin wants to show that Russia is a major international player,” Pomeranz said, and Riley agreed, adding “Putin’s isolation [due to Western sanctions] has hurt him the most. He wants to remind everyone that he matters.”
Nelson Dong confirmed that in his assessment of the business sector, sanctions have hurt Russia considerably and noted that the policy was deliberately crafted to hit certain areas: “The sanctions against Russia are unlike those in the past against Cuba and Iran. The Russian sanctions are extraordinarily targeted.” His conclusion: “Sanctions, along with reduced oil prices, have resulted in a recession in Russia.”
Will Pomeranz agreed that Russia has suffered internally due to its aggressive foreign policy and tied Putin’s latest moves in Syria to the worsening economic situation in Russia: “With the growing economic recession, there is a need to distract public attention away from that issue. On television, the government is showing all Syria, all the time” in a deliberate policy to change the conversation.
Pomeranz and Riley, when asked about the possibility of a split between the EU and the U.S. on Russia policy, agreed that, as Pomeranz said, “Putin is the great unifier – he has unified the EU in their actions to undertake sanctions against Russia; he has unified what is left of the Ukraine against him. Even in the halls of Congress Putin has caused unity!”
There was a clear consensus that Putin had caused the West to rethink its relationship with Russia, moving from a view of Moscow as a strategic partner to that of a “strategic competitor,” in Riley’s words. The increasing crackdown on civil society in Russia, something that the Jackson Foundation has been closely monitoring in the human rights and NGO sector there, provides the backdrop for the uptick in tensions between the U.S., Europe and Russia moving forward.
This will be one of several events this year that the Jackson Foundation will convene in Seattle relating to heightened concerns about Russia’s behavior at home and abroad.