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The West’s relationship with Russia is often described as one characterised by misconception and misunderstanding of each other.

In July 2021 President Vladimir Putin approved Russia’s latest National Security Strategy, which set out Russia’s national interests and strategic priorities for the next five years.  Acknowledging the “formation of new architecture, rules and principles of the world order”, and “growing geopolitical tensions”, the document places sovereignty, independence, the territorial integrity of Russia, the security and rights of its citizens abroad, and the protection of its spiritual and moral foundations, at the core of its foreign policy.

These themes were reiterated by President Putin at a meeting of the Russian Foreign Ministry Board on 18 November 2021 and again by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in remarks to the Russian Federal Assembly on 1 December 2021. At that meeting Mr Lavrov accused the West of failing to “recognise the reality of the emerging polycentric world order” and of “purposefully demolish[ing] the UN-centric system of international law”. He suggested that US and its allies were trying to substitute it with a rules-based order “that benefits them alone” and that they were actively promoting anti-Russian rhetoric.  As such, he concluded that “there can be no reasonable alternative to Russia’s independent and open foreign policy line”.

Russia has long been accused by the West, however, of attempting to destabilise the international system in pursuit of its strategic interests. Among other things, the Kremlin has been accused of interfering in democratic elections, engaging in hybrid, or grey zone, warfare, politicising energy supplies, and violating international law and the respect for internationally recognised borders. Russia has also signalled its capacity and willingness to intervene abroad where it sees its interests in play, has given its military useful experience, has kept a Russian ally in place, and gives opportunities for Russia to access oil and other resources.

Referring to increasing Russian influence in its near abroad, and specifically those countries of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, the NATO Secretary General said on 1 December 2021 that Russian attempts to establish a sphere of influence were “not acceptable”, and that a world where dominant powers placed limitations on what sovereign, independent neighbouring nations can do is “the kind of world we don’t want to return to”.

On 17 December 2021 Russia presented a draft treaty of security guarantees to the United States and NATO, in which the Kremlin called for a limit to any further expansion of the alliance.

In January 2022 a series of talks were held by the US, NATO, the OSCE and Russia as part of diplomatic efforts to defuse the developing crisis in Ukraine. The focus of those talks, however, became European security more broadly and Russia’s desire to see legally binding security guarantees with respect to its near abroad. 

No breakthroughs were achieved. The US and NATO offered further dialogue on several areas of potential cooperation but would not concede to Russian demands to limit its presence in eastern Europe and limit NATO enlargement, primarily with respect to Ukraine, which Russia described as a red line for its national security. Russia Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov warned that in the absence of a constructive response from the West, Russia would be “forced to take every necessary action to ensure a strategic balance and to eliminate unacceptable threats to our [Russia’s] national security”. The Kremlin and President Putin continued to deny, however, that Russia was planning to invade Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

In February 2022 Russia officially recognised the self-declared independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, the two regions in eastern Ukraine that have largely been under the control of Russian-backed separatist forces since 2014. Russia then signed Treaties of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with the leaders of those regions.

Shortly afterwards, Russia launched what it called a “special military operation” in the Donbas.  In justifying military action, President Putin argued that Russia was executing its obligations under the Treaties of Friendship signed just days earlier and was acting in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter (self defence). The President said the purpose was to “protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime.” He also said Russia would “seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine” but  said that Russia did not plan to occupy Ukrainian territory.

For almost a year Russia has been conducting a full-scale assault on the country and has moved to annex four regions of Ukrainian territory: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, even though they are not totally under Russian control.

In the conduct of its military campaign Russian forces have been accused of war crimes. With the onset of winter, Russia has increasingly focused its strikes on Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure, leaving millions of Ukrainians without access to electricity, water and heat, leading the West to accuse Russia of “weaponising winter”.

At present there is no obvious end in sight to the conflict and much of the focus is on the potential for a “spring offensive” by Russia as it seeks to make military gains. Ukraine has vowed to continue its counteroffensive and reclaim all its sovereign territory.

The implications of the conflict for global security have been significant. It has precipitated a global food and energy crisis and created instability in Europe on a level not witnessed since the Second World War. Concerns remain over the potential for spillover into other areas of Russia’s near abroad, notably the Russian-backed breakaway regions of Moldova and Georgia.  However, Russia’s actions have, thus far, also achieved the opposite of what it intended: Western unity and the strengthening, and potential expansion, of the NATO alliance.

The impact on European security in the longer term, and what that means for Russian foreign policy more broadly, will depend on the future direction of this conflict and whether a negotiated peace settlement can ever be achieved.

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