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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reverting to Isolationism

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What mutual understanding there might have been between Russia and the West is gradually being replaced by increasing mutual irritation, suspicion and even confrontation. The two sides no longer seem to speak the same language, nor do they care much for listening to each other.

The best and most recent example of the clash between these two different systems of logic and understanding has been the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, or the CFE. Last week, in his last state-of-the-nation address, President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia was essentially suspending its participation in the CFE. He pointed out that the treaty was hammered out in 1990 between NATO and the former Warsaw Pact members, of which Russia is the only one that hasn't since joined NATO. The treaty was modified in the late 1990s to reflect the new reality and, although Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine have ratified it, not a single NATO member has done so. This has clearly upset Moscow, as witnessed by the apparently sincere litany of complaints against the West that Putin expressed in his speech in Munich in February.

The logic behind the West's position is the following: Moscow has yet to fulfill its commitment to remove military bases and armaments from Georgia and Moldova, and until it does so there can be no discussion of ratifying the CFE. The West sincerely views Russia's intention to back out of the treaty with extreme suspicion since the CFE is the most effective and, in fact, the only existing instrument for controlling armaments in Europe. The desire to maintain this control has only grown along with the mutual distrust between Russia and the rest of Europe.

Statements from both sides regarding the placement of elements of anti-ballistic missile batteries in Poland and the Czech Republic have at times verged on the hysterical. Last week's negotiations in Moscow between the Russian and Czech presidents on this subject apparently collapsed. Russia has not even attempted to raise the issue with Poland, with which Moscow is already locked in an angry trade dispute over meat imports. The Kremlin does not trust Western reassurances that the batteries are not directed at Russia. And the West doubts Moscow's disbelief, suspecting it to be a cover for some kind of militaristic intrigue.

The Kremlin's repeated and heavy-handed "reminders" to leaders of opposition groups planning anti-government protests suggests that those in power are convinced that these groups, as well as most nongovernmental organizations, are financed by the West and bent on regime change along the lines of Ukraine's Orange Revolution. While this might seem like a ruse to mask Moscow's general dissatisfaction, and the Kremlin regularly applies the catchphrase "selling out to the West" to discredit all opposition, the situation is not that simple. This is not just a case of political posturing: People in the Kremlin really believe there are plots afoot involving secret payments to the organizers of the protests. They truly believe that all media criticism of official propaganda is part of a coordinated effort financed by outsiders. Andrei Illarionov, former economic policy adviser to Putin, has called it paranoia. It sometimes seems he is right.

And then there is the situation in Estonia, where an outburst of patriotism inspired officials to relocate a statue commemorating slain World War II Soviet soldiers from downtown Tallinn to a less centrally located military cemetery. Russian demonstrators staged a protest outside the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, to which Estonia responded by denying visas to the handful of Russians still interested in visiting that country. This cannot even be characterized as a relationship but only as mutual hostility.

The sad preliminary result of Russia's last seven years of foreign policy is that Moscow is left without a single country in the world it can reasonably call a friend, ally and good partner. Even its strongest international relationships are based on dry business pragmatism. Meanwhile, the list of countries with which Russia has ruined its relations continues to grow.

If things progress further along this path, foreign policy, as well as Russia's entire relationship with the rest of the world, could become the main theme of domestic political discussion. More accurately, it could be at the heart of future propaganda campaigns. It is unlikely, however, to lead to any serious domestic arguments with the Kremlin, as very few politicians are willing to take that kind of risk. In fact, the reluctance on the part of Russian politicians to challenge the status quo has led the Kremlin gradually to stop listening to its international opponents as well, choosing to forego constructive dialogue and compromise. When domestic politics are governed by strict orders from the top, it is difficult to switch gears to a different kind of discourse on the international stage.

Increasingly, Russians are taught to see themselves as living in a "besieged fortress," surrounded by an unloving, oppressive world community plotting against them. That makes for a straight and fast road to international isolation, driven by a self-cultivated persecution complex. This condition has regularly accompanied periods of authoritarianism in Russian imperial and Soviet history.

The current political climate in the Kremlin suggests that First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov may be the one to get the nod as Putin's successor, considering his credentials as former Defense Minister and his leading position among the siloviki. It will be easier for Ivanov to convince both Putin and the people of his worthiness in the context of the current campaign against the West. On the other hand, the future president's opening stance toward the West at the start of his term one year from now may actually benefit from the worsening relations. Russia's relations with the West may become so bad by then that something as simple as a genuine smile from the Russian president will be welcomed as a major step forward.

Indeed, Sergei Ivanov does have a charming smile, and once even blew a kiss to French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie. This is exactly the kind of gesture missing in current relations between Moscow and the West.

Georgy Bovt is editor of Profil magazine.