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Russia Isn't and Wasn't 'Isolated'

Paris attacks didn't bring Russia out of isolation, it was never 'isolated' - except in Obama's fantazies - to begin with

Originally appeared at Forbes

In the aftermath of the horrific attacks on Paris, and the equally horrific bombing of a Russian passenger jet in Sinai, there is an emerging consensus that Russia and the West are moving closer together.

Just yesterday the Wall Street Journal noted that the “Russian president was center-stage at the G-20 summit” while even an outlet as famously Russia-skeptic as The Economist admits that “in the face of a common threat from Islamist terror, Russia and the West may be moving closer, if not exactly standing shoulder to shoulder.” Other outlets have struck similar chords.

The general narrative that is emerging is something like the following: in the aftermath of its “hybrid war” in Ukraine, Russia was isolated not just from the United States and the more hawkish countries of Central Europe (Poland, the Baltics, etc.) but even from it traditional partners in the EU such as Germany, Italy, and France.

Moscow was out in the cold, an international pariah supported by no one of consequences and confronted by an increasingly resolute and determined NATO.

However, over the past few months, a confluence of factors has gradually brought Russia back into cautious engagement with the West.

Opinions vary as to the precise weight to assign to each factor, but it is generally agreed that some combination of Russia’s domestic economic problems, the slow improvement of the situation in Ukraine and the piecemeal implementation of the Minsk accords, Russia’s military intervention in Syria, the rapidly escalating refugee crisis in Europe, and a spate of successful terrorist attacks by ISIS has made the two sides far more willing to negotiate.

After Paris, there is even (highly speculative) talk about some kind of “grand coalition” to defeat ISIS. The change in mood is perhaps best expressed by Russia’s sudden willingness to renegotiate the payment of a Ukrainian bond, an abrupt transformation of a position which Russia had loudly proclaimed it would never change.

The story, then, is one in which Russia was “isolated” but isn’t any longer.

There’s clearly something to this. Events over the past few days really do suggest that the West and the Russia are, cautiously and skeptically, moving back into engagement, at least within the highly delineated sphere of counter terrorism.

What the narrative misses is not the ongoing rapprochement between the two sides, but that Russia was never genuinely “isolated” in the first place. Russia is, in economic and demographic terms, a relatively large country, one which spans a significant portion of the globe.

It is not, by any means, a “superpower,” but it is the world’s largest energy exporter, the second largest arms dealer, and a significant (if reduced!) market for the goods numerous large European companies. For good or for bad, Russia matters, and it matters in a way that not many countries do.

Why is it important to note this? Well, given the weak foundation on which the current rapprochement is being built (basically a shared agreement that “ISIS is bad”) it will probably not last very long.

It is conceivable that some kind of joint Russia-NATO campaign could, within a year or two, lead to an outcome that can semi-plausibly be called a “defeat of ISIS.”* After that, the relationship between Russia and the West will, in all likelihood, rapidly deteriorate once again.

If and when that happens, the narrative will once again shift to one of Russia’s “isolation.” But that won’t be the case, because the quality of Russia’s relations with the West do not determine its international relevance.

Whether it’s loved or hated, Russia will maintain positions of significance in global economics and diplomacy. ”Isolating” a country as large as powerful as Russia simply isn’t possible.

The West can inflict harm on Russia’s economy, limit the movement of its oligarchs, and even freeze the assets of its largest companies, but that isn’t “isolation.”

The current, likely brief, rapprochement between the two sides is as good a time as any to remember that.


* this won’t be an actual comprehensive defeat of the group but the appearance of one. A kind of “mission accomplished” moment that lets both Russia and the West pretend that they won and then go home.

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