Donald Trump says the West’s relationship with Russia is at ‘an all-time low’. 

His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has spoken of a ‘steady degradation’ and said ‘the world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship’. But the West seems to be in disarray about how to deal with the situation. Should it continue to confront Russia, tightening the screws of economic sanctions even more, or should it adopt a more conciliatory approach?

The current nadir in the relationship with Russia follows the recent chemical gas attack on innocent civilians in Syria. The West is convinced the atrocity was committed by the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s ally. The Russians will have none of it. First, they said it was caused by a conventional bomb falling on a warehouse stocking rebel supplies of chemical weapons. Then President Putin said rebels fighting the Assad regime had organised a ‘provocation’ to draw America into the retaliation which President Trump then authorised. On Wednesday night, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution requiring the Assad government to cooperate with an inquiry into what had happened. Even China, normally a Russian ally in the United Nations, broke ranks with Moscow and abstained.

If the West’s relationship with Russia is indeed at an all-time low, this not how it is supposed to be. Or at least that’s not how it is supposed to be with America. Donald Trump claimed during the presidential election campaign last year that he would ‘reset’ the United States’ approach to Russia. Specifically, he would be able to do deals with Vladimir Putin because he admired the guy (who admired him) and the two would get on just fine. The problem had been the confrontational approach pursued by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

But that is not how things are turning out, or at least not yet. Part of the problem is that the emerging Trump policy on Russia is overshadowed by continuing suspicions that the Kremlin was active in campaigning for Donald Trump. Indeed, some go further and claim that it was responsible for gaining Mr Trump his victory. He strongly denies this but several Congressional investigations are looking into the allegations and while the issue is unresolved President Trump is regarded as being hamstrung: he cannot appear too conciliatory towards Moscow for fear of being accused of returning favours. The chemical attack in Syria, and Mr Trump’s decision to respond by launching a cruise missile assault on the Syrian airfield from which the attack is believed to have been launched, showed how far he was prepared to go in taking a hard line not only on Syria but also on its Russian ally.

Britain too is taking a hard line. After the carnage in Syria, Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, cancelled a visit to Moscow and thus incurred the accusation of being America’s stooge. He also proposed that additional economic sanctions should be imposed on Russian military figures, only to have his fellow G7 foreign ministers throw out the proposal. Mr Johnson subsequently claimed that his proposal had been ‘misunderstood’ but it is clear that there is a fundamental disagreement in the West about how to handle Russia.

Some argue that increased confrontation by, for example, tougher sanctions, is exactly the wrong approach. They argue that the history of Russia shows that it never responds to pressure, especially from the West of which it has never known whether it wants to be a part or whether its identity is wholly distinct. Pressure serves merely to increase animosity, they say. Recent western sanctions on Russia in response to its takeover of Crimea and continuing interference in eastern Ukraine are a case in point. There has been no significant change in Russia’s behaviour as a result of the sanctions, they argue.

Others add that the personal temperament of President Putin only makes the problem worse. They see him as a paranoid figure who from the very beginning of his career has feared humiliation more than anything else and does whatever he needs, no matter what the cost, to avoid it. Put Putin’s personal psychology together with Russia’s own sense of paranoia and you get a country utterly resistant to being told what to do or being forced to change its behaviour. It is certainly true that Mr Putin’s standing up to the West in the seventeen years since he first became president has led to his enormous personal popularity in Russia: his approval ratings are over 80%.

On this analysis the West’s approach ought to be one of conciliation and cooperation. We should concentrate on what we might have in common and then seek ways to work together with Russia to bring it about. Syria is a good case, supporters of this approach argue, because. Putin is not especially wedded to President Assad. Indeed the Russians have sought ways to get him out of the picture, replacing him with a more acceptable figure in the Syrian regime. But they have been rebuffed. Russia’s own interests in Syria, including its own naval base in the country, mean it can’t just abandon Assad because that might lead to a fundamentalist Islamic government taking over which would have no incentive to protect Russian interests. In the light of all this, it’s in the West’s interests to cooperate with Moscow in securing a new political settlement in Syria that excludes Assad. Such a cooperative approach might produce results in other areas too, advocates of it argue.

But others see real dangers in such an approach. They say Russia would simply take what’s offered but give little back. Russia won’t, for example, give up Crimea. What’s more any appearance of the West backing off in its opposition to what Putin has done would be used by him to claim victory. He would become even more popular at home and so be encouraged himself to take a tougher line with the West in order to repeat the trick. History, they argue, shows that you cannot appease the Russian bear.

They also say the conciliators are simply looking after their own interests. European banks with money invested in Russia, and European countries (such as Germany) are highly dependent on Russian gas and advocate a softer line not because they think it will improve how the world is run but because of narrower concerns.

So what should the West do? Stand up to Russia even if that means relations sink even below the current ‘all-time low’ or find an approach that does not push President Putin into a corner but instead looks for opportunities to deal with the world’s problems in cooperation with him?

What’s your view? Let us know.

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