Co-Opetition with Putin’s Russia

By Defense.Info

The liberal democracies are facing a major challenge from the 21st century authoritarian powers.

These powers are capitalist powers with significant engagement within liberal democratic societies.

These powers work effectively to reduce the reciprocal capability of the liberal democracies to “interfere” in their authoritarian systems of dominance and control.

The Australian strategist Ross Babbage has done a first rate job of highlighting the nature of the authoritarian challenge and ways the liberal democracies might fight back.

Babbage is suggesting that 21stcentury authoritarian states are taking on liberal democracies at the level of their core values and are challenging them to protect their interests.

What Babbage argues is that unless the liberal democracies sort through ways to engage at the level of political warfare and to both shape denial and proactive strategies to do so, liberal democracies will respond to the 21stcentury authoritarians with higher end conventional force when it might be too late or the tools not the ones most effective to head off or deal with the challenge.

Without political warfare tools linked in fundamental ways to engage in hybrid war, the liberal democracies will not only be disadvantaged but will see their global influence reside as well.

In other words, the liberal democracies are in a global contest, not of their own making.

In effect, the challenge is one of co-opetition.

Co-opetition is a term used in business literature about the need to cooperate while competing to achieve market leadership.

In most of the modern theories of business, competition is seen as one of the key forces that keep firms lean and drive innovation.”

Adam Brandenburger of the Harvard Business School and Barry Nalebuff of the Yale School of Management have challenged that emphasis.

They suggest that businesses can gain advantage by means of a judicious mixture of competition and cooperation.

“Cooperation with suppliers, customers and firms producing complementary or related products can lead to expansion of the market and the formation of new business relationships, perhaps even the creation of new forms of enterprise.”

We have used this term in describing the nature of the Russian challenge in the Arctic where clearly one needs to cooperate with the Russians on a number of issues but doing so in a way that does not allow them dominant advantage. Cooperation with them is a form of strategic or tactical competition.

How can Europe best pursue co-opetition?

Ian Bond in a recent piece by London-based Centre for European Reform addressed this question in his piece entitled: “Will Courting Putin Always End in Tears?”

He lays out what he sees as six principles in dealing with Putin which can provide for a realistic way ahead to in effect work co-opetition.

It is a logical tactic for Putin to seek to divide and weaken those he perceives as Russia’s adversaries. If Western leaders, including Macron, are to avoid helping him, they should follow six principles.

First, know the facts, and challenge Putin and Russian officials and media when they distort them…..

Second, be ready to respond to Russia’s behaviour when it violates international norms…..

Third, never lose sight of Western interests.

Putin skilfully gets Western leaders to see his interests as more legitimate than their own.

His interlocutors must remind themselves that a democratic, prosperous and well-governed Ukraine is a better neighbour than an impoverished and corrupt client state of Russia; they should not accept his perspective that Russia’s view on the future direction of Ukraine should carry more weight than that of Ukraine’s Western neighbours or even of the Ukrainian people.

Putin is also good at manipulating his colleagues into taking policy options that they wrongly think will benefit them.

In recent years, he has used dramatic announcements about hypersonic warheads, nuclear-powered cruise missiles and the like to persuade Western politicians that they are being drawn into an arms race that the West cannot win, and that they should therefore engage in discussions of European security architecture on Russian terms.

In reality Putin is bluffing: the Russian economy could not sustain full-scale production and deployment of such systems.

Fourth, remain united….

Fifth, do not isolate Russia completely.

There are plenty of reasons to distrust Putin, to be appalled by things that his regime has done or to reject his world view. It is easy to respond by not talking to the Russian authorities – an apparently cost-free sanction.

It is a mistake, however.

Talking does not mean agreeing, or making concessions; but it is a chance to ensure that the sides understand each other and know where their red lines are.

There is much more risk of unintended escalation when direct contacts between the leaders of Russia and the West and between their military staffs are frozen.

Whatever the frustrations and inadequacies of the ‘Normandy format’ meetings between France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, Macron was right in his Munich interview to say that they should be more frequent.

Russia and the West also need to talk about nuclear and conventional arms control, military confidence-building measures, global non-proliferation issues and regional conflicts such as that in Libya – even if they do not reach any rapid agreement.

Sixth, seek out areas of potential co-operation that are not as politically sensitive as frozen conflicts in Eastern Europe or arms control.

Climate change and the shift to a low carbon economy are issues that will affect the EU and Russia, albeit in very different ways. Russia is one of the world’s largest producers of hydrocarbons, but it also stands to suffer from the melting of the permafrost in its north, which will turn huge areas into swamps.

With the exception of its involvement in Russia-Ukraine talks on the transit of gas to the rest of Europe, the EU’s energy dialogue with Russia has been largely dormant since 2014; it should be revived.

Russia and the West are both confronted with the risk that the coronavirus becomes a pandemic; there should be scope for their scientists to work together (and with Chinese experts).

Russia and most Western countries face the social problems of low birth-rates and ageing populations, and immigration that is economically essential but unpopular: experts could exchange ideas on how to tackle these issues. In other words, the West should challenge hostile stereotypes propagated in Russian state media by showing its willingness to work with Russia wherever that is possible.

Western leaders should not forget history, ancient or recent, or ignore the reality of Putin’s Russia, but nor should they be its prisoners. The disappointed hopes of their predecessors may be buried all round the Kremlin; but the West’s relations with Russia do not always have to be as bad as they are now. As long as Putin’s guests have read their history books and come with realistic expectations, their visits need not end in tears.

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