Russia is showing uncharacteristic prudence – Why, and will it last?

Russian Su-24 performing a mock attack on USS Donald Cook.

With the NATO summit in Warsaw coming up in July, the rhetoric in many Western quarters is becoming shriller about the need to contain Russian aggression. There are good reasons for concern about Russia’s intentions and capabilities, as elaborated at the recent Lennart Meri conference in Tallinn. But in the last couple of months, Moscow has actually been quite prudent. This self-restraint is entirely uncharacteristic and is often accompanied by typically assertive language, but it shouldn’t be ignored and deserves a closer look.

What self-restraint?

There is no denying Russia’s propensity to—and even preference for—using military force. However, this tendency hasn’t been much on display this spring. The turning point was perhaps the agreement on the ceasefire in Syria, followed by President Vladimir Putin’s March 14 order to halve the grouping of the Russian Air Force at the Latakia airbase. Since then, Moscow has shown increasing inclination to cooperate with the United States and even suggested joint airstrikes; the offer was duly turned down, and Russian airstrikes against the Nusra Front have stopped. There were serious concerns about an assault on Aleppo by Bashar Assad’s forces, but Moscow has opted instead for PR offensives, like the classical music concert in the newly-liberated Palmyra.

More important signs of restraint could be found in Russia’s response to recent U.S. and NATO activities on the European theater. The military exercises held in February were half the scale of those in 2015, and involved primarily troops stationed in the Southern military district. Not a single high-profile drill has happened since, even though it would have been natural to expect that the ongoing NATO exercises in the Baltic would provoke Russian snap exercises five times larger in manpower, as was the case in 2014 and 2015. Moscow showed its irritation by staging mock attacks on USS Donald Cook destroyer in the Baltic Sea in mid-April, followed by a couple of aggressive air intercepts. But after protests from Washington, it stopped these provocations.

For the rest of the article, visit the Brookings’ Order from Chaos blog.

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