MOSCOW — If you looked at Russia’s behavior in recent months, you’d think the country’s leaders were out to disrupt the West.
In September, the Wagner Group, a Russia-based private military company, popped up in Mali, deeply angering France. In October, Russia broke off diplomatic ties with NATO. This month, reports that Russia had amassed nearly 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine led the United States to warn that an invasion might be imminent. And in between, Russia stood by while its ally, President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, engineered a migrant crisis at the border with Poland.
But the picture is more complicated. It’s true that Russia still considers the West to be its chief adversary, but its foreign policy is ever more guided by the need to learn to operate in a world no longer dominated by the West. With the notable exception of Ukraine — control over which seems to be President Vladimir Putin’s very personal and heartfelt goal — the Kremlin is operating cautiously in a world it regards as fractured and complicated.
Yet the West, seeing Russia as an implacable foe, finds conspiracy where there might be chaos. Moscow often makes a similar mistake and assumes the West wants to bring it down, too. These outdated perspectives, exacerbated by pandemic-imposed isolation, are potentially dangerous — leading, at best, to misunderstanding and, at worst, to confrontation. And when there is a tangible threat of escalation, as in Ukraine, it’s especially important each side sees the other clearly.
In yesterday’s world, dominated by the West, things were different. Set against a single antagonist, Russia knew what it wanted to achieve and how to set its goals. All ideas of joining the West or bringing it down belonged there, in the period from the end of World War II to, say, the rise of Xi Jinping in China, Donald Trump’s presidency and Brexit. But for Russia now, the world truly feels “multipolar.” And it’s not very enjoyable.
The new world is so chaotic that Moscow appears to consider almost any long-term planning futile. If for Russia’s former leaders, “multipolarity” used to be about “countering Western hegemony,” Fyodor Lukyanov, a top expert on Russia, told me, for Mr. Putin “it is about handling the world that is just very complicated.” To navigate this more complex terrain, Russia experiments with paramilitary intrusions, brokers its way to leverage, relies on limited or temporary measures and often chooses to do less rather than more. One way or another, that explains its involvement in the Sahel, the Middle East and the Caucasus.
There is an aim underlying Moscow’s moves, to be sure. But usually it’s not straightforwardly about the West. Rather, it’s about adjusting to a world now shaped primarily by the competition between America and China. To avoid being caught between the two, Russia hopes to build regional leverage — in West Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans — to enhance its bargaining power for the uncertain future. (The West can still get stung, of course.)
Russia’s involvement in Syria, for instance, may have started out as an attempt to prevent the regime of Bashar al-Assad from falling — something that indeed clashed with the West’s position. But these days it’s about regional leverage and the perks it brings, among them the status as a global power broker and the ability to get Saudi Arabia to consider Russia’s views when deciding on oil production quotas. The West, focused on the old image of Russia as cunning adversary, misses most of this.
But the misreading goes both ways: Russia also ascribes outdated motives to the West. And the biggest misconceptions are reserved for the European Union. Strikingly, Moscow’s foreign policy establishment seems to have mostly concluded that the bloc tried to proactively use the anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny as its agent to wreck Russia’s political system. The charge, of course, is wrong. Europe reacted to the events that befell it — giving Mr. Navalny, poisoned in August last year, medical treatment and voicing its displeasure after he was arrested upon his return to Russia — in the only possible way.
Or take the visit to Moscow by Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, in early February. Coming in the wake of Mr. Navalny’s arrest, many in Moscow interpreted it as yet another European coming to lecture Russia on how to organize its internal life. But in reality Mr. Borrell’s visit was driven by an opposite trend in Europe’s thinking — that reluctantly, the bloc must accept Russia as it is and seek to cooperate where possible. Even so, the impression stuck. In Moscow, the European Union is currently seen as close to a hostile power with which common language is impossible.
The view of the United States is less distorted at the moment. President Biden has managed to persuade Moscow that he picks his fights wisely, refrains from trying to change Russia and focuses on areas — such as strategic stability — where overlapping interests allow for some common goals. At a recent conference, Mr. Putin spoke cordially both about the talks begun after the Geneva summit in June and about Mr. Biden personally.
But this relationship is not free from misinterpretation, either. The most dangerous one revolves, once again, around Ukraine. Some in Moscow fear that the United States might establish what amounts to a military base in Ukraine or encourage Ukraine to retake the Russian-occupied areas of the Donbass by military force.
Others hope that Mr. Biden, needing Russia to contain China, will help Russia get its way in Ukraine — either by pressuring President Volodymyr Zelensky to allow Moscow a say over the country’s future decision-making or, better yet, by declaring NATO’s door officially closed to countries like Ukraine. These hopes and fears, equally outlandish, surely lie behind Russia’s current troop movements along Ukraine’s border.
Misreadings are dangerous. Though far from the height of 2014-16, when relations between the West and Russia were particularly perilous, tensions remain. Disinformation, cyberwarfare and electoral interference have contributed to an atmosphere of mounting suspicion. And with Ukraine, about which the Kremlin has high emotions, unrealistic expectations and irrational fears, there is genuine cause for alarm.
That makes the correct reading of intentions even more crucial. If both sides can look at each other with sober eyes, some limited cooperation and effective messaging would be possible. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.
Kadri Liik (@KadriLiik) is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the former director of the International Center for Defense Studies in Estonia.
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