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The Impact Of Russia Downgrading Its Relations With The West

The United States and United Kingdom have much to lose if the Kremlin downgrades relations.

The Kremlin said on Thursday (June 27) that Russia is considering a possible downgrading of diplomatic relations with the West due to the deeper involvement of the United States and its allies in the Ukraine war, though no decision has yet been made.

“The issue of lowering the level of diplomatic relations is a standard practice for states that face unfriendly or hostile manifestations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters when asked about the possibility of such a move. Peskov said that no decision had yet been made on the matter and that Russia was considering different ways to respond to the West.

The latest in a series of constantly damaging events to Russia’s multilateral relations with the West has come following two recent incidents, the West deciding to access Russia’s sovereign assets and give proceeds emanating from these to Ukraine, and the apparent discovery that US-made cluster weapons were found on a beach in Crimea along with allegations that the US military must have been directly involved in their use. Several Russian civilians were killed or maimed in that incident, which also prompted Moscow to summon the American ambassador.

In this article we examine the implications of what such a downgrade in relations would have.

Who are “The West”?

The term “The West” is bandied about as a specific group but it is not legally defined nor especially accurate. In the context of this situation, it currently describes countries that have collectively agreed to sanction Russia for its involvement in the Ukraine conflict. These include as the three main protagonists the United States, European Union and United Kingdom. However, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea are also involved. The situation has become complicated as not all EU nations are in full agreement on how to handle Russia – Hungary being a particular example.

This suggests that any Russian response would be with specific countries rather than blocs such as the EU itself. Japan and South Korea may also find themselves in the clear as both continue to trade with Russia, especially in energy. Russia’s principal targets in downgrading ties would probably be the United States, the United Kingdom, the EU in part, and possibly specific EU nations in full. Much depends on the outcome of some European elections with France for example having elections next month with a more pro-Russian candidate likely to do well. The answer then to this question is “it depends upon the circumstances” but would certainly target the United States.

Downgrading Russian relations with the United States 

Such a move has never happened before, meaning there are various layers of uncertainty as to actual intent and the impact. However there appears little doubt that the Kremlin are working out all possible scenarios at this moment and will be prepared for the repercussions. However, the blanket use of sanctions upon Russia and the termination of SWIFT financial access have already meant that intended economic punishments, for the most part, have already been meted out by Washington. It also seems apparent that Russia has absorbed these.

Trade  

In March 2024, the United States exported US$43.7 million of products and imported US$427 million of products from Russia, implying a that current total annual bilateral trade is worth about US$5.64 billion. Due to sanctions, none of this will be in any critical sectors. A downgrading in relations may have some impact but overall, the trade aspect has already been degraded to such an extent the impact would be minimal.  

Consular Services

In the event of a downgrade, while Embassies may remain open, Ambassador-level contacts would be withdrawn, and potentially other senior diplomatic positions as well. Relationships are already at historic lows – the two countries Defence Ministers have only spoken once in the past 12 months. Diplomatic and Consular services would be downgraded or suspended. That means visa issuance would diminish or even cease except for important needs. The United States has already ordered the closure of Russian consular assistance in New York and Houston and reduced its consular assistance in Russia by 75%. These moves are already inconvenient to nationals on both sides, meaning that any further downgrading is unlikely to have much additional impact.      

Diplomatic Connectivity

With the withdrawal of Ambassadors, G2G contact would be maintained at far lower levels, at levels best described as ‘Chief of Mission’. Contact between higher-level, Ministerial officials would be curtailed. That can be problematic as without the flow of interaction, the chances for misunderstandings are far higher. Given the current state of relations, this could increase the danger of military escalation if connections are downgraded to less experienced levels.

It would also mean that Russia would cease collaboration with the United States on many different levels – cultural, scientific, security and societal. It could, for example, affect everything from the war on drugs, the war on Islamic fundamentalism, agreements on nuclear and other weapons, global health care, energy and food security, and even the International Space Station. Most of these have already been curtailed, but doing so further again increases the space between the two countries and decreases cooperation on important global concerns.

Impact on Russia

The impact on Russia will be at the diplomatic level and concerns that downgrading relations increases inherent risk to Russia’s overall security. However, these have already been so substantially degraded with sanctions and other measures that nudging them further may not have much additional impact. The Kremlin will be assessing what these impacts will look like. They may decide that so much damage has already been done it makes little difference.

Impact on the United States  

The impact on the United States will be much the same as for Russia, losses in trade and consular assistance have already come into being. The loss of full diplomatic contact would be a test for Washington however as it directly calls into question its diplomatic credibility as a trusted partner. To this extent, Moscow is throwing down a glove and rebelling. But there is a risk for Washington in that it could introduce a plethora of other counties also deciding to downgrade their US relations. Relations with numerous countries in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa are already difficult, and include the likes of Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Myanmar and multiple African countries including Burundi, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Zimbabwe. I summarise this risk below.

Downgrading Russian relations with the United Kingdom

As a smaller aside, but not without longer term significance, a downgrading of Russian diplomacy with the UK – assuming Russia can count on follow-through support from countries in Africa, and Latin America could lead to the demise of the Commonwealth of Nations. This includes 56 countries that maintain ties with the UK, most of which were ex-colonies. While some members may not wish to follow Russia and cut diplomatic ties with London, they may begin to feel that the Commonwealth is now past its sell-by date. That would see the UK lose one of its neglected, but historically important global assets and further diminish its international standing.   

Downgrading Russian relations with the European Union 

Due to the EU’s political disparity, with some countries more Russia-positive than others, it appears that Russia’s approach to the EU in terms of downgrading relations would be somewhat selective. Much also depends on the outcome of various European elections. The EU still has significant trade with Russia, both directly and indirectly. EU imports of Russian LNG have been increasing, with about 21% of all LNG flowing through EU pipelines coming from Russia. Direct exports from the EU to Russia have been replaced by indirect exports to Russia channelled via third party countries. Accordingly any downgrade in relations with the EU itself is likely to be symbolic.

That may not however be the case with all EU members. Some, such as Poland, and the Baltic States, could find themselves with downgraded diplomatic entities as well. There is some European precedent in this – Lithuania had its diplomatic relations with China downgraded in 2021 after it set up an official trade office with Taiwan in response at the time to show ‘solidarity’ with China’s Uyghur Muslim population. They have not been restored, meaning Lithuania’s then US$3 billion trade with China has been replaced with Lithuanian trade with Taiwan of about US$30 million. Lithuania’s Foreign Minister is still in his position. Meanwhile, the Estonian Prime Minister is set to become the new head of EU. These developments may lead to diplomatic breaks with smaller members of the European Union, if not the whole bloc.            

Summary

To date, being seen as having full diplomatic relations with the US government has been seen as a badge of honour and necessary. That mood may well have changed, and especially in Africa and parts of Asia. The Kremlin will want to be sure that if it downgrades diplomatic relations with the United States then other countries would follow – this would be a win for Moscow if so. It is possible some African nations could downgrade relations with Paris to show solidarity with Moscow. 

If the Kremlin cannot be sure of this, then it is unlikely to happen. But if Russia can generate enough political support to follow through with a diplomatic downgrade, the global political view of the way in which Washington has managed its international affairs could be significantly damaged.  

Having diplomatic relations with the United States is expensive. Some countries may decide their focus should be on their internal issues and resolving those with strategic, rather than global partners. If so, the damage is likely to significantly weaken the perceived United States hegemony rather than Russia.

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