EU – Russia, how to confront the new situation?

Putin’s Russia

There cannot be any doubt, that the new European security situation after the annexation of the Crimea and the Russian intervention into the conflict in Eastern Ukraine asks for new answers and solutions. Russia in itself or in the clothes of the Soviet Union has been over centuries often expansionist. As a big landlocked country it tried to gain and save its security by occupation or in having a ring of – voluntary and forced -„friends“ around them. As such Putin cannot be compared directly with any of his predecessors, especially not with Stalin, but he is acting in a line of different former „czars“. So Putin’s Russia has its peculiarities but demonstrates also a continuation of Russia’s traditional geopolitical and neighborhood behavior.

The lack of „respect“  for the defeated Russia after the breakdown of the Soviet Union gave Putin a strong motivation to regain a dominating influence in Russia’s neighborhood when Russia gained economic strength and income from oil and gas exports were rising. Now, even with the economic difficulties and decreasing energy prices, Putin will not easily deviate from that course as he has a lot of support in his country, even if it is enhanced by efficient propaganda activities.

The role of „European“ values

It was an illusion to integrate Russia into a wider European community on the basis of the new European understanding and values. As we can see today, it is even not easy to integrate some of the EU member countries on the basis of these principles and values. It is not only the far Right at the fringe of the political spectrum, who is rejecting many of these values but also parties and their leaders who are in government.

It is true, the Helsinki process tried to formulate common values and individual rights. And these were taken up by parts of the civil society in the former Communist countries . And with the economic decline and especially the falling energy prices and income for the Soviet Union, the system could not sustain. But ideological resistance against the values promoted by Helsinki and the new orientations promoted by – western – civil society was always present. They were and are rejected by conservative forces in Russia and also inside the European Union. The underlying values for the European Union, especially those formulated in the Charter of Fundamental Rights cannot be transposed and imposed on our neighbors, unless they are willing to do it themselves. We must be more realistic than in the heydays of the accession process of the past.

New pragmatism needed

Pragmatic policies and power politics are not at their end – unfortunately. The European model based on value oriented policies, compromises and soft power has not become a universal model. Even inside Europe it is more and more contested. Irrespective of these internal resistance, we need a strong value based policy for the EU itself and for partners who are ready to accept it at least in principle, especially when they want to join the EU. This is one side of the coin.

But on the other side we need strategies for dealing with partners or just states who are opposing these policies and with whom we need to find a modus vivendi and with whom we need specific cooperation to solve urgent issues, which affect Europe but which we cannot solve alone. With such a policy, we must not give up a longterm aim of transforming countries like Russia. But we can see, how difficult some transformations inside the EU and with potential member countries are. The recent disputes on how to address the refugee issue demonstrated clearly our internal difficulties. We can also realize how much more difficult it will be with countries who have no intention to join the EU and who are not relying on EU financial support.

Developing  and going for a more pragmatic and realistic policy does not mean we can and should accept violation of borders, occupation and annexation. Hard power and soft power must be combined with new offers to recognize and respect some basic interests of countries like Russia. The common European understanding of hard power is to use it for prevention and defense and not primarily for direct military actions. Many in Ukraine and some Eastern European countries like Poland, the Baltic countries and Romania complain that there was no military answer to Russia’s annexation and intervention. But in fact, the readiness to go for war is very limited in Europe and finally that is a good difference to the political and military climate in the last centuries. Therefore sanctions have been the only realistic way out – between accepting Russia’s actions and military actions by NATO.

NATO expansion?

But NATO stands before another difficult decision. In 2016 the Warsaw summit will be confronted with many „Eastern“ requests for further enlargements: Montenegro, Georgia and Ukraine. While Montenegro will not pose a geopolitical problem, Georgia and Ukraine certainly will. Both countries have parts of their territories occupied and Russia as threatening neighbor. The request to have the Warsaw summit as an enlargement summit will meet with the intention not to put oil into the fire and endorse the conflict and war in Ukraine and maybe other countries.

But this conflict is not only an internal conflict of NATO but also of a general nature. We must recognize the right of any country to choose their own political and strategic future. But can we do this without looking into the impact for the whole – European – community? This is not only a question of right or wrong, it is a question of responsibility for a whole continent and its people. I understand the argument of representatives of the countries concerned, that NATO membership is a guarantee against Russian intervention. This may be true or not, but is there no alternative to NATO membership at least in the short and medium term? We should look for it.

Yes, NATO is indispensable for security in Europe. And in that sense the transatlantic cooperation is also indispensable for Europe. Strengthening the existing NATO structures and armament and cooperations reaching beyond the limits of NATO like the Nordic Defense Cooperation are important signals to Russia to refrain from any further destabilization. But that does not mean that all European countries must be full members of NATO now and that all US actions like that in Iraq have to be supported. And support for NATO does not exclude to look for a comprehensive European Security System. This system could recognize basic security interests of Russia and not support Putin’s aggressive policies. It could in the contrary reduce Putin’s aggressiveness.

Waiting for the time after Putin?

It is not easy to differentiate between Russia’s long tradition for extending its territory or at least its zone of influence and Putin’s specific policy of combining internal support and cohesion and outward oriented strength. But the fact that the „West“ did use Russia’s defeat to extend its zone of influence – however we define it – gave Putin some justification to complain about disrespect vis-a-vis Russia. It has some logic – if not justification -, that he reacted by destabilizing actions in Georgia and Ukraine.

Yes, sanctions do have their effects in Russia, but for the moment there is no sign of a decisively weakened position of Putin as a result of it. The economic problems inside Russia will not become as grave and catastrophic, that a regime change undertaken by some members of the Russian elite can be expected. 

Including Russia

It would therefore be not clever and wise to wait for the time after Putin. Many observers do not see the forces or men and women who would in the near future guarantee a drastic change in Russia’s policy. Some even fear worse, for example a military dictatorship. Of course it cannot be our interest to support Putin in the authoritarian way he is governing Russia. But as we can see again and again – if we want to see the reality – regime change from the outside is not possible and even dangerous.

Furthermore already now there are problems, where we would need Russia’s support to solve them. The nuclear issue with Iran was one such problem, Syria is an even more urgent issue. The recent talks, even if not successful until now show the readiness and interest on the side of Russia, but also the US and the EU to speak again to each other and to try to find a path towards truce and peace. Geopolitics is not dead, this was a vital mistake in the past.

To stop to talk with Russia officially was and is anyway not helpful and the USA and the West continued to talk, beyond symbolic, but not useful actions, like excluding Russia from G 8. We must start to think about the unfinished business of developing a plan for wider European security. NATO and the transatlantic link is an essential, necessary but not sufficient element of it. One cannot have security in Europe, if an important part of our continent is not included but excluded. And all the measures in the framework of the NATO – Russia Council were not really demonstrating inclusion. So we have to think about new fora and mechanism of discussion of common measures to include Russia in a fair way.

OSCE plus

The existing OSCE is one such forum. It got in the course of the Ukrainian conflict/war new life and importance. But it was and is not an organization that offers a platform and environment to prevent crises and solve them in the early stages. For that it must be strengthened and reorganized. Maybe, that some issues which bear some potential and real conflicts but also could be instrument of cooperation – like the energy issue – could be added as a fourth package. Many producers, consumers and transit countries are members of the OSCE. It would be helpful if in the framework of OSCE one could agree on common rules and have some rough framework how to develop the relationship between these countries and their different interests. To develop common rules of behavior should not and cannot prevent and abolish competition, but it could make supply of, demand for and transit of gas an issue of economic cooperation and not a political divisive one.

UN, OSCE and a Helsinki plus process

The UN and a more effective OSCE are definitely the pillars for creating more security. Of course new ways of dealing with critical issues could be added. Some global issues could be tackled with and within the format of the Iran negotiations. The big powers and some of the European ones including the EU itself could try to manage difficult global issues in a cooperative form. Of course we should not establish a powerful directorate outside and above the United Nations. But some closer cooperation of these powers with their veto right inside the UN Security Council and enlarged by the EU as such could be useful.

All these pragmatic approaches cannot be sufficient. It should be seriously considered to carefully plan and organize a Conference on European Security. Again the OSCE format could offer the framework of and for such a conference. The frozen and hot conflicts from Nagorno Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and Ukraine/Crimea must be dealt with. It will not be easy to find satisfying solutions. Compromises will have to be found. But neither war nor frozen conflicts with great human sacrifices are an alternative. And to wait until a new, more cooperative and helpful Russia will appear means accepting more suffering and more dead European citizens.

The alternative to the dangerous status quo is to reorganize the OSCE and make it a true and effective regional security organization of the UN. For that we need the political will from all sides. We have to test Russia’s readiness to cooperate and to find a new stable balance of power in Europe with the respect for orders and territorial integrity on the one side and respect for vital security interests of Russia on the other side.

EU and Eurasian Union

In addition we have to think about closer links between the EU and the forthcoming Eurasian Community. This organization is in its status nascendi and far from reaching the – still unsatisfying – level of integration inside the EU. But in spite of much skepticism it became reality. It would also be in the interest of the countries like Kazakhstan etc. to have a closer cooperation between EU and the Eurasian Community to decrease and soften Russian dominance inside that Union. It does not make sense to deny realities. They should be recognized in order to influence them. As Russia clearly expresses its interests in links between EU and the Eurasian Community we have to do the same and then find a way of cooperation.

With closer contacts to the Eurasian Union we can also extend our contacts and relationship to the different regions of Asia and especially to China. There is definitely a necessity to cooperate across the two continents, especially between European Union, Russia and China with many smaller countries participating and benefiting from it. So we should see the Eurasian Union not primarily as a threat, but as a chance to enlarge the economic and partly also the political cooperation beyond a cooperation between EU and Russia. 

And Ukraine?

Is a new approach and are new ways of talking to Russia possible in view of the actual crisis and war in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea. Of course psychologically it is not easy to have that Russian intervention and at the same time talk and negotiate with Russia about a new European Security structure which would give Russia a respected role inside wider Europe. But as Europe and the West in general do not want to engage in a new dangerous war, what is the alternative? Even in the case of Syria, the West starts to think about an agreement to end the war, which was only some months ago fiercely rejected.

Of course any effective talks with Russia must be accompanied with strong support for Ukraine. But also this support cannot be unconditional. Structural economic and political reforms are absolutely necessary and here we cannot compromise. And both sides must fulfill the obligations agreed in the Minsk Agreement. The war must be stopped, before we can realistically speak about a new security structure for the wider Europe.

Democracy, stability and security

Another basic question is the one of the relationship between values like democracy and stability. We all know the thesis, that real peace is only possible with the spread of democracy. But democracy cannot be spread over the countries from the outside like a deodorant. It has to evolve from the activities of domestic forces, and even then it is not always successful. But stability which has been downgraded in the last decade is not as such an evil status.

Of course with all the European experience of the last centuries it is not easy to accept stability when it is connected with authoritarian or even dictatorial regimes with its many violations of human rights. And we have to continue to help and support civil society which is fighting in different countries for democratic change. But speed in promoting democratic development is not always helpful, as we could see with the Arab spring movements and can see with some reactionary tendencies even inside the EU. Anyway the development towards democracy is a long term project and must find its domestic sources and push factors. And that is certainly true for Russia.

Citizens will only support policies of change if they consider them a contribution to stability or at least not as a factor of instability. Therefore we have to find a new balance of change and stability, if we do not want to fail with our policies. Stability and security have to find a more prominent place in our political consideration. The recent refugee crisis showed very clearly, that intervening in our neighborhood without being prepared for the consequences in our own countries is very dangerous. And it is especially dangerous, when other countries like the US undertake such interventions to foster democracy, without thinking about the possible dramatic consequences and the dangers for the European neighbors including some allies.

The West in general and Europe in specific must be more modest and refrain from over-stretching our influence and interventions. For a short while it may succeed, but then we do not have the military, political and economic resources to uphold the changes and to beat the opposing powers including the terrorist groups, which are borne out of the chaos resulting from some of these interventions.

The consolidation of our enlarged EU and the yet unfulfilled task of enlargement in our immediate European neighborhood needs still a lot of engagement and resources. So let’s concentrate on these issues and the unavoidable task of giving shelter to the refugees. And already now many European citizens feel themselves neglected and thrown into an unstable environment. New conflicts and wars would even decrease the citizens support for the EU and an active foreign policy. Stability must not be an ugly word inside European strategies.