A stronger EU-Russia partnership now looks like a pipe-dream, reflects former foreign minister Igor Ivanov. On the plus-side he sees less hypocrisy on both sides, and outlines five steps towards repairing the relationship…
Relations between Russia and the European Union are in deep crisis – perhaps the most serious crisis since the end of the Cold War. As the Russian Federation’s former foreign minister, I particularly regret this bleak state of affairs as along with my European counterparts I myself invested much time and effort in building a stronger Russia-EU partnership, with all its political, social, economic and humanitarian dimensions.
Many of our past plans and hopes now look like pipe-dreams that are remote and seemingly irrelevant to today’s grim realities. I am sure that many in Europe share my frustrations and concerns, although there is little sense in just being disappointed and pessimistic. We should instead analyse the mistakes and blunders of the past in order to reveal the opportunities of the future.
The most graphic manifestation of the deep gap that has emerged between Brussels and Moscow is, of course, the situation in and around Ukraine. We can debate endlessly about who is to blame for this situation and whether it could have been avoided. Both Russia and the European Union have, in my view, contributed to the escalation of Ukrainian problems, and so both should bear their fair share of responsibility for the unfortunate developments in that country since autumn 2013. As I see it, though, Ukraine has not been the main cause of the Russia-EU crisis; rather it has been a catalyst of the more fundamental rifts that had emerged between Moscow and Brussels over the last few years. In short, the Russia-EU partnership has not worked out in the way that had been anticipated some 10-15 years ago.
So the question must be, what went wrong? Unless we look back into our past, we cannot realistically plan our future. Twelve years ago, we agreed at the 2003 Russia-EU summit in Saint Petersburg to proceed with the so called ‘four spaces’ in our co-operation. I was personally involved in drafting these four spaces, and I still believe that it was a very important achievement in the relationship. Later, these four spaces were to be complimented by the EU-Russia Roadmaps supposed to define specific goals, schedules, and benchmarks in each of the spaces.
Since then, we have not made a lot of progress. In many ways we lost ground and not gained it. We failed to sign a new EU-Russia Partnership agreement to replace the old one that had expired long ago. We couldn’t move to a visa-free regime between Russia and the Schengen zone, and were unable to reconcile our differences on the EU’s ‘third energy package’. Even on less controversial matters like research co-operation, environmental protection and transportation, our progress was modest, to put it mildly.
That said, I would not want to downplay the efforts of the committed men and women in both EU and in Russia who did much to bring co-operation to a new level. Yet the overall balance sheet isn’t impressive. It is true that our economic co-operation continued to grow until 2014, as did the scale of EU companies’ investments in Russia and the number of joint ventures. But the relationship’s institutional framework failed to catch up with these new economic realities, so the gap between businessmen and the politicians grew wider and wider and then turned into an abyss during the crisis over Ukraine.
Why didn’t we succeed in using the last 15 years to their full extent? Why could the private sector on both sides not lobby for a new level of political partnership between Russia and EU? One of the most common explanations is that on both sides politicians were distracted by such other priorities and events as the global economic crisis of 2008-2009, the conflict in the Caucasus, complications in the eurozone, the relentless rise of China, the Arab Spring, the U.S.-EU transatlantic trade and investment negotiations (TTIP) and so on. There may be some truth in this explanation, but what does that prove? It only tells us that for both the European Union and Russia their mutual relations seemed of secondary importance, and could therefore easily be shelved or even sacrificed for the sake of more central and more urgent needs.
The Ukrainian crisis has thus become a very explicit manifestation of the fragility of our relations. Both sides pursued their own policies toward Ukraine without any co-ordination, or at least consultations, with one another. The question of the “European choice” for Ukraine was raised only in the old “zero sum game” logic of the Cold War. I am myself convinced that with the necessary efforts on both sides we could have avoided the Ukrainian tragedy – at any rate in the dramatic form it has finally taken.
Rather than emphasising the differences in our approaches and blaming each other, we should have looked for what unites us in this extraordinary situation. Above all, neither the European Union, nor Russia has anything to gain from Ukraine becoming a ‘failed state’ in the centre of the European continent. On the contrary, such a development would create a whole range of fundamental threats and challenges to everybody in Europe, not to mention the countless tragedies and suffering it means for the Ukrainian people. It will now be much more difficult to restore the relationship between Russia and Europe than it was only a year ago, but we have no alternative to limiting the damage and moving ahead.
A lot has been said about the European institutional deficit that was clearly demonstrated by the Ukrainian crisis. And it’s certainly true that the many European and Euro-Atlantic organisations and mechanisms that were specifically designed to prevent or to resolve crises failed to do so – with the qualified exception of OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Instead, the crisis gave birth to new forms of international co-operation like the so-called “Normandy process”. This new format may look extremely fragile and shaky, but it at least demonstrates our common ability to make tangible progress under even the most difficult circumstances.
Where, then, should we go from here? In my opinion, five urgent steps are needed if we are to start repairing the badly damaged EU-Russia relationship.
First, we must prevent any further escalation of the military conflict in the centre of Europe. The Minsk agreements have to be implemented in full by all the sides without any exceptions or procrastinations. All violations of the agreements by rebels in the east or by the Kiev authorities should be brought to light and properly investigated without resort to bias or double standards.
Second, we have to enhance and to broaden the Normandy format. Aside from sporadic meetings at the very top or at foreign ministers’ level we need a permanent high-level Contact Group in Kiev that will work on a day-to-day basis with the parties to the conflict. It is critically important that U.S. should be included in the Contact Group to avoid any misunderstandings or failures of communication across the Atlantic.
Third, Russia and the West should refrain from hostile and inflammatory rhetoric that fuels public mistrust and hatred. The vicious spiral of today’s propaganda war has to be stopped and reversed – at least at official level, if we do not want to turn the current crisis into a long-term confrontation that will divide our common continent for years, if not decades, to come.
Fourth, both sides have to invest political energy and capital in rescuing what can still be saved from the best days of EU-Russia co-operation. So far as is possible, we should maintain our joint projects on education and research and in culture and civil society, environmental protection and climate change. We should try to preserve our successful trans-border co-operation, contacts between Russian and European regions and between ‘twinned’ cities. These are the seeds of the future renaissance of the EU-Russia relationship.
Fifth, the time has clearly come to explore opportunities for closer and more intensive contacts between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The EU has little to lose by reaching out to this neighbouring integration project, while in terms of influencing the emerging EEU’s standards, mechanisms, procedures and modes of operation, the rewards could be handsome.
I don’t want to imply that we should be getting back to “business as usual” by ignoring the deep political divisions between Moscow and Brussels. That approach wouldn’t work even if both sides were prepared to stick by it. But one of the positive side-effects of this crisis is that there is today less hypocrisy and political correctness between Moscow and Brussels. Unless we learn the lessons of this crisis, mistrust, instability and losses in both east and west will continue to multiply.
Fist published by the Europe’s World Summer 2015 edition under the title: ‘The tough lessons of the EU-Russia crisis’.
Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms
Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.
Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive
approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.
Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.
Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.
Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.
As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.
Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.
Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.
Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.
While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.
For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.
Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.
To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.
The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.
For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”
The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.
It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.
If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.
“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.
Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia
Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.
Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.
The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.
In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.
The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.
The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.
The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.
Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.
This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.
The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.
Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.
This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.
from our partner RIAC
Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood
The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.
Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.
But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.
CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.
In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.
Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.
Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.
More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.
The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.
A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.
Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.
Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
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