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Commentary | 19 February 2014

Kissinger’s Cold War Lessons for the EU’s Eastern Partnership

The violence in Ukraine leaves both the people of that country and the whole Euro-Atlantic area on the edge of a precipice. If the situation spirals out of control, the result could be not only the violent fragmentation of the state but the on-set of a new period of confrontation between Russia and the West. In that context, there will be much hand-wringing over whether, how and when to impose EU sanctions on the Ukrainian leadership. If Western leaders genuinely want to have some impact on what happens next, however, the more fundamental question they must focus on is how to deal with Russia.

In thinking about this, they could do worse than to start by reading White House Years, the first volume of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs. Faced in the 1960s with a Soviet leadership seeking both to keep tight control of Eastern Europe while also opening the region up to much needed trade with the West, Kissinger and Nixon successfully adopted a strategy of differentiated trade offerings to individual eastern bloc economies. They did so to create discomfort and division for the Soviets in their own sphere of influence but also to demonstrate to Moscow that the least costly course for them would be to engage in a wider and more meaningful détente.

Fundamental to the Kissinger-Nixon strategy was also an understanding of the real power distribution in Europe and an attempt to pursue Western interests while working within its constraints. The events in Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were fresh in the minds of those making decisions in the White House and great care was taken not to do anything that might lead to their repetition. This translated into an awareness of, and willingness to accommodate, Soviet interests and sensitivities and a determination not to attach to the new trade policy any inflammatory rhetoric that might stoke up unrealistic expectations on the part of those living in Eastern Europe. Trade policy, in other words, was not seen as the totality of policy but as one part of a more sophisticated strategy to contribute to economic development in the region while also influencing decision-makers in Moscow.

Now Russia is not, of course, the Soviet Union and we are not [yet] engaged in a repeat of the Cold War. But contrast this approach to the EU Eastern Partnership strategy ahead of the Vilnius Summit.

Senior EU officials admit that this lacked a differentiated approach to the partner countries. The Association Agreements and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA’s) at the heart of them were of a one-size fits all nature. The EU conducted no assessments to understand how the DCFTA’s would impact different sectors and regions within the partner countries. As a result, it could not offer a tailored mix of financial incentives, implementation timelines and other measures designed to smooth their political and economic implementation. This made them less attractive than they could have been and gave Moscow the opportunity to play the role of spoiler.

At the same time, many in the EU now acknowledge that far too little consideration was given to Russian sensitivities, interests and residual capacity to influence events on the ground, particularly but of course not only in Ukraine. Paying more attention to Russia would not have been to excuse the unacceptable intimidation and bullying carried out by Moscow in recent months. It would have been to craft a policy that had thought through how to deal with it and still get results.

And far from showing restraint in the use of rhetoric, too many on the EU side of this debate have been guilty of using words without thought to consequences. While the hundreds of thousands demonstrating in the Euromaidan have exposed President Putin’s apparent victory in Ukraine as hubris, the rhetoric of ‘civilizational choice’ as used by some Western statesmen has itself contributed unhelpfully to the internal political dynamics of the country. This rhetoric posits the need for a fundamental choice in a country where compromise is the only peaceful way out of the crisis. It also risks reinforcing a narrative about new dividing lines in European civilisation that some ideologues close to the Kremlin are trying to construct through their emphasis on Eurasian as opposed to European values.

To move forward constructively from here, the leaders of the EU must not only applaud appreciatively at the Munich Security Conference and elsewhere when figures such as Kissinger speak but must learn some practical lessons from his relevant experience.

First, they must adopt Kissinger’s differentiated approach to trade relations with their eastern partners. This means re-visiting the terms of the Association Agreements and DCFTA’s where necessary and being willing to put more money and more flexible adaptation periods on the table. The EU does not want and does not seek a geo-political confrontation with Russia. In the absence of a Russian leadership capable of seeing its own country’s long-term interests clearly, however, the best way to avoid one would be to make life harder and more expensive for Mr Putin’s current strategy in Eastern Europe while being careful to communicate that a more cooperative relationship elsewhere is on offer.

Second, as Javier Solana said recently, the EU must seek to mediate in Ukraine in partnership with Russia and not in isolation from or in competition with it. The chances of success would be far greater if Ashton and Lavrov worked this problem together rather than apart.

Third, the EU must pursue the goal of a ‘common economic space’ from Lisbon to Vladivostok with some seriousness. While it seeks to help steer the internal Ukrainian political crisis away from violence and toward compromise, the EU must work to construct a regional economic context in which Ukraine can enjoy freer trade and improved economic relations with both the EU and Russia at the same time. If it does that, it might be able to head off the nightmare scenario in Russia-West relations now on the horizon and provide an international framework capable of supporting the Ukrainian people in the compromises they need to find.

Fourth, our leaders must eschew the rhetoric of civilizational choice and division within Europe and pursue the notion of a cooperative Greater Europe that is free but also whole, including not only Ukraine but Russia and Turkey too.

It is this balance of measures and instruments that has the best chance of arriving at a long-term settlement in Europe in the interests of not only the people of Ukraine, but of all people on the continent. A debate on whether to impose sanctions on Yanukovych, understandable and unavoidable though it may now be, will not come even close to articulating the wider strategy we need.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.