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Commentary | 17 August 2016

The essence of the “Russian question”: a response to an ELN report

Deterrence EU Foreign policy Russia Russia-West Relations Euro-Atlantic Security

The issue of Russia has been a political and intellectual touchstone for the non-Russian world for eons. Libraries are filled with texts recommending how to deal with authoritarian Russia. However, the recent ELN report entitled The Strategic Case for EU-Russia Cooperation, coauthored by Joseph Dobbs and Ian Kearns, must, unfortunately be catalogued as one of the most intellectually disappointing ventures in this area.

If the authors’ concepts were brought into being, it is absolutely certain that a new chapter in relations between the West and Russia would indeed begin. But this chapter would conclude with the disintegration of global and regional security. In the current situation, where populists from around the world, including a candidate for the US presidency, call not only for the revocation of all sanctions placed on Russia, but also for resignation from the policy of isolating an aggressive and revisionist Moscow, the ELN report serves as fuel for the flames of the anti-establishment rebels of the world.

At this time, we need more than ever clear answers to the question of which worldview does the community of democratic nations support. The follow-up question being what kind of measures and condemnations does this community view as the price it is willing to pay for the defence of the norms and values it believes in. If these questions are not addressed, populists in the Trumpian mold will simply receive a confirmation of their thesis that cooperative efforts of democracies with the goal of affirming joint security value nothing and are simply a devalued and demoted slogan.

I am convinced that Dobbs and Kearns wrote the report in good faith. They want to see a world which is more secure, equitable and that develops rapidly. I agree with them that Russia could contribute a lot in creating such a world. However, the essence of the matter lies in the fact that not every kind of Russia is interested in such a vision. The Russia which in its foreign policy maintains the Lenin’s paradigm of “Kto kovo [Who can defeat whom]?”, the Russia which affirms (among other theses) that the success of a democratic Europe and the enlargement of democratic area through the inclusion of the communities of Eastern and Central Europe will signal her defeat, such Russia will serve as a hindrance rather than an ally in the building of a better and peaceful world.

The essence of the “Russia question” is in fact a fundamental difference between the political systems of the most developed democratic European countries cooperating with each other, inter alia, through such institutions as NATO and the European Union (Brexit will not impact this significantly) and Russia, weakened as it is in the significant aspects of its development and simply undemocratic.

No serious analysis including political recommendations can ignore these tensions between the two political systems. There are at the least two reasons. Firstly, without acknowledging them, it is not possible to propose any intellectually coherent political solutions or speak of a coherent policy. Secondly, concealing these facts means that the proponent does not want to trouble the policymaker with the problem of the political risk. For the democratic policymaker, the systemic differences with Russia mean that he/she will be risking far more politically than the authoritarian and less predictable partner on acting on the report’s proposals. The risk asymmetry presents the authoritarian system with an advantage – which makes the entire proposal politically impractical for any democratic leader.

Dobbs and Kearns are well aware of the existence of this asymmetry. That is why it is difficult for the reader to ascertain which time period their recommendations would encompass. In their introduction they write:

“In this report, we try to get beyond the immediate, to take a look at both Russia and EU’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats and to ask what, if any long-term rationale might exist for a more cooperative relationship between them” (p. 1).

Yet on the very next page they introduce the perspective of a medium-termperiod:

“Our case … is … focused on the medium to long term ways in which both sides could have their security, prosperity and global position improved by closer cooperation ‘(p. 2)

And at the conclusion of their deliberations they propose a set of short-term recommendations:

“There should be a gradual lifting of EU sanctions on Russia in return for gradual but evident Clearly Implementation of the Minsk agreements’; “We specifically call for a summit to be Convened between the EU and Russia in the second half of 2016” (p. 3).

Setting aside the question of whether there should be more sanctions imposed if Putin pulls Russia out of the Minsk agreements, or kills it with some Gliwitz-style provocation, what is purely clear here is that the authors are manipulating time perspectives. The long term perspective, considering the future of EU-Russian relations, might have some sense, since it is worth considering the field of political maneuvers after the departure of Putin from Russian politics. Yet, the proposal to lift sanctions on Russia and to revert to the organizing of EU-Russia summits is de facto encouraging European leaders to bear an immediate political risk. And for what purpose? The imaginary future profits of purported political cooperation and business dealings with aggressively revisionist, corrupted and backward Russia.

This is not a hypothetical political risk – it is a concrete and politically measurable one. Let us assume that the recommendations presented by Dobbs and Kearns are accepted. There is no one who can guarantee that, the day after sanctions are lifted or a EU-Russia summit announced, another opponent of the current President of Russia will not be murdered on the doorstep of the Kremlin, or that Russian mercenaries will not shoot down another passenger aircraft or that Russian aircraft will not drop bombs on civilians in Syria or for that matter in Ukraine.

There does not exist an individual who wishes to be presented as an idiot. Yet, the sort of risky behaviour which Russia engages in can expose any leader who would follow these recommendations to an accusation of a lack of political common sense, and would ultimately cost a European politician an upcoming elections. However, Putin does not face that risk – since he has no elections to lose.

Russia is not a credible partner and thus the political cost of maintaining sanctions against Russia is significantly smaller than the cost of lifting them. In order for Russia to regain credibility none of the face-saving proposals made by Dobbs and Kearns will be successful. Russia can regain that credibility only in the place where it lost it – in Ukraine. Only by entering and effectively executing a Ukrainian-Russian peace treaty can Russia open a new chapter in the history of its relations with Europe and reaffirm peace on that continent.
The authors dutifully note that the

“basic principles of the European security system have been challenged following the Russian annexation of Crimea and its support for separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine.”

(Due to space considerations I am here omitting discussion of the fact that in accordance with Resolution UNGA 3314 (XXIX) on the Definition of Aggression, the form of “support” afforded by Russia is simply and purely an act of aggression.)

However, this leads them to a most curious statement that

“As the Russian and European narratives about sources of the crisis differ considerably, there seem to be currently no common universally accepted principles of European security to which all states in the Euro-Atlantic area subscribe” (p. 45).

By this very assertion the authors wish to inform us that although it was Russia, and only Russia which committed aggression on Ukraine and which is occupying Ukrainian territory, only Russia which threatens escalation of this war, only Russia threatens the use of nuclear weapons, and only Russia which creates incidents which are a hair’s breadth from initiating direct military confrontation through maneuvers of its military aircraft, the question of the guiding principles of European security has somehow become unclear.

This is clearly a major misunderstanding. The fact that one nation does not conform to universally accepted norms does not lead ipso facto to the conclusion that the entire normative system has ceased to exist. Let me use the example of driving regulations. If a segment of the driving population does not conform to rules about speed, yet manages to avoid fines, this does not lead us to the conclusion that there are no regulations applicable to driving. The only conclusion that could be made is that the penalties for such transgressions should be effectively increased.

The authors of the report expand in length on the “opportunities missed”, the lost potential of cooperation, and the high costs of “confrontation with Russia”. Agreed. Enormous potential is being wasted. Yet, this potential existed well before Putin decided to initiate military aggression on Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Putin did not hesitate for a moment before sacrificing this potential in order to achieve his goal of destabilizing security in Europe. This then is why the European Union cannot cite this potential as a reason to sacrifice defending security in Europe. The defense of peace is costly, the necessary increase in defensive capabilities is also costly, but war is the costliest option of all. We must remember that the most recent experiences indicate that Putin’s Russia is willing to risk war in order to change the world in its image. Madeleine Albright rightly noted “Putin needs no provoking – he is the provocateur”. The recent developments in Crimea make this opinion even more obvious. Five years ago I coauthored the report: Rethinking EU – Russia Relationship written jointly by Polish and Russian experts. The purpose of this intellectual exercise was exactly the same as the one done by Dobbs and Kearns. But the conclusions were different. Its authors concurred that the betterment of relations would be aided were Russia to modify itself and approximate its model of governance to the one extant in Europe. They noted that indispensable conditions for progress were compliance by Russia with international law, respect for borders and renunciation of unilateral use of force as an instrument of foreign policy.

It is certainly worth noting the position taken five years ago by the Polish and Russian experts:

“The EU and Russia should build their relations upon two principles: constructive engagement and accountability. Both the EU and Russia should support a strong normative foundation of the international order… A proper grounding of the EU – Russia bilateral relations in the principles of the rule of law, democracy, and human rights will have an important impact on other emerging global players and draw them closer to the international normative regime.”

Currently, after Russian aggression on Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, these assumptions continue to retain their significance. Therefore, instead of attempting to convince readers that Europe will become safer when we accept the annexation of Crimea, suspend sanctions and begin to conduct a dialogue as though nothing had in fact happened, it is worth considering how to convince Russia to withdraw from Crimea and the Donbas. For the moment, we must learn to live with the knowledge that Russia is a threat to peace in Europe and will remain such as long as it does not renounce war as an instrument of policy and as long as it does not resign the territorial acquisitions it has made as a direct result of aggression.



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.