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Commentary | 8 February 2022

The European Leadership Network and the Russia-Ukraine-West crisis

The European Leadership Network exists to prevent existential conflict in the Euro-Atlantic region and beyond.  So since its foundation 10 years ago, the leaders in our network, from right across the Euro-Atlantic area, have worked steadily together for greater mutual security in a safer Europe.

These global public goods of risk reduction and mutual security are now suffering more damage than at any time since the East-West Cold War of the last century. The simmering crisis over Ukraine and in Russia-West relations that Moscow has brought to the boil could quite easily tip into mass casualties, untold economic damage, soaring potential for military miscalculation, and the deepening rupture of Russia-West relations for another generation or more to come.

No leader could want such things for their citizens. And yet the downward spiral is clear to see.

In a more parochial way, the crisis is also a crisis for the ELN. Will we hold together, or will this crisis tear us all apart?

We have a proud record of impartially bridging differences to reduce risks and build security that all can support.

Senior European figures in our network, including senior Russians, worked with US counterparts to produce the seminal Building Mutual Security report in 2013. Our Ukrainian and Russian young leaders came together in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine to form our Younger Generation Leaders Network that now unites committed young professionals from 29 OSCE countries in building bridges. From the start of 2017, our Contact Group on Russia-West relations has networked mid-career politicians and experts from Russia and elsewhere in Europe who will have to deal with the consequences tomorrow of the decisions being made by governments today. And, in 2020-21, the ELN as a whole successfully united intergenerationally to deliver concrete gains for nuclear risk reduction –including our contribution to the renewal of New START and the recent progress on the P5 process – as our contribution to changing the international weather in response to the pandemic.

There is no other network like the ELN. But we have not stopped the corrosive increase in risk since at least 2014. Can such a diverse network make a real difference when differing security outlooks have become so polarising between the West and Russia and between Russia and Ukraine?

I believe the ELN can make all the difference. In at least five ways:

  1. We can do what governments cannot. We can, for example, reach places, convene people, develop proposals, say things, float ideas, campaign for results, and create safe spaces for dialogue in ways that are generally unavailable to governments. We have already repeatedly convened members from countries across the region, including Russia, to exchange insights and build understanding. We have sought specific input from our Ukrainian members and our Russian ones. We have floated ideas from European, US and Russian experts; spoken to European, US and Russian officials; and supported practical European-US-Russian recommendations to governments on Ukraine and NATO-Russia de-escalation.
  2. We can generate both big ideas and technical implementation measures for de-escalation and diplomacy as better ways forward than conflict and enduring confrontation. We can draw on expertise and ideas on Ukraine, missiles, exercises, hazardous military incidents, military measures of restraint and strategic risk reduction that we have consistently developed and promoted. The ELN-supported recommendations of December 2020 on NATO-Russia could have fostered diplomacy that might have avoided this crisis. They provided early warning that action needed to be taken to prevent further Russia-West deterioration.
  3. We can advocate and model the case for continuous good communication between adversaries being even more critical in foul weather than in fair. NATO needs to build into its future understanding of deterrence the necessity for disciplined messaging and dialogue. Moscow needs to understand how counter-productive to its interests some of its posturing is. The ELN not only models respectful listening and respectful debate but has repeatedly offered detailed recommendations on West-Russia communication, for example, on military-to-military dialogue.
  4. We can be a reservoir of mutual understanding ready to be drawn on in better times. Our Contact Group on Russia-West relations, for example, sustains a regular rhythm of work at the heart of the ELN on dispelling mutual myths and combatting glib stereotyping. And the networks of our network members give this ELN effort to sustain mutual understanding even when we differ fundamentally on solutions a reach across the European space that few can match.
  5. We can be the vehicle of choice for governments, businesses, and members to work with. It is striking how, at least when the going gets tough, governments, media and businesses reach out to the ELN for insight, ideas, influence and capacity. All these actors have sought us out in just the past week over the present crisis. ELN members who want to make a difference, many of great influence in their own right, find that by working through the network, with their network colleagues, they can amplify their reach and multiply their impact. The more members work together, the greater the ELN’s collective influence and the more it can do for members – and for governments – in a virtuous circle that we must aim to apply to this grave crisis.

Five years ago, when I started as ELN Director, I wrote that winter was coming. It has come. The ELN will respond as it has always done, and it will emerge stronger and more indispensable as a result.

We can and will fill the widening gap between what states manage to do and what they need to do by supporting, complementing and pushing governments in order to prevent existential conflict in the Euro-Atlantic region and beyond.

Image: Wikimedia, Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation