Skip to content
Policy brief | 19 April 2016

Competing Western and Russian narratives on the European order: Is there common ground?

Image of Lukasz Kulesa

Lukasz Kulesa |Deputy Head of Research, Polish Institute of International Affairs

Diplomacy International Law Risk Reduction Russia-West Relations Euro-Atlantic Security

The ongoing confrontation between Russia and the west has been characterised by competing narratives concerning the origins and development of events. These differing interpretations make coming to any kind of consensus on the future of the European security order extremely difficult.

Prominent European and Russian experts were brought together by the European Leadership Network and the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) to examine these narratives, their origins in international law, and to determine how they may be transcended. This workshop forms part of a larger research project, supported by the Carnegie Corporation, with the next meeting due to take place in Moscow.

In its analysis of the experts’ deliberations, the ELN found fundamentally different interpretations, on both sides, to critical questions relating to the evolution of the European security order; the expansion of NATO; past military interventions; the right to self-determination; and the right to succession.

The nature of the problem:

The dominant western media narrative on the crisis in Russia-West relations is that, through its annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, Russia has behaved aggressively, has broken international law, and the core policy challenge for the West is therefore how to deter further such Russian aggression while trying to re-establish the status quo.

In this narrative, arguments used by the Russian elite are dismissed as instrumental, developed for propaganda purposes only, and are unlikely to be genuinely believed even by Russian leaders themselves.

However the ELN’s new report, while certainly not producing agreement over Ukraine or Crimea, tells a more complex story of the differences over European Security running much deeper than one might think.

The report finds that:

  • Participants in the dialogue agreed that the narratives of both sides reflect deeply held beliefs based on well-developed intellectual and legal perspectives and are not simply the instrumental products of official propaganda. The arguments of neither side, the group finds, can easily be dismissed.
  • The disagreement, moreover, is not only about individual cases but spans two fundamental conceptual axes. The first concerns disagreements over what sovereignty means at this stage of the 21st century and over who and what can legitimise interventions in the affairs of other states. Touchstone cases of disagreement here include not only Russian interventions in Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008, but Western interventions in Kosovo in 1999, Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011.
  • The second axis concerns disagreements over the circumstances under which the territorial integrity of a state must always be respected versus when and under what circumstances a legitimate self-determination movement must have its argument for secession from an established state recognised.
  • These findings are important because they suggest the disagreement is so fundamental that the current down-turn in relations will not be dealt with by a simple change in leadership in any state and the dispute is likely to last a very long time.
  • Moreover, the discussion group, which included leading thinkers from Oxford, Cambridge, the Russian Academy of Sciences and academia, agreed that the core policy challenge facing Europe was not the need to restore Europe to some static interpretation of the status quo but to come up with a political process capable of managing what is in effect a long term process of historical change underway in Europe.
  • The group noted that change inside Europe has already been profound since the end of the Cold War with the break-up of Yugoslavia, the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  The number of unresolved disputes and areas of tensions in Europe also remain high. It is likely therefore that further challenges to the European order will present themselves in the form of unexpected events.
  • Interestingly, the group agreed that to handle those situations, a call merely to obey international law would not be adequate since in individual cases, there was often no consensus on what the law ought to mean in practice. Here, the disputes were not just between Russia and the West but often within the West too. Witness the disagreement among EU states as to whether Kosovo should be recognised as an independent state or not.
  • Moreover, it was noted that when significant events do happen, such as in Ukraine, there is almost always no agreed Russia/US/EU account of what has been happening and why, while there are no mechanisms for trying to achieve an agreed account as the situation develops.


Conference contributions


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.