Reflections on “The Strategic Case for EU-Russia Cooperation”

By Dr Julie Newton

This summer, the ELN produced a bold report, “The Strategic Case for EU-Russia Cooperation”, urging the EU and Russia to clear a path towards strategic cooperation in the midst of today’s increasingly acrimonious stand-off. The dangers of continuing along the current downward path are too great, write Joseph Dobbs and Ian Kearns, while the contingent nature of this crisis’s origins suggests that its resolution is not impossible.

Unsurprisingly, this view has sparked vigorous counter-reaction. Strongly rejecting the ELN’s argument, the Director of the Polish Institute of International Relations, Slawomir Debski, asserts that European efforts to engage or cooperate with the current Russian leadership, an inherently aggressive partner by nature, represents the riskier and more foolhardy path for Europe.

This exchange encapsulates the core debate about this crisis: is its cause attributable more to the essence of either side or to the contingency of mistakes, neglect and dissimulation on both sides? The ELN report, which points to the greater role of contingency, makes the more compelling case, while their recommendations for policy, given current deterioration in Russia-US relations over Syria, are even more urgent.

By treating both the EU and Russia to an impartial SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats), this report forces readers in both Russia and the EU/US to focus more on changeable features of the opposite region and less on the other side’s seemingly immutable political nature. In doing so, it highlights areas of mutual interests and potentially shared benefits, even while acknowledging profound differences of interest between them. Explanations of contingency, rather than nature, make the consequences of the crisis seem even more unacceptable, especially since the ongoing crisis worsens weaknesses, entrenches confrontation, and exacerbates threats on all sides. The report then suggests constructive steps, including strategic dialogue that, if finally pursued in good faith by each side, could become a starting point for reconciliation and cooperation between Russia and Europe – and eventually Russia and the US.

Efforts to foster such cooperation, however, in the current circumstances of free-falling trust levels and mutual accusation may seem pointless, as this report readily concedes and its critics unyieldingly stress. After all, in the eyes of the EU, Russia is the first European country since World War II to violate international law by seizing land for itself from another country, threatening the very foundations upon which European security and international law have rested ever since. Moscow continues to condone, if not foment, unrest in a neighbouring country, (eastern) Ukraine, while baldly lying about its involvement; the Kremlin appears unmoved by the plight of helpless Syrian people as Syrian and Russian air power rains down bombs on Syrian hospitals and civilians in support of a ruthless dictator and Russia’s own state interests; and Moscow is strongly suspected of manipulating domestic politics in EU countries and promoting the European project’s weakness, if not collapse, by supporting populists or extremists across Europe. It is not hard to understand how Dr Debski concludes that cooperating with this Russian regime would be asymmetrically risky for Europe.

Meanwhile, in Russian eyes, the West (the EU and the US) since the 1990s have dismissed or ignored Russian interests in the former USSR, missed opportunities to institutionalize Russia into Greater Europe, disregarded Russia’s veto at the UN Security Council against NATO attacks on Serbia over Kosovo, and broke earlier promises by expanding Western institutions and military muscle up to Russian borders in what seemed like zero-sum realpolitik dressed up as democratic peace theory. How, Russians ask, could Moscow have ever believed Western reassurances in 2014 that NATO membership was not on the agenda for Ukraine and Georgia, after previous NATO expansions had become inexorable despite earlier Western promises, and after NATO at Bucharest had promised Ukraine and Georgia membership ‘at some point’? Worse, American (and at times European) foreign policy has seemed to boil down to the pursuit of regime change in Iraq, Libya, Ukraine and Syria with little regard for international law or the consequences for those regions and their peoples. For Moscow, Washington’s appetite for regime change ultimately extends to the Kremlin itself. It’s America that holds the prize for meddling in the domestic politics of foreign countries, they say. Russia has no choice but to defend itself by all means.

As is rarely done on either side of the new East-West divide, Dobbs and Kearns acknowledge this long build-up of mistakes, missed opportunities, different understandings, and divergent interests – what some call “competing narratives” – to explain how we got here. Or, as Robert Legvold puts it, “malignant seeds” were heedlessly planted over the years. As those cancerous seeds grew and metastasized, they caused an interactive, downward spiral in Russia-West relations that culminated with the 2013/14 drama over Ukraine and Russia’s over-reaction to it – the central event that launched Russia and the West into an orbit of new cold war.

This does not mean that mainstream Western explanations linking current Kremlin behaviour to Russia’s domestic context are incorrect. The increasingly authoritarian Putin leadership clearly requires enemy images for internal mobilization and Moscow obviously seeks equal status with the United States on the international stage—a strategic obsession dating back to Khrushchev and long before. But on their own, such internal and essentialist explanations are grossly insufficient and dangerously misleading because they neglect the interdependent link between internal politics and external environment. In fact, such narrow explanations, dismissing the formative impact of the last 30 years on Russian perceptions, have become part of the problem, making it difficult for the West to empathize with legitimate Russian interests and genuine concerns, or acknowledge that Western action can help precipitate Russian reaction, at home and abroad.

Indeed this problem of essentialist attribution on both sides has now become so grave that both sides seem to see little good in cooperation. For the West, as Debski suggests, the “risk asymmetry” is too great to cooperate with the Putin regime now: Russia would pocket gains from renewed cooperation, bestowing new legitimacy on the Putin leadership, without living up to promises of its own. The result would merely condone Russia’s challenge to the European security order, threaten the entire security platform with collapse, and sow division between EU and NATO members. Cooperation, he suggests, would herald the return of Realpolitik in Europe.

Similarly, from the Kremlin’s point of view, making compromises necessary to renew Russia-EU cooperation would be counter-productive, since Moscow’s preferred strategy seems to be two-fold: negotiating with individual states, such as Germany, to get around the anti-Russian EU/NATO members, while hoping/waiting for a US President who might be willing to cut a Yalta-like deal. Besides, given Russia’s progress toward strategic partnership with China, the urgency to resolve relations with an unraveling, demanding Europe seems less acute.

It is hard to see a way out of this stand-off, given the lack of trust and political will on both sides. But two points offer hope. First, while certainly spectacular and precipitate, the loss of trust may not ineluctably be long-term. The vicissitudes in trust levels do not necessarily indicate deep-rooted transformation; rather they reflect responses to changes of environment. Trust levels vary greatly. And the willingness, however flawed, of Moscow to do business over Syria and Ukraine suggests a level of at least transactional confidence that could be tapped to good effect by the EU and the US.

Second, if all sides would or could focus more seriously on the grave consequences of the status quo path, which far exceed the risks of cooperation, then the political will necessary to overcome this crisis might begin to emerge. After all, Russia and the West are currently on a trajectory towards military conflict, by accident or not, in the Baltics, the Black Sea or over Syria. In addition, Russia and Europe are both damaging themselves economically as a result of sanctions, at a time when dangerous populist/extremist forces are rising up on all sides—in the EU, Russia and the US. Worse, confrontation strengthens Russia’s own authoritarian tendencies, as the Kremlin hunkers down for a long struggle and mobilizes its populations; indeed, contrary to Dr Debski’s suggestion, such confrontation makes it even more unlikely, not less, that the Kremlin would ever “renounce war as an instrument of policy” or “withdraw from…the Donbas”. For the EU, this crisis is further weakening European unity, as countries favouring engagement struggle with those in Central and parts of northern Europe who remain haunted by painful historical memories of Russian aggression. Such divisions, in turn, rekindle old European habits of Realpolitik and geopolitical manoeuvring, potentially overwhelming the EU project which remains one of the most remarkable human achievements in history. For Russia, the stand-off sharpens Russia’s own geopolitical and expansionist instincts in its own spheres of influence, making sustainable integration projects in Eurasia even more unlikely for Russia, and ensuring that Russia remains surrounded by wary, unstable and corrupt neighbours.

Not only is strategic cooperation less risky than the alternative, it is also not impossible – at least, not in the mid-term. We recall that Putin did not start out as an anti-Western adversary; he was the first to phone President Bush after 9/11. He remains opportunistic. So once Russia finally bumps up against its own limitations in achieving viable solutions via military might, especially in the Middle East and Ukraine, and in sustaining economic strength at home, the Kremlin could change tacks again – whether led by Putin or some other president. In the meantime, the EU’s new Global Strategy makes it clear the EU is ready to talk, provided it can find a Russian interlocutor willing to make hard compromises, as well. Even the US, with its limited capacity and diminished will to shape the world in its own image, is ripe for new thinking in foreign policy. Such a serious rethinking could eventually come, especially if Russia and the EU took the lead towards a new détente, reminiscent of the late 1960s.

Finally, the mid to long-term benefits of strategic EU-Russia cooperation would be considerable for all. Strengthened by renewed economic, political and security cooperation with its western partners and its deepening partnership with China, Russia could become a genuinely influential ‘Euro-Pacific power’, to use Dmitri Trenin’s term, or a ‘bridge power’, as Dobbs and Kearns call it, generating the kind of unique and durable great power status that Russia has always sought. Such a Euro-Pacific Russia could become a cornerstone of US-Chinese-Russian strategic cooperation in key areas – the kind of great-power cooperation required if we are successfully to manage 21st century threats. And Europe, whose strength is not as a Realpolitik player, but a soft-power negotiator, a peace-maker bringing adversaries together (including Germany-France, Germany-Poland, and US-USSR), could help pave the way towards this more auspicious situation. Just as it did during the old Cold War.

But any hope of a new EU Ostpolitik and Russian Westpolitik would depend on a process of ‘strategic dialogue’, as Dobbs and Kearns put it, that must go deeper than pragmatic cooperation alone. Strategic dialogue requires empathy, honesty, sensitivity and humility as both sides re-examine together the contingent paths leading to this crisis. It requires vision to sketch out a strategic understanding of what each wants for the future of the relationship, and then it means working backwards to identify areas for ‘strategic cooperation’. The ELN offers some good ideas for how to spark this kind of dialogue, starting with ‘preventing the relationship worsening further still’. Ideas include (what others call) ‘Stability Talks’ between Russia and NATO, confidence building measures, increased Track II diplomacy and greater civilian contacts, such as new initiatives like the University Consortium that brings Western and Russian scholars together to engage in strategic dialogue while their countries’ leaders refuse to do so. Critics on both sides may warn that the risks of such initiatives are too great and the benefits too few.

But the greatest risk of all remains staying on this same path. Along this path, escaping direct military confrontation between the world’s two greatest nuclear powers becomes unlikely. Stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, without the help of the world’s second largest nuclear power, becomes impossible. Gaining control over climate change, without the cooperation of the world’s second largest gas and third largest oil producer, is a non-starter. Controlling the raging arms race in the China seas, without the help of Russia and the US, with their rich history of arms control, is improbable. Achieving security in Europe, without making peace with Europe’s greatest power, is oxymoronic. And gaining an empathetic interlocutor in the other side, without first becoming such an interlocutor oneself, is unattainable. It is along this current path where the risks are, indeed, most deadly.

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