Containing Russia

Ivan Krastev, the Chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, Sofia

The post-Cold War order in Europe is finished, with Vladimir Putin its executioner.  Russia’s withdrawal from the Treaty of Conventional Forces, its deliberate efforts to block the election monitoring of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the Kremlin’s refusal to ratify the reform of the European Court on Human Rights (Protocol No 14 to the European Convention on Human Rights), all marked its passing.


Today, Russia and the EU have sharply opposing views on the nature of the post-Cold War European order and on the sources of instability in Eurasia. For the EU to continue its Russia policies of the 1990’s in this new context would merely reintroduce sphere-of-influence politics rather than expand the borders of democracy. But breaking with the policies of the 1990’s also presents risks because the EU is not, and cannot be, a traditional great power.


Any re-thinking of EU policy towards Russia should recognize that Russia will remain a global player during the next decade but that it is unlikely that Russia will become a liberal democracy. The EU should also recognize that Russia has legitimate concerns about the asymmetrical impact of the Cold War’s end on its security. Russia felt betrayed in its expectations that the end of the Cold War would mean the demilitarization of Central and Eastern Europe. While NATO enlargement did not bring any real security threats toward Russia, it changed the military balance between Russia and the West, fueling the Kremlin’s revisionism.


The post-modern European order emerged out of the ruins of such Cold War institutions as the OSCE and the Treaty of Conventional Weapons. It was shaped by the EU’s eastern enlargement and the understanding that enlargement reflected the reunification of Europe. There was no immediate pressure to re-invent Europe’s institutional foundation because EU enlargement was the institutional foundation for the new European order. If you behave like us, the EU said in essence, you will become one of us.


The real source of confrontation between Russia and the EU today is not based on rival interests or unshared values – it is political incompatibility. The EU, which emphasizes human rights and openness, threatens the Kremlin’s sovereign democracy project. Russia’s insistence on a balance of power approach, and its mercantilist geopolitical philosophy, is stimulating the re-nationalization of the foreign policy of EU member states. In Moscow, the EU’s policy of democracy promotion awakens the nightmare of ethnic and religious politics and the threat of the territorial disintegration of the Russian Federation. Faced with an invasion of Russian state-minded companies, EU member states are tempted to ring-fence certain sectors of their economies (such as domestic energy markets), threatening the liberal economic order that is at the centre of the European project.


Russia, on the other hand, feels threatened by the invasion of western-funded non-governmental organizations. The Kremlin is tempted to recreate a police state in order to prevent foreign interference in its domestic politics.


Currently, the West seems unwilling to focus on the problem of a European order. It rejects all of Russia’s attempts for a renegotiation of the Treaty on Conventional Weapons, as well as the mandate and the agenda of the OSCE. The conventional wisdom is that the result of such renegotiations would involve a retreat from the achievements of the 1990’s. But how correct is this judgment?


The EU cannot act as guardian of the post-Cold War status quo without risking a collapse of Europe’s current institutional infrastructure. In reality, it is in the Union’s interest to take the initiative and to engage Russia in a dialogue over the institutional foundations of what has become a shaken European order. The EU’s main objective should be to preserve the distinctive character of this order – ie, the centrality of human rights and the rule of law. This is something that the Union should fight for and preserve.


The EU’s main objective in institutional terms, regarding its relations with Russia, should be to ground the institutions of the new European order around the EU as a principal policy actor and not on the individual member states. The dueling nature of Russia’s regime – capitalist and non-democratic, European and anti-EU – demands such a strategy.


The EU should make use of the ambiguity at the heart of Russia’s sovereign democracy. It should use the fact that the legitimacy of Russia’s current regime inside the country is based, to a large extent, on the perception that it is a regime that strives to bring Russia back into European civilization. It is true that Russia does not dream of being part of the EU, but Russia’s stability depends on preserving the European nature of its regime. And it is not by accident that – unlike his central Asian fellow-presidents – Vladimir Putin decided to step down from office and let go of formal power after the end of his second term. The Kremlin, better than anybody, knows that the regime will be doomed the moment the Russian elite loses its European legitimacy.


Creating institutional incentives for the EU’s unity would help Europe overcome the structural contradiction of the European project. The transformation of the OSCE into a political forum where EU member states will be individually represented by the EU, for example, could be the type of institutional innovation that can block Russia’s effort to split the union. If Russia’s strategy aims to erode the Union by focusing on bilateral relations, the EU’s priority should be to institutionalize the Union as Russia’s negotiating partner.


The EU and the US must stop pretending that they have the capacity to transform Russia into a liberal democracy. But despite this, the EU should not allow Russia to send it into a benevolent irrelevance.