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The Rilke Strategy

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Europe needs to craft a short-term strategy to contain Moscow’s power and a long-term strategy to reengage with Russian interests. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “To endure is all.

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Artwork: Cristóbal Schmal

Many smart analysts across Europe today are busily divining Putin’s master plan. In their view, only the knowledge of what Putin really wants will put us in a position to come up with effective counterstrategies. They could be right – but we must all be prepared to discover that there is no grand plan, that the Kremlin is in fact more opportunist than grand strategist.

It is also a mistake to focus too much on Putin’s persona: In George Kennan’s famous 1946 Long Telegram, the ultimate strategy paper of the Cold War period, Stalin’s name was only mentioned once. When deciding what to do over the next few months, we must keep in mind that Russia’s current aggressive behavior is a product not only of its strengthened capabilities, but also its internal weakness and growing anxiety. In other words, in order to grasp the difficulties ahead of us, think not only of the Putin factor but also of the Kadyrov factor in Russian politics – what other actors, like Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov, are likely to force Putin to do.

A lack of insight into the Kremlin’s master plan – if it exists – does not, however, mean that we cannot clearly see some of Russia’s objectives in the current crisis: Russia aims, among other things, to decouple Europe from the United States, weaken (and even split) the EU, and prevent Ukraine from becoming a functioning state. What is needed in response is not simply “European unity,” but unity that can be sustained for a long period of time. This should be the central logic when crafting sanctions policy. Brussels should design a framework for EU member states that reduces the temptation for constant renegotiation as a result of domestic policy changes.
At present, our ultimate priority is not to convince Russia to change its objectives – this would be difficult – but to change its weapon of choice: “hybrid warfare.” The demilitarization of the conflict is our most pressing task.

Russia has some advantages in the short term, but time does not work in its favor. This leads me to believe that a frozen conflict in the Donets Basin would be preferable to the highly risky and uncertain process of Ukrainian federalization. The state-building process in Ukraine will be a very messy and uncertain enterprise anyway, and increasing that risk by introducing a Bosnia-type constitution would be the wrong policy.

Rather, we should convince the Ukrainian government that at present the best option is to install peacekeepers along the existing ceasefire lines and support the reconstruction of Ukraine proper and the Donbass as two separate projects. We should also keep in mind that if we increase the economic cost for Russia of sustaining Crimea and the Donbass, there is a danger that we push it toward further military action.

EU economic investment in Ukraine is another necessary short-term strategy. While it is considered bad taste to talk about spending money in Europe these days, without heavy investment in Ukraine to help its people survive the present crisis we could end up with a black hole at the center of the continent. And failure in Ukraine would mean that Russia’s strategy is succeeding. Empty promises of EU or NATO membership are no substitute for immediate sizable economic investment in Ukraine – symbolic politics in the absence of real commitment has already cost us dearly in this crisis.

When we talk about the EU’s medium- and long-term strategies toward Russia, the choices are of a different nature. We should be prepared for prolonged confrontation marked by both escalation and de-escalation of tensions. At any given moment we could be confronting Russia on one front while cooperating with it on another. The dynamics of this relationship will be determined more by internal problems faced by the EU and Russia than by the logic of geopolitical rivalry.

Thus a long-term strategy will require three pillars:

First, there is a need for a credible deterrence strategy in response to the military threat emanating from Moscow. Unfortunately, economic and political problems at home can make Russia increasingly aggressive. Any successful policy of deterrence must assume a common transatlantic strategy.

Second, we need consolidation within European values-based institutions. Putin’s game with the EU’s far right and far left as well as the temptation of some EU members to play their own small politics necessitates efforts increasing EU internal cohesion. Let us be frank: The success of Russia’s propaganda lies in large part in the public’s growing mistrust of European elites. Putin is trying to take advantage of this situation, but he did not create it. I happily advocate immediate Russian expulsion from the Council of Europe and will be even happier to readmit it when it truly shares the values of the organization.

Third, we need a long-term strategy for reengagement with Russia – not on the basis of shared values, but on the basis of shared interests. Several things have happened as a result of the Ukrainian crisis: China has emerged as a major power in Eurasia; the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) has become a reality, albeit a contested one; and Russia’s dependence on China has increased. Facing this new reality, the EU should think in terms of a Eurasian order and not simply a European one.

Observing political dynamics in Central Asia, where several countries teeter on the brink of troublesome power transitions, we should declare our readiness to work with the EEU; at the very least it should not be the EU’s objective to kill the project. At the same time we should try to bring China into the OSCE-centered discussion about the security architecture of the Eurasian space. This will not be an easy process. At the moment China’s interest in exploiting the economic potential of Eurasia is aligned with the EU’s interest in pressing Russia to denounce military power as an instrument for achieving its objectives – in other words, the EU and China prefer the same tool of economic competition, but do not share values or common goals. In the long run, China’s economic and political presence – not only in Eurasia, but also in Europe itself – could be a risk factor for the EU, but this is probably a risk worth taking.

While trying to find a name for this strategy, I was reminded of Rilke’s beautiful line from Requiem: “Who speaks of victory? / To endure is all.” A Rilke Strategy is what the EU needs – one that does not promise a spectacular victory, but rather the survival of the EU as a liberal project.

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