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Chasing a Chimera

The main cause of the conflict between Russia and the West lies in the internal legitimization deficit of Putin’s own system. A closer cooperation with Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) would not only undermine the EU’s values – the Kremlin is simply not interested. A reply to Mark Leonard’s and Ivan Krastev’s “The New European Disorder.”

The main cause of the conflict between Russia and the West lies in the internal legitimization deficit of Putin’s own system. A closer cooperation with Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) would not only undermine the EU’s values – the Kremlin is simply not interested. A reply to Mark Leonard’s and Ivan Krastev’s “The New European Disorder.”

(c) REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

(c) REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

Will the West accept Russia’s approach of dividing Europe into spheres of influence, or will we defend the sovereignty and inviolability of our immediate neighbors’ borders? Should the EU loosen its sanctions in part, even without Russian adherence to EU terms, in the hope that the country avoids further isolation or being driven either into Beijing’s arms or into bankruptcy? And is the Eurasian Economic Union the right institution with which to “develop” a new European order? These are the key questions orienting our future relationship with Russia.

Russian Policy’s Explanatory Patterns

The main cause of the conflict between Russia and the West does not only lie in the Russian elites’ perception of the “expansionary” policies of NATO and the EU, but rather in the internal legitimization deficit of Putin’s own system. The Russian leadership’s decision to eschew modernization is behind its search for new bases of legitimacy. Conflict with the West is simply the best method identified by the Russian leadership to distract from the weaknesses of its own policies.

At the same time, Russian policy must be examined in the context of societal processes. 100,000 protestors on the streets of Moscow in the wake of the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2011-12 shook Vladimir Putin and his cohort to the core. The President himself, using his 2012 “return” to power, decided to wield repression and control tactics to isolate or further bring under his control this discontented slice of the population. Simultaneously, it was becoming clear to Russia’s leadership that endless growth on the basis of high oil and gas prices was rapidly approaching its end. Partnership with the EU and the West had outlived its usefulness.

Following domestic power reconsolidation, Putin’s regime turned its attentions outward – to an expansion of its influence in post-Soviet states where the EU’s ideological competitiveness was growing. Through the prism of its own failings, Russia’s leadership became evermore aware of the threat EU association, free trade, and reciprocal visa agreements posed for maintaining Russian influence. The development of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) as an alternative model of integration was in direct response to the possibility that the reforms required by the EU might in fact be executed in certain former Soviet states, leading to decreased visa restrictions – resulting in changes to these countries that would limit the reach of Russian influence fed largely by informal networks, corruption, and media sovereignty, ultimately undermining both the power and profitability of Russian elites. This led to the unpleasant realization that the EU, from the Kremlin viewpoint concerned with preserving Russian influence in the post-Soviet sphere, appeared more of a threat than even NATO itself.

Switching to Hard Power

The switch from soft to hard power in the Ukrainian conflict was a reaction to the collapse of Russia’s carrots-and-sticks policy toward Ukraine. The fear that Russia had lost its ally in Kiev upon news of President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight led to Crimean annexation, which in retrospect proved helpful in raising Putin’s approval ratings domestically. Such a demonstration of strength against the West, what Russian propaganda described as the “resurrection of Russia from its knees,” returned Putin’s legitimacy in the eyes of many Russians.

The move was not long thought out. The 2008 modernization of the Russian army, however, had made it possible to show some military strength and to stand up to NATO. The army’s improved methods of asymmetrical and hybrid warfare were executed first in Crimea and are evident in eastern Ukraine as well.

What does all this mean for the resolution proposed by Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard? Firstly, in its analysis of and organizational strategies for its shared neighborhood with Russia, Brussels must consider that Russia still thinks in terms of spheres of influence. Ignorance of Russia’s ability to both influence and escalate conflict in post-Soviet countries was a dangerous weakness of EU policy. Our own total lack of preparation on this issue means we too contributed to the escalation of the Ukrainian conflict. Nevertheless, this does not mean we should accept such thinking in terms of spheres of influence, as Krastev and Leonard’s piece implies. Rather we must reorient EU policy in the region away from Russia and instead toward those countries interested in stability, democratization, and EU integration.

Large parts of society and segments of the elite in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova are ready to leave the sphere of Russian influence, demanding prosperity, the rule of law, and an end to corruption. Were the EU under current conditions to negotiate some sort of understanding with Russia with regards to these countries, this would be an acquiescence to Moscow’s attempts to limit their sovereignty and thereby to its proposed sphere of influence. Despite both Crimean annexation and the decisively externally initiated war in eastern Ukraine, the inviolability of borders and the sovereignty of states must remain non-negotiable terms. Should it fail to maintain these basic standards, the EU will no longer be considered a values-based foreign policy actor.

Secondly, it is a platitude that sanctions are no replacement for policy. Rather, they are instruments to prove one’s own negotiation capacities and draw a line in the sand; perhaps they will also slow down further aggressive moves from Russia’s leadership, but they are unlikely to resolve the conflict in any way. Currently the sanctions are playing directly into the hands of the segment of Russia’s elites who benefit from either Russian isolation or a reorientation toward new markets in China, South Asia, and South America. Nevertheless, the sanctions are an important means of reacting to Russian aggression and unwillingness to deescalate. Sanctions cannot be lifted without a change in Russian behavior, otherwise the credibility of the EU would be called into question and Brussels’ negotiation position would be weakened but they need to be accompanied by a policy that responds to the new reality as a strategy of containment and engagement with regard to Russia.

Homemade Economic Crisis

Equally incorrect is the conclusion that the sanctions are the main reason for Russia’s deep economic crisis. Besides the halving of the price of a barrel of oil (from over $100 between January and August of 2014 to under $50 in January of 2015), it was above all the financial markets’ crisis of faith in Russia’s political leadership that sped the country’s economic decline. Of course, sanctions influence the refinancing of Russian banks on international capital markets – yet the downgrading of the country’s credit rating was more than anything a reflection of the Russian leadership’s lack of credibility. The Kremlin’s strategy of creating insecurity in the West through its special combination of half-truths, lies, and distraction maneuvers in Ukraine was successful for a time. But it is exactly this policy of unreliability that led to its punishment on the financial markets.

Thirdly, the EEU was devised by Moscow as an instrument to negotiate a common economic zone from Vladivostok to Lisbon (however it might have been constructed) on more equal footing with the West. Since 2012 the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia and the EEU have instead been wielded as protectionist instruments, preventing or complicating EU influence in post-Soviet countries. These mechanisms are in their very conception contradictory to EU principles such as free trade, competition, and integration into the global economy; instead, they have raised barriers on external trade, thereby making business with the EU and the rest of the world more difficult.

This is the reason why it is practically impossible to even begin negotiations on economic cooperation, let alone economic integration, between the EU and the EEU. Krastev and Leonard’s demand to “conceptualize [the new order] as a cooperation and competition between two integration projects” declares the EU and EEU equals. This overlooks that EU integration occurs on a voluntary basis, a sovereign agreement of states, whereas integration in the customs union or EEU is a product of bilateral pressure and Russian incentives. It is, as the example of Armenia shows, not a free choice, but rather the result of Russia’s exploitation of the other state’s weaknesses and dependencies – in this Caucasian example, Armenia’s regional security. Russia will always play the EEU hegemon.

Such argumentation from Kratsev and Leonard alone supports the legitimacy of Russian policy practices and thereby recognition of the limited sovereignty of post-Soviet states. This negates the decision-making freedom of the entire neighborhood of states, some of which aren’t even mentioned in their article. Ironically, even the authors do not recognize the EEU primarily as an independent integration project, but rather as the means to an end in negotiating with Russia over post-Soviet space and the future of the European order.

Were the EU to accept this institution as an important platform for negotiations with Russia over the future of Europe in order to reach a peaceful “coexistence,” it would legitimize the Kremlin’s practice of placing other states under pressure and undermining their sovereignty. This would result in instability and authoritarian structures in our eastern neighborhood and would not be in the best interests of the EU.

A Long-Term Strategy

It is correct that the EU’s transformative powers will not change Russia over the middle term. But it can do much more to avoid strengthening Putin’s conviction that the entire Russian society stands fully behind his policies both now and in the future.

Instead of negotiating the future of Europe with an authoritarian regime, the EU should prepare itself for the day when Russia has been truly destabilized by its poorly managed economic policies. It will be necessary to examine developments in Russia with more sophistication and, on the basis of such analysis, to develop pragmatic policies toward Russia. This will require both a paradigm shift and a more proactive EU policy. Recognition of Russia’s preconceived spheres of influence would surely be an easier step for many EU states, but would do nothing to solve either the Ukrainian conflict or the underlying conflict with Russia.

Rather we need a new orientation of Europe’s Russia policy that abandons the elite approach. Why not introduce parallel measures sanctioning corrupt Russian elites while removing travel visa restrictions for a large part of the Russian population – making a clear statement about the true target of EU sanctions? And why is the Russian president and his view of the developments in Ukraine broadcast on German television when neither Angela Merkel nor another high-ranking EU representative is broadcast on Russian television? It’s not simply about answering tit for tat, but rather showing that we take not only Russia’s leadership seriously, but also broader Russian society. European policy must finally wake up and accept the challenge that Russia presents, rather than continuously feeding Putin’s appetite with compromise agreements.

This is also decisive for Ukraine, a conflict that will determine the credibility of EU values-based foreign policy. Here, too, the Russian leadership has no interest in solving this conflict; the war is instead an instrument to strengthen their own bargaining position. As for the chances of the Minsk Agreement’s success, there are two fundamentally different viewpoints: that of Russia and that of the EU. The EU sees the successful implementation of the Minsk Agreement and the necessary compromises by both the Russians and the separatists as a precondition to negotiations over the future of bilateral relations (also note here Merkel’s linking of the offer to negotiate with the EEU to the resolution of the Ukrainian conflict). For the Russian leadership, the war in eastern Ukraine is simply means to an end in strengthening their own bargaining position with regards to the future European order. Putin wants to discuss European order first and then, if it suits him, deal with the war; the EU wants to end the war first before addressing future relations.

Moscow Will Not Budge

As long as we continue to talk past one another, Moscow will not budge a single millimeter, and bodies will continue to pile up in Ukraine. Parallel negotiations about eastern Ukrainian ceasefire and about future relations with Russia could be an attempt to win more room to maneuver diplomatically. This would also illuminate beyond a doubt the sense in maintaining Russian sanctions – they are one of the only trumps in the EU’s hand.

We need standing opportunities to discuss European security with Russia, in a framework that pulls in not just Germany and France but other EU states, as well as the US. An expansion of the NATO-Russia Council could be one such forum for hard security issues, while the OSCE would provide a framework for discussing confidence-building measures. Nevertheless, we must remain aware of how small our room to maneuver really is. Moscow will continue to do everything in its power to promote the instability of Ukraine and prevent it from serving as an alternative development model for other post-Soviet states. This strategy may change only if the costs become too high to bear.

At the same time, the EU must prepare itself for a long conflict with the Kremlin – one requiring increased investment in security and defense resources.

It is an illusion to believe that a solution to the Ukraine crisis and a negotiated balance of interests can be achieved with the current Russian leadership. The conflict with the West and thereby with the EU is simply too great a stabilizing factor for Putin’s regime. What would be left were there no more successes of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine to announce, were western sanctions no longer justification for economic crisis, were the US government’s main interest no longer a color revolution in Russia, but rather the fight against the so-called Islamic State, its relations with China, or the coming presidential elections? There would stand nakedly a corrupt regime, one with neither ideas for economic prosperity nor with answers to the most crucial problems in Russian society.