A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Crying Foul

Russia’s rule-breaking shows it is out of step with the rest of the world

Fyodor Lukyanov says that the EU is living a fantasy, while Russia practices the kind of realism that has always guided international policy. Ulrich Speck disagrees – countries have always looked out for themselves, but they have also respected norms.


(c) REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk

Fyodor Lukyanov argues („The What-Not-To-Do List“, April 27) that it is the EU, not Russia, that is living in “a parallel reality.” He is implicitly referring to Angela Merkel, who is said to have told Barack Obama that Vladimir Putin is living in “a parallel universe.” He says it is not Russia but the EU that is an aberration, while Russia is just behaving like a normal state; the reality of Russian politics “is the reality that the overwhelming majority of the world is accustomed to, and which has existed for the duration of human history,” while the EU is “trying to build an entirely different type of international relations.”

I disagree. The reality to which the world is accustomed, and which has dominated the history of the state system, is not a Darwinist reality in which weaker states have to be prepared at any time to face an attack by more powerful states. While there have always been such attacks, they were the exception, not the norm.

The truth is that states have always accepted a rules-based system to organize their interactions. Of course, power has played and still plays a key role in the interaction of states. But powerful states have always accepted rules, agreements, and covenants to organize the state system. The medieval, the early modern, and the nineteenth-century state systems were built on mutual trust and adherence to a set of rules accepted by all players. Powerful states have always moderated the use of their power, for a number of reasons – because they didn’t want to push other states into hostile coalitions, because they understood that one day they themselves would need the support of rules against more powerful competitors, or because being a peace-loving state was an expression of the self-perception of a country.

The kind of behavior Russia has demonstrated in recent years in Georgia and Ukraine is not in line with the historical norm. It does not recall the state system of the nineteenth century, the Concert of Europe, which was built on mutual trust and obligation. Rather, it recalls the 1930s, when Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin were trying to replace the existing international order with a new system based on the idea that only might makes right – a Darwinist system deprived of every traditional ethical or legal constraint. The Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, when Hitler and Stalin divided Eurasia between Germany and the Soviet Union, was the first modern dramatic example of this kind of thinking. A second was Stalin’s buildup of a huge sphere of control after World War II, mainly in Central Europe. All power was to be located in Moscow; the member states of the Warsaw Pact were just satellites whose obedience was enforced with brute military power.

The Stalinist conception of international order was a caricature of the traditional European state system. Legitimized by the ideology of communism and the idea of a final showdown with capitalism in the very near future, Moscow took the elements of power from this traditional system while neglecting rules-based order and consensus. Under Putin, it seems that this idea of international relations is experiencing a renaissance: Moscow again ignores the rules upon which an international order is maintained. Putin appears to think that beyond liberal internationalism and Western coalitions lies nothing but the same vertical power system that he himself wants to introduce, a system based on repression and fear.

The liberal world system that the United States has built, however, is shaped by consensus and association. The United States became an empire by invitation during the Cold War; NATO members were not forced into membership. Western Europe was always keen to keep the United States around as the ultimate safeguard of its security. When the Soviet empire, built and kept together by brute force, fell apart, Central Europe was eager to benefit from the same relations with the United States that Western Europe had enjoyed since the end of World War II.

One main feature of the liberal world system is that less powerful countries can simply say no to more powerful countries. Turkey didn’t grant overflight rights to the United States during the Iraq War, a war half of Europe opposed despite Europe’s dependence on a U.S. security guarantee. If countries do not want U.S. bases, they throw the Americans out, as the Philippines did in 1991. If Germany does not want to sign up to a no-fly zone in Libya, it has the freedom to say no. Yes, the rules sometimes get broken; the rules-based order is far from perfect. But it is there as a very powerful regulative idea. If a country breaks the rules, it is criticized: U.S. leadership has been hurt by events in Vietnam, Chile, and Iraq.

A second feature of the liberal world order is that powerful countries must provide public goods to others if they want to stay influential. They need to provide strategic leadership, protection, market access, and a problem-solving capacity – things that people in other countries actually want. Russia’s inability to provide stability, prosperity, and freedom to people in its neighborhood have led to a growing resistance against Russian power in the post-Soviet space; the color revolutions were a response to Russia’s heavy hand. Russia is increasingly perceived as driven by aggression and egocentric expansionism, a lack of respect, and a disinterest in the welfare of average people. It is seen as the power behind corrupt elites who exploit their countries and prevent them from developing.

And Moscow is blind to yet another feature of the liberal order. While the UN system is based on sovereignty, the term sovereignty has increasingly become defined as responsibility. When dictators kill their people, they lose the right to govern. The responsibility to protect is becoming a norm, or at least a moral benchmark for world opinion. Sovereignty is no longer absolute – it is qualified.

Sovereignty has also been weakened by a process that is felt less in Moscow: globalization. While rich Russians have become part of the international consumer society, the country is not deeply interconnected with the world as a producer of goods or services. Russia’s rise in the 2000s was built on the huge reservoirs of natural resources under Russian soil. It is the abundance of oil and gas that has allowed Russia to rebuild a position of power and strength in recent years. But unlike China, which is the world’s workbench, Russia has only superficially entered the deep web of globalization.

The relatively strong position of energy producer has led to the delusion in Moscow that Russia can go it alone. It has created a false sense of superiority and independence in a regime that dresses itself up in increasingly Soviet clothes.

The attack on Ukraine demonstrated the self-defeating hubris of this approach. Russia has antagonized not only its main international partners and the best, most loyal customers of its energy but also its most important neighbors: Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan. Putin has lost Germany, the country in which he has invested so much since the early 2000s. Russia has lost international stature; the UN Security Council, which gives Russia a huge role on the international stage (and geopolitical parity with the US) is massively devalued by Moscow’s irresponsible use of its veto. Russia is out of the G7, and Europe is busy working to scale down its energy imports from Russia. Meanwhile, China, which sees Russia as a junior partner in the best case, has achieved a profitable energy deal with Russia and made advances in Russia’s southern neighborhood, working on a direct connection with Europe, the so-called New Silk Road.

The only constructive way ahead for Russia would be to accept the rules of the game and start to engage with the international community instead of positioning itself as an antagonist to the system as it exists. But such an integration into the world system is apparently perceived by the current leadership as a mortal threat, as opening up to democracy and market economics would undermine the power position of those who have managed to control the country. They need to keep the West at distance, at almost any price.