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The Costs of Coexistence


It’s clear that Europe needs a new relationship with Moscow. But it cannot be one that sacrifices European values of democracy and self-determination for stability.

(c) REUTERS/Host Photo Agency/RIA Novosti

(c) REUTERS/Host Photo Agency/RIA Novosti

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has shaken the West and fed its insecurities. Was it completely naive in the 1990s to believe that Western victory in the Cold War would automatically lead to a peaceful and democratic world? To a world in which Western principles and institutions would reign unchallenged?

In an essay on the “Revenge of the Revisionist Powers” in Foreign Affairs, US political scientist Walter Russell Mead thoroughly examines the mistakes of Western thinking after 1989-90.[1] In his view, we misunderstood the collapse of the Soviet Union: although it was indeed a triumph of liberal, free market democracy over communism, it in no way offered proof that tough power politics had become obsolete.

In fact, China, Iran, and Russia never accepted the framework of the post-Cold War order. Their temporary willingness to play by the new rules was only a function of their relative weakness – it was not an agreement to hold to Western principles. The current crisis in the Western-dominated order may come as a surprise, but only because the West had refused to accept that this order was dependent on power differentials remaining unchanged.

This means Europe may have reached the limit of the stability it can achieve on the continent via expansion of integration projects. The approach worked with the eastern expansion of NATO and the EU between 1999 and 2004, but then met with significant Russian resistance, first in Georgia in 2008, and then dramatically in Ukraine. Over the previous 25 years Moscow may have wanted to influence the European security order from within. Now, it has instead declared a “Ruxit” (Josef Janning[2]), and begun to create a political and ideological alternative to the West.

Let us assume that the West failed to integrate Russia in a lasting post-Cold War European security order. Should we not correct this mistake and prevent a further disintegration of the situation with a new deal that redefines the rules and takes Russian misgivings into account?

And if the security order has already been thoroughly destroyed, do we then have to choose between two options for the future – “new rules” whereby the West has to compromise on some of its principles, or “no rules” and the threat of chaos?

Wrong Analogies

Or would it rather be helpful to turn to the past for ideas? In some ways today’s situation is similar to that of the 1950s, “when the Soviet Union sought acknowledgement of the territorial status quo and legitimation of its influence in Europe,” write Markus Kaim, Hanns W. Maull, and Kirsten Wesphal[3] from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). The West’s answer back then was the Harmel Report with its combined approach of deterrence and dialogue and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which led to a modus vivendi. We need a similar new beginning for our security policy, the authors claim, which stresses “security and cooperation,” and would “bring about a peaceful coexistence and ‘coevolution’ between (in short) Western ideas of domestic political order and those of Russia.”

This new order would be rooted in an “acknowledgement of realities” and be oriented around three principles. The principles of national territorial integrity and domestic self-determination must be upheld. The EU must concentrate on strengthening effective statehood along its peripheries – without interfering in sensitive political questions of democracy, media, or elections. Relations with Russia should be stabilized over energy supply and the promotion of long-term trade links. The authors admit that the Europeans will find it difficult to pay the high political price for such compromise. But in their view, “securing a lasting peaceful coexistence in the pan-European region is worth the effort.”

Impractical and Unacceptable

There is, without doubt, some merit to those suggestions. After all, the authors have found the courage to nail down the somewhat nebulous vision of a “new bargain” with Russia with specific measures. At the same time, it is obvious why such a deal is neither practicable nor desirable.

First, the analogy with the 1950s is simply wrong. The current Russian government is less concerned with legitimizing the status quo. It is far more interested in changing it by undermining the principle of self-determination of the states between its territory and the EU. Would “new order” guidelines not in the end lead to the recognition of a Russian zone of influence – even before it has been established?

No less important is a second aspect: Russia’s attack on Ukraine is not aimed against potential membership in NATO or the EU. It is instead primarily against Ukraine’s transition to a functioning democracy. As it is not the West’s promotion of democracy in Eastern Europe that is arousing Moscow’s ire but rather the democratic wishes of the Ukrainians themselves, it would be a mistake to expect symbolic gestures of the West to make any difference to Putin. Moscow sees successful democracies in its immediate neighborhood as a significant threat to the stability of its own regime ­– whether or not those democracies are supported by the West.

The principle of “domestic self-determination” in these “new rules” is also highly problematic. There are two different ways of interfering in another state’s business: “interference” in the sense of EU-type conditionality, to which countries wanting to join the union freely subscribe, and Russian blackmail, which aims to prevent a country from making its own decisions. Russia does not accept “interference” of the first kind, and were the EU to compromise on this it would be a betrayal of one of its fundamental principles.

A policy based on the coexistence of systems would be impossible for a values-based EU to accept – and damaging to its interests. Furthermore, such a policy change would be incompatible with the second guideline: strengthening effective statehood is in most cases hard to imagine without democratization.

No New Cold War

The idea of a new overarching European order including Russia is flawed if it fails to include necessary conditions. Such an agreement would require a minimum of trust ­– trust that has been significantly damaged by Moscow. If we are to learn anything from the analogy with the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, we must focus on its open character – the framework of a new peace was only formulated at the end of the process in the Helsinki Accords of 1975, and not at the beginning.

In light of current domestic developments in Russia, a long phase of relative instability and recurring tensions seems inevitable. This does not, however, mark the beginning of a new Cold War. The West must remain ready to talk, not only about Ukraine, but also about the many other global questions in which Russia could play a part – including Iran, the Middle East, and energy supply, among others.

The principle of the 1967 Harmel Report was “détente with adequate defense.” Western strategy must be built equally on the pillars of deterrence plus containment, and on internal coherence and strength of the EU. This will also strengthen Western negotiating positions.

Russia is currently not ready to become a “responsible stakeholder” within a new pan-European order. The West should not put its fundamental values up for negotiation in the naive belief that such a gamble could secure a “long-term peaceful coexistence.”


[1]     Walter Russell Mead, “The Return of Geopolitics. The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2014.

[2]     Josef Janning, “Ruxit Is Real: Russia’s Exit from Europe,” ECFR commentary, February 27, 2015.

[3]     Markus Kaim, Hanns W. Maull, Kirsten Westphal, “The Pan-European Order at the Crossroads: Three Principles for a New Beginning,” SWP Comments no. 18, March 2015.

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