Europe and Russia: Preventing a New Cold War

7 june 2014

Sergei Karaganov, Doctor of History, is Dean of the School of World Economics and International Relations at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics. He is also Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

Resume: Russia has given up hope for joining the West in the foreseeable future. But it has not yet made a choice in favor of anti-West, let alone, anti-Europeanism.

Debates over the ongoing crisis in relations between Russia and the West revolve around the incorporation of Crimea, the global reaction to that move, and the future configuration of the Ukrainian state if, of course, it manages to survive (and I hope it will). But I contend that these are not the primary issues in global terms. There are other crucial questions. The first is what the European security system will be like. I repeat: the Old World was not allowed to withdraw from the Cold War, and now it may see a new round of tension. The second important question is whether Russia will be able to overcome the impasse in its development, in which it found itself after it restored statehood at the end of the 2000s. The third and closely linked question is whether Russia will wish to remain part – even an independent and very special partner – of Europe or will it opt for cultural-civilizational isolation and increasingly lean towards the East economically. It is obvious that Russia is firmly determined to change the rules of the game that have been dictated to it for the past twenty-five years. Unable and reluctant to toe the line, Russia has given up attempts to become part of the West.

The crisis will definitely last for a long time, but it will have to end sometime. And to achieve a reasonable resolution, one has to look carefully at the root causes. In any event, the situation is ripe for a circumstantial analysis.

The stakes are high. The Western world perceived Russia’s speedy actions as an attempt to reformat international relations that have long been the exclusive domain of the West. Now the West is losing leadership over the economy; its applicable military advantage is dwindling, and its superiority in the moral and political spheres is waning (with the sole exception of information dominance). Against this background, Russia’s determination has fueled a particularly painful reaction from Westerns officials.

For Russia the stakes are still higher. Compelled to respond to yet another challenge from the West – a politically motivated but economically senseless attempt to draw Kiev into the sphere of Western influence through an Association Agreement with the EU – Russia was forced to endanger its relations with the West. Russia put its economy at stake, which is much weaker than the aggregate Western economy. In fact, the survival of its political regime and the country itself is at risk. But, unwilling to acknowledge the latter, the Kremlin is not going to retreat. The previous regime was thrust upon the population by bloody policies that resulted in millions of victims. The current regime has grown naturally amid the support and/or non-resistance by a majority of the population.

The crisis is acute because Russia – in demanding a change in the rules of the game – actually speaks for the entire Non-West, which at this point desires a Russian victory, but is not yet ready to take a similar tough line of action. 

By virtue of its geography, history, and culture, Russia has once again found itself at the epicenter of a great historical change that started in the 1990s with the rise of Asia. At that time the fundamental change remained in the shadow of the anti-Communist revolution, which furnished the West with powerful economic and moral support. On the one hand, new consumer markets and low-cost manufacturing resources became available; on the other, a delusion emerged that the Western system of values and management had gained the upper hand once and for all.


Now let me move on from theoretical reasoning to concrete factors for the crisis.

The main reason was the West’s refusal to put an end de facto and de jure to the Cold War, which was formally declared over a quarter of a century ago. The West systematically pressed ahead with expanding its zone of influence and control militarily, economically, and politically (the expansion of NATO and the EU). Russia’s interests and objections were ignored. In fact, Russia was treated as a defeated nation, yet Russians do not consider themselves losers. Generally speaking, over the past five hundred years Russians have developed a habit of never losing large wars. Russia was faced with a velvet-gloved version of the Versailles policy – without annexation of territories or formal indemnities, in contrast to what Germany experienced after World War I – but with a very firm attitude. The West insisted that Russia should know its restricted and reduced place in world politics. By pushing Russia into the periphery of global politics, the West fueled a kind of Weimar syndrome in Russia, a great nation whose dignity and interests were trampled underfoot.

Of particular annoyance to Russia’s political class were systematic deceits and hypocrisy, broken promises, and declarations that the very idea of the existence of spheres of control and influence in world politics was outdated and no longer corresponded to modern realities and concepts. The West never missed the chance to expand its own ostensibly non-existent sphere of influence. Many Western counterparts sincerely believed – or at least wished to believe – that everything they were saying was true. But in Russia and in the rest of the world, which still lives by very different rules, their speculations aroused either mockery or distrust.

Russia repeatedly asked to join Western organizations and to reformat institutions into pan-European ones. In fact, Russian President Boris Yeltsin said Russia’s membership in NATO was desirable. His successor, Vladimir Putin, raised the same issue shortly after taking office. Also, he proposed – to no avail – a fundamental rapprochement with the European Union. Invariably, Russian requests (from Boris Yeltsin to Dmitry Medvedev) were rejected for concluding a new European security treaty or for establishing a common humanitarian, economic, and energy space from Vancouver to Vladivostok – a Union of Europe or of Greater Europe (Putin’s idea). If such agreements had materialized, they would have put on record a new status quo and ended the struggle for the redivision of spheres of influence.

Until 2008 Western expansion had been aggressive. At a certain point in 2007-2008 the West was ready to admit Ukraine into NATO. For Russia, that would create an intolerable military-strategic situation, fraught with a casus belli. The defeat of Georgia, which attacked South Ossetia and Russian peacekeepers in August 2008, halted that process. And the world economic crisis, together with the United States’ two consecutive political defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, considerably harmed the West’s political influence and moral authority. The hitherto latent crisis of the Western development model became obvious in Europe.

But the policy of expanding the zone of influence and control was not over yet. The tactic of a rapid offensive gave way to a prolonged siege. That was precisely the meaning of the Eastern Partnership and of the latest senseless and economically harmful attempt to forge an Association Agreement with Ukraine. Even the current Western-leaning authorities in Kiev had to postpone implementing the deal’s economic package. The Europeans needed this imitation of the EU’s expansion to Ukraine to show to the entire world and themselves that their project was still attractive and viable.

Other reasons for the EU’s Ukrainian campaign seemed less decent. Some Europeans and the forces behind them (I will not mention any names or countries in order to avoid joining the current war of accusations and counter-accusations) wished to annoy Moscow, to retaliate for defeats suffered in the past, to bind it hand and foot, and to push Russia into a crisis. Also obvious was the attempt to downgrade Russia’s foreign policy capitalization, which had soared over the past several years on a good combination of skillful diplomacy and political will to enable the country to play a significant role on the international stage, a position far more important than its economic capabilities allow. Those who considered themselves the indisputable winners in the Cold War were obviously angry over Russia’s outright defiance of many Western values and over what sometimes looked like arrogance displayed by the leaders of a country that until recently had humbly asked for financial assistance and advice. Some surely wished to “knock Russia down a peg.”

One motivation for EU expansion was to make Russia believe that the geopolitical and, more importantly, socio-political retreat of the West was over. Another was to camouflage the so far irreparable crisis of the European integration project.

Just over a decade ago only reckless analysts would dare speak about a crisis of modern democracy. At that time most experts speculated about a “challenge set by authoritarian capitalism.” Today, however, it has become obvious that the main reason lies in the inability of Western liberal democracy to effectively respond to the challenges set by new global competition, without relying on military supremacy, which had been eliminated by a “nuclear equalizer.”

Having won a victory (seemingly once and for all) in the 1990s, this model began to collapse a decade later. Of course, this does not mean a decline of democracy worldwide. Thanks to the information revolution, individuals and society have acquired an unprecedented opportunity to influence both domestic and global policies. Democracy continues to win overall. Yet its present-day Western version differs drastically from the model that dominated the 20th century and which is yielding competition today, albeit temporarily.

This loss has proven to be very painful to the political class of Western countries since it questions their moral and political legitimacy. The system of values those countries worked hard to create and which underlies their power is falling apart. This poses an existential challenge to many people and societies. And this is a major reason behind the current frantic rhetoric. Indeed, in many ways the political rhetoric is worse today than it was in the final years of the Cold War, when communism was no longer seen as a serious challenge and the inconsistency increasingly revolved around geopolitical and security issues.

Lastly, the West wanted to spoil Russia’s Eurasian project (Russia’s plan to use Customs and Eurasian Economic Unions to recreate in a new, mostly economic disguise a large share of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, thereby enhancing their partners and Russia’s own competitive positions in the world, which is falling apart into economic blocs). Additionally, the West sought to soothe the symptoms of the Western policies-fuelled Weimar Syndrome, from which the greater part of the Russian elite and Russian citizens suffered.

Both Russian politicians and experts had warned that attempts to drag Ukraine into the Western zone of influence through the Association Agreement (with NATO looming in the background) would doom the people to hardships and sacrifice, even more so because Russia’s resistance in that case would be more than guaranteed. But Russia’s opinion was ignored, the inertia of the past decade prevailed, and the Ukrainians continued to be seen as “cannon fodder” in another geopolitical battle.

Let me say once again: the unfinished Cold War and the geopolitically “disputed” territories in the center of Europe were the root causes of the crisis. Such trouble spots remained in Ukraine, in Moldova, and in Transcaucasia. These areas were Europe’s unhealed wounds prone to all sorts of infections.

In Russia, Ukraine, albeit independent, was considered an integral part of Russian historical space. A large segment of the Ukrainian population historically looks towards Russia. In the more than twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, an independent Ukraine still lacks an elite strong enough to serve as the backbone of the state. Each consecutive government has been less competent and more corrupt than its predecessor. As a result, Ukraine, with its rich resources and industrious people, has lagged far behind its less wealthy neighbors. Once one of the Soviet Union’s most prosperous republics, Ukraine’s per capita income is now half that of neighboring Belarus.

The majority of Ukrainians are angry over the country’s blatant larceny, political corruption, widespread poverty, and social despair. When they received an invitation to join Europe, even without being offered anything in reality, many were eager to believe that a miracle was possible. Additionally, the Russian model and level of development were far less attractive.

Victor Yanukovich did not think of anything better than to start playing the same card each of his predecessors had used: to blackmail both Europe and Russia in order to get more subsidies for “pro-Russian” or “pro-European” gestures. This time Russia made a better offer and Yanukovich turned away from the EU. Humiliated and angry, urban residents took to the streets in protest. In Kiev’s Independence Square pre-trained militants joined in. Also, one should remember the European Union’s annoyance and desire to punish the unscrupulous partner at any cost. We know the rest. The standoff ended in a blood bath. Ukraine sank deeper into chaos and economic turmoil.


Another important factor for the acute crisis and ferocious propaganda, alongside the “open wound,” was the stalemate in development in which all parties concerned found themselves. Under the existing ideological and institutional framework, the Europeans are unable to steer the Europroject out of the profound and complex crisis. In the United States the crisis looks different, but it is unmistakably there. In the six years after the restoration period Russia has been unable to formulate a development strategy to follow or a national goal to seek. It became clear that in the context of the existing bureaucracy, corruption, the split of the elites, their lack of patriotism, and the dwindling quality and strength of human resources that there is absolutely no chance of establishing an effective model to retain long-sought sovereignty, let alone develop the country.

It looks like everybody had been overtly or covertly looking forward to the emergence of a foreign enemy, an impetus, or a crisis from the outside. Throughout 2012 and 2013 the Western propaganda machine was gaining steam. Occasionally it looked like an all-out war. Also, it merely reinforced the bitter experience of the past two decades. The media campaign climaxed during the Olympics. I and, I suspect, many other observers with a far more official status have developed an unambiguous impression. The West is getting ready for a new round of a policy of containment or rollback, quite similar to a civil war. In a situation like this Russia has nothing to lose. I do not rule out that such a conclusion reflects the traditional Russian idiosyncrasy regarding foreign threats.

In those circumstances Russia was well aware that it had no chance to retreat, thereby leaving its western border vulnerable. In ten to fifteen years another challenge would come from a far more self-confident and strong China. Today Russia is at the peak of its strength. The near future promises no chance that it could get stronger. It looks like Russia has deliberately shifted the focus of competition with the West from “soft power” and the economic sector to “hard power,” political will, and intellect. In other words, to where Russia considers its strength lies.

So far the attempt has yielded positive results. But to consolidate its positions, at least in the mid-term, Russia needs to reformat its economic and domestic policies, rapidly change the elites, and formulate the goals and national idea shared by the majority of its citizens.

Russia had been getting ready. A televised anti-Western campaign, unprecedented since the Cold War era, helped to shape public opinion. The armed forces underwent a fundamental upgrade. There were other omens of an imminent clash. The crisis in Ukraine merely accelerated it, served as a trigger, and made it practically unavoidable.

The interim results are favorable. Crimea was taken over in a state-of-the art fashion. Russia has seized and retained the initiative. Russia’s arsenal contains a wide range of economic and political tools to wield influence. Importantly, this time Moscow looks determined to push ahead until it has achieved its goal, which is a very risky strategy that will complicate relations with the West for a long time. The strategy will weaken Russia’s positions in relations with China (its maneuvering room will narrow), although its moral authority in the eyes of the non-Western world will grow. This will be the case if Moscow does not lose of course.

Among the goals Russia is seeking, I hope, is not just morale-bolstering reunification with Crimea or, for that matter, other territories, which might give the authorities stronger legitimacy for a while. The ultimate goal is to put an end to the unfinished Cold War that the West has never stopped fighting, and to terminate it on acceptable terms. The conclusion of a peace treaty on favorable conditions would be the best option. The minimum program might look like the creation of a situation where it would be impossible or unreasonably costly to make any unilateral attempts to expand the Western zone of influence and control to regions that Russia regards as vitally important to its own security.

Russia’s agenda certainly includes the preservation of a federative Ukraine united to the greatest possible extent (now without Crimea). Only this arrangement would make it possible, at least formally, to preserve the integrity of the state with its linguistic, cultural, and economic distinctions, and almost no historical memory of real statehood.

I will say outright that I am not certain about the viability of the Ukrainian state even in its current, contracted form following the secession of Crimea. Ukraine is in the hands of an ineffective and irresponsible elite, and judging by the newly elected president, one should not expect the elite to undergo any fundamental renewal. But any collapse, let alone a collapse accompanied by violence, is fraught with intolerable risks and costs for all Ukrainians, Russians, and Europeans. Ukraine has fifteen nuclear reactors, many high-risk industrial facilities, and vulnerable and extremely old life support infrastructures. A “black swan” – an unpredictable disaster or provocation – would entail dire consequences.


Russia’s policy in the current Euro-Ukrainian crisis pursues (among other things) the aim of providing conditions for harsh reforms in the face of a real external threat, including reforms to fight bureaucracy, the offshore aristocracy, and the satiated inert anti-liberal and liberal elites. In essence, those who have over the past few years failed to come up with an effective national development program. A real-looking external threat is needed that would make Russia – country with a thousand-year old tradition of uniting against a danger from outside – to drop out of the post-revolutionary relaxation.  

It is possible that some of the Russian elite ultimately want reunification in some form or another with a greater part of Ukraine. I think this is unrealistic and inadmissibly costly. In any case, things will remain like this until Russia has become a rich and effective state and an attractive society in which most people in Ukraine would like to live.

For now, I guess, one might be quite contented with Crimea, an end to the Cold War in Europe, and the beginning of, at last, a new round of reforms, including fast-tracked liberalization of conditions for small and mid-sized businesses, the creation of independent courts capable of effectively protecting private property, a crusade against corruption, “nationalization” of bureaucracy and cleansing it of the sins of ostentatious consumerism, investment in education and youth, and an emphasis on improving the human capital of the nation so that it can determine the competitiveness of countries and societies in the world. This scenario alone would allow for the proper use of the Russian leadership’s newly-acquired legitimacy to which the Crimean affair greatly contributed and for making the rhetoric about the need to “resist hostile forces in the West” instrumentally useful.

This scenario will de facto guarantee Russia’s prevailing positions in the east and southeast of Ukraine and semi-autonomy for the Western territories. But it will become possible only if and when Moscow and Brussels, and Russia and the European Union understand that the zero sum game is meaningless and counter-productive. And if Washington realizes the fatality of its policies aimed to support the split of Europe. 

 The time is ripe to combine efforts to save Ukraine and turn it and other similar territories from apples of discord into a means of achieving a rapprochement. That will be a genuinely humane mission. The elites in the countries that were once fought for will no longer be able to play on contradictions between Russia and the West by proclaiming interchangeably pro-Russian and pro-Western policies and to continue robbing and humiliating their own people. At last they will have to do something for the sake of development. If Russia and the rest of Europe continue the zero sum game, Ukraine will be doomed to disintegration and a sluggish civil war. 

For now, amid mutual accusations and threats, my dreams look like wishful thinking for a new treaty on a Union of Europe that will end the Cold War and begin laying the foundation for a convergence of Europe’s “soft,” high-tech power and Russia’s resources, robustness, and willpower. Objectively and rationally such integration would benefit Russia: it will hinder the country’s further drift away from the parent European civilization. It would be likewise beneficial to the European Union, which needs a new goal to emerge from an internal crisis that dooms it to a third-rate role. The world order would then get a third pillar to rely on alongside China and the United States and thereby gain greater stability.

Will the turmoil in Ukraine, which is still far from over and certainly fraught with more dramatic twists and turns, have a sobering effect? Clearly Russia has given up hope for joining the West in the foreseeable future. But it has not yet made a choice in favor of anti-West, let alone, anti-Europeanism.

Most importantly, it will not be an international, but a Russian drama, possibly even a tragedy, if the crisis in relations with the West that Russia ventured into well-aware of what it was doing does not entail a policy of fundamental reforms that accelerates development and gives the country and its people a better future. Or if the enthusiasm over Crimea proves a distraction from the just-started and already sluggish economic turn towards Asia. Indeed, Russian development in Siberia and the Far East is already a decade behind schedule.

Russia missed its chance to use the 2008-2009 financial crisis for reforms. It will be very sad if we waste the current upsurge in patriotic sentiment and in the legitimacy and popularity of the country’s leadership again; if everything is once again in vain and down the drain.

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