Eurasian Way Out of the European Crisis

8 june 2015

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: I have already written before that having emerged from the Cold War, Europe lost the post-war peace. The continent is on the verge of strategic degradation that may either become a caricature of military-political division into opposing blocs or a time of disquieting uncertainty. The military-political conflict over Ukraine can escalate as well.

I have already written before that having emerged from the Cold War, Europe lost the post-war peace. The continent is on the verge of strategic degradation that may either become a caricature of military-political division into opposing blocs or a time of disquieting uncertainty. The military-political conflict over Ukraine can escalate as well. 

Europe is sinking into an internal crisis as its 500-year global dominance is drawing to an end. Following the end of the two-bloc period and a short “unipolar moment,” the world has entered an era of multipolarity. But this, too, is most likely an interim stage, since the role of nation-states is growing, and old geopolitics is getting back on track in a new global environment. One can actually speak of the start of “deglobalization” or a completely different kind of globalization. The WTO is at an impasse; the world is falling apart into separate political and economic blocs which are competing with each other ever more fiercely not only by determining trade rules but also by imposing non-tariff restrictions, and technical, legal and other standards. Finally, “economic weapons of mass destruction” – sanctions – are being used more and more often. Remarkably, the process of “deglobalization” is headed by the West which has realized that it is losing the game played by its own rules established earlier.

The United States is receding into semi-isolation, leaving behind, intentionally or otherwise, zones of instability and crises. A belt of tensions is emerging along the eastern perimeter of China. The Arab East has been shattered to lie in ruins for decades, and the U.S. involvement can also be seen in precipitating the Ukraine crisis.   

The metastases of instability from the Middle East and the new military-political division of Europe are the main security challenges facing the European subcontinent, including Russia. They add up to the systemic crisis in the European Union and economic slowdown in Russia. Both parts of Europe are in search of a new spiritual and geopolitical identity. This process has so far been going faster in Russia, which is drifting away from the entirely European cultural and foreign economic course towards the Eurasian one.    

The period of turbulence will continue for some time and will probably acquire a new quality. New geopolitical macro-blocs are emerging in the 21st century: one is forming around the United States with its remaining global possibilities and plans to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).   

The second macro-bloc encompasses Greater Eurasia united by cooperation between China, Russia, India, Kazakhstan, Iran, and some other countries, with China likely to act as a leader, but not as a hegemon. This process was spurred by the May 2015 agreement between Moscow and Beijing to integrate the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and China’s Silk Road Economic Belt project. 

This will leave Europe semi-torn apart, weakened economically and politically, and with declining security. No common economic and human space from Lisbon to Vladivostok has been created so far, but it is still on the agenda, at least for our country, which could benefit from acting as a mediator between the “major” Eurasian and “minor” European projects.

European Security: Scenarios

As the issue of European security is falling out of the global limelight, Europe may revert to the time when it was a source of instability and even wars. There is no quick solution anywhere in sight, even though a number of good ideas were proposed before: turning the OSCE into a union of security; establishing a European Security Council; admitting Russia to NATO to automatically make the latter pan-European alliance (Russia never received a positive reply); signing a new European security treaty (the project was emasculated by the so-called OSCE Corfu Process); and starting to form a Union of Europe, a common economic, human, and energy space (no reply again).

Why did all these plans fail? The West had decided (always publicly denying this, though) to expand its zone of influence and control, while actually forcing Russia away, limiting its markets, seizing its “security buffer zones” acquired centuries ago, and often trying to impose post-European values. This second, lighter, edition of the Versailles Policy could not but bring about a feeling of vulnerability and rejection in Russia, whose main values, born in travail, are sovereignty and security. When it came to Ukraine and the West began to draw it into its zone of influence and control, an armed conflict erupted, as many experts, including myself, had admonished for two decades. It had internal Ukrainian roots, of course, but was essentially European in nature.

Russia bears its share of responsibility, too, for allowing the situation to develop this way by being weak, entertaining illusions about gradual integration with the West, while failing to understand where it should go, but most importantly, how the country itself should develop, and by sliding into economic recession in recent years. Apparently, it should not have consented twice to the North Atlantic Alliance’s enlargement in 1997, when the Russia-NATO Founding Act was signed, and in the early 2000s, when it objections were too feeble. Finally, Russia should not have turned a blind eye to the horrible aggression against Yugoslavia in the hope that things would work themselves out. They did not. 

Naturally, the fall of communism and the spread of capitalist economy made the life of most Europeans, including Russians, more comfortable. It is unlikely that we will see food queues or the Iron Curtain ever again. But, as we understand now, our life has not become safer.

All discussions about how to build a new security system have so far been revolving around the Ukraine crisis. It must be stopped, of course, but no lasting solution can be possible unless its main cause is removed.

Most members of the Russian elite have lost all faith in Western politics and seem to be determined to use force to teach their partners to respect Russia’s interests. Distrust t for also remains too high in the Wes, and anti-Russian rhetoric has reached the level of the late 1940s-1950s, when the Soviet Union was threatening the vital interests of Western elites that wanted to preserve capitalism and democracy. 

Russia has so far not offered any plan for resolving the systemic crisis, obviously remembering that it was never listened to when it did so before. Meanwhile, Western discourse is mulling, explicitly or not, several options, which partly overlap. 

First. Wearing down Russia economically to make its regime fall either by provoking disgruntlement among the elites and pushing them towards a palace coup, or by causing the quality of life to decrease in order to spark mass discontent and a grassroots revolution. This scenario was almost openly considered at the beginning of the acute stage of the conflict. However, after the sanctions and hostile rhetoric had produced the opposite effect, consolidating the elite and society around the Kremlin and marginalizing pro-Western elites and sentiment, this policy was somewhat pushed aside. But it can still be seen behind concrete actions, escalation of anti-Russian rhetoric in the West, attempts to export it to the non-West, and even behind Germany’s “strategic patience.”       

Second. Drawing Russia into the Ukrainian armed conflict against its will and choice. This approach is particularly manifest in the United States, but it is rejected almost completely in Europe which understands where uncontrolled escalation of the conflict and its spreading beyond Ukraine can lead. The United States has seen its policy failing and begun drifting towards the European one.  

Third. Attempts to draw Ukraine into NATO, almost successful in 2007-2008 and renewed again lately, have been stopped, at least declaratorily. Today this would clearly have pushed the situation towards the second scenario. This can apparently happen only if the first scenario is implemented (which is highly unlikely).

Fourth. Recreating Cold-War-era structural confrontation east of the previous dividing line. The deployment of additional American troops in countries neighboring on Russia and ABM systems in Europe are elements of this scenario. Moscow is likely to respond, including by seceding from the INF Treaty. The impression (probably erroneous) is that this would be acceptable for both a certain part of the Russian elite and society, whose distrust and opposition towards the West, developed over centuries and especially after the Cold War, have been exacerbated by the failure to build relations in the past twenty years. Russian nuclear weapons in the European part of the country, along with a revised doctrine of their use, give them sufficient protection from an attack. Russia also has the ability to play on contradictions and create problems for the opposing side, without getting involved in an all-out arms race that emaciated the Soviet Union. 

This scenario seems unlikely both because it is being played out by the United States which is moving out of Europe, seeking to leave it unstable and divided, and because it follows from the impasse Europeans have reached in the west and the east of the continent.

Fifth. Finally, experts are discussing a hypothetical degradation of the current European security crisis and the situation in Ukraine into a big war. This scenario, described not only by alarmists but also by moderate analysts, can easily be triggered by an incident, which will lead to escalation amid mutual mistrust, or by a provocation staged by external actors. I would not like to describe catastrophic options, as the situation and nerves are already strained enough. I will only say that this scenario seemed increasingly likely throughout the past year when tensions were deliberately whipped up.    

Now, in June 2015, having seen the potential dangers and the fact that Russia is not giving up, the West is beginning to slowly play it back. But a catastrophe cannot be ruled out completely.

Possible Solutions

The Ukraine crisis has spurred the search for ways to rebuild the previous security system in Europe, mainly through OSCE renovation or even reform (not clear what kind of reform, though). These ideas are quite popular among minor, non-bloc European countries, and they are also gaining ground in major European capitals. Germans are stepping aside from their ultra-hard policy and looking for solutions, including with the help of the OSCE where Germany will preside next year. Washington, however, is feeling quite wary, if not altogether hostile, about attempts to reform the OSCE, traditionally fearing competition to NATO, the main instrument of American dominance in Europe. 

I assess the OSCE work skeptically and think that it has done more harm than good over the past twenty years, mainly by helping to create a false impression that European security was “in perfect condition.” Looking at the development of European security and the OSCE’s role in it, I expected the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act, celebrated this year, to end not with a reception but with a funeral feast. But a disaster intervened. The old abscess predictably erupted into a civil war in Ukraine and fierce confrontation between Russia and the West. The OSCE, with its ability to quickly provide hundreds of observers who prevented the conflict from escalation, kept the sides from committing outrageous human rights violations, and helped implement the Minsk agreements (reached outside the Organization), proved useful. Despite all the criticism, its Special Monitoring Mission is doing constructive work. The withering body got a new lease on life.  

The OSCE reform discussion has just begun. The points being debated include increasing the funding, creating a permanent crisis management center, renewing, in different forms, limitations on the size and armament of armed forces in Europe, and resuming military-political transparency and confidence-building measures. Some have even suggested “testing” Russia’s readiness for constructive cooperation whereby it has to agree to the resumption of this process. It is unclear, though, why Russia should agree, if the previous experience proved negative. Transparency and military confidence-building measures can become an exception in order to reduce the risk of incidents escalating into direct armed confrontation. 

OSCE modernization will not resolve the European security crisis. At best, an overhauled organization will service a new Cold War, albeit less and less effectively, until a new crisis breaks out somewhere else. In the worst-case scenario, it will turn into yet another forum for fomenting tensions. But this does not mean that the organization needs no improvement to become more efficient. However, it will not be able to solve the European security issue unless it adopts a new collective security treaty, as has been suggested by Russia. But this scenario seems highly improbable now. 

Theoretically, there can be an even more far-reaching scenario, which has been proposed by Moscow for years: creating a pan-European human and economic space – a Union of Europe, where Ukraine could become a territory of joint development. Here are some of its possible parameters.

  • Establishing an effective system of collective security and cooperation for the whole of Greater Europe;
  • Setting the task of creating an equal security space, common human (visa-free travel), economic, and energy spaces from Lisbon to Vladivostok;
  • Signing a “Union of Europe” and “Collective Security” treaties by individual countries and organizations: Eurasian Economic Union, European Union, Collective Security Treaty Organization, and NATO. Those who do not sign and ratify them will be left outside a new community. The problem of “gray” zone countries (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Turkey, etc.) will be thus solved.

One of the key provisions in a Collective Security Treaty or a Union of Europe (Greater Europe) Treaty should stipulate that existing military-political alliances can admit new members only with the consent of all parties to the new treaty (essentially, a veto, but without rejecting the idea of openness). In other words, the security of member states will be protected from damage.

A potential Collective Security Treaty also includes transparency and confidence-building measures. One of the possible elements could be common recognition of the “unrecognized.”

This scenario could facilitate stable development of the entire international system and Europe as an economic and civilizational space. But, unfortunately, it is the least likely course of events at this point. The Ukraine crisis will continue, and the country will in all probability continue to slide further down, creating new problems and contradictions.

A New Format?

The crisis has brought to the surface dormant tendencies that turned the existing European security system into an anachronism. Extreme distrust on both sides makes restoration of status quo ante, even its improved version, completely unrealistic. Russia considers itself morally right and is trying to instill its partners with respect for its interests and international law, which they have been trampling upon over the past two decades, while vowing their adherence to its principles. They acted this way when they attacked Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya, and helped organize “color revolutions,” including the coup d’etat in Kiev. In turn, Western partners want to make Russia and the non-West behind it continue to play by their rules.    

Rapprochement on the old basis, let alone the creation of a Union of Europe, will also be hindered by deep-running societal factors. Many in the Soviet elite considered the existing system unviable, if not completely vicious, and wanted to move towards democracy and market economy, including through the Helsinki process. But the number of people in the Russian elite and society who consider their country inferior is infinitesimally small. There are those who doubt if we can pull through; and there are those who are worrying over high costs and looking for compromises. But the majority of people understand that it would be more perilous to retreat than to go ahead, for they can easily be smashed and crushed.  

Twenty-five years ago it seemed that we would rapidly build a consolidated society. We did not. Partly because of the West’s policy, which led pro-Western Russians, who were in the minority at that time, to a defeat and disappearance from the political stage. Systems of values in Russia and major European countries developed perpendicularly: Russia was inclining towards old European standards – the priority of sovereignty, hitherto banned Christianity, and patriotism; the rest of Europe was advancing post-European views.   

But the main reason why the situation cannot be returned to where it was is that the world has changed dramatically over this time. The European and Euro-Atlantic space, which a quarter of a century ago seemed to be destined to dominate in all respects, is no longer an a priori leader.   

The new Asia is becoming the center of global economy and politics. Non-liberal leader democracy prevalent in the rising non-Western countries, not liberal democracy of the Western European or American type which is going through a crisis almost everywhere, appears to be the dominant sociopolitical system of the future.   

Russia, which was a bit late in making an economic turn towards the East, is now accelerating it because of the stalemate in relations with the West. This turn is becoming not only economic, but also political and possibly even social and civilizational. In fact, Asia, which has always been associated in the minds of Russians with backwardness, poverty and lawlessness, is emerging as a symbol of success.

Meanwhile, Europe is losing its magnetism because of a multi-level crisis and economic slowdown. In general, the more Russians learned about the West, the less attractive it seemed, partly due to the deviation from its own principles when it committed obvious acts of aggression, kept secret CIA prisons, and organized mass phone tapping among citizens and even allies.

Most Russians have by now achieved the European standards of living, including personal freedom, well-stocked shops, clean public toilets, and cars in the majority of families. And they are not seriously concerned about rule of law or real democracy for the time being.  

But disappointment with Europe is dangerous for Russian consciousness which is going through reformatting after the terrible communist aberration (when many traditional values, ethnic and cultural norms were thrown away). National identity remains predominantly European, rooted in Europe’s common cultural and religious heritage, regardless of how its political elites treat this heritage today.  

A new system of Russia’s positioning in global affairs must take this factor into account, in terms of security as well. Russia needs Europe not so much as a source of advanced technologies, social practices and capital, but as a cultural anchor. I will risk assuming that, all mutual suspiciousness notwithstanding, Europe also needs Russia as an inoculation of realism at a time when the Old World is sinking deeper and deeper into a realm of its own illusions about what the future should be like. 

Other elements of global landscape have changed too, making it impossible to step into the same security river twice. The main threats (apart from the division of Europe) are external: the Middle East which will remain messy and radicalizing for decades, and the United States which is losing interest in European stability.   

Partial deglobalization and the creation of economic and political blocs represent a powerful trend. One of these blocs will be forming around the United States which wants to tie down its old allies through the TPP and the TTIP. While the former can benefit not only the United States but also their partners, the latter is clearly disadvantageous for Europeans who may agree to it only for fear of remaining completely alone and unfit for effective struggle and competition in a new world.       

Another bloc will apparently appear in Latin America which has thrown off American hegemony.

A Community of Greater Eurasia?

A third bloc is already emerging in front of our eyes. It can be called a Community of Greater Eurasia centered around the expanding cooperation between Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and other Shanghai Cooperation Organization partners; potentially India, Iran, South Korea, and Pakistan; and subsequently Israel and Turkey. China is playing a leading but not dominating role in the association. ASEAN and Southeast Asian countries will be stretched between American and Eurasian projects. Japan will continue to gravitate towards America.   

The Eurasian community is evolving around the core, the creation of which was announced during Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in May 2015 in a joint statement on cooperation in coordinating the development of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt – the Chinese plan for economic and logistical development of western Chinese provinces and countries west of China towards Europe. Many would like these two projects to compete with each other. But they, on the contrary, supplement each other.     

A Community of Greater Eurasia can function organizationally through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is still semi-dormant and has to be reenergized, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the SCO Development Bank, which are in need of real projects, through the creation of own payment systems and reserve currencies, and accelerated development of the logistical and transportation network.      

It is in the interests of Russia, China, and other Eurasian countries to have a common project open to Europe with its financial, technological, cultural, and recreational potential, and to the rest of the world, for that matter. It must not be a confrontational project. Countries in Greater Eurasia are likely to see tensions along the eastern periphery of China, and conflicts between China and India, and between India and Pakistan. The former seems to be slowly settled. But the main challenge (common for the whole of Eurasia, including Europe) is coming from the arc of territories and states from Afghanistan to North and Northeast Africa that have been destabilized for decades. Migration, climate change, drug trafficking, and inequality are common problems facing the entire Eurasian continent.    

A pressing task in this new world is the creation of not a regional, like in Europe, but a continental security system. The first step could be a Eurasian Cooperation, Development and Security Forum, with functional institutions to be established later to embrace specific areas of cooperation. The Forum should be open to European states which are seeking to assert themselves in new economic and political markets.  

A new community should be based on its own principles which may not necessarily repeat the Helsinki ones. The most obvious of them are: 

  • facilitating growth of well-being, economic development, and logistical ties;
  • exercising unconditional respect for the sovereignty and right of countries and their people to determine internal political development without external interference, which can only be authorized by the (expanded) UN Security Council;
  • reaffirming unconditional respect for territorial integrity and peaceful resolution of disputes;
  • acting together to counter internal and external security threats, especially religious extremism, terrorism, and destabilizing external impacts;
  • staying open to cooperation with other countries and regions on the basis of equality and respect for international law;
  • developing cooperation to promote mutual enrichment of cultures, prevent information wars and cybersecurity threats.

When it comes to formal establishment of a Community of Greater Eurasia with a Eurasian Cooperation, Development and Security Forum, the current European security impasse will be placed in a different context, better matching the future world and, possibly, making its resolution easier in the future. If a problem cannot be solved in the given context, you need to go beyond this context.     

Creation of common economic and human spaces in Russia and Europe appears a much more substantive and mutually beneficial idea. It was largely overlooked before. Now Europeans, whose previous policy has led them to a dead-end, are returning to this idea by proposing an EU-EAEU dialogue. But it can hardly be productive in a situation where the EAEU becomes more and more integrated with China’s Silk Road Economic Belt project. It would be more logical to invite China, which is seeking closer cooperation with Europe, and other Eurasian states to join the dialogue from the very beginning, in order to gradually create a common economic zone stretching from Lisbon to Shanghai or Singapore.

In this configuration, the OSCE could play an important but interim role in settling existing conflicts, and sharing its experience, both positive and negative.

Many European countries will remain in NATO. But broader cooperation will provide the EU with new opportunities and markets, which were proposed by Russia in its Union of Europe concept, that is, common spaces with the EU. It can actually be more attractive and promising in its Eurasian version. I think the Eurasian project will go ahead even without European countries that are EU members. But it would be better if they participated too.  

Many jubilees will be celebrated in 2015: the 200th anniversary of the Congress of Vienna which created the European system that ensured relative peace in Europe, the then center of the world, and its unprecedented rapid development for almost a century; 70 years since the creation of the UN and the IMF; and the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act. 

The old system is withering away, partly because of the Ukraine crisis, even though some are trying to use it for reviving now defunct institutions and approaches. But there is no need to reject all of its elements. It would be more reasonable to raise a new structure within it, including through accelerated creation of a Community of Greater Eurasia, and a broad dialogue on the future within the Eurasian Cooperation, Development and Security Forum. 

The Congress of Vienna, the Bretton Woods Conference, and San Francisco Conference where the UN was founded, took place after wars. I do hope sincerely that a new system will be created not after a new big war, which can simply destroy the future, but instead of it.  

The role of the United States in the proposed and intended concept of global development is not so obvious. But this is an issue for the American elite to address. It must decide what exactly it wants: to fall into semi-isolation, leaving behind only ruins, in order to try to come back again? Or hold on to the “unipolar moment,” which almost no one wants to see again? Or become a responsible builder of a new, more democratic, equal, and fair world?    

Russia, endowed with the globally thinking elite, experience, top-class diplomacy, and geographic location, can play an active role in building such a world, getting benefits for itself and its partners.

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