2 Crises Derailed Attempts to Improve EU Ties
Editor's Column
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 24481505000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: (+7) 495 980 7353
Address: Office 112, 29 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 115184, Russia

The year 2008 will receive a special mention the history books
of Russia’s foreign policy. The Georgia war in August brought a
host of consequences demanding attention, and the convulsions of
the global financial markets in September and October redefined the
boundaries of what Russia could realistically achieve. Together,
they helped shape the framework of Russia’s national interests.

In responding to Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia, Russia,
probably for the first time since the Soviet collapse, took major
action without worrying about the international community’s
possible reaction. The Kremlin concluded that the course of action
favored by its international partners would come at too high a cost
for Russia’s vital interests. This is a necessary stage for the
formation of a state identity.

However, it is also necessary to identify which national
interests are so vital that they must be upheld at any cost. The
second crisis played a role here. The global financial crisis
showed, first of all, that all countries are interdependent. It
also established economic — and as a result, geopolitical —
limits to Russia’s ambitions. Hard reality always forces us to
focus on our priorities and to discard matters of secondary

After the Soviet collapse, Russia’s main task was to preserve
something of the international status quo by holding on to at least
some of its former geopolitical assets. Russia is perceived to have
made a sharp turn toward revisionism over the past two years,
changing the rules that had been generally accepted up until that
time. Despite these bold moves, however, Moscow remains an advocate
of preserving the status quo. (Abkhazia and South Ossetia are major
exceptions, but this situation also shows how many problems can
arise when the status quo is broken.) The problem is that Moscow
wants to uphold a status quo that, in reality, no longer exists.
Russia is trying to return to principles of international order
that were agreed upon in the past. Yet these principles underwent
unspoken but profound changes following the end of the Cold War,
even if they ostensibly remain intact.

A distinguishing feature of recent years has been the deepening
contradiction between international rules that nobody questions and
the actual principles governing states’ actions. International
organizations and legal standards remain relatively unchanged since
the end of the Cold War. They have changed, however, even though
they remain in force. The basic understandings of what constitutes
state sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the
criteria for the use of force in resolving conflicts, have been
washed away.

New concepts such as humanitarian intervention or soft power
have appeared to serve the political purposes of the leading
states, even though there is no provision for them in international
law. Most states have refused to review the rules of the game. That
is why there has been no official change to these rules, even while
the gap between the letter and the spirit of the law and how it is
applied continue to widen. The United States, as a dominating de
facto international actor, has refused to follow rules of the Cold
War era.

It has been aptly noted that President Dmitry Medvedev’s call
for a pact on European security that he made last summer in Berlin
and developed further at a conference in Evian, France, this fall
is essentially a repeat of the final act of the Helsinki Accords
signed in 1975. However, these ideas require a new legitimacy now
because of the above-mentioned divergence between the rules and the
reality of how states operate. Today’s Europe bears little
resemblance to the Europe of just a few decades ago. The
outstanding spirit that animated the Helsinki Accords should be
restored in full with regard to the military-political, economic
and humanitarian aspects of international policy. Europe needs an
authoritative confirmation of those principles reached more than 30
years ago, especially because the challenges facing the continent
today are almost identical to the problems that confronted it

First, at issue is the military-political balance and the
establishment of mutual trust in matters of security. Russia was
unsuccessful in its attempt last year to discuss problems with the
Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe within the framework
of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Moscow’s negotiating partners were not interested because the OSCE
has long ago ceased dealing effectively with such issues.

Another pressing problem is that states’ borders need to be
reaffirmed. Since the time they were last agreed upon, the map of
Europe has been redrawn several times so that not a single
post-Soviet state — including Russia — can confidently assert
that its borders are 100 percent guaranteed and can be justified,
both naturally and historically.

Second, the economic situation in greater Europe requires
consideration. Europe is a complex mix of political and economic
interests. It is impossible to separate economic cooperation —
especially in the field of energy — from security issues. The
economy is becoming increasing politicized by every participant,
and this reflects the generally low level of mutual trust

Third and last, humanitarian concerns should be addressed. The
protection of democratic principles and human rights are Europe’s
crowning achievements, and it would be beneficial for OSCE member
states — Russia included — to reaffirm their commitment to these
principles. But democracy must be protected not only from
encroachment by authoritarian regimes, but also from transforming
the idea of democracy into a tool to serve geopolitical ambitions.
That is exactly what happened when the United States used military
and other types of might to «promote democracy» abroad.

Nonetheless, we should not expect to see any progress toward the
creation of a new European political architecture. Apart from
Russia, nobody has any enthusiasm for such a plan. Both the
European Union and the United States are satisfied with the current
arrangement. Given the changed economic situation, it would be
difficult for Moscow to insist upon any fundamental reappraisal of
the existing system. The reserve fund that Russia has accumulated
does not seem as large now as it did only a short time ago, and the
political weight carried by Russia’s main exports and bargaining
tools — hydrocarbons — has subsided for a time. Higher oil and
gas prices will one day come, providing renewed political influence
to Moscow, but Russia must find a way to survive until then.

In all likelihood, Moscow will have to content itself with a
little regular maintenance and fine tuning in place of a major
overhaul of EU-Russian relations. Some form of temporary compromise
might be found concerning the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces
in Europe and the strategic plans of the United States. Substantial
negotiations on any new European setup will take place only after
the current crisis has subsided and its results become clear,
because the future balance of power depends on which states suffer
the least from the current economic downturn. Russia will have to
make serious efforts now if it wants to maintain its position as an
influential player in the future world order.

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