In early 2018, a remarkable milestone was reached in post-Cold War history: as of February 5, the Berlin Wall had officially been down for as long as it was up. But in contrast to the jubilance and optimism that surrounded the fall of communism, today is characterized by growing mistrust and even open hostility between Moscow and Western capitals as we appear to be further away from the promise made in 1989 by President George H. W. Bush of a “Europe whole and free.”
The reasons why Russia-West ties have frayed have been rehashed ever since the onset of the Ukraine crisis. Washington and Moscow held very different interpretations and memories of the end of the Cold War: as the dawn of a new unipolar age with the U.S as the “indispensable nation” in the eyes of Americans, and as a rejection of East-West rivalry in favour of a new era of international cooperation in Russia’s view. These differences have never been reconciled and have guided much of their behaviour ever since.
Much effort has been put into attempts to trace back today’s predicament to this period, with the focus mainly placed on the alleged promise by Western governments not to enlarge NATO. However, a scholarly discussion of such issues has failed to yield tangible results in bridging the current divide between Russia and the West. Political differences have only deepened. Having spent so much effort on attempts to understand the past, now we need to look into the future, and indeed rather urgently.
The authors of this paper (three junior scholars of international relations – one from North America, one from Western Europe, and one of mixed Russian-Ukrainian heritage from the war-torn province of Donetsk) believe that the failure to arrest the downward spiral in Russia-West relations will come with dire consequences. As Vladimir Putin prepares to embark on his fourth presidential term, the window for reaching even a modest accommodation between Brussels and Moscow is rapidly closing, while it is difficult to imagine any substantive improvement of relations between Moscow and Washington over a short-to-medium term.
The prevailing narrative among liberal idealists paints Russia as an adversary that threatens the security of Eastern Europe, and more recently, the integrity of Western democratic institutions. In response, Western democracies are meant to arm themselves against Moscow’s covert and overt destabilizing operations, and actively seek to restrict Russian influence in Europe and the Middle East.
Those guided by liberal principles are not the only ones who insist on taking a hard line on Russia. Many international affairs analysts who privilege material considerations over ideological ones, including the late former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, also believe that the most prudent course of action would be to set strict limits on Russia’s geopolitical maneuverability. (The Russia-gate scandal plaguing the Trump administration actually reflects an overwhelming policy consensus in Washington vis-à-vis Russia, shared by liberal internationalists, neoconservatives and many geopoliticians alike.)
Their argument is as follows: due to the size of its population, industrial capacity and strategic location on the edge of the Eurasian heartland, Ukraine is key to Russia’s great power ambitions. With influence over Ukraine, Russia is a veritable Eurasian empire able to project significant power beyond its borders; without Ukraine, Russia is mostly relegated to its own backyard. Therefore, to maintain Western – and indeed American – pre-eminence, Kiev must be torn from Moscow’s orbit.
It is easy to see where this argument falters: it assumes that international relations are essentially mechanistic in nature with material concerns being just one component of interactions between states. Countries act not only because of material considerations but also due to normative ones, to determine which and whose principles should govern global affairs. They seek not only power but also recognition and prestige. Any balance of power between them is not just functional, but indeed contractual, rooted in shared understandings. This view on international affairs suggests that states do not engage with one another following the logic of a system, but rather that of a society.
Traditional arguments against the adversarial approach towards Russia, usually involve – apart from the idea that cooperation in counterterrorism and nuclear non-proliferation is in all parties’ interests – a recognition of Russia’s multi-ethnic nature, vast geography and possession of a large nuclear arsenal, and an acknowledgment that the cause of international order would be undermined if such a country were to be destabilized. But the broader understanding of international relations outlined above – that of an international society rooted in shared norms and principles – provides a deeper understanding of why stable ties between Moscow and Western capitals are of long-term importance.
First, the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-backed regional integration project that unites several post-Soviet states, is unambiguously formed institutionally and firmly based on a legal and, in Putin’s own words, supranational framework. By contrast, China’s One Belt and One Road project aimed to integrate Eurasia is based on a loosely defined vision that embraces a multitude of endeavours ranging from the signing of trade deals to the construction of a new infrastructure. In other words, although Beijing has created parallel institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, it seems to be eager to globalize the world on its own terms and to play by its own rules.
The international order set up following the end of World War II was based on strong institutions and a rules-based framework. The fact that these institutions are now seen by non-Western countries as being overly biased towards Western interests demonstrates the dire need to strengthen and broaden their foundations before they erode. Sustained intra- and inter-institutional cooperation between Russia and the West would encourage China to adapt gradually to the norms of the prevailing world order.
Of course, China also defends many pillars of today’s liberal order: it supports economic globalization (albeit in a form that lets it maintain its own national uniqueness), upholds the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states, and recognizes the need for decisive effort to address climate change. Moscow, for its part, sees itself as a co-architect, along with Beijing, of an emerging Eurasian order, which it has dubbed “Greater Eurasia.” As the dust of today’s international instability gradually settles in the coming years and decades, it is crucial for the West that normative contestation and ideological rivalry do not become central to global affairs. To preserve the logic and momentum of the rules-based international order in which we currently live, the fledgling Eurasian vision should be constructed in cooperation with the West, not in opposition to it.
Second, ever since the defeat of the Holy Roman Empire in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) and of France in the Spanish War of Succession (1701-14), international society has exhibited an anti-hegemonic tendency. This was only strengthened by Russia’s historic triumphs over attempts by Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany to establish a universal European empire.
Opposition to the overwhelming dominance by a single power goes back to the birth of modern international relations at Westphalia in 1648, and this fact alone demonstrates that it is baked into the very fabric of international society. Attempts to buck this trend, such as America’s post-Cold War efforts to consolidate the unipolar global order, ultimately produced resistance from other countries – something we are witnessing today. In other words, international society is essentially pluralist in nature.
In case of Russia’s long-term decline, which is being expedited by Western-imposed sanctions that are damaging Russia’s ability to modernize its economy and reducing its openness to the West, we may see a Eurasia divided between Brussels- and Beijing-centred spheres of influence. The view on international affairs as a system prompts one question the postulation that bipolarity or multipolarity are more stable. But there is no such confusion if one embraces a societal understanding of global politics: polycentrism is a centuries-old principle; and if it withers away too rapidly or uncontrollably, then a thread that binds international society together will be lost, thereby exacerbating the challenges associated with divergent value systems. Contrary to popular belief, a strong Russia with a slower downward trajectory suits Western interests and gives Western countries more time to adapt to the realities of a changing world.
Finally, any robust society must be essentially built on shared values and understandings – this is true of both domestic and international societies. Today’s international society is what we would call “normatively thin”: although the structural bonds that bring countries together (e.g., economic globalization or international institutions like the UN) are quite strong, there is no noticeable advance to a genuinely common worldview among major powers. Put differently, living in an integrated world is not the same as feeling as if one lives in a single global community.
Henry Kissinger, in his 2014 book World Order, notes that a stable international order must be rooted not only in a balance of power, but also in a shared sense of legitimacy. (The Cold War era can be seen as featuring, to a large extent, two separate international orders.) In today’s world, in addition to an overwhelming disparity of power between the West and the Rest, there is little ideological common ground between Western countries (whose commitment to liberal universalism has been strengthened substantially since the fall of the Berlin Wall) and non-Western states. Overcoming this impasse will only become more difficult if Washington and Brussels insist on continuing their practice of shaming and isolating Moscow.
We no longer live in a Yalta-type world order, where states can be forced into neutrality or into a great power’s sphere of influence. Kiev has indicated that it wishes to complete reforms necessary to meet NATO membership standards by 2020. At the same time, Russia’s pride is still wounded from the Soviet Union’s collapse, and one of the drivers of national unity is the shared belief that the country remains a great power. Moreover, Russia’s cultural ties to Ukraine are steeped in centuries of history and persist despite rising enmity between both countries’ political elites. Moscow is still decades away from reconciling itself with the idea that a country as strategically and psychologically important to it as Ukraine could be removed from its so-called sphere of privileged interests.
If Russia’s upcoming presidential election shows a low turnout, Vladimir Putin’s positions will be weakened and the race to succeed him will begin not long thereafter. In the most realistic best-case scenario, we may see – before the midway point of what is expected to be Putin’s final term – at least a modest Russia-West reconciliation, after which the Kremlin will shift its focus to the succession process. If Russia-West relations remain hostile and dysfunctional in roughly three years’ time, the next Russian president may adopt – driven either by personal choice or by political necessity – a strongly nationalist and anti-Western position, replacing a pragmatic but increasingly conservative Putin. Contrary to popular Western belief, Russia’s international outlook transcends any individual one, and Putin’s agenda continues to enjoy broad popular support despite Western-imposed sanctions and a protracted economic downturn.
There are grounds for cautious optimism. The EU’s deepening engagement with China combined with strained transatlantic relations have given Brussels a deeper appreciation of the polycentric nature of contemporary international affairs. Although the EU’s commitment to human rights remains strong, its support of pro-democracy movements has become more cautious since the Ukraine crisis, evidenced by its more muted response to recent protests in Iran. There is also a growing understanding that a more pragmatic model is needed to replace the EU’s pre-Maidan approach to engaging Russia and the states in its Near Abroad (although this may be a double-edged sword, as a less values-obsessed EU may confirm Moscow’s suspicions that Brussels has had geopolitical aims all along).
Certain confidence-building measures between the EU and Russia are eminently possible in the short term, such as cooperation on environmental and cultural issues. But the elephant in the room remains Ukraine: a country plagued with a hot conflict would mean that any attempt at an EU-Russia rapprochement would be stillborn, if only for political reasons. At present, it is difficult to imagine the Donbass region’s reincorporation into Ukraine before the end of this decade, not least because Kiev lacks the fiscal capacity. Moreover, the lifting of sanctions against Russia is tied to the implementation of the Minsk II agreements, and some of the latter’s most important measures – including a genuine decentralization of power in Ukraine – remain politically toxic for Kiev.
A temporary way out of this dilemma would be a limited relief of sanctions accompanied by a genuine cessation of violence in eastern Ukraine and a plan for rebuilding the region economically funded by all sides and by other willing participants. Various peacekeeping proposals have been suggested, but – once again contrary to popular Western belief – Russia is not entirely in control of the secessionist political and military forces in eastern Donbass, which means that the freezing of hostilities in Ukraine will require a tremendous amount of creativity, flexibility and determination from all sides.
Freezing the Ukraine conflict is by no means a permanent solution, but it will help prevent EU-Russia relations from spiralling further out of control. It is a sign of how dire the situation has become that Russia, which normally would have a strong interest in a stable Ukraine acting as a buffer between it and Western European powers, now feels forced to destabilize its neighbour to retain a sense of being able to influence the course of political events.
Over the medium term, once the future structure of both the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union becomes distinct, complementarity of these two integration projects should be explored and pursued in earnest, to make it clear that European integration is in fact incomplete without Russia. If the projects cannot be merged and the EU continues to insist on a Brussels-centric European regulatory system, then they should be linked by ligaments that would not only stabilize the relationship between the two blocs but also help resolve the question of the status of the territories lying between them in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus. As the EU and Russia continue to deepen economic ties with China, they should both recall that a long-term rupture between the European Peninsula and the Eurasian Heartland would put China at the heart of Eurasia’s strategic triangle.
Political issues, such as contested border changes from Kosovo to Crimea, can be addressed over the longer term and would involve the arduous task of building a European security order that is both a reaffirmation of past principles (including the Helsinki Final Act) and the creation of new ones to reconcile the differing worldviews held by the EU and Russia. This, too, may appear extremely difficult, as each side believes that the other is responsible for undermining the existing order: NATO has expanded up to Russia’s border, while Russia has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty. The principles underpinning the Paris Charter, which brought the Cold War in Europe to an end, will also have to be revisited, as the document appears to uphold contradictory norms, such as the right of states to choose their political orientation and the indivisibility of continental security (i.e., a threat to one is a threat to all).
The failure to arrest the downward trend in Russia-West relations has the potential to have a tangibly deleterious impact on global security. For example, now viewed as a pariah by many in the West, Russia has not been granted the right to play a role in resolving the North Korean nuclear standoff commensurate with its capabilities, as this would provide Moscow with a political win on the global stage. For its part, having weathered the worst of the economic sanctions and seeing no resolution to its conflict with the West in sight, Moscow may lose interest in restoring normal diplomatic ties with Washington and Brussels.
Many on the European Peninsula may believe in liberal democracy’s inevitable triumph. And many in Russia think that the world is naturally composed of sovereign states, and thus that the European Union is doomed to fail. Both assumptions are dangerous to make. Neither the EU nor Russia is going to disappear any time soon, and time is on neither party’s side. An increasingly pro-West and fragile Ukraine could spark a serious conflict between the two sides if Russia-West relations continue to deteriorate over the coming years. And China’s plans to integrate the Eurasian supercontinent would further aggravate the complexity of East European affairs, which are already suffering from the effects of rival norms and institutions.
If the downward trajectory of Russia-West relations is not halted, we may witness a protracted, decades-long Cold War. The optimism of 1989 – the year when people tore down the dividing ideological and physical wall – may be replaced by new barriers of mutual hostility and suspicion. Moreover, if action is not taken to stop Russia-West relations from spiralling further out of control, a new Cold War will the best-case scenario.