How to Make Peace with Neighbors
No. 2 2010 April/June
Nikolai Silayev

А senior researcher at the Center for Caucasian Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and head of the politics section at Expert magazine. He holds a Doctorate in History.

Russia’s New Course or A Brief Retreat?

Poland’s troop contingent marched in Red Square on May 9, 2010 in a parade that marked the 65th anniversary of the allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Jaroslaw Kaczynski in a recorded video message addressed the people of Russia with words of gratitude. The last Communist era leader of Poland, Wojciech Jaruzelski, arrived in Moscow for Victory Day celebrations (in Warsaw he remains caught in a web of litigations for imposing martial law on the country in 1981).

The presidents of Ukraine and Russia have inked a treaty to prolong Russia’s lease of the Sevastopol naval base in the Crimea by 25 years, till 2042. Its ratification in Ukraine’s parliament triggered a largely expected row, but from the legal standpoint everything was OK. Also, hints were made at the possibility of expanding cooperation in aircraft-building, missile manufacturing, and nuclear power. Discussions have been on over the possibility of a merger of Russia’s gas monopoly Gazprom and Naftogaz Ukrainy, as well as the chances of altering the route of the South Stream gas pipeline project to lay it on Ukraine’s Black Sea shelf.

Russia and Norway have concluded a treaty on the delimitation of the Arctic Shelf, thereby putting an end to their four-decades-long territorial dispute.

In each of these cases the accord achieved may have its own unique explanation. In relations with Poland it can be attributed to a sober-minded evaluation of the benefits cooperation may yield, in contrast to the headaches that quarrels may entail. The first signs of the forthcoming change emerged as early as September 2009, when the two countries’ prime ministers – Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk – met in Gdansk. Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s sudden tragic death in an air crash near Smolensk unveiled a new Russia before the surprised eyes of quite a few in Poland, and a new Poland – to probably as many in Russia, thus making the changes in relations between the two countries apparently irreversible.

As far as Ukraine is concerned, the Black Sea Fleet treaty is, of course, a synergetic product of a deep economic crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s strong position in gas talks, and the rise to power of a new (abstractly, “pro-Russian”) president. One should remember, though, that the speculations about “the Yanukovich factor” look greatly devalued in the wake of Putin’s statement (not refuted to this day), made on the eve of the decisive voting in the Ukrainian parliament. Yulia Timoshenko, he said, had been prepared to strike a bargain, too, and approximately on the same terms. Possibly, that was nothing but a tactical success. But the opponents and critics of the treaty in Ukraine are weak (they have nothing to offer in exchange, to be more precise), and if the emerging space for cooperation keeps growing wider, Russian-Ukrainian relations will have a chance of getting out of the vicious circle of wrestling under the carpet and scandals in public.

Lastly, the just-declared agreement with Norway is easily understood in the context of the technological problems Russian oil and gas companies may run against in developing the Arctic shelf – they will need foreign partners.

All of the factors for accord in each of the given cases had been in place long ago. Ukraine is possibly the sole exception. As long as Victor Yushchenko remained in the presidential seat, no agreement had the slightest chance of materializing. And still, Moscow had preferred to follow a different line in relations with its neighbors, a policy that put the emphasis (let us say it in very delicate terms) on areas of disagreement and conflict, and not those where interests met. True, in many cases it was not us who initiated such an approach. Take, for example, the surge in the history policy in Russia that peaked in the summer of last year – from the creation of a special commission under the presidential office to counter “falsifications of history” to the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. It was an act of retaliation, quite obvious, although grossly belated, to the historical policies of our East European neighbors – the propaganda campaign geared to presenting the famine of the early 1930s in the Soviet Union as genocide against ethnic Ukrainians, and so on and so forth. But also there was the Elektron trawler row in relations with Norway in the autumn of 2005. Russians’ eyes were then riveted to the Odyssey of captain Valery Yarantsev, who, when charged with illegal fishing in waters claimed by Norway and with abusing fishing regulations, suddenly changed course to steer the trawler towards Russia in defiance of the presence of two Norwegian inspectors on board. The incident remained headline news in all Russian government media for several days in a row. The unspoken message of all newscasts was pretty clear – “one of ours is in trouble.”

The question is whether today we are witnesses to sporadic, casual successes of Russian diplomacy, or if they are part and parcel of some new general national foreign policy trend. If this is a trend, it remains to be seen what has brought it about, and if it is bound to last. Lastly, is it possible to describe a general scenario of making peace with neighbors and formulating some general principles that would help settle old-time disputes? For instance, is the newest example of reconciliation with Poland a replicable experience?


Russia’s relations with neighbors, especially those in the post-Soviet space, are far from ideal. Some would blame “limitrophe mentality,” and others “an imperial syndrome.” Whatever the case, the hard fact is Moscow has not had calm and even relations with a single state in the entire space from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea for the past two decades. Even if one takes Belarus, it will be clear that the advanced institutional framework of cooperation by no means rules out economic or political frictions, and one’s obligations of an ally may be interpreted loosely, depending on the current interests (Alexander Lukashenko has not recognized the independence of Abkhazia or South Ossetia to this day). Without going into greater detail at this point one should remark that the “Belarusian” model of Russia’s relations with a neighbor will probably remain unparalleled, for it is too dependent on the personality of Lukashenko and, in fact, is confined to a string of continued adjustments of economic realities to the politically and ideologically motivated idea of integration.

Complexities in Moscow’s relations with all other near neighbors are not masked with any integration rhetoric. In Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia: the problem of the Russian-speaking population (its acuteness and nature varies greatly from country to country, but the Russian public opinion prefers to take no note of that); the interpretation of the Soviet era and – which has been of particular importance to Russia of late – of World War II; transit; the terms of access for Russian businesses; the breached promise to apply conventional forces restrictions to the newcomers to NATO (one of the factors that ruined the CFE treaty); harsh and deliberately exaggerated opposition to Russia practically on every single issue that has ever been discussed among Moscow, Washington and Brussels; outright support for Mikheil Saakashvili in August 2008; and the unfriendly stance on Chechnya in the 1990s and the early 2000s.

In Ukraine: the status of the Russian language; NATO’s expansion; the Black Sea Fleet; the risk of an attempt to export the Orange Revolution and of the emergence of a center of attraction in the post Soviet-space alternative to Russia throughout the “orange” coalition’s undivided rule (January-September 2005); and insufficient guarantees for Russian businesses and the property of Russian investors.

Here one comes across an oddity, though. Not a single problem in relations with neighbors in the West could prove truly critical for Russia. NATO’s expansion was the sole major threat. But it has been clear all the way that final decisions are made not so much in Tbilisi or Kyiv, as in Washington, Brussels, Berlin and Paris. Even the Ukrainian military hardware that was supplied to Saakashvili, although it caused heavy losses for Russia in the August 2008 hostilities, was unable to reverse the tide. As for the level of emotion in reacting to all these problems, it has always been sky-high. It was far higher than, for instance, in relations with the United States. Dick Cheney’s notorious speech pronounced in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius was discussed in Russia in a far calmer way that the Estonian authorities’ decision to move the remains of Soviet soldiers and the Bronze Soldier statue from Tonismagi Square in the center of the capital Tallinn to another location.

There are several fundamental reasons why Moscow’s relations with its Western neighbors followed precisely the course they did. Nation-building in the “new Eastern Europe” could not but be accompanied by alienation with Russia. The European integration project, which was so vigorous throughout the past 20 years, added a great deal to the drama of making the stark choice that faced the elites of the newly independent states. For the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, for instance, following a policy of equilibrium among different world centers of power looked far more sensible than making a final choice either way. In the space stretching between the European Union and Russia the challenge was far more serious – those who were late to make a choice could “miss the last train.” The maneuvering strategy there was looked at as a sure way to lose.

Disproportions in the military, political and economic potentials of Russia and most of its neighbors made things go still worse. Those disproportions made the neighbors feel ever-lasting fears and concerns. Moreover, any inaccurate remark by a Russian politician in relation to Ukraine, Moldova or Latvia was easily forgotten in Moscow, but in the capitals of the neighboring countries it remained a topic of heated debates for quite a while. Not to mention the fact that new foreign-policy tracks needed new specialists. In the meantime, it was just recently that Russian universities complemented their curricula with special academic courses addressed to post-Soviet states.

One should also consider such sensitive problems as the injured mentality of the Russian elite resulting from the breakup of the Soviet Union, its awareness of the inability to compete with the European Union and the United States, and the nervousness over the process that has been viewed as twenty years of Russia’s geopolitical retreat. Also, it is to be remembered that over the past decade the Russian mind has developed a conflict between the awareness of the noticeable growth in the strength of the state (particularly obvious inside the country) and the lack of tangible confirmations of the increased might in international affairs. The North Atlantic Alliance kept moving eastwards, the West invariably turned a deaf ear to Moscow’s objections and protests over Kosovo and the U.S. missile defense plans and failed to derive the conclusions Moscow had expected from the suspension of compliance with the CFE treaty.

Importantly, it was fairly safe for Moscow to quarrel with near neighbors: diplomatic battles with them were not fraught with either security imbalances or grave economic effects. All the makings of the game were at hand – real problems in relations, emotional complaints to each other, and the political elites’ interest in periodic rows – for the sake of confirming the geopolitical choice and bolstering the nation-building projects (on our neighbors’ side) and for the sake of demonstrating the country’s growing foreign policy status to the home audience (on Moscow’s side).


Several events and phenomena put “paid” to this twenty-years-old reality of the “new Eastern Europe.”

First, the world economic crisis and the shocks it caused on Europe’s weak peripheral economies – Latvia, Ukraine, Greece and others. The past two years have made economic thought more conservative in all respects and urged an emphasis on such crude and down-to-earth matters as the debt-GDP ratio, the social burden on the budgets, an effective national industry, etc. Speculations about Russia as a raw materials exporting giant with a backward economy have remained relevant, of course. Yet this economy has proven to be more resistible to the crisis (not in terms of the GDP’s slump, but from the standpoint of the overall stamina) than the post-industrial “services-pegged” economies of some of Russia’s neighbors, to say nothing of the capacities of their markets.

The crisis unfolding in Greece indicates that the European Union is not all-mighty and that affiliation with this most advanced international association by no means makes one secure from economic turmoil and political havoc. It looks like the European Union’s expansion in the border zone lying between it and Russia will grind to a halt over several years to come. And this prospect will certainly prompt the countries within that zone to be less unhesitant in brushing aside the policy of maneuvering as a sensible alternative in international affairs.

Second, some analysts were quick to draw parallels with the Great Depression and to predict that the world economic crisis may bring about a spate of political conflicts. However, although the crisis did cause a string of such conflicts, all of them have proven to be internal conflicts (Thailand and Greece are the latest examples). Not so in international affairs, where the crisis brought about certain growth of solidarity, albeit illusionary to a certain extent. Why that happened is different subject for a large discussion – possibly, the sad memories of the Great Depression are still green. Whatever the case, the past two years have seen ever new formats of multilateral diplomacy. Common search is underway for ways of stabilizing the world economy, and most countries have preferred to steer clear of anything that may cause a standoff.

Third, the Russian-Georgian conflict of August 2008 showed that the question of a system of European security remains on the agenda, and automatic expansion of NATO’s guarantees to ever more countries and regions is hardly a plausible solution. The Russian position may be called paranoid, neo-imperial, or fogeyish, but in any case it has begun to be looked at as a reality. The North Atlantic guarantees remain, but that does not banish the need for devising some sort of co-existence with Russia.

Whatever one’s opinion of the handover of power in Russia in 2008, it certainly changed the angle of perception of the country’s foreign policy strategy. After a new figure took No. 1 place in the Kremlin within the constitutional deadlines, it has been far harder to make anybody think Russia’s foreign policy is a product of the wish or personal traits of one individual. This expands the time horizon of Russia’s strategy and leaves far fewer chances of presenting it as a sort of minor misunderstanding (as many probably remember, Moscow’s attitude to the expansion of NATO was regarded precisely as a product of misunderstanding outside the country).

The August 2008 crisis brought about certain demythologization of Russia’s foreign policy. The “special relationship with Abkhazia and South Ossetia” in the Russian internal political discourse had traditionally been a sovereign foreign policy label and a token compensation for the breakup of the Soviet Union. Within the framework of that discourse there emerged an excellent set of arguments in favor of recognizing their independence, but there was a clear lack of understanding of what is to follow that sovereign step. As it has turned out, the world has changed after the recognition, but the change was not a radical one. Some very practical questions – not symbolic ones emerged in the forefront: how to build ties with both newly recognized republics, what policy is to be pursued with regard to their recognition by other members of the international community, etc. True, a token compensation for the breakup of the Soviet Union has materialized, and the old  scar is hurting not as badly as it used to. This has had a sobering effect – not as a feeling of disappointment, but as the discovery of new complexities in the international realities surrounding Russia. The rules of customary game scenarios have to be shelved.

Fourth, the U.S. administration’s approaches to world affairs have changed. Whether Barack Obama’s style reflects a fundamental shift in U.S. policy, or whether it is just a tactical retreat that will last only till the moment the Afghan and Iranian problems are settled one way or another, is anyone’s guess. Likewise it remains to be seen to what degree this style may be welcomed in the United States proper. But the pause in NATO’s expansion to the East, taken after the August 2008 clash in the Caucasus, and Washington’s decision against placing missile defense components in Eastern Europe greatly eased the nervousness in relations between Russia and the West in the first months after Obama moved into the White House. The declared policy of “resetting” the relations – that has already yielded some returns, such as the new strategic arms reduction treaty and the Afghan transit agreement – made conflict-style rhetoric towards Russia look sort of out of fashion. Whereas during the Bush Jr. presidency lengthy speculations about “the Kremlin’s imperial policies” invariably fell on attentive and agreeable ears, these days those who may be listening to them cannot but feel awkward about the one who says such things. To a degree, this is so because Moscow’s reaction is now more balanced. Moldovan acting President Mihai Ghimpu’s very scandalous remarks on the eve of the Victory Day anniversary evoked no “symmetric” response from Russia – and that was the best counter-argument of all.

Russia’s foreign policy – contrary to the widely-spread stereotype – has not been anti-Western for the past twenty years. If there was some struggle on, it was for a greater influence in the group of states that are habitually referred to as the West, and for enjoying decent treatment in that community. All sorts of Eurasian-type structures have remained an ideological experiment very distant from everyday practice: after all it is with the European Union that Russia is discussing the possibility of canceling visas, and not with China. The turmoil of the past few years merely fermented certain processes – including the realization of priority values.

In all fairness, modern Russia has never offered any official excuses for Stalin, and what looked like the beginning of “the personality cult’s galvanization” was brought to an abrupt end. The image of a leader who is associated with political practices utterly unacceptable for Russia’s near and far-away neighbors (and for Russia itself, as well) has proven to be burdensome waste. Ditching it would spell no loss, while the gains are obvious: reconciliation with Poland, for instance, may eventually bring a chance of gaining another strong partner inside the EU – alongside Germany, France and Italy.


So, the normalization of relations with neighbors is rather a steady trend, than a string of casual diplomatic successes. The question is what this normalization is all about “technologically,” so to say, and not from the standpoint of content. Is there a reason to say that this successful experience may furnish a solid basis for an overall strategy of building relations with neighbors west of the Russian border? It looks like there are several general principles that may prove handy for laying the groundwork of such a policy.

Professional diplomacy alone will not ensure good relations with neighbors. The discussion of fundamentally political questions require formats that would involve eminent scholars and public opinion leaders – those who feel less bound by the code of bureaucratic subordination and the Foreign Ministry’s official stance. New mechanisms for discussion are needed – more obliging than informal meetings of experts, but less formal than diplomatic negotiations. The Russian-Polish Group for Difficult Issues is an example. Efforts made in such formats clear the room for official inter-state talks, and also furnish a public-political basis for establishing relations. If one be asked to name the key discovery of the ongoing Russian-Polish reconciliation, this would be the unexpected and somewhat curious strength of the open public mechanisms.

In that respect, relations with Ukraine look more complex. Here the whole process followed the plain logic of a deal – a discount off the gas price in exchange for the Black Sea Fleet’s extended presence in Sevastopol. What looked like Yulia Timoshenko’s righteous anger over Victor Yanukovich’s alleged “betrayal of sovereignty” was grand-stand play. If she were in Yanukovich’s place, she would do precisely the same. But if Russian-Ukrainian rapprochement were accompanied by an open (albeit semi-official) discussion of the existing disagreements, politicians in both Kyiv and Lviv would find it far harder to criticize the Medvedev-Yanukovich agreement. It is quite clear, though, that before the presidential election in Ukraine such a discussion was practically impossible. Victor Yushchenko would have never agreed to that. For him the scenario of confrontations with Russia was a deliberate political choice, and the “war for sovereignty’ – a home policy hobby-horse. In the meantime, such a discussion would require at least consent from the political leaders of both countries.

Can Yanukovich afford to agree to establishing something like the Russian-Polish Group for Difficult Issues now? His tough-and-rough Donetsk style in politics will not let him. Besides, right after Yushchenko’s loss in the presidential election both Moscow and Kyiv will hardly withstand the temptation of saying that “all difficult issues” were a product of the previous president’s imagination (for example, the concept of Holodomor – the famine of the early 1930s – as purposeful genocide against ethnic Ukrainians is far-fetched, to say the least). Then they may easily indulge in the habitual “brotherhood and sovereignty” talk (in public) and very unsentimental and materialistic bargaining (behind closed doors).

Another tricky thing one has to make allowances for is that recognizing openly the existence of any “difficult issues” in relations with Ukraine would be far harder for Moscow than it was in relations with Poland. First, that would mean that Kyiv is a partner as equitable as Warsaw. Second, both Russians and Poles know everything about Katyn well enough, and there have emerged no ethical collisions in evaluating that tragedy. Not so when it comes to Ukraine. How should one see the role of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), Bandera and Shukhevich, whom President Yushchenko placed in the very center of the nationalist discourse? Will it make sense to agree to discuss the events in Western Ukraine in the 1940s as a tragedy? The very discussion of this sort would smack of an attempt to revise the results of the Nuremberg Tribunal, and Nuremberg is one of the pillars of modern European mentality.

Two conclusive principles readily offer themselves. First, that the Katyn issue became one of the most acute ones in relations between Russia and Poland at a certain point is largely Moscow’s fault, for it sometimes refused to consider how painful such memories are for the Poles. The isolation of history from politics in Poland was yet another reason as professional discussion of matters of history without their politicization eventually brought about conditions for rapprochement. Isolating history from politics and preventing its use as a political weapon in ideological constructions built on historical material is a must in relations with all of Russia’s neighbors. That is principle number one.

Naturally, it takes two to tango. There is to be the neighbor’s good will for that principle to materialize. And if there is none, is there anything Moscow can achieve on its own?

The employment of any customary means of propaganda to refute distortions and falsifications of historical facts may merely pour fuel onto the fire – not intellectually, of course, but politically. Or all of a sudden one may feel dragged into fruitless competition between propaganda resources, and not politically motivated concepts. In either case down this road there is not the slightest chance of isolating history from current politics.

That is a matter of trust towards one’s academic community. When he learned the news a special commission had been created under the president to fight against falsifications of history, Alexei Miller, a leading Russian historian, remarked that the surest way to resist falsifications was to open the archives. In the academic community there do exist effective self-regulation mechanisms that brush off both flagrant lies and politickers’ interpretations of historical events. The government should let that community work, keep archive collections open, and encourage research, including international probes, into the common history of countries in the post-Soviet space. If the real task is to ensure that Russia should gain a chance to contribute tangibly to the interpretations of events that occurred in the common history and have these interpretations accepted and supported by neighbors, there must be influential schools of research. And it is the academic community alone that can create such schools.

Expanding the agenda is principle number two. In relations with neighbors it is all too often confined to energy and security matters. This leaves outside the scope of the political dialogue quite a few topics that might serve as “resources of accord.” It is only natural that after concluding the Black Sea Fleet treaty Russia and Ukraine have set eyes on what they can do to cooperate in aircraft building, in nuclear power engineering, and some other areas. This is an attempt to furnish a foundation for the agreement already reached. Without that foundation the whole edifice may prove another castle in the air. That is not the sole example. There is the problem of cooperation in border territories, the problem of Schengen visas for the people of Russia’s western-most exclave region of Kaliningrad, labor migration, common spaces of the Baltic and Black Seas, and plans to create a regional financial center in Moscow (what is to be done to make it a center of attraction for the economies of near neighbors). Twenty years of energy and security differences have spoiled practical cooperation quite a lot. This cooperation is to be made a political factor in resolving disputes.

How far will the current trend towards a warming in relations between Russia and its near neighbors go? There is no denying that this is a trend, but not a unified project. Russian diplomacy merely takes advantages of the ‘targets of opportunity’ that come its way in relations with this or that country, but at this point it is very unlikely that a larger, regional-level strategy is taking shape. Therefore, the bilateral rapprochement will go on, but it should not be expected to bring about any breakthrough in implementing the integration projects the Russian side has been working on.

Mutual repudiation of (or at least strong restrictions on) hostile rhetoric in relations between Russia and its neighbors does not mean that in each particular case there is the necessary base for building relations in the long term. It looks like such a base exists in relations with Poland, but there is a big question mark over whether it is fully elaborated in all other cases. Here there must be a clearer and more profound definition of Russian interests in Eastern Europe. And, what is no less important, an answer is to be given to questions about the real values. How fragile the just-started reconciliation may be is seen in the European Court of Human Rights’ verdict in the Kononov vs Latvia case. The court’s recognition of a Soviet World War II veteran a war criminal brings to the limelight again the problem of evaluating WWII results and retrieves quite a few skeletons from East European closets. This verdict also shows that the reconciliation policy will hardly remain a duet of Russia and each of its individual neighbors. In certain situations that policy is vulnerable to effects by third players. It remains to be seen if Moscow and its partners have enough political will to resist such influences. Even if one leaves purposeful interference aside, will it be possible to guarantee that the inconspicuous re-evaluation of World War II results that has continued for the past few years will be curtailed in Western Europe? Whatever the case, we should brace ourselves for a vigorous debate on the issue.

Lastly, reconciliation with neighbors may trigger the emergence of a new system of security in Europe. What reconciliation is unable to do is to substitute for a security system. The recent deployment of U.S. air defense missiles Patriot in Poland was a theme for some not very pleasant verbal exchanges between Moscow and Warsaw lately. Incidentally, this situation was discussed at the first joint meeting of the State Duma’s international affairs committee and the Polish Sejm’s foreign affairs commission – and that was a bright illustration that security matters still remain outside the scope of the reconciliation policy. Although the reconciliation policy contributes to easing uncertainties on the border line between Russia and NATO, that policy will bear lasting fruit only when the uncertainty is gone altogether. And this question must be addressed to Washington in the first place, and not to Warsaw or Kyiv.