The Guns Are Heard Better
Valdai Papers
Want to know more about global politics?
Subscribe to our distribution list
Nikolay Silaev

Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Caucasus Problems and Regional Security, MGIMO University.

Valdai Discussion Club

It has been said more than once that the contradictions between Russia and the West, in addition to material reasons, were also fuelled by differences in views on the nature of international politics: while Russia had a realist vision, the West maintained a liberal one. The debate on European security has also seen different and irreconcilable ideas. On the Russian side, there was a realistic demand not to see the West’s hostile (at that time – potential, now – real) military infrastructure move closer to Russian borders, and not to let them turn Russia’s neighbours into a springboard for attacking it. On the Western side, there is a set of words about the “values” that Russia “must conform to” in order to communicate at all. On the one hand, there is the European security as a balance of power and an equal system of guarantees for everyone within a certain geographical space. On the other hand, “European security” seems like belonging to some prestigious club (“The Garden” according to Josep Borrell). In Russia’s eyes, NATO expansion and so-called “democracy promotion” were hostile acts that could destabilize the continent. In the eyes of the West, and especially the European Union, this was a geographical extension in the framework of Kantian “eternal peace.” Attempts to reach an agreement based on partial recognition of Russia’s right to have its own concerns infuriated many in the West.

It has also been said more than once that the vulnerability of some theories of international relations is caused by the limitations of the set of facts they rely on. This applies, for example, to the discussion about polarity in the international system, in which some authors judge the prospects for the global system of international relations by comparing them with patterns found in European history. There are many theories about relations between Russia and Europe, which explain that European international dynamics has been decisive for Russian foreign policy and even Russian self-awareness. These theories, however, are formulated using historical material from the era when European politics was synonymous with world politics.

For Russia then, “being in Europe” simply meant being a subject of international relations. But European politics has long ceased to be equivalent to global politics.

At one time, it was important for Russia to be in Europe (more precisely, with Europe) for economic and cultural reasons. Nowadays, there are no such reasons.

To put an end to the lengthy theoretical introduction, it is necessary to say something about the concept of “recognition”. International status theory provides interesting academic results, but is still too inaccurate to make it the basis of any practical conclusions. “Russia should (or should not) be recognized as a great power by Europe/the West”, “Russia should (or should not) play a legitimate role in the European security system” – for goodness sake, what does this mean? Russia has been and remains a legitimate participant in the European security system, if only by virtue of the fact that it’s still a member of the OSCE. To seek some other kind of legitimacy means to agree that the highest authority providing such legitimacy is the West, and this contradicts both common sense and the basic provision of international law on the equality of states. In practice, talk about “recognizing” Russia in one or another capacity or status reflects either a deep misconception or deliberate deception, when in exchange for beautiful words they want to receive material concessions.

On February 24, 2022, the discussion on European security was terminated. Europe defined itself as a community of states hostile to Russia (there are exceptions like Hungary and Slovakia, but they have little influence on the EU as a whole). Economic, political and other ties between the European states and Russia were reduced to a minimum. The question of the European security system boiled down to its hard realist basis: where will the line between Russia and NATO be drawn? Europe, like the rest of the collective West, believes that this line should run along the eastern border of the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and Russia – along its western border.

The West Knows Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Is Failing. So What’s Plan B?
Sergei Poletaev
The failure of their proxy war bet is now motivating Western figures to consider negotiating a ceasefire in Ukraine with Russia, on the line of the current status quo and without firm political commitments. Will the US-led bloc try to turn Ukraine into a Cold War-style ‘frontier’ state or is there something else in the works?

In the spring of 2024, although the specific outcome of the armed confrontation is unclear, we can confidently say that the West has been unable to defeat Russia as it wanted, and now it is concerned with ensuring that Russia “does not win.” So, in the future, for years, if not decades to come, security in Europe (in the geographical sense of this concept – and the other sense is irrelevant for Russia) will be determined by the balance of power along the line of contact between Russia and NATO. Russia will do everything to maintain this balance for its part and thereby ensure its security. The victory we need in Ukraine, an increase in the size of the Armed Forces, the expansion of the defence industry, the deployment of troops and weapons on the western borders, along with rapid economic and technological development – this is our contribution to the emerging European security system. Will it ever be possible to talk about confidence-building measures, reducing the risk of incidents, and reducing potentials? Of course, but on a mutual basis. Russia has not withdrawn its demand to restrict NATO’s military infrastructure in Europe to within its 1997 borders. At the beginning of 2022, our arguments were not enough. Let’s see if there are enough of them in the future.

It appears that the prospect of meaningful negotiations on the Ukrainian crisis will one day arise again. It is important not to bring meaningless words and concepts into this perspective, or worse, words designed to hide meaning. One of these words is the multi-vector concept. If we are talking about the fact that states can freely build relations with other states around the planet, this is trivial and seems undeniable. If they choose to become a military springboard for hostile actions against their neighbours by third countries – as Ukraine chose back in 2014 – why should they be surprised that the neighbours don’t like it? The illusion that Ukraine will move closer to the European Union, and Russia will pay the bill for this wedding, should have been dispelled by sensible people even before the last coup d’état in Kiev.

The status of Ukraine is an important issue, and if negotiations take place, it will likely be on the table. Options are possible, from international guarantees of demilitarisation and permanent neutrality (as discussed two years ago in Istanbul) to simple international legal formalisation of the order actually established on the territory of the former Ukrainian SSR. But it should be clear to any potential counterparty of Russia in such negotiations: Russia is not interested in determining Ukraine’s status in general, but in ensuring that this status excludes Ukraine’s membership in military blocs to which Russia does not belong, any military cooperation between Ukraine and third countries, and any territorial claims to Russia.

This leads us to another question: what are we talking about when we talk about Ukraine? Whose status will we determine? Ukrainian statehood is dysfunctional. Already in 2022, only American assistance, taken into account as such in American budget statistics (and this is not the entire amount of assistance Ukraine has received from the United States), amounted to almost 40% of the expenditure side of the Ukrainian state budget. Since then, the ratio hasn’t changed in favour of the Ukrainian budget. Ukrainian statehood is now paid for externally. This cannot be considered a consequence of the military actions of the last two years alone. Ten years ago, Ukraine managed to become one of the poorest countries, in GDP per capita (PPP) terms, in the post-Soviet space. Poorer than Georgia, which has almost no industry and has experienced four armed conflicts since the dissolution of the USSR, including a civil war with hostilities in the capital city. The Ukrainian authorities, long before February 24, 2022, took a course of discrimination against millions of their citizens on the basis of their native language and religious affiliation. It is appropriate to ask potential partners in future negotiations now: what is this entity whose status they intend to determine? The ultra-right Azov battalion, banned in Russia, with which the current Ukrainian leadership has long been indistinguishable? Is this a community of political figures supported by grants from the United States and the European Union?

Russia demanded that Kiev extradite those involved in organising terrorist attacks on Russian territory, pointing out that traces of the monstrous terrorist attack in Crocus City Hall “lead to Ukraine”. The other day, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine Malyuk revealed details of the terrorist attacks in Russia, leaving no doubt that this special service was involved in their organisation. It will be impossible to ignore this when talking about the “status of Ukraine” and the very prospect of negotiations.

A heavy moral and political responsibility also falls on the West, which for years and decades supported and encouraged such an Ukraine.

A necessary condition for any negotiations is to understand what the potential interlocutor is saying. That debate about European security, which ended two years ago, was greatly poisoned by the Western and European inability to simply correctly understand what exactly Russia was saying. Any statement by Russia was instantly overgrown with interpretations, and then in the West they no longer discussed what Russia was saying, but only their own interpretations.

This will probably sound unexpected to Western observers, but Russia did not set the goal of destroying Ukrainian statehood (although the president warned that continuing Kiev’s current course could cause irreparable damage to this statehood). Russia agreed with Kiev on the key parameters of the settlement in the spring of 2022 in Istanbul, they are known in almost all details. There is no reaction from the West to the Istanbul draft agreement. Russia has repeatedly stated in recent months what it sees as the conditions for negotiations. In response, the West repeats that Russia does not want negotiations or directly calls them pointless. Russia has repeatedly, in detail and at different levels, outlined the reasons why it does not intend to conduct a dialogue with the United States on strategic stability in conditions where Washington is pursuing a hostile course. No, they tell us, without examining these reasons, to separate the conversation about nuclear weapons from everything else in Russian-American relations – as the United States wants. Well, they say, for the sake of “good will”.

The order of medieval theological debate – one of the sources of European and generally Western rationality – suggested that first it was necessary to accurately reproduce the opponent’s arguments and then refute them. We have inherited this in the form of literature review in our academic articles. Seeking understanding from your interlocutor, starting with a demonstration that you do not know his position, is, first of all, irrational. But for now, in the West, they prefer only hear the thunder of guns.

Valdai Discussion Club
Why Clarifying Ukraine’s Security Status Is in Russia’s Interest
Zachary Paikin
Creating the space for bridge states to flourish can provide more predictable contours for great power competition and increase the likelihood of compromise in a dangerous world. And by helping to elaborate this feature of the emerging global tapestry, Moscow would demonstrate its status as an order-shaping power of the first degree.