The political relations between the Western world and Russia have radically changed in the last twenty-five years. It is a good time to sum up these relations and try to make predictions for the future. The essential question is, how should the West deal with Russia? Is the country predictable for us in the long-term?
Undoubtedly, the key moment in the history of the XX century was the fall of communism. On one hand, it brought the Eastern European nations sovereignty and freedom. The reunification of Germany was a symbol that the post-Yalta Order is over. However, there is also the other side of the coin and it is Russia, a successor of the Soviet Union. In the 90s Moscow tried to follow Western values such as democracy and capitalism. Nonetheless, in the mind of many Russians, it was the worst period for the country, the second Time of Troubles (Смутное время). The country suffered humiliation on an international level. It has to be said, we haven’t helped Russia enough to carry out these difficult reforms. In the 90s, Europe was improving its integration, implementing the Maastricht Treaty and America, as the only superpower to create a new world order.
We haven’t tried to understand the sophisticated structure of Russian society, its history, economy and political system. We simply criticised its failures in the reforming process attempting to enforce our system of values without any consideration of differences between Russia and the West. We immediately refused any possibility of Russian membership of NATO or the EU. It was and still is a very realistic approach but we have offered nothing in exchange for Moscow. It was a clear signal for Russian politicians that there is no place for their country in the Western world.
Not surprisingly, the Russians were seeking somebody who could bring dignity to the nation. In 2000, when Mr. Putin took over the President’s office, many people saw in him as the new Peter the Great, a person who will bring hope and pride to the nation, using not only democratic methods. Thanks to its natural resources, especially oil and gas, Russia slowly but consistently rebuilt its position.
The Transatlantic world hasn’t considered that an important issue. We have been occupied with other problems, for example the war against terrorism, after 9/11. Mr. Putin also used the fight against terrorism to strengthen its position in Russia, for instance ending the war in Chechnya. However, I would admit, that we overslept the first decade of the XXI century in terms of our relations with Russia.
We didn’t understand the real intention of Moscow. The war in Georgia was the first bell that woke us up. However, we haven’t reacted enough . Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s “reset” policy hasn’t de-escalated tensions with Moscow. We see recently the fruits of that policy in Ukraine or in Syria. Nowadays, Russia is considered internationally as a dangerous and not predictable player. We need to change our policies towards Russia, there is no place for a “no business as usual” policy.
It is the first time our transatlantic views are seriously diverging. The USA and Europe simply have different objectives. It has already been shown during the Georgia war that the European Union (especially former French president Nicolas Sarkozy) negotiated the cease-fire. In addition, the Minsk protocol, ending the most escalating part of the conflict in Ukraine, was also the result of a negotiation between Russia and the European Union (here Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande).
The USA was absent for many reasons. It is difficult to say whether that is good or not. However, Washington has been changing its global policy. The emergence of Asia is significant for America. The rapid growth of China influences new American policy. Europe and Russia are pushed into the background.
Nevertheless, we Europeans, should change our own policy towards Russia and make it more independent from any country. Europe must improve its relationship with Russia, and should not let this be something decided by Washington, said the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last week.
In relation to that, the US President Barack Obama recently accused Mr. Putin of acting out of a position of weakness to defend the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Juncker signalled that Europe should take a different approach. “Russia must be treated decently” he said. “We must make efforts towards a practical relationship with Russia. It is not sexy but that must be the case, we can’t go on like this”, he added at an event in the southern German town of Passau.
We all know that each word in diplomacy has a certain meaning. That was what Mr. Juncker said can change the paradigm at the international level. The signal is clear‑ we in Europe, want to make our relationship with Russia without America. Furthermore, there is another point which should be taken into consideration.
Russia treats Europe differently than the USA. Russia treats Germany, France or even the European Union as a partner, not as a potential enemy. The Minsk Protocol was only possible because there was no American side at the negotiations. Indeed, Russia considers NATO as a threat to its spare of influence, but not the European Union. I really believe that we Europeans, can convince Russian politicians that the EU is a peaceful project. And consequently that the Ukrainian or Georgian membership of the EU can provide numerous advantages for the Russian economy. There is a wide space for negotiations and talk. And this is the key for Europe, to start a new era of the relationship with our biggest Eastern neighbour which is not obviously only a regional power. We can’t talk about Russia like that in the long-term.