Time is running out for the West to engage with Russia

by Stefan Hedlund The Helsinki Agreement and Charter of Paris […]

Image by © Dreamstime

Image by © Dreamstime

by Stefan Hedlund

The Helsinki Agreement and Charter of Paris set the foundations to end Cold War tensions and create a peaceful and cooperative new order for Europe. Respect for national frontiers, territorial integrity and peaceful settlements of disputes, was key. But as the Soviet Union saw its final days, European leaders met to form a European Union built on common European values. From Russia’s point of view today, this is where it all went wrong.

The stand-off between Russia and the West over Ukraine shows little sign of abating. A negotiated settlement is not likely to be reached soon. In the meantime continued destruction and loss of life will produce a steady rise in mutual animosity. The real danger is that the world is witnessing the birth of a new security order for Europe, one that is miles apart from the visions to which Western political leaders remain committed.

The complete breakdown in both trust and communication reflects that the two sides are not playing the same game.

Rightful status

The case Western governments bring against the Kremlin is that Russia has violated a whole range of international treaties and conventions. This goes well with the long-standing Western commitment to values of sovereignty, territorial integrity and basic human rights.

The Kremlin’s position is that the conflict is not about Ukraine at all. It is merely a pretext created by the Western powers to make sure that Russia will never again return to its rightful status as a great power. President Vladimir Putin has stated his explicit belief that sanctions would have been introduced anyway, irrespective of Russian actions in Ukraine.

The stand-off reveals divisions which bode ill for the future. Russia feels its very existence is at stake and professes a readiness to go to war to ensure that its vital strategic interests are not compromised.

The West, meanwhile, displays increasing anxiety that its vision of a security order, which rests on treaties, trust and cooperation, is being torn to shreds.

Escalate conflict

As neither sanctions nor the collapse in the price of oil will encourage President Putin to back off Ukraine, the West is left with the same two options which were on the table when the crisis first erupted.

One is to escalate the conflict by arming Ukraine, which entails a distinct risk of eventually having Nato troops engage in combat with Russian troops. It is worth recalling that the war in Vietnam began with advisors and training missions.

The other option is to negotiate on terms which Russia finds acceptable, and by now those are not terms that any Western government will find attractive.

The Kremlin is gunning (literally) for a world order where the interests of a small set of great powers are negotiated and aligned in closed sessions, above the heads of smaller nations. This latter aspect is by far the most disturbing part of the conflict as a whole, simply because it leaves so little room for compromise or manoeuvre.

Cold War

The roots of the Western vision may be traced back to the early 1970s, when the Cold War began to thaw. Talks initiated in Helsinki in 1972 morphed into a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe which culminated in 1975 with the Helsinki Final Act. Signed by the United States and Canada, together with all European countries – except Albania – it established a fundamental set of ‘Ten Principles’ covering territorial integrity, the definition of borders, peaceful settlement of disputes and the implementation of confidence-building measures between opposing militaries.

The document was seen both as a significant step toward reducing Cold War tensions and as a major diplomatic boost for the Soviet Union at the time. Its clauses detailed the inviolability of national frontiers and respect for territorial integrity, which were seen to consolidate the USSR’s territorial gains in Eastern Europe following the Second World War.

As the Cold War was nearing its end, it did seem as though the spirit of Helsinki would inspire a peaceful and cooperative new order for Europe.

Charter of Paris

In a speech before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, held in July 1989, the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, laid out his vision of a ‘Common European Home’. In October 1990, divided Germany was reunified, and in November 1990, European leaders met to adopt a ‘Charter of Paris for a New Europe’ for which the Helsinki Accords served as the groundwork.

The signatories of the Paris Charter proclaimed that Europe was liberating itself from the legacy of the past, and vowed their commitment to the new order, ‘To uphold and promote democracy, peace and unity in Europe, we solemnly pledge our full commitment to the Ten Principles of the Helsinki Final Act.’

In December 1990, Mr Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize ‘for his leading role in the peace process which today characterises important parts of the international community’.
European values
In December 1991, as the Soviet Union went into its final death throes, European leaders met in Maastricht, to form a European Union which was explicitly built on common European values.

From the Russian point of view today, this is where it all went wrong.

Russia claims (against all evidence) that its acceptance of German reunification was based on a promise that Nato would not take advantage by expanding one inch towards the east. The subsequent expansion of both Nato and the EU has been taken as vindication that the West had only one goal in mind: to reduce Russia to insignificance.

The rhetoric which permeated Western commentary on Russia during the turbulent 1990s seemed to confirm such beliefs. Russia was neither friend nor foe. It was simply irrelevant.

Russian interest

When Mr Putin began reasserting Russian interest and claiming that Russia must be allowed a say in geopolitical developments, the response from the EU was to launch an Eastern Partnership which sought to include vital neighbouring states like Georgia and Ukraine into the Western trade and security structures.

The Russian mindset that has evolved through these developments is miles apart from the Western insistence on a world order based on common values. When Mr Putin lashes out at betrayal by the West one can sense he is angered by the lack of respect, and demands a place at the table where the fates of nations are decided by the great powers.

Is it really possible for Western governments to accept a return to the kind of world order formulated at Yalta in 1945, when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met with the allied powers to draw the map of post-war Europe? While the obvious answer would seem to be negative, the alternatives are not very inspiring.

Russian propaganda has not only been sowing hatred for America, it is also focussed on achieving an identity transformation which will deepen its rift with the West.

A recent document titled ‘The Foundations of State Cultural Policy’ elaborates on the thesis that Russia is not Europe but constitutes a civilization in its own right. The sanctions regime feeds straight into this process, with close Kremlin advisors like Sergei Glaziev actually cheering it on, hoping sanctions will hasten the total rupture of relations with the West.

The very fact that there is presently a state of war between Russians and Ukrainians, long viewed as close members of the same family, provides an indication of just how deep the ongoing transformation of Russia is.

The Kremlin’s propaganda against the ‘fascist junta’ in Kiev is ugly and will not be easily undone. What will remain of Ukraine will be staunchly anti-Russian, and moods in other neighbouring states which are members of both Nato and the EU are moving in the same direction. There is much at stake.

But if there is to be no dialogue, can the West take a firm stand? By arming Ukraine we may raise the costs of Russian aggression, and send a clear message that Nato stands ready to defend each and all of its members. But is Nato really ready to face Russia?

Armed forces

In a recent article, Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer notes that the present state of Russia’s armed forces is such that in a war with Nato, Russia would suffer a fate similar to that of the Zulus against the British forces in 1879. But Russia’s rearmament and reorganisation is proceeding at an accelerated pace, and by 2025 matters will be very different. We must then be ‘prepared for a world war’ between Russia and the West, he says.

Mr Felgenhauer may be written off as an alarmist, and Western governments may remain hopeful that the combination of low oil prices and sanctions will eventually break the Russian economy.

But this does little to remove the fact that Nato as a whole is still downsizing. Only tiny Estonia lives up to the commitment made at the Nato Summit in Wales in September 2014 to raise defence expenditure to two per cent of GDP. Behind the bellicose rhetoric of British Prime Minister David Cameron rests the fact that his military budget for 2015 is being slashed by one billion dollars. Meanwhile Russia is re-arming.

We are presently about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act, which also permeated the spirit of the Paris Charter which Moscow signed.

The only way out of the present deadlock must be to return to these cooperative processes, to engage Russia in a renewed commitment to common interests such as nuclear proliferation and the struggle against Islamic State.

  • It will not be easy. It cannot be made to look like either side has made major concessions
  • It will require a strong focus on common interests and common rules, at the expense of lecturing Russia about common values
  • It will require visionary diplomacy, combining a roadmap for removal of sanctions with rebuilding European military strength
  • It is possible.

The Cold War was brought to an end by the vision of men such as US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who managed to achieve a common ground of trust, against a background of a rapid build-up of American military power.

It is troubling that the fate of the world is presently hostage to the visions of men such as US President Barack Obama and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, whose mutual animosity is such that communication no longer seems possible.

But it nevertheless remains imperative that a serious attempt be made to rebuild trust. The alternative is that of deepening conflict and of eventual war.

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Source: Geopolitical Information Service


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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