How not to talk with Russia

Some argue that Russia has been treated “as more than equal”, but in Moscow's view it is doomed to remain a peripheral power in a NATO/EU dominated world

In a thought-provoking paper, “How to talk with Russia?”, Kadri Liik singles out three types of Russian analysts: “Many experts undoubtedly serve as spokespersons for the regime, many others have retained a desire to actually understand events, and some are balancing between the two”. I do not know what category I fit into and whether I can be qualified as an analyst at all. Nevertheless, I would like to look at the paper through Russian eyes and to share some of my immediate reactions to it.

Kadri Liik knows Russia better than most of those in the West who write about Russian foreign policy. She was born in the Soviet Union and shares at least a part of our common Soviet understanding. More importantly, she sincerely tries to understand and to explain the Russian mindset without attaching political prejudices or institutional biases. Her logic is quite compelling to a reader, because it is not held hostage to political or ideological affiliations. Her conclusions are persuasive and deserve to be explored further.

However, in my brief review of the paper I will try to focus less on the ideas that I agree with, and more on the parts of the narrative that are likely to be perceived differently in Moscow. In my view, these differences in opinion are exactly the parts of the narrative that should remain at the centre of future EU-Russia discussions, at least at the expert level.

The “Western” system

In her article Kadri Liik refers to the lack of interest Russia expressed in joining the “Western OSCE-based system” (or the “OSCE-based order”) that was allegedly offered to it by the West. This claim about Russia’s alleged lack of interest would likely raise many an eyebrow in Moscow. Firstly, the OSCE has never been a “Western” institution. It emerged in 1970s as a compromise between the Soviet bloc and the West, and it served both sides well in the final stages of the Cold War. Neither NATO, nor the European Union ever had a majority of members in this institution. In fact, the OSCE was the first truly pan-European organisation – a factor which has lent it a unique form of legitimacy.

Secondly, I clearly recall that in the early 1990s, Russia (and as the Soviet Union in late 1980s) was pushing very hard to transform the OSCE into the central organising body of the new European architecture. The West entertained the prospect of a greater role for the OSCE for some time, but in the end resolved not to give the body even more importance. There were concerns among Europeans that the OSCE might start competing with NATO to be the main security provider in Europe. 

There was little appetite in Washington and in Brussels to invest heavily in any “OSCE-based system” and, for understandable reasons, the West made a clear choice in favour of a “NATO/EU-based system”.

It is important to clarify this fact because it puts the whole issue of “equality” in relations between the West and Russia into a different perspective. Kadri Liik argues that “Russia has been treated as more than equal: it has been admitted to all the Western organisations it wished to join without necessarily qualifying for them”. True, Russia was able to join the Council of Europe, G7 and WTO. However, neither the Council of Europe, G7, nor even the WTO could qualify as the backbone of the emerging international order. Did Russia have any hope or chance of entering the two central institutional pillars of the new Euro-Atlantic system – NATO and the European Union? In theory, such an option did exist for Moscow, but due to a variety of historical, geographical, cultural, psychological and other obstacles (not only in Russia, but on both sides) this option was never considered in any serious way.

The view in Moscow is that this effectively doomed Russia to remain a peripheral power in a NATO/EU dominated Europe as well as in the NATO/EU dominated world. As they like to say in Moscow, “we were invited to pre-dinner drinks, but not to the dinner itself”.

Russia had to accept that it would have even less influence on core matters of European security and development than the smaller counties of Central Europe, which did indeed join NATO and the EU – not a very comfortable position for a country that claims to be a “great power”! For 20 years, Russian leaders desperately tried to reconfigure the situation and break out from this peripheral status. Medvedev’s proposal for a new European Security Treaty was just one way that Russia tried to do this, as well as pushing forward many initiatives to promote institutional cooperation between NATO and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) – the security alliance comprising Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Armenia. The Eurasian Economic Union is the country’s most recent initiative, designed to encourage greater collaboration between Russia and the European Union. So far, none of Russia’s attempts have been successful.

Consolation prizes and double speak

Russia’s bitter grievances over its peripheral status are often countered by the West through references to the NATO-Russian Council and the EU-Russia Four Common Spaces, which Europeans see as sincere and honest attempts to engage Moscow in partnerships where membership was not feasible. I do not want to question the intentions of those who worked on the two projects in question, but their implementation on the Western side gives legitimate reasons to revisit the issue of double speak that Kadri Liik touches upon in her paper. After having presented a very perceptive outline of Russian double speak, she writes: “In the West, double speak may be used to cut some corners and solve some thorny real-life problems, but it has never become a norm nor led to a sustained double reality”.

In the case of the NATO-Russian Council, double speak became exactly that – a sustained double reality. For a long time Russia perceived the Council as a critically important coordinating mechanism that could bring Moscow as close to NATO as possible, without formalising its membership. This increased closeness was not discouraged by NATO; on the contrary, at the level of political rhetoric, it was explicitly encouraged. However, in private, many Western politicians confessed that they never considered the NATO-Russian Council to be a decision-making or coordination mechanism of high importance. These private confessions were publically confirmed when NATO decided to freeze the Council in the midst of the crisis around Ukraine, even though it had been tasked with the mission of promptly reacting to the dramatic state of affairs in the country.

The recent history of EU-Russia relations is also an interesting case study if we are talking about double speak. It is well known that in early 2000s Russia chose not to participate in the European Union's European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), because it aspired to be an “equal partner” of the EU (as opposed to being part of the “junior partnership” that Russia understood the ENP to be). Consequently, Russia and the European Union agreed to create a “Four Common Spaces” initiative for cooperation in different spheres.

Both sides declared this arrangement to be an agreement of “equal partners”. The Russian interpretation of “equality” was that both Moscow and Brussels were ready to make reciprocal concessions and compromises in the most important areas of their cooperation – like energy, agriculture or transportation. Russia had to modify its standards, procedures and rules to get closer to Europe, but Moscow expected the same approach from the European side. These expectations may have been naïve and unrealistic, but they were at least partially based on the rhetoric coming out of Brussels.   

It turned out that the notion of “equality” was nothing but another example of Western double speak. In practice, from the EU standpoint, there should have been no substantial differences between its relations with Russia and the ENP Action Plans with other external partners. In both cases, the final agreement was to be based on provisions from the EU acquis communautaire and necessitated unilateral adjustments to EU regulations by the external partner in question. This approach did not match the Moscow’s perception of “equality” and was particularly disappointing in the energy field, where Russia had expected a more friendly policy on account of it being the EU’s main supplier of oil and gas.

Russia’s foreign policy culture

Kadri Liik writes about the profound gap – one might even call it an abyss – between Russia and the West in their respective perceptions of how the world should be managed and how foreign policy should be conducted. I can’t say that I disagree with this observation, but I suspect that when referring to the “West” she implies, in most cases, the European Union. One should not forget that the European Union is a unique international project and that European foreign policy principles, patterns, and practices are not always reflective of those in the rest of the world, even in the United States.  

In fact, the foreign policy of the US (as a country that is unquestionably Western) serves to indicate that the Russian case is not particularly exceptional. Russia is suspicious of international organisations that it does not have full control over, but so is the US (look, for instance, at the controversial US attitudes towards the United Nations). Moscow prefers to deal with obedient satellites rather than with independent thinking partners, but so does Washington. The Kremlin doesn’t feel constrained by international law, but neither does the White House.

This is not to say that Russia and US play by the same rules, and it certainly isn’t to argue that any US foreign policy mistakes, blunders, and deviations from the norms of international law, should automatically justify inappropriate Russian behaviour. The reality, however, is that the international system can hardly be presented as a black and white picture. There are countless shades of grey in between. Kadri Liik mentions Angela Merkel’s famous quote about Vladimir Putin “living in a different world”. That might be true, but how many “different worlds” are being produced in front of our eyes in the Middle East, Africa or East Asia?

Speaking of President Putin, there are two common explanations of how he entered this “different world”. The first one places emphasis on the Soviet aspects and/or on his professional career as an intelligence operative. Kadri Liik, as far as I can see, tilts towards embracing this explanation of Putin. She writes:  “Putin’s worldview and his modus operandi have been shaped by Soviet norms and hagiography to a greater extent than is necessarily common among Russians, even of his generation. His communication habits bear some unmistakable Soviet characteristics, which when used in conversation with the West, are often misunderstood and make him seem deceptive”.

The other explanation is that Putin was, in fact, learning on the job. This is a much less popular theory in the West since it imposes at least a part of the responsibility for the transformation of the Russian foreign policy on Western leaders. Nonetheless, I don’t think that this explanation should be immediately discarded as Kremlin propaganda. Vladimir Putin took his first lessons in European politics from Gerhard Schröder and Silvio Berlusconi; his classes in international public law included studying cases such as the US led intervention to Iraq or the Western implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya.

This educational process took some time and until 2008 Russia was pursuing a very “legalistic” foreign policy line, trying to position itself as a responsible and conservative great power, a guardian of fundamental legal norms and principles often violated by the West. Of course, the subsequent change cannot be attributed exclusively to Western behaviour, but Russian analysts are not completely wrong when they argue that the Kremlin has opted to “depriv[e] the West of the monopoly over breaching the norms of international law”.   

The importance of symbolism

When two Russians get drunk and engage in friendly conversation with each other, the notorious first question they ask each other, is: «Тыменяуважаешь?» (“Do you respect me?”). The relentless quest for respect at the individual and group level is by no means a unique feature of Russian culture; one can find a somewhat similar emphasis on respect in China and in Japan too. The sensitivity of this cultural norm is not always fully recognised in the West, which leads to misperceptions and misunderstandings that otherwise could be avoided. I remain convinced that the recent dramatic and tragic events in Ukraine were largely triggered by the Kremlin reaching the conclusion that the European Union did not show respect for Russia by failing to engage Moscow in some sort of consultation on the Ukrainian DCFTA.

Kadri Liik addresses a very sensitive and controversial matter in her paper of the “Russian sphere of influence” in the former Soviet space. She rightly concludes that nobody should or even could grant Moscow such a privilege in the twenty-first century. But we should also ask, what exactly is a “sphere of influence” and what does having one mean in practice? Can we call Kazakhstan a Russian satellite without stretching the meaning of this term too far? Does Moscow fully control the foreign policy, foreign trade, not to mention domestic politics of Astana? Does the Kremlin have any means to manage the political transition in the country when President Nursultan Nazarbaev eventually steps down?

Could Alexander Lukashenko, “the last dictator of Europe”, qualify as a model Kremlin client within the Russian “sphere of influence”? Hardly. He failed to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has cordial relations with the rebellious Petro Poroshenko, schmoozes with European Union officials and arbitrarily restricts access of Russian investors to his country’s economy. His loyalty to the Kremlin is as questionable as the Kremlin’s ability to manipulate him. 

In short, the passionately disputed “Russian sphere of influence” appears to be “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. If Russia’s sphere of influence is meant to be a network of countries that will not join NATO or the EU in the medium-term, then we can safely include the whole world in it, with the exception of some small countries in the Western Balkans.

In my view, the “Russian sphere of influence” mostly concerns symbolic influence rather than actual influence. Russia suffers from a deep post-imperial trauma, and in the current Russian context, symbolism matters a lot. Compare how differently the Chinese penetration of Central Asia and the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Policy in the East Europe and in the South Caucasus were perceived by Moscow. In theory, Russia should have been much more concerned about the Chinese advances given their massive scale and the long term planning that the Chinese have. In reality, the Chinese presence in Central Asia was regarded as benign and even positive in many ways, while the EU’s very modest efforts in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus were criticised as being hostile to Russia and even provocative.

Was it because China is not a Western type democracy and Moscow cannot suspect Beijing of staging colour revolutions in its neighborhood? This is, probably, a part of the story, but not all of it. It is also a matter of symbolism. Beijing never hesitated to go the extra mile to show its respect to Moscow. The Russians always had all of the facts about what China was planning to do in the region. Wherever possible, the Chinese tried to ensure that their bilateral projects with select Central Asian states were wrapped up in larger multilateral arrangements that would include Russia (the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is one of the clearest illustrations of this approach). On top of this, China never questions Russia’s leading position when it comes to the region’s security matters. As a result, through its openness and full disclosure of its intentions, Beijing succeeded where Brussels failed.

Where should we go from here?

It is a political platitude to state that relations between the West and Russia are in a deep crisis and that business unlikely to resume “as usual” for a long, long time. We cannot even be sure that the peak of the crisis has been reached. The summer of 2016 might be another challenging time for the crippled relationship between Russia and the West. The NATO Summit meeting in Warsaw is likely to lead to some decisions that could cause uproar in the Kremlin. If, by that time, the European Union does not make any positive changes in the sanctions regime (or at least make clear its intention to), the political gap between Moscow and Brussels will widen even further. Unpredictable, potentially highly disruptive and politically divisive events in the Middle East, as well as the continued refugee crisis in Europe, also feed instability and prevent both sides from looking towards a new normal in a “Greater Europe”. The approaching presidential election in US brings yet another independent variable to this complex equation.

Given all the uncertainties involved and the deep mistrust between Russia and the West, it might indeed make sense, as Kadri Liik puts it, to come to the negotiating table with disagreements rather than with common interests. One of the very few advantages of the current situation is that both sides are left with very little to lose and can afford not to do away with political correctness. Both sides should try to avoid double speak, and leave the usual hypocrisy and misleading labels at the door as far as possible. Both sides should be specific about their interests, their basic concerns and their red lines. This exchange, at various levels, will not automatically restore mutual trust, but it can help to distinguish the real interests and red lines from the imaginary ones.

When it comes to the Minsk agreement, Kadri Liik states in her paper that “the West should be very clear on its vision as concerns implementation of the Minsk agreement: only full implementation would qualify as a condition for removal of the sanctions”. This statement implies at least three assumptions. First, that the Minsk agreement is a clear, specific and unambiguous document with no room for divergent interpretations. Second, that the agreement can and should be implemented in full despite all of the obstacles, impediments and hurdles that have manifested themselves since it was signed in early 2015. Third, that Russia is party that must carry the full responsibility for implementation. It seems clear that each of these assumptions would be contested in Moscow and, therefore, should be the subject of a very specific, detailed and honest discussion.

Kadri Liik also writes about the need to engage Russia’s civil society. As a person who has spent most of his professional life leading various Russian NGOs, I wholeheartedly support this proposal. At the same time, my personal experience tells me that quite often the Western approach to the Russian civil society is similar to the Brussels acquis communautaire approach in dealing with EU partners. The West decides who can and who cannot represent Russian civil society as well as how to grade Russian NGOs according to the focus of their activities, methods, and sources of their funding. This approach has never been productive in the past, and there are serious doubts over whether it could be productive in the future. 

I could name a couple of other target audiences that deserve more attention and have to play a more active role in the relations between Russia and the West. These include civil servants at the regional and municipal levels; university students, faculty, and administrators; entrepreneurs and innovators; professional associations, and Russian diasporas in the West. It is definitely more difficult to engage these potential stakeholders now than it was four or five years ago; both sides are likely to suspect each other of using particular professional or social groups as an instrument of “soft power”. Nonetheless, in my view, the pitch is worth making.

Working on current openings and opportunities we should not forget that long-term Russian attitudes Europe and even the West at large will, to a large extent, depend on the success or failure of the European project. For centuries, educated Russians looked to the West in search of modernisation patterns, best social practices, and intellectual inspiration. Today many critics of EU in Russia argue that the European project is doomed, that Europe is losing its competitive edge, and that future belongs to other regions and continents. I hope that Europeans can prove these critics wrong.           

Andrey Kortunov is Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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