The price of coexistence between the EU and Russia

Europe needs to strike a new relationship with Russia – but not at any cost

A version of this article first appeared in Internationale Politik, May/June 2015.


If the main flaw of the European security order after 1989 was that it was unsuited to incorporating Russia in the long term, isn’t it high time for a deal that rewrites the rules and takes account of Moscow’s concerns? No. The West would prematurely compromise fundamental values in doing so.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has shaken the West’s faith and fuelled its self-doubts. Wasn’t it self-deceiving in the early nineties to assume that the West’s victory in the Cold War would automatically lead to a peaceful and democratic world, a world in which the Western principles and institutions would reign supreme and uncontested?


Weakness, not consent

In an essay on “The Return of Geopolitics” in Foreign Affairs, the American political scientist Walter Russell Mead took a closer look at the West’s faulty reasoning after 1989/90.1 We have, says Mead, misunderstood the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was indeed a triumph of liberal, market-based democracy over communism, but it didn’t prove that hard power politics had finally become obsolete.

In reality, China, Iran and Russia had never accepted the framework conditions of the post-Cold War order. Their temporary willingness to follow the new rules of the game was owed merely to their relative weakness, but did not indicate consent to the Western principles of order.1

The Western order’s present crisis is only surprising to us now because we didn’t want to realise then that this order would only prevail as long as the balance of power didn’t change.

For Europe this means, first of all, that the stabilisation of the continent by means of enlarging the European integration project has reached its limits. After the successful eastward expansion of NATO and the EU in 1999-2004, further attempts in Georgia in 2008 and even more so in the Ukraine in 2014 were met with fierce opposition by Russia. Despite the West’s good intentions, the result has not been the expansion of an area of peace and prosperity, but war and a new rift – and possibly Russia’s final parting from the European security order.

While Moscow was still willing to participate in fashioning this order after its own ideas over the past 25 years, it has now decided to do a “Ruxit” (in Josef Janning’s phrase) and to take up an opposite position to the West in terms of civilisation, politics and ideology. Between them, these two developments are seriously affecting the European security situation – and forcing the EU and NATO to reconsider their strategies in dealing with Russia.

If the main flaw of the European security order after 1989 was that it couldn’t incorporate Russia permanently, wouldn’t it be appropriate then to correct this mistake and prevent further aggravation of the situation with a new deal that rewrites the rules and takes account of Russian concerns?2 If the previous order has finally been destroyed, doesn’t this imply either “new rules” (with the West having to give up some of its principles) or “no rules” (at the price of impending chaos)?3


Flawed analogies

Or would it help to take a look at the past? As three experts of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) note, the current situation is in many respects similar to that of the fifties: “The Soviet Union then was striving for recognition of the territorial status quo and legitimisation of its influence in Eastern Europe.” The West reacted with the Harmel Report (deterrence and detente) and the CSCE negotiations, which made possible a modus vivendi. Today again “a new regulatory approach” is necessary that is “based on security and cooperation” and allows for “peaceful coexistence and ‘coevolution’ of the (…) West’s and Russia’s regulatory ideas”.4

The proposed new order is to “reflect the realities” and follow three principles. First of all, the principle of territorial integrity should be supplemented with the principle of the inviolability of domestic political orders. Secondly, the EU should concentrate on developing capable states on its peripheries, without intervening in the sensitive political issues of democracy, media or elections. Thirdly, it is a matter of stabilising energy relations with Moscow and strengthening long-term trade relations. The authors acknowledge how difficult it would be for Europe to pay the high political price for such a compromise: “Securing long-term peaceful coexistence on the pan-European level would however be worth it.” The benefit of this proposal is undoubtedly that the authors bravely augment the somewhat hazy vision of a “new bargain” with Russia with concrete measures. But this also reveals why such a deal is neither feasible nor desirable.

To begin with, the comparison with the fifties is flawed. Back then, the continent’s bisection was marked by the bloc border, which separated from the West the area of influence of the communist puppet regimes installed by Moscow. Nowhere in Eastern Europe are there currently governments or political systems that were imposed by Russia, and in no country does Moscow command the kind of control it had during the Cold War. On the contrary: Ukraine, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova feature democratically legitimised structures and political elites that prefer to evade Moscow’s sphere of influence. The Russian concept of order doesn’t even go unchallenged by the members of the Eurasian Union.


Pre-emptive obedience

Today, Moscow’s aim is not so much to legitimise the status quo as to change it by depriving the states between Russia and the EU of the right to shaping an independent future. Wouldn’t the principles mentioned above ultimately result in acknowledging the Russian sphere of influence, even before it had become a fact?

It should be added that geopolitics are an important but not the only cause of the current conflict. Putin’s politics are to a great degree the result of a failed model of state and economy, the failure of which he is trying to compensate with nationalist and aggressive politics.

It is all about maintaining power; maintaining a power that is no longer sustained by economic growth and increasing prosperity – unlike during the first ten years of Putin’s reign. The West has little bearing on the ideological development in Russia. New concessions by the West will not be able to steal the thunder of the anti-Western and aggressive politics while they are still successful domestically.

There is a second crucial aspect: Russia’s attacks on Ukraine are aimed not against the country’s membership in NATO or the European Union, but chiefly against democracy as an ordering principle of the Ukrainian state. If it is not the West’s support of democratisation in Eastern Europe that is stirring Moscow’s anger but the Ukrainians’ own desire for democracy, it would be mistaken to expect that symbolic gestures by the West could impress Putin. Moscow perceives successful democracies in its neighbourhood, whether or not they are supported by the West, as a considerable threat to the stability of its own regime.

The requested principle of the “inviolability of domestic political orders” is also highly problematic because it puts two very different types of “intervention” on the same level. The first is a EU-typical conditionality, which the countries that want to become part of the EU submit to voluntarily. The second type is the Russian policy of blackmail that aims at preventing a country making free decisions. What matters is that Russia does not accept the first type – accepted by democratically elected governments – of “intervention”. If the EU gave in to these objections, it would infringe on its own values.

A policy that accepted the coexistence of differing concepts of order based on such principles would be unthinkable for a values-based EU and harm its interests. Such a policy change would incidentally also be irreconcilable with the SWP authors’ second principle, because developing a capable state is in most cases not conceivable without democratisation.


Infeasible and unacceptable

On closer inspection, the concrete political steps that follow from the suggested principles of a new pan-European order prove worthless, infeasible or unacceptable. This is hardly surprising, as the quest for a common denominator in the differing concepts of order by Russia and the West is unfortunately a hopeless endeavour today.

It is also questionable to speculate on a new pan-European order including Russia without first stating the necessary preconditions. Such an agreement requires a minimum of trust – a trust that has been deeply unsettled by Moscow’s recent politics. If the analogy of the CSCE process is to be instructive in any way, it is with regard to its open character: The principles of a new blueprint for lasting peace were only formulated at the end of the process, in the Helsinki Report of 1975 – not at the beginning.

Considering the current domestic political developments in Russia, a long period of relative instability and recurring tensions seems unavoidable. This doesn’t mean that we are approaching a new Cold War. The West must remain open for talks, not just on the Ukraine issue, but also on many global issues in which Russia might be instrumental as a problem solver – Iran, Middle East, energy supplies. “Detente with due regard to ensured defensibility” was the guiding principle of the Harmel Report of 1967. Deterrence and containment as well as an inner reinforcement of the EU must remain pillars of the Western long-term strategy – also to bolster the West’s negotiating position.

Wolfgang Ischinger recently wrote about “congagement” as a conceivable strategy and described the rapprochement with Russia as a task for generations.7 Russia is currently not prepared to be a “responsible stakeholder” of a new pan-European order. The West should not prematurely compromise its fundamental values – in the naïve belief that this might “secure long-term peaceful coexistence”.



1See also Ivan Krastev: Dancing with the Bear. How the West Should Handle Its Relations with Russia, in: Ricardo Alvaro (ed.): West-Russia Relations in Light of the Ukraine Crisis, IAI Research Papers, pp. 17–31, Rome 2015.

2Cf. Samuel Charap and Jeremy Shapiro: A New European Security Order: The Ukraine Crisis and the Missing Post-Cold War Bargain, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, Note No. 15/2014, 8.12.2014.

3New rules or no rules? XI Annual Valdai Discussion Club Meeting. Participants’ report, Moscow, March 2015.

4Markus Kaim, Hanns W. Maull and Kirsten Westphal: Die gesamteuropäische Ordnung vor einer Zäsur – drei Leitlinien für einen Neubeginn [The pan-European order at a turning point – three guidelines for a fresh start], SWP-Aktuell 14, February 2015.



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


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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