This article was published in The Guardian on 5 February 2009.
Russia has lost an empire and not yet found a role. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we should pay tribute again to the fact that a nuclear-armed superpower surrendered its vast continental empire with scarcely a shot fired in anger. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, many Russians have been regretting that act of historic magnanimity ever since.
What Russia’s new role will be is something that Russians have to work out for themselves. That will take time. In Britain, the country about which the “lost an empire and not yet found a role” quip was originally made, the process of post-imperial national redefinition has taken half a century – and we still haven’t got there.
It would be ridiculously short-sighted to assume that the mixture of authoritarian capitalism and assertive, 19th century-style great power politics that we have seen under Vladimir Putin is the end point of Russian history. The Putin I saw at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week was both defiant and defensive: gloating in public over the decline of US hegemony, begging in private for more foreign investment in Russia. With his people protesting on the streets, a stockmarket that has lost more than 70% of its value and foreign currency reserves draining away at a rate of knots, he has reason to be worried. Great power authoritarian capitalism doesn’t look so dandy now. But there will be many more twists and turns before Russia arrives at even a semi-stable state.
There’s only a limited amount we can or should do to affect the internal evolution of Russia. Sovereignty is not unlimited in the 21st century, either in law or in fact, but it remains both an important principle and an important reality. Which way Russia goes is up to the Russians. But while that post-imperial drama is played out inside Russia’s borders, over decades rather than months, we in the rest of Europe do have every right and every reason to protect our own vital interests. These include not only secure energy supplies to EU member states but also secure international frontiers, respect for the sovereignty of even the smallest states, and a commitment to the non-violent resolution of disputes.
Putin’s Russia has not respected those principles and interests. Indeed, much of the Russian foreign policy elite treats the EU as a kind of transient, postmodern, late 20th-century anachronism: flawed in principle and feeble in practice. What matters, they say, in the 21st century as in the 19th, is the muscle and determination of great powers. And so Russia has been trying to restore the country’s dominance over its neighbours by hook or by crook – whether by sending in the troops (as last August, in Georgia) or by turning off the gas (as, last month, in its dispute with Ukraine).
In this matter of sovereignty, what’s sauce for the Russian goose must also be sauce for the Georgian or Ukrainian gander. A state cannot consistently say: we insist on full respect for our own sovereignty but will violate the sovereignty of others whenever we decide that is necessary. You may object: isn’t that what Bush’s America did? To which I reply: exactly so. It was wrong of Bush’s America and Putin’s Russia. Now Barack Obama is changing the US’s approach, and Russia’s president, Dimitri Medvedev, should do the same.
But Russia is unlikely to adjust its external behaviour unless the rest of Europe sets clear limits and changes the incentive structure. What reason has Moscow to alter course so long as the EU remains as weak, divided and hypocritical as it has been in relation to Russia over the last decade? If I were sitting in the Kremlin, I would be jeering at the EU too.
And let’s be clear: this is Europe’s business. President Obama has too much else on his plate. He needs Russia for the nuclear diplomacy around Iran. The Bush administration’s missile defence plan in Poland and the Czech Republic is an irrelevant distraction that should be abandoned forthwith. And for the time being, the Obama administration will rightly put Nato enlargement to Ukraine and Georgia on the back burner.
There will be no European foreign policy unless there is a European Russia policy. There will be no European Russia policy unless we have a European energy policy and a European strategy for Ukraine. On the energy front, two recent papers – one written for the Centre for European Reform by the Oxford University energy economist Dieter Helm, the other by Pierre Noël, of the European Council on Foreign Relations – identify some essential steps. They include a joined-up European gas and electricity grid; a single European gas market; more strategic gas storage; and the Nabucco pipeline, providing an alternative route to Europe for Caspian gas. Ukraine’s divided, ineffective and corrupt political elite is its own worst enemy, but nor has the EU yet demonstrated any serious political will to offer Ukraine a long-term perspective of membership, with more concrete steps along the way.
I can’t emphasise too strongly that this is not an anti-Russian recipe. Anti-Putin, yes; but Putin is not Russia. There are those in Moscow, admittedly a small minority at the moment, who recognise that such a clear, stable, law-bound international environment would be good for the long-term evolution of Russia as a prosperous democratic nation state. That minority will grow, if the environment develops. Good fences also make good neighbours.
Now the emergence of such a European policy depends above all on Europe’s central power: Germany. The country’s Social Democratic foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has continued the “realist” special relationship with Russia developed under Chancellor Schröder. Their “Moscow first” approach has been underpinned by the corporate intertwining of the German and Russian energy giants E.ON Ruhrgas and Gazprom.
The country’s Christian Democratic chancellor, Angela Merkel, a Russian speaker who grew up in East Germany, favours a more sceptical, nuanced approach, balancing short-term German national interests with European values and solidarity. German policy may now be shifting slightly her way, under the double impact of the Georgian and gas crises. It will be interesting to see what the German representatives have to say at this weekend’s annual Munich Security Conference, whose main plenary session is intriguingly called “Nato, Russia, Natural Gas and the Middle East”.
Not for the first time, the future of a larger Europe depends on the direction of German Ostpolitik. I spent more years than I care to remember in the scholarly dissection of Ostpolitik, culminating in a monograph titled In Europe’s Name, and looking back over that history I see a curious reversal. Forty years ago, when Willy Brandt launched a version of Ostpolitik that contributed significantly to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Russian communist empire, he and his colleagues worked on the assumption that the key to a benign long-term evolution in a divided Berlin lay in a change of policy in Moscow. Today, the key to a benign long-term evolution in a divided Moscow lies in a change of policy in Berlin.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.