Editor’s Note: How do Russia and the West see one another? What are the experts’ views on the confrontation between Russia and the West? How do the pundits explain the Russo-Ukrainian war and Russia’s Syrian gambit? What are the roots of the mythology about Russia in the West, and why has the West failed to predict and understand Russia’s trajectory? This is the tenth essay in a series that seeks to answer these questions. Click this link to read part nine.
What did the pragmatists propose in 2014-2015 to overcome the Ukraine crisis? It should be interesting to look back and see how shrewd and feasible their advice has been. The saga of the Russo-Ukrainian war is not over; the expert community will be forced to revisit this drama again and again in years to come.
Let’s take a look at Henry Kissinger’s position on Ukraine: “If Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other—it should function as a bridge between them.” I would respond that Ukraine was already a country swaying between the West and Russia; the end result of this dance was the Maidan. Also, how does Kissinger envision turning Ukraine into a bridge? Through an agreement between the West and Russia confining Ukraine to a “bridge role?” If so, another Maidan is inevitable, since most Ukrainians now support integration with Europe and would hardly abide becoming “a grey zone” again. Kissinger draws an unequivocal conclusion: “Ukraine should not join NATO,” he says. And he insists that “Russia’s interests have to be accommodated to some degree.” A familiar mantra!
Here is how Robert Blackwill and Dimitri Simes proposed to deal with Putin: “assuring Ukraine’s territorial integrity, with the exception of Crimea”; allowing Ukraine’s association with the EU, but “with a trilateral consultation regarding the impact of a Ukrainian-EU association on the Russian economy”; and “non-NATO membership” (which is tantamount to limiting Ukraine’s sovereignty). Graham offered Ukraine the following agenda: bloc-free status, decentralization, some kind of official status for the Russian language, an economic package drawing on U.S., European, and Russia resources. (Moscow will never turn over “resources” without concessions, and what might those concessions be?) Kiev has to propose “constitutional reforms that acknowledge those Russian concerns” (this effectively means that Ukraine will constitutionally recognize Russian demands).1
Michael O’Hanlon and Jeremy Shapiro thought along the same lines, going even further than other experts on one issue: “Russia can make its historically based claim on Crimea but would have to accept a binding referendum under outside monitoring that would determine the region’s future.” The argument using a “ historically based claim” creates a precedent for Turkey, which has an even better historical claim to Crimea; Germany can claim Kaliningrad; and Sweden can set its sights on Kiev—it was, after all, once ruled by the Vikings—and then it can ask for the entire Grand Duchy of Moscow.
Samuel Charap and Jeremy Shapiro called for a “new deal,” which means “institutional arrangements” that “will have to be acceptable to Russia.” It would be difficult to find anything acceptable to the Kremlin, which has perfected the art of producing an unceasing stream of demands for “deliverables.” These experts admitted that “such a deal would involve difficult compromises,” such as “recognition of a special Russian role in its neighborhood, and an end to NATO and EU enlargement on Russia’s borders.” This is a return to the Brezhnev Doctrine, which tells us how the authors view the current global balance of strength and weakness, as well as the chances that the West could devise a strategy that would not be viewed by the Kremlin as a Western surrender.
Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, presented the most emotional offer of a “new deal” with Russia, which looks like an example of Western idealism. See for yourself: Gelb argues that Russia will stir up trouble unless the West offers Moscow “Détente Plus,” which has to “reestablish Russia’s status as a great power.” The latter will make Russia “more restrained and cooperative,” and Putin will stop “trying to dominate and intimidate his neighbors.” But why do Putin and the Kremlin need great power status for Russia, if not for intimidation and domination? We are dealing either with a misunderstanding of how the Russian System works or a new effort to pretend that one can neutralize Russia’s aggressiveness by recognizing its great power status. In any case, such initiatives hardly reflect the West’s political or moral strengths. They also disorient official Moscow, provoking it to test further Western readiness to stomach its adventures. We Russians don’t need any more of these provocations!
The pragmatists have also proposed a “moratorium on negotiations on an EU Association Agreement or membership in the Russia-led Customs Union.” (This scenario would also mean Ukraine’s return to Russia’s orbit.)
When explaining the need for “accommodating Russia on the question of Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation and Russian influence in Eastern Ukraine,” one of the leading Russia hands has argued that “this is the reality both the West and Kyiv face, given the Ukrainian government’s resources and the West’s low tolerance for sacrifice.” I agree that this should be taken into account. But the expert comes to an intriguing conclusion: “Such an outcome … would provide Ukrainians with opportunity to focus on the formidable challenges of economic reconstruction and political reform sheltered from bitter geopolitical competition and rebellion in the East. This is not a bad outcome.” Is the expert being serious? Will the Western refusal to engage Ukraine, which means leaving Ukraine in the Kremlin’s embraces, really help it conduct its reforms? In any case, this is a brave analytical conclusion that has no precedent in the practice of transitions.
Another scenario that clearly appeals to certain European circles—specifically diplomats from Germany, Austria, and Brussels—is a possible resolution that would involve close engagement between the EU and the Eurasian Union. Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard argued in favor of this scenario, claiming that the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) “offers engagement on the EU’s terms—through trade and economic links rather than military competition.” The authors apparently believe that the two structures can cooperate because the EEU is organized around the same principles as the EU, and they urge Brussels “to recognize Russia’s right to have an integration process of its own.” Anyway, they conclude that two integration projects can coexist and even overlap.
I think authors are envisioning a project that is hardly feasible. In truth, Moscow created the Eurasian Union to legitimate its sphere of interests; the organization exists as a club of authoritarian states, whose principles are far from those of the EU. Rather, Russia and the other EEU members struck a deal in which they give loyalty to Moscow in exchange for a fee. True, Moscow does not use military means to keep other states in its orbit, but it does use economic coercion. If this union truly functioned like the EU, why would Ukraine want to jump ship? When Europe recognizes Moscow’s right to form this union of dependent states, it is essentially recognizing Moscow’s right to have its sphere of interests; if the members of the EEU voluntarily wish to exist in this sphere, that is their choice. However, I cannot fathom how the two entities, which are built around different principles and different philosophies, would be able to cooperate on a broad agenda. “Chasing a chimera,” Stefan Meister called this idea of a dialogue between incompatible partners. Eurasian Economic Union mechanisms are “in their very conception contradictory to EU principles … that is why it is practically impossible to even begin negotiations on economic cooperation, let alone economic integration,” wrote Meister.
In the end of 2015 the idea of close ties between the EU and the EEU continued to float around, pushed by German Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. David J. Kramer, senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, proposed this idea: “…to suggest parity between the two entities would undermine the legitimacy of the decades-old EU and lend credibility to the nascent [EEU]…. Legitimizing the Eurasian Union would be demoralizing to the countries that were forced to join…. Proposals like Juncker’s and Steinmeier’s risk leaving Putin with the impression that the EU is over-eager for a return to business as usual and that he can outlast the EU on sanctions…. The idea of those who suggest something in order to appease; again, that is the wrong idea.”
And finally two more comments on the Eurasian Economic Union, which seem to me to strike devastating blows against the idea. Hannes Adomeit: “The ostensible purpose of [the Eurasian Union] is economic. Its primary objectives, however, are geopolitical, and these are to be achieved in large part by economic means.” Anders Aslund: “Putin’s aim was to transform the Customs Union into a Eurasian Economic Union by 2015—a political counterpart to the European Union—although Belarus and Kazakhstan resisted closer political integration…. The only way to make sense of the Kremlin’s trade policy is to see it as politics mixed with old Soviet economic thinking.”
I nearly forgot to mention that cooperation between the EU and Eurasian Union is the Kremlin’s favorite scenario. Lavrov never tires of explaining how Russia and the West might begin the process of rapprochement: Let’s begin a dialogue between the EU and the Eurasian Union aimed at moving toward an “integration of integrations,” building a new space stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific! For some time this became the Russian propaganda team’s key line and was even supported by a few Western observers. One has a hard time believing that this comes from the same Kremlin that treats the West as a hostile civilization.
To me, this idea resembles the calls for a convergence of socialism and capitalism, an idea floated in some circles back in the 1970s. However, Moscow will be ready to start talks about cooperation in order to return from its isolation and in following with its old tradition of engaging in debates on peripheral issues while quietly pursuing its real agenda. As we can see, the pragmatists and other experts gravitating toward their views (hopefully, not for long, and not on all issues) continue to insist on the return to the concept of limited sovereignty, which the Soviet Union sustained through its 1956 invasion of Hungary and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. In the present-day context, the Kremlin’s declaration of its right to determine the internal structures of neighboring states and Ukraine’s bloc-free status, along with Moscow’s participation in the negotiations of Brussels and Kiev on the Association Agreement, “constitutional guarantees” that would accommodate Russia’s concerns, and recognizing Russia’s claims to Crimea as reasonable and historically justified—all of these point to an attempt to collectively impose on Kiev a model of statehood shorn not only of the right to determine its international course but its internal development as well. Moreover, this means helping the Russian system to prolong its life not only by creating a benevolent external environment for its personalized power but also by creating a ground to raise demands for further concessions.
The West’s “advice book” seemed to acquire new pages every day. Here is one more page of advice: “An ideal goal for a post-reset approach … would be to align the relationship [of the United States] more closely with the heavily commercial forces of the Russian leadership and business elite.” (Andrew Weiss) It ostensibly looks like an alternative approach that calls for abandoning security issues in favor of a peaceful agenda. But how realistic is this proposal? Where in the Kremlin can you find “commercial forces” whose agendas differ from Putin’s? Names, please! I would be thrilled to find someone among these “commercial forces” who would risk alignment with the representatives of what is viewed as an enemy power. Would Putin allow his business elite to engage the Americans on ideas that run counter to his anti-Western course?
Sometimes I wonder what the pragmatists mean when they describe the situation in the following way. Chаrap: “Russia’s strong bargaining position, relative to both Ukraine and the West.” Okay, Moscow has bargaining chips in dealing with Kiev, but what chips does he mean with respect to the West? Are having nuclear weapons and being able to act as a spoiler considered elements of a “strong” position? To me, resorting to such means is a sign of desperation, not strength. One more “bargaining position:” Moscow’s ability to “deliver the assets required to sustain an insurgency.” But why, then, did the Kremlin decide to look for an exit from the Ukraine war in Syria without waiting for the “settlement” that both Moscow and the pragmatists were calling for—because the bargaining chips were not that impressive?
One more hobbyhorse of the pragmatists is the search for frameworks for a new dialogue. Rumer, advocating for “quiet diplomacy,” laments: “There has been little attempt by the United States to engage the Russian president directly about the crisis in Ukraine”; “no evidence that the U.S. leaders have tried to engage Putin and his inner circle…to understand the Russian leader’s concerns, his demands, his ideas for possibly deescalating the situation.” Other pragmatists are constantly urging that “reliable channels of communication need to be built and credible dialogue partners found on both sides to avoid miscalculations.”
Building “channels” with Moscow has become exceedingly fashionable in the expert and political world. Des Browne, British Labour party politician, Igor Ivanov, former Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, and Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, have stated that “trying times require bold action” and suggested the following as their notion of such “bold action”: “The first step is to create a new Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group, personally mandated by presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers. The Leadership Group would conduct a continuous high-level dialogue focused on developing specific recommendations on key points relating to the Ukraine crisis and Euro-Atlantic security more generally, integrating political, economic, and security issues.” One could easily guess whom the authors of the idea would suggest as members of the “Leadership Group.”
Apparently, the inability to find solutions forces both experts and politicians to look for imitation exits, in the hope that the problem would somehow dissolve on its own. In any case, the already existing high level dialogue and networking game has kept everybody busy for many years, and there is no lack of channels, including high-level ones. Throughout 2014, Western leaders, including President Obama, were in close contact with Putin; Merkel had stayed in constant touch with him. (Between Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the G-20 meeting in Brisbane in November 2014, Merkel held about forty telephone conversations with Putin) Was all this not enough time for understanding Russia’s concerns? As for expert and political dialogue, channels for these have always existed. (The U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission, created at the time of the reset, was one of them, and there were numerous joint Russia-EU commissions besides.) None of these channels were able to prevent confrontation. Will inviting Kissinger, Primakov, Browne, Ivanov, and Nunn to become such a channel save the situation, when the problem is not the Russian leader’s reluctance to compromise, but the very logic of the Russian System?
Indeed, one should look for ways to prevent the further unraveling of the world order. But the problem is that all too often the recipe on offer looks like the same old idealism, which would only provoke the Spoiler to do something reckless. See for yourself: a respected Russian expert argues that Russia’s leadership “has redefined its country as a non-Western power in search of a new world order” (and I agree with this conclusion). However, if this is true, then how feasible is the expert’s call “to forge a set of strategic confidence-building measures” between sides with incompatible views of the world? How feasible is the suggestion to “open the door even more widely for people-to-people exchanges?” Would an elite that wants to make Russia a “non-Western” power agree to allow its population to remain under Western influence?
Let’s now turn to the Valdai report (2014), which reproduced the pragmatists’ arguments in no uncertain terms:
- “Key external players (Russia, the United States, and the EU) should consolidate their position on the vision of Ukraine’s future”;
- “a mission of international observers, including those from Russia and other CIS countries, should monitor developments in Ukraine and verify the information”;
- “[Ukraine’s] participation in any integration projects—western or eastern—should be temporarily suspended”;
- “Ukraine should declare its unflagging commitment to its bloc-free status…. Perhaps it would be advisable for Ukraine to consider demilitarization.”
Here is the report’s model for the Ukrainian state, which is to be based on a consensus of external forces: “These steps should lead to the formation of a new Ukrainian state on the basis of a broad federation or confederation, but that preserves the current borders and the most important common functions. Importantly, the regions would have the right to conduct independently the following functions: elect local executive and legislative authorities, run local law-enforcement bodies, define economic policy, and exercise foreign economic ties.” The last demand is tantamount to the dismemberment of the Ukrainian state.
Considering that such a form of statehood runs counter to the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians, this scenario can only be imposed on Ukraine by force. This fact doesn’t apparently concern the international team of Valdai participants all that much. The report concludes with a warning: “The Ukrainian collision places the world’s key players at a crossroads: either resume heavy diplomatic maneuvers in search of a new global balance, or try to consolidate the conflicting forces for the next confrontation. The choice is yet to be made.” One can detect the Kremlin’s unwavering voice here. The message is clear: “if you don’t agree, get ready for a new confrontation.”
The differences between the pragmatists’ and the normativists’ views were highlighted by the Boisto Agenda, a 24-step plan to resolve the Ukraine crisis prepared by a group of Russian and American experts with support from Finland in 2014. I mention this discussion because it demonstrated the differences in approaches and motivation, and these differences will certainly continue to be relevant in the future.
The normativists protested the very act of trying to resolve the Ukraine crisis without input from the Ukrainians themselves. “Such a decision reinforces the worst instincts that prevail in Russia—and possibly even among some Americans—that Ukraine is not a truly independent country, and that Russia can, with U.S. endorsement, determine its fate. That nobody from Ukraine was invited to participate disqualifies this initiative from any serious consideration,” wrote the normativists in their collective response to the Boisto group. They disagreed with other aspects of the plan as well: “This initiative treats the Russian and Ukrainian sides as equals and fails to recognize Russia as the aggressor, having invaded Ukraine”, the normativists noted. They also didn’t like the fact that the initiative called for permanent guarantees of Ukraine’s “non-bloc status.” They believed that the Ukrainians should make their own decision with respect to this issue.
One of the Boisto group members, Rajan Menon, responded to this criticism: “Those of us who met in Finland were not deciding the fate of any country…. Our hope was to generate proposals … for public discussion.” The U.S. frequently meets with its allies to discuss third countries.
Let me respond to these points. First, if the Boisto group’s mission was to generate discussion, then their mission was accomplished. Second, just because Washington does something doesn’t mean the expert community must do so also. Moreover, as Menon mentioned, the United States indeed discusses third countries with its allies. But in Boisto the Americans discussed the victim of an aggression not with their allies but with representatives of the aggressor itself. After all, the Russian delegation was authorized by the leadership. Does anyone really believe that the representatives of official Russian institutions (the Academy of Sciences) could discuss the subject of Ukraine with Americans without official Kremlin sanction? (Incidentally, the former Director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence, General Vyacheslav Trubnikov, was part of the Russian delegation, which speaks to the Kremlin’s interest in this initiative.)2
I am certainly not saying that the American experts should discuss Ukraine exclusively with Russian civil society. But when they discuss Ukraine with official Russian representatives and without the Ukrainians, one cannot help but think that this plays into the Kremlin’s hands. In any case, the Boisto plan is consistent with Kremlin concepts for resolving the Ukraine crisis.3
The Boisto experiment has demonstrated that there is a fine line between genuine efforts to resolve conflicts and cooptation of the mediator’s role by, in this case, the aggressor and its patrons. One might ask whether I oppose dialogue and compromise. My answer is that some kinds of compromise help to resolve conflicts, and other kinds only exacerbate them. The compromises offered by the pragmatists often undermine vital principles and values for the sake of illusory or temporary gains.
The time has come to discuss the consequences of the “let’s accommodate” approach. First, Russia has now twice set a precedent of forced border changes (in Georgia and Ukraine). The fact that certain forces in the West are ready to accept these changes may invite similar actions not just in Eurasia and Eastern Europe but also in other parts of the world, spelling the destruction of an already fragile system of international relations.
Second, any effort to stop the Kremlin’s expansionism by allowing Ukraine to fall back into Moscow’s orbit will only strengthen the militarist and expansionist segments of the Russian establishment, provoke them to undertake new adventures, and undermine the forces seeking reconciliation with the West.
Third, attempts to force Ukraine to accept limited sovereignty will not only deprive any of its governments of legitimacy; they will also thrust Ukraine into a state of civil confrontation and chaos, which may lead to the disintegration of the Ukrainian state and a new incursion on the part of its neighbor. (This fact is so apparent that accommodation policy looks like an attempt—conscious or unconscious—to create an area permanent tension in the region.)
Fourth, agreeing to the return of spheres of interest and, consequently, encouraging the neo-imperial ambitions of certain segments of the Russian elite, will block Russia’s exit from the personalized-imperial system and undermine support for reforms in Russian society. This path not only will end with Russia as a pariah state and accelerate the collapse of its defunct economic model; it will also discredit the liberal alternative and pro-Western sentiments in Russia.
Fifth, the “let’s accommodate” approach not only demonstrates the West’s readiness to yield under pressure and political blackmail; it also shows its double standards and tendency to strike dubious deals and tradeoffs that discredit liberal democracies.
The “let’s accommodate” approach is not the only line to arise from Western expertise. Michael McFaul (director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution) offers different advice to the West and the United States, “The United States and Western allies should capitalize on Mr. Putin’s attention being diverted to Syria to deepen support for Ukraine. In return for progress on economic reform, especially anti-corruption measures, we can offer greater financial aid for infrastructure and social service programs. And now is the moment to bolster the Ukrainian Army by providing more military training and defensive weapons.” Remains to be see whose advice the Western leaders will listen to.
The Chatham House Report “The Russian Challenge” (June 2015) could also be viewed as an antithesis to the pragmatist approach I’ve been discussing earlier. Its key goal has been to offer the analytical framework for analysis of the new confrontation between Russia and the West and discussion of the exit solution on the basis of principles. It means first of all rejection of the right of any state to privileged areas. “We are no longer in a 19th-century world where ‘zones of security’ can be produced by lines on maps or people treated like furniture in a room. Betraying Ukraine—what else would it be?—and, soon enough, Moldova and Georgia will add to the stock of Vichyite states in Europe with no love for what remains of the West, and even less respect”, the Chatham House Report said. The authors recommend: efforts “to deter and constrain coercion by Russia against its European neighbors,” leaving door open “for re-engagement” but doubting that it could happen under Putin; efforts to restore the integrity of a European security system; the “reconstruction of Ukraine; continuation of sanctions against Russia until the issue of Ukrainian territorial integrity is fully addressed; retaining NATO’s “credibility as a deterrent to Russian aggression.” The authors warned that “the West should not return to ‘business as usual’ with Russia,” and that “Vladimir Putin must not be accommodated for fear that any successor would be even worse.” The Chatham House as an institution went much further than other think tanks in mapping a new post-post-Cold war Western strategy toward Russia while rejecting the accommodationist approach.
1During Minsk-2 February 2015 negotiations in Minsk Kiev agreed to include the promise of the constitutional reform into the truce. But Ukrainians understand it differently from Moscow (as decentralization of power but not as turning Ukraine into a confederation) which made the promise non valid.
2According to former general of FSB Leonid Reshetnikov, director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (until 2009 RISS was the key analytical center of the FSB), the American initiators of the project offered partnership to RISS (General Reshetnikov called them “responsible Americans”). Ironically, this institute remains the leading analytical force in preparing justification for Russian policy toward Ukraine.
3The Russian Foreign Ministry made a statement in connection with the Boisto initiative (commentary of the Department of Information and Press of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in connection with the meeting between Russian and American experts): “We welcome the efforts made by the civic and academic communities to make their respectable contribution to the resolution of the situation in the southeast of Ukraine, assist in bringing the most expeditious end to bloodshed caused by the use of force on part of the Kiev authorities. These kinds of exchanges between Russian and American non-government experts periodically take place on other issues as well. They are also in demand.”