The West has trouble understanding the cards played by the Kremlin.
In 1866, a few months before Alaska was sold to the US, the poet Fyodor Tyutchev wrote that Russia could not be understood rationally and unequivocally or evaluated on a generally accepted basis, because it had (or so it believed ) a special status—thus, one could only believe in Russia. The sale of Alaska was a rational step (fuelled by the conviction that the British would otherwise join it up with newly-established Canada, and the desire to at least get some money for the land), but on the other hand it was also out of character. (Russia has always been an expansionist country that wins or loses territory through war—the only exception being the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union). Russia’s actions are always multifaceted and cannot be interpreted unambiguously.
This year, British writer and researcher Keir Giles published a book called Moscow Rules,1 in which he lists ten key principles the West should always bear in mind when dealing with Russia. Giles believes that understanding Russia should not be confused with finding excuses for it. This rule is (intentionally) overstepped by Russia sympathisers (Russlandversteher in German), such as German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier and some other European politicians. In addition, it shouldn’t be presumed that Russia would do anything without a reason (or has done so in the past). A good example of this was the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal with a chemical weapon, which indeed seemed unreasonable to Europeans but, from the Kremlin’s perspective, sent the Western world a very strong signal about the Russian special services (even though Russia suffered serious repercussions, which it had clearly failed to take into account).
Giles warns Western countries that they should not expect big changes (for the better) from Russia and must understand that Russia is never going to adopt or implement values and principles of governing the state and society that originate from elsewhere. The West gave Russia a head start with membership of the G8 and the NATO-Russia Founding Act, naively trying to integrate it and shape it after the West’s image. The most important and final rule according to Giles is: do not think you get to choose whether or not to wage a war with Russia. This is naturally decided by the “Putin collective”. In fact, Russia has been in a state of war with the West for years, although the latter didn’t wish it. This involves so-called hybrid warfare, which means that Moscow attacks the West with all possible means except (so far) military power, which is applied in proxy wars and crises (for instance, in Syria and Venezuela). It is Russia, not NATO countries, that decides whether there is going to be a military conflict in the Baltic Sea or Black Sea region. The Alliance must deter Russia in order to avoid war, not vice versa.
Unfortunately, many Western leaders do not read Tyutchev’s poetry, Giles’s books or similar sources of wisdom. Russia’s zero-sum game and the motives for its behaviour and goals are clear and transparent to everyone in the West, but they still think that Moscow will not go too far. They believe that Russia may be ready to compromise and find solutions to crisis situations. But this is not the reality—Putin’s Russia only makes fake compromises for its own benefit alone, if this does not involve giving up anything important or backing off from its positions. For instance, the exchange of prisoners with Ukraine, in the course of which Russia released 35 kidnapped hostages—who had become useless and troublesome to the Kremlin—in exchange for Volodymyr Tsemakh, who was worth his weight in gold and could have testified against Russia at the International Criminal Court in The Hague (in the case over flight MH17) with earth-shattering results. Putin’s condition for the prisoner exchange was to get Tsemakh back. Some Western leaders (including, unfortunately, the Pope) were quick to paint an extremely positive picture of this event.
Ukraine will remain a fundamental bone of contention between the West and Russia for many years to come. Steinmeier, who is no longer a significant player in his symbolic position as the president of Germany, offered his own formula to resolve the situation, which is naturally ideal for the Kremlin. Under Steinmeier’s suggestion, “free” local elections would be organised in occupied Donbas (the so-called “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk), de facto outside Ukrainian sovereignty. These elections would be monitored and approved by international observers, who the Kremlin must naturally consider suitable and must fulfil instructions (given by Russia). To top it all, Ukraine must grant special legal status to the occupied regions before the elections. Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and defence minister Sergey Shoygu introduced this grand plan to their French counterparts, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Florence Parly, on 9 September in Moscow. The grave expressions on the ministers’ faces during the press conference that followed the “open” discussion showed that such an approach was not acceptable to either Paris or Berlin, not to mention Ukraine.
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is inexperienced in practical political matters, especially compared to Vladimir Putin, who has governed Russia for 20 years. The Big Brother tested Zelensky and showed who was the boss immediately after he was elected, for instance by making a point of not congratulating him on winning or upon his inauguration. It is likely that the Putin collective believe they have lots of opportunities for cutting the Gordian Knot of Ukraine, which is why the Kremlin continues to be resolute and confident in matters concerning the country. French president Emmanuel Macron cranked up the Western charm offensive in May, starting with the unfortunate decision of the Council of Europe to allow Russia to continue, without any special conditions, as a full member of an organisation known for protecting democracy and human rights. Macron raised many eyebrows by hosting Putin in August and declaring that Russia was “deeply European”. This was not merely an attempt to flatter Putin, but a very French—slightly philosophical and poetic—message that Europe wants Russia on its side because transatlantic relations are uncertain and the influence (and threat) of China is growing.
Whether Macron had the right to do so or not, he spoke on behalf of Europe. He is the only European (Union) leader who Russia is willing to consider, because the UK is writhing in the agony of Brexit and Germany’s political future is not clear either (Angela Merkel is unfortunately leaving the stage, the popularity of the AfD is increasing and the future coalition and chancellor are not yet known). Macron wishes to breathe new life into the Minsk Process and the Normandy Format in order to find a solution to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Whether the terms and conditions of the agreement that are acceptable to Russia, France and Germany are also acceptable to Ukraine is an entirely different story. Does Macron know the background to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine?
In 1994, Russia, the US and the UK signed the Budapest Memorandum and guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In return, Ukraine gave its nuclear weapons to Russia. Twenty years later, one of the guarantors decided to trample Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity brutally underfoot while the other two completely missed the plotting and preparations for the event and were unable to (and could not) prevent the aggression from happening. Ukraine had to stand up for itself, but the US and the UK, who condemned Russia’s behaviour, hesitated for quite some time before providing assistance (including in the military domain) to Ukraine.
The 1994 Western guarantors were left out of official negotiations with Russia in the spring of 2014, because they failed to fulfil their purpose. Instead, Russia chose France and Germany, which it considered more suitable—the same countries that were firmly against granting Ukraine and Georgia a roadmap to NATO accession at the 2008 summit in Bucharest (which did not save Georgia from Russia’s aggression a few months later). France and Germany are clearly meant to become the next failures who play Ukraine into the hands of the Putin collective in the name of peace and global balance. In the Normandy Format, the two great European countries represent themselves, not the EU. The Union comprises many member states—such as the Baltic states and Poland—that have a deep interest in Ukraine’s fate and supporting the country. Using the Normandy Format to exclude the EU from the negotiating table, which is a natural and important place for it to be, means another victory for Russia’s policy of divide-and-conquer.
President Zelensky should understand that “peace”—which he promised to his people so that Ukrainian soldiers would no longer have to die, and which Russia is willing to sell to Ukraine on terrible terms—does not mean a final resolution to the Donbas situation. The aforementioned “formula” is authored by Steinmeier as much as the six-point peace plan was by Sarkozy, who took it with him from Moscow to Tbilisi in August 2008. There is no doubt that both peace plans were written in the Kremlin. The conclusion of a new so-called “peace” will be followed by new Normandy negotiations or based on another format but, in reality, there will be nothing left to discuss or decide other than the formalisation of Russia’s political victory, because Ukraine will already have surrendered in the name of “peace”. It is to be hoped that Zelensky turns out to be a strong leader who is not prone to making quick and imprudent concessions despite his inexperience.
The most important player in the West’s charm offensive towards Russia is US president Donald Trump, who must carry his Russian stigma until the end of his term (or terms) of office. We know little of the subjects discussed at the Trump–Putin meeting last July in Helsinki, but some topics have been revealed indirectly over time. For instance, Trump’s wish to readmit Russia to the G7 group of leading Western states left the West once again divided (at its summit in Biarritz, France in August 2019). If the US under Trump stopped backing Ukraine (and also France and Germany in this context) despite the position of Congress, it would be increasingly easy for Russia to assert itself and achieve a final solution there. The new scandal over Trump’s alleged request to Zelensky that Ukrainian law-enforcement authorities should investigate the Ukrainian business activities of Joe Biden’s son (Biden senior may be Trump’s rival in next year’s presidential election) could play a significant role in this. It is clear that Trump’s support for Ukraine depends on president Zelensky’s helpfulness and how the scandal progresses, including Congress’s ability to impeach Trump successfully.
The current Western charm campaign towards Russia is not the first and won’t be the last. All previous attempts (for instance, the efforts of Germany and France and president Barack Obama’s Russian “reset” in 2009) failed and there is no reason to believe that Russia is genuinely ready to improve its relationship with the West (notwithstanding the Kremlin’s official rhetoric). Rather, the question is the potential consequences of yet another attempt to relieve tension. Ukraine may not see a third Maidan after a ten-year gap (in 2024), because the Putin collective is determined to resolve the Ukraine question (in Russia’s favour, of course) before then. Some leaders of large Western countries believe that Russia can be pulled away from China and brought closer to Europe in the current situation, but this is wishful thinking. Russia and China are currently joined by the shared survival instinct of authoritarian regimes and a common ideological enemy (the West). There may come a time when Russia and the West must once again stand against a common enemy as formal allies, but this might not bring them together as it did in World War II. The main thing is to ensure that Russia’s growing confidence and the West’s political weakness do not cause the Kremlin to make miscalculations with catastrophic consequences (such as provoking a military conflict between Russia and NATO).
Karmo Tüür, political scientist
Every now and then, attempts have been made to engage positively with Russia, both on a bilateral and a collective level. The majority have failed, but these failures serve as a good opportunity to analyse past mistakes. Kalev Stoicescu has taken on this commendable task, for which one can only praise him.
At the same time, the author uses a famous, oft-recited line of poetry, according to which Russia cannot be understood or measured, as the opening line and leitmotif of his article. This thesis must always be challenged, because Russia is not a unique and unanalysable phenomenon in the system of international relations. Russia can be read—one merely has to understand (not approve of, as the author also stresses) its motives, objectives and the means used to achieve them.
One possible method is comparison. Imagine a schoolyard bully. Whether their behaviour is caused by their low self-esteem (“the West has a better quality of life than I do”) and the subsequent need to make themselves seem more important by picking a fight (“the West provoked us!”) is not very important. Attempts to engage positively with the thug will in any case leave the engager exposed to ridicule, which will sooner or later lead to him or her beating up the person trying to win their favour—simply because this is how it should be done. This is the result that Stoicescu warns us about.
The only way to avoid this scenario is not by Facebook posts or expressing deep frustration, but through actions that prove every breach of the rules is followed by consequences.
The Future of the EU is Defined by its Ability to Balance on the Great Power Axis
Vootele Päi, observer
Kalev Stoicescu concludes his article by stating that the key figure in the Western charm attack is Donald Trump, but Jacques Chirac’s foreign minister Hubert Védrine believes that this is only the beginning. Védrine is convinced that, once Trump is re-elected, he will create a new power axis between the US and Russia, which will completely disregard the interests and needs of the EU—particularly in a situation in which our relationship with Russia is even worse than it was during the Cold War.
At the same time, Trump has created a situation in which the EU must reassess its security architecture. In Estonia, security policy has thus far been seen in simple terms of addition and subtraction: x US soldiers plus x Danish soldiers equals x security. These calculations do not apply in a world where US institutions are paralysed2 and China is not ashamed of its global ambitions (which are justified by both its population numbers and its GDP), while the UK presents ultimatums to Brussels and is preparing to establish a border with Ireland. Security must be viewed in broader terms, surpassing soldiers and guns. The US is currently upsetting the EU’s economic security with a trade war and weakening its political stability by interfering in the domestic policy of the Union and its member states.
Discussions about relations with Russia often include the rhetorical question of what Russia has done for us to merit calling it back to the negotiating table. Let me ask instead: where has the current Russia policy led us? Has Russia withdrawn from Syria? Is there peace in Ukraine? Has Georgia been given back the territories it lost? Our current path has led us nowhere and we can follow it no longer.
Leaving passive research aside, Estonia’s current diplomatic capability towards Russia is next to nothing, whereas Paris and Berlin cannot be underestimated. Washington’s objective is clearly to maintain hegemony, increasing control over the EU’s economy and foreign policy. This, however, is not in the interests of an independent EU. We may be reluctant about the intentions of France and Germany, but we might soon find ourselves in an awkward situation—for instance, our MPs may boycott the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Council of Europe due to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, while the Ukrainian president tries to reach an agreement with pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas and Luhansk.
Emmanuel Macron’s threat perception must not be underestimated. Let us recall that his election campaign was targeted by both Russian cyber-attacks and fake news, but he did not become a victim—unlike the UK or the US. Between the lines, one can guess that Macron sees Russia as a country whose GDP is comparable to that of Spain, where both the population numbers and Putin’s support are dwindling, and which is shifting into China’s sphere of influence, which is growing rapidly. The French do not see the current period as a moment of weakness but a window of opportunity for strengthening the EU’s position—preferably before Putin tries to compensate for his weakness with another venture akin to Georgia and Ukraine.
With Trump at the helm of the US and the UK politically paralysed, a rethinking of the EU’s security architecture is inevitable. In February 2018 Thomas Gomart, Director of the think-tank IFRI, introduced the idea of an EU that protects and realises its interests, balancing on the trilateral axis of the US, China and Russia. It is thus a priority for the EU to take a place at the table, not on or under it.
1 Keir Giles, Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia to Confront the West. London: Royal Institute of International Affairs.
2 See Edward Lucas, “Edward Lucas: Trumpi isiklik agenda ei ole USA huvides”, Postimees, 1 October 2019. arvamus.postimees.ee/6790829/edward-lucas-trumpi-i…
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.