February 20, 2020

Dialogue for Agreeing to Disagree

French President Emmanuel Macron (C-L) talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin (C-R) after a Normandy format summit in Paris, France, 10 December 2019.
French President Emmanuel Macron (C-L) talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin (C-R) after a Normandy format summit in Paris, France, 10 December 2019.

The word “dialogue” comes from Greek and means “speaking through”. Dialogue among states in various formats is usually understood as the means to communicate directly between governments in order to settle differences, relieve tensions and pave the way for solving disputes or conflicts through negotiations to reach agreements.

Russia confronts the West on virtually all fronts, even regarding the interpretation of World War II and the preceding events that led to the outbreak of global war. The Kremlin challenges Europe and North America politically, militarily, economically, both in the information space and cyber domain, as well as through the provocative operations of its special services.

The Kremlin has given no sign whatsoever that it stands ready to make changes in its foreign and security policy for the sake of improving relations with the West. The so-called “collective Putin” is rather determined to deepen and consolidate the present regime in Moscow that consequently does not leave any room for manoeuvre vis-à-vis the European Union, NATO and the United States.

Russia pretends that it has done nothing wrong and therefore does not need to alter its policy. The Kremlin claims that it would be ready to “normalize” relations with the West if the West fulfils certain “conditions”. In other words, attacking neighbours, grabbing territories by force and undermining Western nations by all possible means is “normal” (not wrong). What is then the purpose of dialogue with Russia – to accept this “normality”?

On 15 February 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron made yet another ouverture at the Munich Security Conference, where he stated that Europe needs to strive for better relations with Russia. What about Moscow? Doesn’t the Kremlin need to show as well that it intends to make real efforts to improve East-West relations?

Macron argued that sanctions imposed on Russia are not working because the “collective Putin” has not changed its policy and behaviour. He proposed that a “credible” approach to dealing with Russia is to engage the Kremlin in a “strategic dialogue” without stepping back from our (Western) principles, including those concerning “frozen conflicts” (a hint to the Donbas and the Minsk Agreements).

The problem is that Western and Russian principles are almost entirely contradictory, and neither side is willing or able to give them up or make substantial compromises. In addition, Macron’s statement considerably weakens Europe’s position – he said that he does not propose lifting sanctions, but he clearly implied that he considers them useless (which is actually a talking point from the Russian official narrative).

The French President added that he believes in politics. However, Russia plainly conducts a modern version of 19th century Realpolitik. Europe cannot engage in or accept Russia’s game. The Kremlin hosts a czar and conducts imperialist policies, but Europe is no longer the home of Napoleons and Bismarcks.

One of the main drivers for seeking to “improve” relations is likely big companies in France (and also in Germany) lobbying in hopes of making (and continue to make) big business in Russia. However, these Western political and economic actors tend to “forget” that Russia is not a state domestically governed by the rule of law, and it has broken literally all its international commitments. The basis for Russia to make and respect agreements is Vladimir Putin’s word, but his word can easily turn into a game of Russian roulette.

How has Moscow responded to Macron’s unilateral benevolent initiative? By demanding that the West should change its “systemic approach” to Russia and by issuing three obviously unacceptable preconditions. First, the European Union must alter its strategy towards Russia (by terminating its current sanctions). Secondly, NATO should end its policy of deterrence (i.e. by pulling out troops from its eastern flank and leaving Allies from Estonia to Bulgaria at Russia’s mercy). And thirdly, Europe must become “independent” in its relations with Russia (which means to break the transatlantic link).

The Kremlin’s response is sufficiently clear and can be hardly misunderstood or misinterpreted even by the heartiest Russlands Verstehers. Russia pretends to stand strong on a position of force while the West keeps lamenting about “Westlessness” and all its problems and weaknesses. President Putin would certainly go for a 1938 Munich type of “dialogue”.

At present, we have unfortunately no other option for dialogue with Russia than to agree to disagree. The West has not pushed Russia towards China. This was Moscow’s own choice, as it was to start and exacerbate its confrontation with the West. Only China’s growing political, economic and military power may induce Russia to seek friendly relations with and support from the West. That will probably happen in the not too distant future.

Post-Putin Russia will have the chance to recognize that the West and Western influence are not “anti-Russian” and that we can peacefully co-exist and cooperate. Nevertheless, having the chance does not necessarily mean taking the opportunity.