May 18, 2020

Reinventing Russia and Imagining Peace

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron (C) next to Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte during the International Libya Conference in Berlin, Germany, 19 January 2020. Macron has called upon a better dialogue with Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron (C) next to Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte during the International Libya Conference in Berlin, Germany, 19 January 2020. Macron has called upon a better dialogue with Russia.

Six years after Russia annexed Crimea, a number of articulate and influential people in the West have become firmly convinced that a way out of the impasse must be found.

On the face of it, the proposition requires little justification. The toll exacted by the war in Ukraine has been onerous, and whilst there has been no major fighting in five years, the economic and humanitarian burdens remain considerable, and the risk of wider conflict persists. Moreover, recrimination and pressure now characterise the relationship between Russia and those whom its leadership acidly calls ‘our Western partners’. In the political establishment, the most eminent figure determined to break the mould is France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, who has spoken eloquently about the need to ‘tie Russia and Europe back together’.1 But examples of restlessness can also be found within the expert community, where some have turned the search for compromise into a duty bordering on obsession. The latest report of the International Crisis Group (ICG) is an elaborately even-handed example of this genre.2 It is hardly incidental that Ukraine’s not so experienced president, Volodymyr Zelensky, believes that ending the war with Russia is his most urgent task.

More or less explicit in these approaches are three premises. The first is that the risks of compromise — which must by definition entail some modification of Western (and Ukrainian) policy — pose fewer dangers than the indefinite prolongation of the status quo. The second is that such a prolongation is not in Russia’s interests. The third, which does not necessarily follow from the second, is that negotiation  of a mutually beneficial compromise is within the bounds of realism. The second proposition is the key one, because Russia’s interests are the fulcrum upon which these calculations turn. Unless Russia is willing to end the war on terms that others can accept, these approaches are most unlikely to produce the results intended.

The unpalatable fact is that Western constructs of Russia’s interests have tended to be  poor guides to its policy. Four and a half years before it attacked Ukraine and over five years before significant Western sanctions were applied, then Vice President Joseph Biden opined that Russia’s problems were serious and ‘over the next fifteen years…not sustainable’. Eleven years after that forecast, they are still being sustained, and whilst Biden was prudent enough to warn that Russia could become even more belligerent in the short term, he was wise enough not to say how long the short term might last.3

In 2014 Russia’s most senior representatives warned that the current international order was ‘deformed’, that ‘the Baltic states should consider events in Ukraine and draw conclusions’ and that the West should ‘relearn the lessons of Yalta’ or risk war.4 These injunctions followed years of statements to the effect that Ukraine is not a proper state, that a third of its present territory was ‘given’ to it by the Soviet government, and that its independence amounts to nothing less than the ‘division of Russia’.5 If Russia is to come ‘back  to Europe’, should it be on this basis or some other? If on another basis, who in Russia has proposed one? Rather like Biden in 2009, supporters of the Macron initiative have largely argued ex cathedra: Russia is isolated, its regime is becoming weaker, the Middle East is becoming a quagmire, and the occupation of Donbas is strengthening Ukrainian nationalism.6 Other supporters, equally well placed, have argued the opposite:  that ‘Russia is advancing in own directions’, whilst concluding that this makes ‘engagement’ even more crucial.  But the ideas advanced for ‘engaging’ Russia are breathtakingly vague.

The singular weakness of Macron’s vision is the absence of any evidence that the Kremlin shares it. Based on discourse and actions, it would be fair to argue that Russia’s political strategy to weaken European and Transatlantic cohesion is working, that it is regarded with grudging respect from Libya to Iran, that its deviousness and malice are fraying the nerves of Zelensky’s conflicted  administration; not least, that hardships at home and the constraints of sanctions, whilst far from trivial, are not of the magnitude required to challenge core  priorities and beliefs. One can easily discern that some in the French foreign policy establishment perceive these things themselves.

Although the ICG report is a work of policy analysis rather than an exercise in statesmanship, it suffers from similar deficiencies. Nobly, its authors declare that ‘trad[ing] off Ukrainian sovereignty’, ‘questioning the principle of territorial integrity or the right to choose allies’ would not be ‘desirable’.7 But at the same time, they assert that the path to accord begins by ‘honestly acknowledging Russia’s security concerns and being willing to seek ways to work with Moscow to alleviate them’. How is it possible to alleviate these concerns without eroding these very principles? Why should Russia surrender its leverage, position and control for anything less? The war did not begin over sanctions or weapons deployments, let alone ‘less divisive topics’ (climate change, counter-terrorism, COVID-19), where, the authors believe, cooperation might ‘reassure Russia’. It began, as was said at the time, in order to put an end to ‘US diktat’, to uphold Russia’s ‘lawful place’ in the world  and re-establish an international order based on ‘balance of power’ and ‘respect’.8  Russia does not want reassurance.  It wants changes.

For the ICG recommendations to be practical, Russia would have to be changed.  Indeed, it would have to be reinvented. The Russia that exists today is no longer a wounded partner. It is an ambitious and a threatened power, whose apprehensions have grown in direct proportion to its sense of entitlement to limit the choices and sovereignty of others.  For Putin as much as for Nikolay I, the belief that Russian civilisation transcends the borders of Russia is both an article of faith and a principle of state. This ‘civilisational’ animus complements a system of governance — collusive, neo-feudal but also autocratic — that creates points of friction between Russia and many of the countries that border it. These frictions are reinforced by a pre-1914 view of security – defence perimeters, spheres of influence, client states and civilisational ‘zones’ – that is out of kilter with the political and legal regime that ended the Cold War and arguably in defiance of the UN Charter itself.

This outlook is not set in stone, but it has an intrinsic coherence and strength. It provides a basis for rational calculation, prudence and a measure of cooperation. But it does no good pretending that it is not antagonistic to ours in essence. The Russian term for this state of affairs, protivoborstvo [antagonism, confrontation] is not a failure of statesmanship but a systemic reality. It will be overcome, when it is overcome, for systemic reasons. Negotiation is not a means of overcoming it, let alone an exercise in group therapy. It is one of the theatres in which this antagonism is played out. Whether or not we choose to approach it that way, the Russians most certainly do, as Volodymyr Zelensky is slowly learning to his cost.

There is no essential reason to suppose that the West cannot carry on as it is, let alone manage this antagonism to its advantage. We are not on a wartime footing.  Still greater defence outlays than those assumed since 2014 would be eminently affordable; the loss of trade with Russia thanks to the sanctions regime is modest, and the EU’s overall trade turnover has not been depressed.  Most of Ukraine is not on a wartime footing either, although its economy has been damaged. Even so, it has partially recovered, and in some sectors, the rupturing of ties with Russia is stimulating innovation and growth. In occupied Donbas, no one has benefited apart from mafias, brigands and the curators of conflict. It is not beyond our collective ingenuity to alleviate conditions there, but unless Ukraine wishes to surrender its fundamental liberties as a state, we will not be able to transform them. That will only occur when Russia concludes that its interests in Ukraine are damaging more important ones at home.

A case can be made that the COVID-19 crisis, amplified by the oil price collapse, might hasten that moment. To be sure, the effects of both have destabilised variables that the Kremlin believed it had mastered. That is not sufficient reason to suppose that it is more reconciled to the Helsinki-based (‘hegemonic’) security order than it was or more willing to treat Ukraine as ‘a country like any other’. Already, it is clear (q.v. the Russian politolog Dmitry Suslov) that ‘the pandemic has not softened the [international] confrontation, but has become one of its arenas’9 If the confrontation is to be ‘softened’ in future, it is less likely to be because of the pandemic than because Russia’s state leadership, more likely a future one, concludes that the goals set out in 2014 are not achievable.

The West’s policy will be an important variable in that calculation.  To realise its goals, the West first must accept the logic of long-term confrontation and reject illusory solutions. A compromise with Russia that respects core Western principles is an illusion. No compromise that Russia deems worthy of acceptance today will leave those principles intact. Putin’s resurrection of the principles of Yalta are an affront to those principles and the international order that emerged at the end of the Cold War.  Either the West bases its interests on a Europe of sovereign states, free to chart their own course, or it resigns itself to a coerced stability and the certainty of future conflicts.  Second, the collective West, both in the form of NATO and the EU, must maintain its own integrity and security, it must understand its own vulnerabilities, invest in its own resilience and capacity and accept the rigours of a hybrid peace. Third, the West should continue to help Ukraine strengthen its own capacity (to the extent it is prepared to be helped) and its own deterrent capabilities. It should never pressure Ukraine to accept second-rate and infirm solutions where its own integrity and security are concerned. To these ends, the United States and United Kingdom, as signatories of the Budapest Memorandum should return to centre stage. There should be no question of ‘selectively’ removing sanctions (pace the ICG report) until the reasons for their existence are removed.  Fourth, the West should pursue cooperation with Russia where it makes sense to do so, laying particular emphasis on the repair of the multilateral arms control regime. It should continue to trade where trade is mutually beneficial. Not least, it should take advantage of any formats for dialogue and discussion that are open to it. Finally, the West should affirm without equivocation that Russia’s internal affairs are Russia’s business. When it comes to the West’s business, we will not be asking for Russia’s blessing, and we will not be deflected by its disapproval.

The article was published first in The Insider.


1 ‘Russia is ‘Deeply European’, France’s Macron Says in Russian’, Moscow Times, 20 August 2019,

2 Peace in Ukraine I: A European War, International Crisis Group (Crisis Group Europe Report, No. 256), 28 April 2020,

3 Peter Spiegel, ‘Biden Says Weakened Russia Will Bend to US’, The Wall Street Journal, 25 July 2009,

4 Vladimir Putin, speech at Valdai International Discussion Club XI Session, 25 October 2014; senior foreign policy official’s confidential remarks at Valdai Club, 24 October 2014; Sergey Naryshkin (then Chairman of the State Duma, now Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service) ‘Dialogue rather than War: Sergey Naryshkin calls upon Western leaders to study the “lessons of Yalta”’[Dialog a ne voyna: Sergey Naryshkin prizva liderov Zapada uchit’ “uroki Yalty”] Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 5 February 2015.

5 Putin to President Bush, Kommersant, 7 April 2008,; at Bucharest NATO Summit 4 April 2008,; Website of the President of the Russian Federation (2014), ‘Pryamaya liniya s Vladimirom Putinom [‘Direct line with Vladimir Putin’]’, 17 April,; (at Anton Denikin Memorial 24 May 2009

6 Discussions with French politicians and senior officials under the Chatham House rule in Tallinn, Helsinki and Brussels.

7 ICG op.cit., p 13.

8 Putin Valdai Club speech 25 October 2014 and Sergey Lavrov to MGIMO and Diplomatic Academy of MFA, 1 September 2017, 2017

9 Dmitry Suslov, Kommersant, 7 April 2020