January 24, 2024

Russia and the future of European security order. The point of no return?

Russia’s war against Ukraine has broken the post-Cold War European security order and created consensus in NATO and the EU that Russia is the most significant threat to security in the Euro-Atlantic region.

On January 22, the ICDS gathered a panel of distinguished speakers – Martin Kragh, Deputy Director of the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS) and Senior Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, James Sherr, OBE, Honorary Fellow of the ICDS, and Eero Kristjan Sild, an International Security Master’s student at Sciences Po – for a seminar, moderated by Dr Kristi Raik, Deputy Director of the ICDS, to discuss the future of European security order, Moscow’s vision of European security architecture, and why the latter is incompatible with the Western approach.

With valuable contributions from the seminar’s esteemed guests, the panel debated whether and why the West needs to abandon the dream of building a common order with Russia in the foreseeable future, as well as what shall be done instead to strengthen European security. Dwelling on several aspects of Russian policy, the experts scrutinised the Russian worldview, arguing that it remained consistent through decades if not centuries and thus helped us to both explain and counter its actions and behaviour today.

It was pointed out that the role of ideas that underpin the worldview is what makes Russia different from other autocracies and that Putin is a symptom of the system. The Russian leadership is convinced that Russia is a great military power; the West is decadent and has no will to push back; and that Ukraine, as a runaway Russian province, has no right to exist. Moreover, Ukraine has been seen by Russia as an inseparable part of the Russian identity. These convictions have been a consistent and structural factor in Moscow’s decision-making – in the invasion of Ukraine, in particular – that might seem irrational to the West but is logical to Russia. The panellists emphasised that the ideological component in Russian foreign policy should, therefore, be taken seriously by the Western community.

The speakers further contemplated the Russian understanding of geopolitics, which is rather different from that of the West since it comprises historical and cultural dimensions, as well as the inherent connections between Moscow’s external and internal policies. Hence, for any change to become possible, a revolution of the mind has to take place within Russia, with a traumatic external defeat being what might usher such processes.

Although the means to the goal might have evolved since the Cold War, the Russian intent – i.e., to have spheres of influence in Europe – not only has not changed but has been persistently articulated, with the most vivid examples being Vladimir Putin’s Munich speech of 2007, then-President Medvedev’s security proposals of 2008, and most explicitly Moscow’s draft security agreements sent to the US and NATO in late 2021. Russia has always viewed NATO, led by the US, as the only forum to discuss European security. Thus, having largely disregarded the EU as an actor, as well as having brutally violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of several other countries in Europe, it might now view itself at war with NATO – be it a metaphysical or a real one.

On the other hand, Europe has experienced tectonic shifts since the end of the Cold War and has long passed the point when it might have been possible to go back to the status quo, which relied on the balance of power between the US and the USSR. By occupying foreign lands, Russia has established imaginary borders for itself and created multiple grey zones in the region – an issue that would further complicate any future security agreements with Moscow. By failing to honour its previous commitments, Moscow has undermined trust in its very potential to negotiate. The problem is not that we do not have the treaties but that we cannot enforce them.

The other problem identified by the panel is the West’s strategic ambiguity and failure to have clarity when communicating with Russia. Definitive collective steps, such as providing a path to membership in both NATO and the EU for the Eastern neighbourhood countries, reinforced by Western deterrence, are necessary to curb Moscow’s aggressive ambitions and claims that go beyond Ukraine.

2024 will undoubtedly prove to be a difficult year, yet we have reasons to expect that the year 2025 may take a different trajectory – but only if the West makes the right decisions and stays true to them.

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