Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Russia and Europe - Friend or foe?


by John Pedler, former British diplomat now a diplomatic consultant based in France.

As the Georgia crisis continues amid wide denunciation of Russia, it is important to remember the fundamentals of Russia’s relations with the countries of the European Union.

Russia is culturally, historically, and in its most important area a European country and Russians consider themselves a European people.  At least since Peter the Great in the 17th Century moulded his country on European lines, Russia has played a major role in Europe’s history culminating in its major role in defeating first Napoleon and then Nazi Germany.

One cannot imagine today’s European culture without Russian classical music and ballet, and its literature and poetry – to mention only composers Prokoviev, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, and writers Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsin. Christianity too, is basic to Russian culture – for hundreds of years Russians defended the Christian faith against numerous forces – notably the Golden Hoarde. The Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches share essentially the same theology despite a millennium of priestly disputes.   

Russia temporarily left the European fold with the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin’s purges, and the Cold War. Since the fall of the Soviet Union the Russian people – even the only moderately affluent - have to a large extent reintegrated with Europeans with whom they feel more at home than with any other people.

Unfortunately – because the European Union has no united voice in world affairs - it was not fellow European countries but the United States that played the dominant role in Western policy towards Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. So American laissez faire capitalism, not the EU’s more controlled capitalism with its emphasis on welfare, was adopted in the chaotic and socially divided Russia of President Yeltsin.

The result was the return to authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin – welcomed by the bulk of Russians who were suffering worse economic conditions than under Gorbachev’s USSR. The so-abrupt descent from super-power status was far more humiliating for Russians than, say, for the British whose descent from world dominance took place over half a century. But when Gorbachev declared the end of the Cold War, the Russian Federation that emerged remained a great power – “the only power capable of destroying the United States”.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union President G.H.W. Bush carried on President Reagan’s policy of d├ętente with the Start I treaty (Strategic Arms Control), ratified in 1992, and the signature of the Start II treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction). At first NATO had no plans to expand eastwards after the fall of the Berlin wall, but agreement had to be reached once the DDR in East Germany came to an end, to ensure that all of a unified Germany remained militarily tied to the West. So, with Russian consent, NATO came to include eastern Germany. It was to end there.

According to Gorbachev (he repeated this recently) after the fall of the Berlin Wall the US (under the first President Bush) pledged not to expand NATO to include the East European countries. That there was any binding pledge is though denied by Robert B. Zoellick who was at the time a State Department officer concerned with negotiations with the USSR. Whatever the nature of the understanding, there was soon a major debate in the US and in NATO countries about the wisdom of expanding NATO to the former Warsaw Pact countries and hence to the old Soviet frontier against Russian opposition. The question was: why raise Russian suspicions and risk the partnership it offered the West, when NATO had only come into being to counter the threat from a Soviet Union that no longer existed?

But the US and some others saw NATO as the essential structure binding Europe and the US and Canada politically as well as militarily – a solution acceptable to Russia. But soon the drive for NATO’s expansion eastwards began under President Clinton – at the 1997 Madrid Summit, the membership of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary was accepted over the opposition of a still weak Russia. Still, Russia continued cooperation with the West on several issues while warning against further expansion which it would see as a threat.

America’s move away from a new era of cooperation made possible by the end of the Cold War, towards a unipolar world dominated by the US, alarmed not only Russia but China. One major turning point from (diminished) cooperation to (open) confrontation came on 15 June 2001, when President G.W. Bush announced the intention to expand NATO to all the former Warsaw Pact countries. That same day Russia, China and some central Asian countries established the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as the ‘new security concept’ – i.e. to counter US unipolarism.

Then, less than 3 months later came ‘9/11’ and there was a brief return towards co-operation: Russia and China also had problems with Muslim minorities and an interest in countering international terrorism. 

But this evaporated with Bush’s famous Axis of Evil Speech in January 2002 after which it soon became clear that the US would invade Iraq primarily to achieve a dominating military and political position in the Middle East – a point insufficiently understood in the West. This has been thwarted. Instead the occupation of Iraq has had the effect not only of increasing Iran’s influence in Iraq and also the Middle East despite Sunni/Shia differences, but in greatly reducing Russia’s (and China’s) fears of a New American Century (the name of the neo-conservative think tank). Over-extended militarily, financially strapped, and losing thanks to the Iraq war its hope of establishing a  unipolar world, the US is now seen by Russia as becoming,  not a paper tiger for is power and influence remain immense, but simply as another great power which can successfully be confronted. As for NATO, Russia sees the fissures in that organisation widening as its first ‘out of area’ operation in Afghanistan threatens to end in defeat.

To sum up – despite a fairly promising start under President G.H.W. Bush, PresIdent Clinton failed properly to follow up the partnership option with Russia. Russia was largely ignored, and its real national interest regarding its ‘near abroad’ was disregarded in favour of an unnecessary and provocative expansion of NATO.

By the autumn of 2007 it was already clear that not only was the US overstretched militarily, but that it was in deep and deepening financial trouble. On 2 October 2007, against this background of American decline, President Putin made a key speech on Russian foreign policy at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy. (It was largely written off in the West as anti-American ranting but it deserves to be read by anyone concerned with European/Russian relations). He rejected both the concept and the possibility of an American unipolar world.  He referred to the failure of America’s “almost uncontained hyper use of force…. plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts… Finding a political solution settlement also becomes almost impossible”. He strongly criticised NATO’s pretentions. At the end of his carefully prepared and reasonable speech he said – “And of course we would like to interact with responsible and independent partners with whom we can work together in constructing a fair and democratic world order that would ensure security and prosperity not only for a select few, but for all”.

Whatever one’s views of Mr. Putin and Russia, this speech surely deserved to be followed up to establish how sincere the Russian Federation was about this offer of collaboration in place of confrontation.

But sadly, the Europeans – still divided by the Iraq war and associated unipolarism – made no coordinated move to do this. As for the United States,    
the response came from President G.W. Bush on 3 April 2008 when he pressed NATO to accept as members Ukraine, Georgia and Afghanistan – this against the opposition of France and Germany.  
To sum up, we in the West baited an apparently friendly bear and got a slap from its paw – largely as a result of NATO expansion coupled with our failure to ensure that the Georgian government acted with the utmost restraint while Europe and America mounted a joint effort to defuse the long standing tension over Abkhasia and over South Ossetia (an area divided by Stalin from its northern half).

Is it too late to test the sincerity of Russia’s offer of joining in the cooperative era made possible by the fall of the Soviet Union? I believe not for Russia’s long term national interest and orientation is towards the closest possible relations with Europe. But there are two pre-conditions – the next US President, whatever he has to say to satisfy ‘patriotism’ must make it clear that – facing up to America’s decline during the disastrous G.W. Bush years – that the unipolar, hegemonistic, neo-conservative period is over and that the US now seeks to lead in creating a cooperative era.

Second, the European Union must find a single voice for the most important aspects of its international relations. This too, is not impossible even though the Union is currently all but paralysed over what sort of Union it should eventually be. On the great issue of world cooperation or confrontation all members of the Union have basically the same interest. The problem lies with members understandably afraid of Russia, and members who believe American unipolarism has been proved to be a step too far. If Russia is sincere about cooperation should America clearly renounce unipolarism, then the split among the Europeans would be healed. The way towards a partnership with Russia would be opened.                                                              
[1,598 wds. Ends

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