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Moving Forward: The Future of Western-Russian Relations

In March the Dahrendorf team at LSE launched a competition for PhD students to submit a short essay or blog post on the themes being addressed by either the Europe, Russia & Ukraine Working Group or the Europe & North America Working Group. The aim was to encourage and promote new research in these areas from early career academics. This blog post by Alexander Graef is the second of our three winning entries.

In 2000 Robert Cooper published a short book in which he declared the end of the European balance-of-power system. Instead he saw the emergence of three types of states around the world: the pre-modern, the modern and the post-modern. According to Cooper, the main characteristics of the latter were the rejection of force in international relations, the irrelevance of borders, and security based on transparency, mutual openness and interdependence. To create stability, the post-modern West would need to engage in a kind of liberal imperialism by externalizing its own institutions. The key question for him concerned the future of Russia: Would it become a post-modern state and join the liberal alliance?

More than fifteen years later the answer is clear. Neither has liberal imperialism produced stability around the globe, nor has Russia become a post-modern state. Even worse, the ongoing conflict in and around Ukraine, including the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, has severely damaged Western-Russian relations. Sometimes the political rhetoric seems to be even more negative and alarmistic than during the Cold War. An endless number of voices speculates what Putin “really wants” and how to deal with an increasingly alienating Russian foreign policy.

In the West the common assumption is that Russia has broken the rules and needs to be punished. Moderate liberals hope that under conditions of economic pressure President Putin will eventually change course. At some point, so the idea, the Russian political elite will realize that aligning with Western norms and values is the only feasible option. Those who hold a more radical view do not share this optimism. For them Russia is a revisionist power that wants to destroy the European Union. At the same time they ridicule the Russian official great-power pose by pointing to the inherent weaknesses of the country’s economy. Considering their values and identities under threat, they believe the conflict is existential and are in for the long haul.

Although both positions seem to make sense on the face of it, they are both unrealistic. The first one wrongly assumes that Russia’s interests today are still similar to those of the West. Its proponents promote dialogue as a solution to what is an essential difference. They treat Russia as a misbehaving child that needs to be coaxed in the right direction. At best they allow for cosmetic changes in the security architecture to accommodate Russia’s openly expressed anger. The second position, by contrast, takes the rhetoric of Russian media, mainly directed at the domestic audience, at face value. The great majority of the Russian political elite, however, is neither anti-European, nor particularly anti-Western – least of all President Putin. The conflict is about interests, not civilizations.

Nevertheless, the official Western and Russian narratives that currently exist about the state of security affairs in Europe are incompatible. If there was any doubt about this, the final report of the Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project will teach us better. This is not about Ukraine. The misunderstandings run deeper. Similar to the situation after the Georgian-Russian War in 2009, Russia is talking about nothing less but a fundamental reformation of the European security architecture. Back then the Medvedev-led initiative for a new security treaty was met with little enthusiasm. Instead, it was perceived as a Trojan horse that would undermine NATO. Today it is even less likely that such a grand design could find any serious consideration in the EU.

However, any attempt to change the perceptions of Russia’s elite regarding the reasons for the current crisis will not be successful either. Moreover, more economic and political pressure or a militaristic rhetoric will only lead to another rallying around the flag. The current sanction regime is a case in point: two years after its establishment, it seems to serve much more as a legitimizing tool in European domestic politics than an effective instrument in foreign policy towards Russia.

At present it is therefore neither the time to rethink the European security architecture completely, nor to hope that in the long run minor, symbolic changes will accommodate Russian interests. The first, if possible at all, needs more time and serious preparation. The second is simply out of question. Against this background it is important to differentiate between those issues on which cooperation is still possible, and those which are better left untouched, at least for the time being. The latter includes the general narrative of European security and the status of Crimea. The former ranges from youth exchange to the fight against terrorism.

What we therefore need is more realism in our relations to Russia. In the coming years both sides will have to focus on what is tangible and achievable in pragmatic terms, instead of championing double standards and moral outrage.

About the Author: Alexander Graef, PhD candidate and Research Associate at the University of St. Gallen. He received his BA in Cultural Studies from the European University Viadrina and holds MA degrees in International Relations from the Free University Berlin and the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). In the past, he worked on projects for the German Council on Foreign Relations, the German Embassy Moscow, the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. In 2011 he was the head of the German Delegation at the Y20 Summit in Paris. In 2014/2015 he participated in the Egon Bahr Fellowship Program. His doctoral thesis deals with Russian expert networks in foreign and security policy. His main research areas include Russian foreign policy, the Politics of Expertise and International Relations theory.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.