The choice of title of this ELN report – Defusing future crises in the shared neighbourhood – underlines the difficulties the West now faces in relations with Russia. In recent years the Putin regime has successfully constructed a narrative of Western encroachment on Russian interests, leading to the potential destabilisation of Russia that shapes domestic politics. Since the Crimea episode, the West’s portrayal of Russia is of a state which not only tears up the rule book but – with Moscow’s alleged involvement in the Trump election and its blatant support for le Pen and non-establishment political forces in other European countries – is actively undermining stability in the West. Attention in Western capitals is focused on deterrence and containment, with only rhetorical calls for re-engagement with Russia. As for the ‘shared’ neighbourhood, there are few if any signs of a shared vision among Russia and Western countries that might lead to the resolution of regional conflicts and create a benign security and trade environment.
Much of this is reflected in the first section of the report. Two interrelated points may be highlighted here. The first is that the West’s ‘transformative’ agenda in the wider neighbourhood has hit the buffers. Despite continuing governance and capacity-building assistance to partners such as Ukraine and Georgia, the EU’s Global Strategy rests on ‘principled pragmatism’ and Brussels has emphasised that the European Neighbourhood Policy ‘will take stabilisation as its main political priority’ in its current mandate. The second relates to the ‘process of change in Europe’ that, as Frear and Kearns suggest, both Western states and Russia struggle to comprehend and therefore to manage: external competition in the post-Soviet space, in terms of both security and economic governance, often overshadows the complex patterns of political, social and economic change and role of domestic actors in regional conflicts and contests.
These developments, and the uncertainties that underlie them, shape the analysis in the second section. A Belarusian ‘power crisis’, and the intervention by Moscow that would most likely occur if Minsk were, like Kyiv, to edge closer to the West, may indeed destabilise the region further and usher in a long-term period of even more intense competition. Europe’s ability to mount a cohesive response by tackling what it sees as the underlying causes of poor governance, and the extent of US engagement under the Trump administration, are highly uncertain; the prospect of any kind of intervention by NATO is remote. But equally, a repeat of Russia’s tactics in Ukraine and Georgia would solve none of the problems Moscow faces. A key one, as Frear and Kearns point out, is its ability to manage local sub-state actors (a topic that warrants further research). The assumption that Moscow is firmly in control of events in the neighbourhood is questionable.
The latter scenarios focus on lethal military incidents. Although a serious escalation resulting from a clash of militaries or a civilian air incident cannot be ruled out, neither Russia nor NATO appears to want to resort to armed confrontation. A civilian airline disaster would prompt recriminations but an investigation would be obfuscated by diplomatic manoeuvring and the deployment of ‘alternative facts’. More likely – what some have called the ‘new normal’ – is a continuation of military posturing, low-level ‘hybrid’ tactics and ‘information warfare’. All the scenarios depicted are plausible and others may be added; for example, economic failure in Ukraine leading to widespread social upheaval, or the reduction of welfare provision in Russia causing unrest in major urban centres and prompting the government to react by ramping up tensions and stoking perceptions of the external threat. Imponderables abound.
The final section of the report offers recommendations on crisis avoidance – what the authors also refer to as confrontation management – and crisis management. To my mind these concepts could have been separated out more clearly as the processes they entail and the aims they pursue, and the logic of consequences flowing from this, can be very different. Crisis avoidance here appears to amount to the West taking an unambiguous interest-based approach, ‘accept[ing] the strategic implications of the choice made over Crimea’ (and by implication that the Minsk-II agreements will not work). Despite the authors’ protestations to the contrary, this looks at best like perpetuating the status quo – with only ‘asymmetrical Western attention to the region’ through EU and NATO governance assistance and capacity-building – and at worst like ceding a ‘sphere of influence’ to Russia, albeit ‘privately’ through ad hoc diplomacy. If this perception takes hold it could shape assumptions in Moscow that it can promote its political and economic norms and models with few constraints. This would further reinforce the governance divide in Europe. The Putin leadership probably realises that the West is not prepared to contest the neighbourhood militarily, and expert evidence suggests that sanctions are having only modest impact and are strengthening the impulse to entrench strategic autonomy. And Moscow has a 60,000-strong flexible and well-trained rapid reaction force to fall back on in case of resistance. The promise at the NATO Warsaw summit that ‘Allies will be prepared to counter hybrid warfare as part of collective defence’ (involving cooperation with the EU on ‘strategic response’) awaits clear implementation. The authors’ point about the ‘limited utility of force’ to dictate crisis outcomes ignores the fact that Moscow may only need to exert limited force to do so. Can the neighbourhood countries in that case really become ‘fully sovereign, democratic, economically viable’ states of the international community?
Effective crisis management on the other hand, as the authors state, ‘requires political leaders to shape military behaviour’ to forestall crises. The report’s penultimate section offers useful, albeit minimalist, recommendations about ‘ad hoc, issue-specific’ contact groups to mitigate disagreements. But Moscow’s response to attempts to situate these contacts institutionally within the NATO-Russia Council or an EU-Russia format will most likely be to reassert its basic demands for a recalibrated security architecture and joint decision-making. Opinion among Russian experts is that the era of Moscow adapting to the NATO-EU framework of relations is over. This institutional puzzle is accompanied by an even greater problem: what can the West offer to tip the balance of thinking among Russia’s political and security elites away from a ‘zero-sum game’ towards the understanding that it is in their interests to re-engage with the West and seek a common approach to the neighbourhood that would guarantee security and prosperity? To date, the West’s policy commitments have not been matched by sufficient political capital, and Moscow itself has put forward few constructive proposals. A strategy of political engagement with Moscow need not mean ceding a sphere of influence but should involve trying to shape how that influence is exercised, with the ultimate aim of establishing common understandings and collectively legitimise shared principles and norms of behaviour (see the present writer’s ELN commentary From Containment to Re-Engagement: Managing Relations with Russia). Success is far from certain, and any progress will entail sober and painstaking negotiation and compromises that will be hard for liberal Western elites to swallow.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.