The Ukraine crisis has produced a rising chorus of voices proclaiming that we are in a new Cold War with Russia. This is fast becoming the dominant narrative, particularly in the U.S. and the UK. Yet the Cold War analogy is both inaccurate and misleading. It is inaccurate on at least two counts. Unlike in the period before 1989, the West’s relations with Russia do not revolve around a global nuclear arms contest. Nor is there a universal and existential struggle between social systems that defined the essence of the Cold War.
The New Cold War narrative is more seriously misleading as a guide to Western policy. The containment and isolation for which many call are counterproductive approaches. Such strategies are likely to reinforce Moscow’s adversarial stance and its aggressive use of coercive leverage in Ukraine and other parts of Russia’s neighbourhood. These are precisely the elements of Russian behaviour we wish to see weakened and eliminated.
Labelling Moscow an implacable adversary and writing off Russia as a pariah state –as some Western officials have done- is hardly likely to help. It is more realistic, and certainly more constructive, to view the relationship as a badly fractured and partly shattered partnership. The damage is extensive and serious but not irreparable.
There is scope for repairing and reconstructing partnership relations because discord between outlooks in Moscow and the West is greater than the substantive conflicts of interests dividing them. It is worth highlighting the variation in the intensity of conflict of interests across the arenas of our interaction with Russia. The first zone is Russia’s ‘near abroad’, the former Soviet space where it claims ‘privileged’ interests. There, it is willing to take combative action to prevent the extension of NATO and a degree of EU association that would enable neighbouring states to sustain external policies Moscow deems hostile. Russia’s sense of entitlement to a sphere of influence clashes with Western support for the sovereignty of all states in the neighbourhood. Here the conflict of interest is most direct and the West most likely to be seen by Moscow as an opponent. We need to reconfigure through consultative engagement some components of the badly shattered partnership and construct it on a new basis. In the case of Ukraine, this might include ‘devolution-max’ arrangements that would enable Kiev to sustain stable development and allow for sufficient economic ties with Russia to reassure Moscow.
In other areas of strategic importance further afield, such as the Middle East and South Asia, Russian stakes are lower and less rooted in a sense of historical identity and entitlement to dominance. National interests are defined in largely geopolitical terms. The aim is to be an indispensable player. Here, the West is a rival rather than an inveterate adversary, and Moscow is willing to negotiate deals to maximise its economic and strategic advantage. There is scope for repairing this part of the partnership as room exists for more consultation and cooperation to tackle common problems: chaotic instability and the threat posed by militant Islamic movements.
At the global level, Moscow sees itself aligning with other BRIC states to help counter-balance what it perceives as a U.S. effort to prolong dominance over a world system in which Russia is one of several emerging poles. The current pivot to China and Asia is likely to become more prominent, yet Moscow remains aware of its potential conflicts of interest with Beijing. And we should remember that Moscow’s ruling elite consider Russia historically and culturally to be an integral part of Greater Europe, not Asia. We should make a better use of this identity and European aspirations when dealing with Russia, particularly on Ukraine and its neighbours.
To deal more effectively with Moscow, we need a two-track strategy of micro-toughness and macro-flexibility. We should be more consistently tough than to date in insisting that Moscow strictly observes international law and the rules of international organisations such as the OSCE. We ought to also take a consistently firm line on applying penalties for failure to comply. Imposing sanctions mainly to punish and raise the costs of what the West deems generally to be unacceptable behaviour is likely to be less effective than linking sanctions to specific demands.
The capacity of sanctions and a tough approach to bring about Russian compliance with the rules would be enhanced if coupled with a more flexible and open-minded stance towards Moscow on broader issues of Greater European security architecture. The Kremlin would be less likely to see relations in zero-sum terms if the West were willing to explore jointly how to set about building an overarching economic and political security structure. In doing so we should of course tread warily, as one of Russia’s aims is to weaken American influence in Europe. All the same, starting a serious consultative process would have a positive impact on a climate of opinion within the Russian policy elite that is becoming more adversarial and nationalist by the month.
The distance in values dividing us from Russia is growing. The most effective way to narrow the widening gap is to avoid the kind of broadsides against Russia and its values that forms part of the New Cold War approach. Instead, by combining micro-toughness with macro-flexibility we should concentrate on working to improve Russian compliance with jointly agreed norms.
Toning down normative assaults and highlighting prospects for joint discussion on Greater European arrangements could help strengthen the voice of more pragmatic and liberal-minded members of the Russian policy class. There are two constituencies which stand to benefit. First, the handful in Kremlin circles who caution publicly against adversarial standoff and the more statist and insulated path of economic development which Russia is poised to take. Second, a far larger group of moderates in wider policy circles who find themselves excluded from a debate dominated by conservative nationalists who lay claim to a monopoly on patriotism. We should pay attention to the pleas of moderates that a less adversarial Western approach would help them have more influence over the debate. A stronger moderate voice would improve the chances of Moscow responding positively to Western attempts to turn a badly fractured and shattered partnership into a one sufficiently robust to cope with the crises that are bound to appear with unpredictable regularity in our joint ‘near abroad’ and beyond.
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.