A Task of Generations

Commentary | February 23, 2015

EWI Board Member Amb. Wolfgang Ischinger analyzes recently heightened tensions between the West and Russia, and argues that resolving the current conflict could take a long-term diplomatic approach.

This essay was originally published in "Internationale Politik," and an English translation was published by the Munich Security Conference

Western leaders are more than willing to point out that there can be no military solution to the crisis in Ukraine. This is true – albeit only from their own perspective. Moscow has successfully used military force, one outcome of which is that the vision of a Euro-Atlantic security community has suffered significant injury. The current European security system could not prevent either the annexation of Crimea or the destabilization of Eastern Ukraine. And despite the ceasefire agreed in Minsk in September 2014, people are still dying through acts of war in the country that hosted the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship. In violation of the Euro-Atlantic acquis of Helsinki, which states that borders may only be changed by peaceful means, Russia has used military force both openly and covertly.

Today it is not only Ukraine that feels under threat but also other countries such as Moldova, Georgia, and the Baltic States. It is not impossible to imagine that a gray area might emerge between the EU/NATO and Russia. From Moscow’s standpoint, these countries form a cordon sanitaire, even though we always wanted to avoid differing levels of security across Europe. So far NATO and the EU have demonstrated a considerable degree of solidarity, and have responded with economic sanctions alongside a program of military reassurance within NATO. But the unity of the West is likely to be tested still further even if the ceasefire agreement were to work.

The question of Crimea must not be swept under the table. However, since it cannot be resolved under the current circumstances it is important to consider it separately as its own issue – a similar approach to the one adopted by Egon Bahr to bring the gridlocked negotiations between the two German states to a successful conclusion in 1972.

The current crisis does not represent a short-term worsening of conditions, rather we are watching a fundamental shift of East-West relations unfolding before our eyes. The situation is unlikely to change any time soon.


Russia’s zero-sum logic

As Russia sees it, the EU wanted to bring Ukraine closer to Europe and convince it to sever ties with Russia. But it is simply not correct that Kiev was forced to choose between the EU and Russia. What is true is that the EU was not prepared to accept Russia’s “droit de regard” in the negotiations with Kiev regarding an association agreement. Who are we to demand that Kiev accept that a third party will have a say in negotiations about the future direction of the Ukraine? The EU acted appropriately when it made sure not to give the impression that Moscow was being allowed to decide on the future of Ukraine.

Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined this point in the Bundestag at the end of November, quoting her own speech from the previous year: "The EU has repeatedly offered to speak with Russia to work out the mutual benefits of cooperation. It is my deep conviction that we must continue with these efforts to ensure that there is no either-or for countries in the eastern partnership between moving closer to the EU and Russian efforts to establish a closer partnership with these countries." Even if the association agreement had led to challenges for Russia’s trade relations with Ukraine, the Chancellor emphasized, it could not serve as either a legitimization of the annexing of Crimea or as justification for Russia’s involvement in the fighting around Donetsk and Luhansk.

Moreover, Russia's opposition to the EU is a relatively recent phenomenon. President Putin declared at a 2004 press conference: "If Ukraine wants to join the EU and if the EU accepts Ukraine as a member, Russia, I think, would welcome this because we have a special relationship with Ukraine." Ten years later, Russia is not even willing to accept an association agreement between the EU and Ukraine.

Which of Russia's complaints deserve serious consideration? The most significant is the suggestion that the West has built a common European home, but without giving Russia its own room, as American historian Mary-Elise Sarotte phrases it, utilizing a metaphor previously employed by Mikhail Gorbachev. During debates surrounding NATO expansion in the 1990s, the German government insisted on a two-pillar strategy: Yes to NATO expansion, accompanied by a more intensive partnership with Russia. Helmut Kohl insisted that the two aspects needed to be balanced and complement each other. Without NATO expansion, the countries in Central and Eastern Europe would have continued to feel unsafe. And yet without a strong NATO-Russia partnership, Russia would be locked out of the "common home." The outcome was the development and implementation of a dual strategy.

Regrettably this dual strategy was later abandoned, under the George W. Bush administration. His government chose to discontinue the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission that had been such a key bilateral channel under Bill Clinton. More importantly, the Bush administration withdrew from the ABM treaty (an area where the Russians are particularly sensitive because it is the only issue where Russia is still on an equal footing with the United States) and began to plan for a missile defense shield.

The Bush pursue of NATO expansion and supported Kiev and Tiflis in their efforts to obtain membership, even though there was no consensus on the issue in either Ukraine or Georgia. At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, France and Germany rejected the US proposal to extend the Membership Action Plan to Ukraine and Georgia. Tensions between Russia and Georgia escalated a short time later, with Russian troops occupying a number of Georgian territories. From Russia's perspective the West had continued to ignore Russia’s security interests; only a clear message would put a stop to that.

This sentiment is widely felt throughout Russia. In the summer of the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in the New York Times: "Indeed, Russia has long been told to simply accept the facts. Here’s the independence of Kosovo for you. Here’s the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and the American decision to place missile defenses in neighboring countries. Here’s the unending expansion of NATO. All of these moves have been set against the backdrop of sweet talk about partnership. Why would anyone put up with such a charade?" Given the widespread belief that the West has steadily exploited Russia’s weakness after the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin's policy of restoring Russia’s status as a world power is exceedingly popular. If the West has made one error it is that of abandoning the original NATO dual strategy.


Domestic policy game-changer

How do you deal with a country that views itself as a victim? None of the above should be taken as an excuse for Russia's use of force or the revisionism that shapes Putin's current foreign policy. But if we want to deal productively with Moscow then we need to understand the perceptions and emotions that form the backdrop to Russia's actions. This sense of being unfairly treated by the West makes it extremely difficult to rebuild a constructive relationship with Moscow.

Today the problem is that Russia is a superpower only in the military sense (above all due to its arsenal of nuclear weapons) and in terms of its energy resources. In the 21st century, superpower status does not just depend on military capabilities but also on the ability to persuade and acquire partners, to get involved and get others involved to shape alliances. According to this definition the Russia of today is definitely no superpower.

When Barack Obama was elected, his administration decided to rebuild the country's relationship with Russia from the ground up. Obama reworked the missile defense plans, turned them into a NATO project, and invited Russia to collaborate. This strategy produced positive results, including a new START agreement and greater cooperation in relation to Afghanistan and Iraq. Nevertheless, both sides remained dubious about the other’s intentions. Instead of becoming a game-changer and serving as the roof of the "common home," the missile defense system emerged as a form of "game-breaker."

What also changed, however, was Russia itself, as observed by Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Moscow: "Russian foreign policy did not grow more aggressive in response to U.S. policies; it changed as a result of Russian internal political dynamics. The shift began when Putin and his regime came under attack for the first time ever." Many observers assume that the demonstrations occurring before Putin was reelected president gave him the impression that someone was trying to bring about regime change. That is why he is so determined to prevent any further color revolutions. Strobe Talbott wrote an essay in 2014 describing it like this: "Putin's aggression only makes sense against the backdrop of what has been the defining theme of his presidency: turning back the clock. For years that has meant repudiating the transformational policies of his immediate predecessors and reinstating key attributes of the Soviet system within the borders of the Russian Federation."


A new dual strategy

How should the West respond to Putin’s revisionism? What might a strategy look like that would neither discard the fundamental norms shared by large parts of the Euro-Atlantic area nor add fuel to the fire? I propose a new dual strategy:

We need strategic patience, and we must attempt to negotiate from a position of strength, not one of weakness and indecisiveness. In his first speech on assuming office, the new Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg stressed that better ties with Russia are more likely to be achieved if the alliance is strong. It is vitally important to constantly reiterate our obligation to provide mutual assistance, as outlined in Article V, as well as the indivisibility of security among NATO members. However, we should also avoid getting caught up in new discussions about Ukraine's NATO membership. There is a simple three-step test to measure whether a country should be invited to become a member or not: Is there consensus within the respective country regarding the application for NATO membership? Do all NATO alliance partners agree to invite the country? Would this NATO membership enhance European security or not? Only if the answer to all three questions is affirmative should the country in question actually be invited to become a member. Today and tomorrow, Ukraine would not pass this test.

We also need to expand on the second pillar in the dual strategy. There is a real risk that an overreaction on the part of the West could lead to Russia retreating behind a barricade of patriotism. There has been heightened rhetoric recently even among liberal Russian politicians and commentators. Our goal cannot be to play the role of the enemy against whom all Russians must unite. Sadly, Russians today rarely hear the voice of dissent. Russian media has, for example, created the Fata Morgana of Ukrainian fascism despite the fact that the main right-wing parties only received around two per cent of votes. By contrast, the Russian government invited envoys from European neo-Nazi parties to serve as election observers. When the conflicting parties so obviously live in different worlds it becomes difficult to find a solution. But we should try to make clear that it is not the West that is attempting to avoid a collaborative relationship.

In my opinion, we should launch a diplomatic process under the umbrella of the OSCE. This would bring Russia back to the table and allow us to consider new ways of approaching the idea of a common European home or comprehensive Euro-Atlantic security community. This is of course a long-term goal but it is important to keep the idea active.

One shorter-term goal could be to improve military transparency. The past few months have seen a series of close calls between Russian combat aircraft and planes from the West. Neither Russia nor NATO have any interest in an accidental escalation with potentially far-reaching consequences. Even at the peak of the Cold War, both sides endeavored to mitigate the risk of misunderstandings and to avoid this route to a possible nuclear war.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative recently published its report "Building Mutual Security," containing several important proposals. Key questions include: Why are intercontinental ballistic missiles still kept on high alert? Why can longer advance warning periods not be agreed upon? And in a similar vein, would it not be possible to create more transparency on military exercises? The size of Russian exercises held in the last few years has frequently been kept barely under the threshold that would require NATO observers to be present. Finally, negotiations on conventional arms control could be ramped up again to improve security and reinforce mutual trust.

Recent developments, unfortunately, are not heading in this direction. For example, Russia has ended its cooperative work with the US to secure nuclear material on Russian soil. This program will now end in 2015. On the other hand, Russia’s involvement in the Iranian nuclear issue points to the possibility of increasing Western-Russian cooperation in areas where common interests prevail. We could also offer Russia an economic partnership. Chancellor Merkel recently talked about the possibility of establishing a common economic area including Russia. As a first step the EU could work with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). This new dual strategy centers on the idea of "congagement" – a blend of containment and engagement which was recently also proposed by the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.


A Russian Federation that abides by the rules

How should we proceed with sanctions? Sanctions are not an end in themselves. Their purpose is to give Russia incentives to cooperate in efforts to stabilize Ukraine. It is not about punishing Moscow or making the Russian people suffer. Destabilizing Russia is not an option. All of us want and need a stable and prosperous Russian Federation. But we also want a Russian Federation that abides by the rules and works with us to strengthen the architecture, institutions, and rules of European security.

In the early 1970s, hardly anyone believed that it was a good idea to start the negotiations that eventually led to the Helsinki Accords. In the 1980s hardly anyone could imagine that most of the central and eastern European states would soon become democracies. Today, hardly anyone might believe that it makes sense to restart negotiations with Russia.

To be clear: this task may take an entire generation. In the past few decades, sadly, our societies, in Germany in particular, have taken peace and security in Europe very much for granted. If the events of 2014 – in Ukraine and elsewhere – bear any message for us it is this: how can we establish an effective and legitimate global and regional system of governance in times when demand for it is high and supply low. And how we can hang on to the fading dream of European security rather than let it descend into a long nightmare.