21st Mar 2018


Mitigating the Russian challenge

  • In 1989, Gorbachev outlined a post-Cold War 'common European home'. With Putin in power for good, the EU has to come up with creative solutions to the tension (Photo: Loreline Merelle)

"It is time", the USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev said in a 1989 speech, "to consign to oblivion the Cold War postulates when Europe was viewed as an arena of confrontation divided into 'spheres of influence'."

In place of old rivalries, Gorbachev laid out his vision of a "common European home". Russia and Europe, he declared optimistically, should work together "to transform international relations in the spirit of humanism, equality and justice".

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Fast forward to 2017, and it is clear that things have not quite gone according to plan.

Gorbachev is defending Russia's takeover of Crimea. For the first time since the Cold War, Nato is opening new command centres in Europe.

The stakes involved in the EU-Russia relationship are still high.

The EU is the most important investor in Russia, as well as its largest trading partner. Moscow, for its part, remains a crucial energy and security player for Europe.

Yet at the core of the Russia-EU confrontation lies the fundamental disagreement over values and geopolitical zones of influence. Those differences are unlikely to be bridged soon.

The EU, built on the values of interdependence and liberal norms, is willing to engage with Moscow, but with strings attached. To access the community's perks – closer economic links, visa-free travel - the Kremlin is expected to abide by international laws and embrace liberalisation at home.

To Russia's leadership, those conditions are unacceptable. It sees its neighbourhood as the bulwark against Nato expansion and the wave of 'colour' revolutions. As for domestic liberalisation, it would destroy Vladimir Putin's regime, or, at least, seriously undermine it.

It is against this context that Russia's attempts to stoke troubles in Europe should be considered.

Carrot vs Stick

To deter Russia, the EU global strategy recommends, member-states, above all, must "strengthen the EU and enhance the resilience of our eastern neighbours".

The conspicuity of this observation doesn't render it any less relevant. Russian leadership values strength and preys on weakness.

Show the Kremlin that you cannot use a stick, and it will wrestle the carrot out of your hands.

Thus, the most obvious thing the EU can do is to enhance its defensive capabilities. That means protecting eastern flunk, while also improving military mobility. Boosting cyber defence, too, is crucial, given recent attacks on Europe's infrastructure.

Response to Russian meddling in European politics, though, is a more nuanced challenge. Concerns over Moscow's malignant campaign - via TV, social media and financing of populist parties - are valid.

Yet it is also crucial to keep cool when confronting Russian propaganda.

The Kremlin's aim, as the US example showed, is to sow discord within Western politics, not necessarily to achieve a concrete electoral outcome.

That is why media panic – and attaching the 'Putin's stooge' label to any anti-establishment cause – only plays into Moscow's hands.

The best way to deal with the Kremlin's meddling, therefore, is treating it more as a security issue than a political one.

Western agencies have learned about Russia's web campaign, so they can tackle it with considerable success in future. Reforms to increase transparency in party financing, likewise, is a useful step.

To bring Russia around to the idea of a common future on European terms requires demonstrating calm resolve. Moscow must understand that, despite its tricks, the EU's institutions will continue to work as normal.

Making cooperation pay

But while Europe must demonstrate firmness, it is equally important to show what Moscow can gain by cooperating.

A deterrence-only approach to the Kremlin will only amplify its exuberance, leading to an endless 'action-response' cycle.

So, how can Russia be induced to cooperate?

Firstly, the EU should retain clear conditions for lifting economic sanctions on Russia. As the economist Vladislav Inozemtsev observed, wherever economic sanctions worked – like South Africa or Yugoslavia - they came with clear instructions of their relaxation or removal.

Heeding that, any comprehensive plan to resolve the Ukraine crisis should include the roadmap for sanctions relief.

The economic card is the strongest ace in the EU's deck. It must play it wisely.

Secondly, there is a need to communicate with Russia in the way that brings maximum utility. Putin's regime is here to stay. Nonetheless, it can still be affected, even if incrementally.

To facilitate change, it may be worth raising commercial and human rights concerns with Moscow on diplomatic level rather than just in the media. This approach will assure the Kremlin that Western concerns are genuine, and not an attempt to embarrass it.

Before any progress is achieved with Russia, things may get even more muddled. To succeed, Europe must demonstrate strategic patience.

Evgeny Pudovkin is a journalist writing on European politics, Russia and foreign affairs

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