20th Aug 2022


In the gulags' shadow

Listen to article

A rift of emotions runs through Europe. While eastern European states fear the return of Russian imperialism, the average western European seems to believe that Russia is still pushing back against alleged US imperialism.

The West, so it goes, largely ignored Moscow's concerns when it enlarged the EU, expanded Nato, and threw its military weight around.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Empathy should not become expediency, when it comes to Russia

Russia is humiliated and all it wants is a place under the sun.

Hence, it's no use sending energy bills even higher or to interrupt the daydreaming about a post-Covid summer festival with warnings about war in some god-forgotten country.

This notion of a humiliated Russia is both pointless and dangerous. Indeed, Russia had a rough ride in the 1990s, marred by poverty, corruption, and some international disdain.

Western support for the struggling infant democracy, led by Boris Yeltsin, was lukewarm.

But while it was evident that the imperial project of the Soviets had destroyed itself, it is an exaggeration that the Americans were relentlessly pushing to expand their empire. The US administration of Bill Clinton was divided over Nato enlargement, for instance, and so were the European capitals about enlargement.

True, Germany had quite some appetite for opening neighbouring markets, the British to dilute the influence of Berlin and Paris, but all-in-all, most Western-European capitals considered that they had no other option but to include the newly independent countries that were struggling to build a democracy and an open market on their doorstep.

A critical consideration, in every step of EU enlargement, was the fear for a return of tyranny and chaos. The popular belief of advancing American imperialism, instrumentalising both Nato and the EU, is just wrong.

'Buffer states' fallacy

It is also wrong to believe that we could satisfy Russia by at least leaving the remaining independent, to turn the Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova in buffer states.

Even if today the EU is perceived positively in those countries, the reality is that their sovereignty is already severely compromised by Moscow. Belarus is part of Russia's Union state and member of Russia's Nato, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Moldova has Russian peacekeepers in its eastern part. Ukraine has Russian soldiers in the east and the Crimea.

Why would the Kremlin settle for three buffer states when that would mean that it would have to downscale its own presence?

Russia is not in the position of victim any longer. One can understand its aspirations, its misgivings, and its fears, but it pursues influence and power just as much as any other major power.

For the nationalists, Eurasianists, revanchists, and neo-imperialists in Moscow the enlargement of Nato and the EU was not a pleasant thing, but it has never constituted a threat to Russian sovereignty. Even the challenge to its security is modest for a regional power that now boasts a formidable arsenal of conventional and nuclear missiles.

There is no black and white. There are different powers with different interests.

It is also striking how evident many western Europeans find it to consider Russia's recent past of humiliation and largely seem to ignore the long history of humiliation and oppression experienced by the many countries between Vienna and Moscow. As if the gulags never existed, or the KGB's torture houses, or the crackdown of 1968.

When I asked my own university students who Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel are, only a few seemed to have a clue. There are 145 million Russians with a historical trauma of the collapse of an empire, but there are also 145 million other eastern Europeans fearing the return of that empire.

Perceptions are crucial in international politics. World politics is often more about grand emotions than about grand strategy. We ought to know Russia's past and its fears, continue dialogue and try to find peaceful ways out of this situation. But empathy should not become expediency.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University Brussels and guest lectures at the NATO Defense College. His latest book is World Politics since 1989 (Polity, September 2021).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


The EU's 'global gateway' - an answer to China, or a dead-end?

Will the Global Gateway become yet another dead-end? If the Green New Deal, projects to secure supplies of important minerals, the Open Strategic Economy and now this are put together, then the pieces of the puzzle could fall into place.


'Balancing' China starts in WalMart and Amazon, not Pacific

No wonder, despite the diplomatic and military initiatives, most countries in the region see China as the new leader. Perhaps it is easier to adjust military strategy towards China, than to tackle the addiction of consumers and companies to China.

Could the central Asian 'stan' states turn away from Moscow?

The former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan have retained close ties with Russia since 1989. Yet this consensus may be shifting. At the UN, none of them supported Russia in the resolution condemning the Ukraine invasion.


Is this strange summer a moment of change?

It is a strange, strange summer. The war in Ukraine continues, 60 percent of Europe is in danger of drought, and Covid is still around and could rebound in the autumn. At the same time, everyone is desperate for normalcy.

Russia puts EU in nuclear-energy paradox

There's unprecedented international anxiety about the safety of Ukraine's nuclear reactors, but many European countries are also turning to nuclear power to secure energy supplies.

News in Brief

  1. China joins Russian military exercises in Vostok
  2. Ukraine nuclear plant damage would be 'suicide', says UN chief
  3. Denmark to invest €5.5bn in new warships
  4. German economy stagnates, finance ministry says
  5. Syria received stolen grain, says Ukraine envoy
  6. Truss still leads in next UK PM polling
  7. UN chief meets Zelensky and Erdogan over grain exports
  8. Fighting stalls ahead of UN visit, Ukraine says

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  2. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  4. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis

Latest News

  1. European inflation hits 25-year high, driven by energy spike
  2. No breakthrough in EU-hosted Kosovo/Serbia talks
  3. Letter to the Editor: Rosatom responds on Zaporizhzhia
  4. Could the central Asian 'stan' states turn away from Moscow?
  5. Serbia expects difficult talks with Kosovo at EU meeting
  6. How scary is threat to Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant?
  7. Slovakia's government stares into the abyss
  8. Finland restricts Russian tourist visas

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us