26th Feb 2024


In the gulags' shadow

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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.

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  • 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.


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