2nd Dec 2023


Sorry, there is no real solution to the Russia Problem for now

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Russia's military build-up at the Ukrainian borders has triggered a new flurry of diplomatic activities. It's not the first time that the Kremlin has engineered a crisis that focused much attention on its intentions. Time and again, commentators discuss the need for some kind of reset or other solution to the West's relation to Moscow.

Suggestions usually revolve around the thought that Eastern European states joining Nato went too far and provoked Russian insecurities and aggressions against its neighbours, be it Georgia, Ukraine or its meddling in Belarus.

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Should one not agree on some conceptions of a Russian near-abroad in which the West accepts Russia dominance? Or could a country like Ukraine not become neutral, the way that Austria and Finland were militarily neutral during the cold war?

Such ideas, neutrality in particular, could be an attractive option to satisfy the Kremlin´s stated security concerns while allowing a country to chart its own course in everything but questions of military alliances.

Would this undermine the idea that countries should be free to choose their allies as their wish? No. Even if countries wished to join, Nato is not obliged to agree. If Nato members feels that the continent's security is better served by some other arrangement, it is free to say no.

However, I am sceptical of any breakthrough solutions in the relations between Russia and the West. Why? Because the Russian government has systematically eroded the basis for constructive conversations by ordering assassinations in Western states, systematic disinformation campaigns aimed at Western audiences and support to the resurgence of parties that flirt with neo-fascism.

And in its near-abroad, Ukraine in particular, it has systematically destroyed the basis for a solution. In the media we now read about a 'Ukraine conflict' or the 'threat of an attack on Ukraine'.

Such headlines miss the point: there is no new threat of an attack on Ukraine, there is an on-going attack on Ukraine, ever since Ukrainians started moving away from their political orientation to Russia.

Ongoing hybrid war

In 2014 Russia manufactured the war in the Donbas and occupied Crimea with the help of lies and deception – the Kremlin later acknowledged that the infamous little green men were Russian forces.

The Donbas frontline has seen fighting ever since 2014 with more than 10,000 people killed. Russia regularly launches cyberattacks against Ukraine, including the 2017 NonPetya attack, which temporarily disabled energy stations, hospitals and other essential infrastructure.

Putin insists that Ukrainian statehood is not real. In short, the war is ongoing.

Ukraine never had any designs on Russian territory and for more than a decade many Ukrainians were comfortable with a close relation to Russia. Ukraine handed over its nuclear weapons to Russia in exchange for guarantees of its borders and sovereignty laid down in the now infamous 1994 Budapest memorandum.

The elements were all there for the Kremlin to build constructive and close relations to Ukraine based on mutual respect and common history. Instead, the Kremlin meddled in Ukrainian politics and when things did not turn to its liking, used military force and is trying its best to make Ukraine fail.

The latest crisis has added insult to injury, as it links the military build-up to things that are no even related to Ukraine -the Kremlin seems to say to Nato: 'If you don't do some things, like reducing troops in Romania, we may start killing Ukrainians'.

In Ukraine and beyond, the Kremlin has created a hostile near abroad and there is no easy way out. How would a partly occupied, constantly abused country like Ukraine trust in any guarantees by Russia in exchange of neutrality? It cannot.

Chess grandmaster?

I am not sure why many commentators consider Putin to be a master-strategist. He may be a good tactician who can play chess and do Judo at the same time. But there are fewer and fewer people who want to play any games with him. If the Kremlin regards Ukraine as its most important European neighbour - as it should – then the way it antagonised Ukrainians since 2014 is an epic strategic blunder.

The West's position and the Russian position are diametrically opposed. The Kremlin changes borders and protects authoritarian regimes, the West does not want to change borders and is in favour of democracy. The Western position was the consensus of the 1990s. It represents the backbone of European security.

The Russian government agreed to it in countless documents – some legally binding, some political commitments (and no, none of them included any prohibition for any country to join Nato). Whatever semantic acrobatics the Kremlin is now employing, it keeps violating these agreements. It wants to break the agreed status quo.

There was a democratic revolution in 1989 and in 1991 the Soviet-Union was dissolved by the governments of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The Kremlin wishes that past away. It would like to replicate the Europe of 1815 when European monarchies wished away the French Revolution and for some decades suppressed any democratic aspiration. It only worked for a while then. It will only work for a while now.

The West must spend significant diplomatic energies to engage Russia at many levels, be it direct talks, the Nato-Russia Council, the Minsk process dedicated to the Donbass war or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to discuss the European security architecture. It should avoid needless slights of the Russian leadership, while being firm and clear on all essential points, including the unacceptable Russian meddling in our democracies.

But we need to understand that the problem can only be managed, not solved.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.


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


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