29th Sep 2023


Russia-Ukraine relations the Year After the war

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In the beginning of June this year, Brussels will host an impressive roundtable discussion bringing together EU representatives and pro-democratic Russian activists.

The title of the meeting, "The Day After", refers to a coveted window of opportunity for Russia's transformation from an autocracy to a democracy that may emerge after the fall of Russian president Vladimir Putin's regime at some point in the future.

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  • "There are two major providers of national security in the modern world: nuclear weapons and membership in Nato" (Photo: Anton Shekhovtsov)

The roundtable is thus designed to provide a platform for exchanging opinions on strategies that pro-democratic Russian activists pursue to prepare for such a transformation and the EU's potential role in the process.

One can, however, foresee that Russia's aggression against Ukraine will be the proverbial elephant in the room of the Brussels discussion, and given the future-oriented aspects of this and other similar meetings, they should also consider the future of Ukrainian-Russian relations.

For many in Ukraine, as well as among some of the most uncompromising supporters of Ukraine, the future of Ukrainian-Russian relations seems illusive.

Atrocious crimes of Russian soldiers, officers and mercenaries have naturally cast a long shadow on Ukraine's relations with Russia, and it is not uncommon to hear Ukrainians' refusals to have any amicable or neutral contacts with Russian people, even if the latter oppose the Putin regime and the Russian war.

Of course, the fate of any relations between Ukraine and Russia depends on the outcome of the current conflict between the two states.

There will naturally be no relations to discuss if Russia wins the war, as there will simply be no Ukrainian nation, the destruction of which is the aim of the Russian aggression.

Hence, only those who believe that Ukraine must win its defensive war against Russia can and, indeed, should discuss future Ukrainian-Russian relations.

And among them should be those who will think beyond the deep trauma caused by the inhuman Russian aggression and consider "The Year After" of Ukraine's relations with Russia already now, when the war is not over.

The need for these considerations is underpinned by the strategic security interests of the Ukrainian nation.

In general, there are two major providers of national security in the modern world: nuclear weapons and membership in Nato.

None of them is a bullet-proof factor against war (note military conflicts between nuclear-weapon states India and Pakistan, or between Nato member states Greece and Turkey), but they are nevertheless seen as the best arguments on the table.

It is unfeasible for Ukraine to re-acquire nuclear weapons, so this particular discussion makes little sense.

Ukraine's membership in Nato, on the other hand, is a reasonable strategic aspiration as it will offer deterrence to possible Russian aggression in the future, and Ukraine should obviously pursue membership in the alliance.

However, like any other collective effort, Nato is an organisation whose strength and determination may lapse and degrade with time, and it is unwise for Ukraine to perceive Nato membership as the ultimate security arrangement.

Or let me put this bluntly: it is irresponsible to make the lasting existence of the Ukrainian nation conditional upon the existence of an organisation that may or may not survive conceivable and yet inconceivable environmental, political or technological crises of the future.

Hence, in terms of defence alliances, Ukraine should also explore — in addition to Nato membership — other regional security frameworks such as the Three Seas Initiative.

Making Russia safe

But perhaps more importantly, Ukraine should work to make Russia a safe neighbour.

This task is substantially more complicated than obtaining Nato membership, and will require Ukraine to resist the devious seduction of provincialism, but, in the long term, a safe Russia is an essential component of Ukraine's national security.

It is a vision of a Russia that respects Ukraine as an independent and sovereign state and a member of Western political and military alliances that should guide Ukraine's strategic security thinking.

Ukraine should invest financial, human, intellectual and network resources into fostering, strengthening and consolidating those elements of Russian political culture that reject subjugation of the Ukrainian nation and support equitable cooperation with the Ukrainian state.

That these elements are currently weak and not necessarily pronounced should not discourage Ukraine's efforts to cultivate a favourable Russian political culture — in particular, through contacts with Russian opposition groups that Ukrainian stakeholders have access to and that may, at some point, have a chance to shape Ukraine's North-East neighbourhood.

However high, the costs of these efforts will never exceed the immense human, economic and cultural costs of any potential military conflict between the two states in the future.

Ukraine should not expect that Russian people will develop a desirable political culture by their own volition, nor should it expect that somebody else will do Ukraine's job.

Nevertheless, reduction of risks related to Russian-Ukrainian conflicts beyond the current war is also in the EU's strategic interests, and the EU can assist Ukraine in laying politico-cultural foundations for future non-confrontational relations between Russia and Ukraine.

Brussels Accord

One of the ways for the EU to help in the endeavour is to enforce a set of principles — let us call them a Brussels Accord on Ukraine — that Russian pro-democracy organisations need to endorse.

The Brussels Accord on Ukraine can comprise of three basic principles: (1) Rules: territorial integrity of Ukraine in its internationally recognised borders, (2) Justice: delivery of Russian war criminals including Russia's current leadership to a relevant international tribunal, and reparations for the damage caused by Russia to Ukraine, and (3) Action: support for the Ukrainian Armed Forces in their just fight against the Russian aggression.

A number of Russian organisations have already adopted some of these principles in word and/or in deed, but the Brussels Accord on Ukraine should become a minimum requirement for all Russian groups to maintain EU's support that many of them depend upon.

And the adoption of these basic principles will hopefully facilitate not only Russia's democratic transformation but also help foster a political culture that will prevent future confrontations between Russia and Ukraine.

Author bio

Anton Shekhovtsov is director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity in Vienna and author of three books: New Radical Right-Wing Parties in European Democracies (2011), Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir (2017), and Russian Political Warfare (due 2023).


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

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