On Morality and Mistakes

It is quite impressive, surrealistic even, that while the Kremlin is amassing 40,000 troops in southwestern Russia, close to the Ukrainian border, and sending unidentified military or paramilitary troops to foment troubles and sow chaos in eastern Ukrainian cities, some politicians and intellectuals in Europe and the United States are pondering the moral responsibility of the West and the damages it may have inflicted on post-Soviet Russia.

What is happening in Ukraine and Crimea is a sheer violation of international law; of the UN Charter; of the Helsinki Final Act, signed almost forty years ago, which codified territorial integrity and non-intervention; and of the Paris Charter, which solemnly condemned border changes by violence.[1] It is also a clear violation of the 1994 agreement according to which Ukraine discarded Soviet nuclear weapons while Russia, and other signatories, pledged to respect its integrity.

Some politicians and intellectuals have gone out of their way to draw a parallel between the Western support of Kosovo and the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea. Those who do so strangely forget that Slobodan Milosevic started curtailing the rights of Albanian Kosovars before driving them out of the province, while no government in Kyiv threatened the rights and lives of the Crimeans. After years of honest international negotiations, and a referendum held under international supervision, Kosovo was recognized by a number of countries—though not by all. In the Crimean peninsula, a referendum was hastily held behind closed doors and involved massive fraud, according to the leaked UN report, scheduled to be released on 15 April.

Integrating Russia

Certainly, the history of the West—to summarily lump up Europeans and Americans, Republicans and Democrats, Germans and Brits, French and others—is littered with violence, colonization, and negations of rights. Military interventions, aimed at toppling dictators, led to disasters. Yet this mere statement does not lead us much farther when it comes down to grasp the Kremlin’s motivations in Ukraine, to guess its aims and strategy in Europe and beyond, and to gauge the reactions of Europeans and Americans and their possible consequences.

What used to distinguish Europe from the Middle East, for instance (where Europe did meddle), was the fact that the post-World War maps were peacefully redrawn—with the major, terrible exception of Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union, in the person of Mikhail Gorbachov, gracefully bowed out of history. George Bush and Helmut Kohl, in particular, went out of their ways to integrate Russia in the liberal world. After all, the liberal world, which certainly bore the imprint of the West, was the best, or, at least, the only functioning framework we had, certainly imperfect, certainly plagued by hubris, but no other blueprint, let alone a fully-fledged one, was on offer. The security plan that President Dmitry Medvedev put on the table in 2008-2009 was a poor copy, or re-hash, of the 1960s. And after all, the same happened in the case of Germany: western Germany had a system that functioned well, and not many in eastern Germany were ready to spend time inventing a “third way.”

Russia was integrated into the G7/8 and into a NATO-Russia scheme that, while certainly imperfect, is improving with time. It was even admitted into the Council of Europe in spite of the fact that it did not fulfill the basic requirements, and never did. It joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). And now the story goes that the West humiliated Russia. Did it? Or was it a stumbling Boris Yeltsin who humiliated his country, delivering it into the hand of oligarchs and the “family,” to plunge it into the 1998 economic crisis. The years of humiliation were indeed those of the so-called super-power—a third world country with nuclear weapons, as it was dubbed then—attempting to maintain a world rank in spite of pseudo-liberalization which benefitted a few. Vladimir Putin’s talent has been to put this into words and to bundle the demise of the Soviet Union and the plight of many Russians, impoverished by erratic policies and embezzlement, and often left without bearings in countries which suddenly were not theirs any more, from Kazakhstan to the Baltic countries. Putin found a narrative: Weimar II, the humiliation of a great power by an expanding West, surrounding and encircling Russia from Central Asia to Central Europe, with NATO creeping up to the borders of a bygone empire.

This narrative served the master of the Kremlin. A besieged fortress needs a strong man at the helm. The rhetoric of encirclement; of a hostile West bombing Russia’s ally, Serbia, in the late 1990s; of a military opponent luring Ukraine, the cradle for Kyivan Rus, and Georgia into NATO a decade later; the myth of foreign agents propping up NGOs or dissidents in Russia; all helped Putin stifle criticisms and control the media. Yet it is difficult to understand how the biggest country in the world, covering eleven time zones, fears encirclement. And it glosses over the fact that from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin, Russian authorities hardly ever stopped bullying much smaller countries on their Western borders, strangling them with trade embargoes and outrageous gas prices.

The West’s Mistakes

It would be foolish, however, to think that the West did not make any mistakes. First of all, it erred through naivety and conservatism. In the 1990s, the West, the EU in particular, misunderstood Russia. To the EU, Russia was a bigger Poland, both more enticing, and more complicated. Its path toward democracy and a market economy would certainly be more convoluted. In any case, it failed to devise a grand strategy and copy-pasted bureaucratic measures invented for others (such as TACIS,[2] borrowed from PHARE[3]) that were not suited for Russia. EU measures were drops in the eleven time-zone ocean, and, in any case, the EU and its member states were pretending to treat Russia as an equal and yet demanding that it fulfill certain conditions. In the early 2000s, it even offered Russia to be part of its neighborhood policy, a diplomatic blunder indeed: Moscow is no one’s neighbor. It is a pole—a would-be empire.

Second, the EU and its member states were never able to adopt a coherent policy. From the connivance that links Cyprus and Russia to the solid principles that Sweden, or post-Kaczynski Poland have displayed, there is a wide chasm that the Kremlin has cunningly exploited. The diversity of the West is its very weakness—for a while at least. While a few men in Moscow hold all the threads in their hands, and instrumentalize Gazprom and a number of other companies to systematically make headways into the European market and divide and rule, they bring to bear on western governments via their “national champions,” EDF, E.ON, or ENI and others, for the sake of jobs and market shares. It may finally dawn on European governments, companies, and consumers that they should break free from this asymmetry: the European Commission is also helping as it pursues an aggressive anti-monopoly inquest into Gazprom’s dealings. However, for a real European energy policy to emerge, it will require some years and the determination to bring governments and CEOs to think and act together.

Last but not least, did the EU provoke Russia by attracting Ukraine into its sphere of influence? The Europeans, the Germans and the French first and foremost, always looked to not provoke Russia—leaving NATO’s door only slightly open to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008, and certainly not anxious to offer them EU membership. Yet helping Ukraine to democratize somewhat and not to discourage reformers in the country was both a political and moral obligation: this is what the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) and the Association treaties are supposed to do. Theoretically, Russia would have benefitted from a stable neighbor and membership in the WTO would have eased the way toward two co-existing free trade areas, the DCFTA and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). However, the Kremlin turned a win-win game into a zero-sum game to create its anti-Western empire and forbid the emergence of a democratic Ukraine. It is therefore quite astonishing that the EU did not prepare itself for Moscow’s acrimony and manipulations and, for instance, did not increase import quotas from Ukraine as the Kremlin was turning the screw from the summer of 2013, hampering Ukrainian goods from entering Russia.

Protecting Sovereignty?

Pleading for a dialogue with Russia is not enough, to say the least. Dialogues require a common language. The Kremlin has decided which language to speak: since 2008, it has drawn a line in the sands of geo-politics, it is recreating, or pretending to create, an empire, away from what it calls a decadent, i.e., liberal West. The question now is whether the so-called somewhat bigger powers, Germany, France, the UK, are ready to stand by Poland and its small Baltic brethren and whether they are ready to do what it takes to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and to stand up to the principles on which Europe was theoretically founded.

Dr. Anne-Marie Le Gloannec is Research Director at the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Foundation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, Paris.

[1] Although changing borders peacefully, by common agreement, is perfectly acceptable, as the Scots may eventually do this year, or the Czechs and the Slovaks did in 1992 through their “velvet divorce.”

[2] Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States

[3]  Poland and Hungary: Assistance for Restructuring their Economies

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.