Managing Differences on European Security in 2015
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This report offers three different perspectives from various experts in the United States (Atlantic Council), Russia (Russian International Affairs Council), and Europe (European Leadership Network) on the state of the European security environment in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis. These three perspectives reveal different perceptions of the current situation, provide different analyses of where common interests lie, and offer suggestions on how to make best use of the tools and institutional mechanisms to advance these interests
This report is the result of a series of brainstorming sessions that took place between the summer of 2013 and the winter of 2014-2015, and between American, Russian, and European experts. The teams were led by Ellen Tauscher, the Vice Chair of the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and the former US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, and Igor Ivanov, the president of Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and former Foreign Minister of Russia, in an effort to keep the dialogue open and frank at a challenging time for European security. Not surprisingly, as events in Ukraine unravelled the post-Cold War security order, it proved impossible to narrow the differences and develop a common, action-oriented approach to the challenge of rebuilding the European security order. The report, a project of the Atlantic Council, the European Leadership Network (ELN), and RIAC is focused instead on the necessary first step of listening to each other and reflecting on the significant differences in the Western and Russian approaches. Discussions focused on gaining clarity on the interests at stake, from the US, European, and Russian perspectives, in order to better define whether and where common interests may still lie and how best to advance them. The report clearly points to the fact that managing the differences in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis will continue to require significant efforts on the part of decision-makers, experts, officials, international organizations, and will take time and strategic patience.
Building on a cooperation initiative developed in 2013 between the Atlantic Council and the Russian International Affairs Council, we—Ellen Tauscher and Igor Ivanov—had the pleasure to lead a group of experts interested in developing “mutual assured stability” as a new framework for the bilateral relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. Events in Ukraine in early 2014 brought our efforts to a halt. While we began considering how the Ukraine crisis was going to affect mutual assured stability, our efforts seemed simply overtaken by events: too little, too late.
The dangers of the situation in Ukraine underscored the urgent need to focus on European security, reframing the Western-Russian relationship in light of the new strategic environment in the heart of Europe. Convinced of the need to pursue our dialogue and to keep all channels of communication open in challenging times, we adjusted and brought European experts to the team through the European Leadership Network, and committed to make best use of our track 2 dialogue. Our goal was to assist our respective governments by providing new channels of communication, in the hope of contributing to managing our differences and redefining our interests in this new environment.
As the Ukraine crisis unfolded throughout 2014, we met at expert levels in an effort to better understand each other’s perspectives. Today, we are offering a report, which—unlike many—is not aimed at presenting recommendations. Our approach is not actionoriented. It is an invitation to step back and reflect.
This effort is also not about resolving the Ukraine crisis. Any such efforts must, of course, involve Ukrainians directly. Ukrainians must play a central role in any formal or informal initiatives to address the situation in their nation. From the start, our effort has been about exploring a new approach to US-Russian relations to buttress Euro-Atlantic stability and security.
We have been struck by the disconnect between, on the one hand, our common desire in principle to resolve our differences in the context of the Ukrainian crisis and, more generally, our commitment to stability, prosperity, and greater European security, and, on the other hand, our fundamental differences on how to approach the task in practice. By introducing American, Russian, and European perspectives in this report, we invite readers to open up to views different than their own and assess the magnitude of the gap between us as a necessary step before considering a possible way forward. Our contribution may seem modest, but we feel strongly about the need to listen to one another before considering what will have to be done to serve and respect the interests of all parties in European security.
In reviewing the American, Russian, and European contributions in this report, one can point to five similarities. First, all experts agreed on the urgent need to address the Ukrainian crisis as a necessary step toward meaningful discussions on European security. Theoretical discussions on the European security architecture with no bearing on the situation in Ukraine are of little use. Second, experts shared a sense that, in some ways, the relationship between the West and Russia was more dangerous than during the last decades of the Cold War. Third, they all called for reversing the slide toward confrontation. Fourth, they felt a responsibility to keep lines of communication open, and saw a significant role for track 2 dialogue in light of the significant differences in official positions. Finally, in developing this report, the challenge in agreeing upon text among the experts in each group underlined the differences of opinions, notably within the American and European groups.
Beyond these generalities, there were marked differences between the three groups in their:
- overall assessment of the situation in Ukraine;
- approach to redefining common interests and potential cooperation in light of the new European security environment; and
- perspectives on how to make best use of existing tools and mechanisms to advance these interests.
Focusing first on the crisis in Ukraine: According to Russian experts, the situation in Ukraine was the result of a dysfunctional security regime in the Euro-Atlantic space, pointing to a security environment in Europe that had become less transparent, less predictable, and less stable than in the twentieth century. American experts, on the other hand, pointed toward the Russian transgression of international law and respect for the sovereignty and interests of other states, which generated significant concerns in Washington about the direction of Russian policies. They clearly stated that the resolution of the Ukraine crisis on the basis of agreed international principles and norms, notably against the use of military force to acquire territory from neighbors, was a sine qua non for improving relations between the West and Russia. European experts recognized that European states and Russia had developed contradictory set of perceptions on the status of the post-Soviet common neighborhood and wider functioning of the Euro-Atlantic security system, which contributed to the clash over Ukraine. They highlighted the ongoing discussion in Europe between those who insist on Russia backtracking as a pre-condition for dialogue, and those prepared to look at the failure of the European security order and start a new discussion about its future functioning.
Second, turning to the task of redefining common interests and considering the fate of cooperation between Russia and the West, views diverged considerably. For American experts, the Ukrainian crisis marked a turning point in the relationship between the West and Russia. According to them, there is no going back to status quo ante. Prior to events in Ukraine, American experts had been focusing a new approach to US-Russian relations addressing numerous points of disagreement through mutual assured stability, which ruled out the use of force against each other and rested on respect for each other’s boundaries and independence. Rather, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have forced a reevaluation of post-Cold War assumptions about Russia’s place in the Euro-Atlantic family. American experts advocated a change of approach for European security away from cooperative efforts toward “managing our differences,” while retaining some cooperative efforts on such global security issues as proliferation and arms control, and on regional issues where there is some common ground, such as Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea. US experts offered an initial agenda for the Euro-Atlantic areas focused on restraint and predictability to avoid misunderstanding, with various measures focused on transparency and arms control. In addition, they suggested developing a common understanding on the rules of the road given the competing interpretations of international law and agreed norms.
Russian experts, for their part, indicated their attachment to the cooperative agenda and to a return to status quo ante, notably in the context of the EU-Russian partnership, which remains a strategic goal for Moscow. They underlined the need for a pragmatic approach, in stark contrast with what they viewed as the more rigid approach by US experts. However, Russian experts also reiterated their attachment to international norms and principles. The three groups of experts have yet to clarify the discrepancies in their interpretations of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and noninterference in internal affairs, notably in the context of Ukraine, and their differences of approach in this regard.
Despite a recognized divergence of interests and perceptions between the West and Russia, European experts focused on cooperation in selected areas, and offered a five-step approach:
- measures to avoid military escalation
- support for Ukraine to avoid an economic collapse
- humanitarian assistance and reconstruction support for war-damaged areas in Ukraine
- dialogue on the future of the European security order
- cooperation on a number of global and regional challenges
Third and last, when looking at how to make best use of existing tools and mechanisms, US experts hoped to be able to use existing institutions in creative ways, but underlined the limits of these institutions to tackle the current challenge. They pointed to the need to address some of the internal institutional limits of various organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union (EU), or even NATO. They pinned more hope on track 2 possibilities to be creative and offer “outside of the box” perspectives in an effort to move governments in the right direction.
Russian experts negatively assessed the security instruments and mechanisms in Europe which, in their view, have been inherited from the Cold War, as well as the inability of the post-Cold War to build a new indivisible system of security respecting the interests of all parties. Russian experts lamented this “institutional deficit” and the lack of interest in the West to consider earlier Russian proposals to modernize institutions such as the OSCE, or even create new mechanisms such as the European Security Treaty. They offered an agenda for strengthening the OSCE. They also suggested yet another perspective—complementary to the ongoing institutionbuilding efforts—that would be based on a network of international regimes around specific issues or specific interest groups, which would provide for a less rigid and more open approach to cooperation, avoiding linkages between issues and the risk of stalling progress for political reasons.
Europeans, for their part, offered a perspective making the best use of existing institutions. In today’s environment, the Europeans say, NATO is to have a role in avoiding military escalation and in urging restraint. The EU has to play a prominent part in avoiding the economic collapse of Ukraine, as much as in the trilateral consultation process between the EU, Ukraine, and Russia. European experts acknowledged the productive role of the OSCE in managing the Ukraine crisis and the potential to broaden its role to draw Russia into discussion regarding future European security architecture. They underlined, however, that the OSCE role in managing European security affairs cannot be developed at the expense of NATO and the EU with their respective engagements in eastern Europe and Central Asia.
We invite you to now turn to the three distinct pieces prepared by our US, Russian, and European experts, respectively, in an effort to assess the differences, and judge for yourself how far apart these three communities stand today. This is a first step toward what will likely be a difficult road ahead in managing our differences, fraught with danger, but where the way forward is not yet sealed. For our part, we remain committed to assist our respective authorities where we can, through track 2 efforts. As our European colleagues underlined in their contribution, the future of the security order in Europe will require track 2 activity between European, Russian, and American representatives, given the current divergent interpretations of existing norms and principles, and the entrenched official positions of all parties in official and institutional circles.
Ellen Tauscher, Vice Chair, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council
Igor Ivanov, President, Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)
This report offers three different perspectives from various experts in the United States, Russia, and Europe on the state of the European security environment in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis. These three perspectives reveal different perceptions of the current situation, provide different analyses of where common interests lie, and offer suggestions on how to make best use of the tools and institutional mechanisms to advance these interests.
This report is not about providing joint recommendations. It is an exercise in situational awareness to help assess the magnitude of the challenge in bringing American, European, and Russian perspectives to align toward a greater convergence on European security when circumstances permit. Although all parties agreed about the need to manage their differences, starting with addressing the challenges of the Ukraine crisis, the analysis of the situation and the approaches under consideration could not be further apart.
Nonetheless, the American, Russian, and European experts who worked on this report agree on the seriousness of the current crisis and the potential for further deterioration of relations. All experts have underlined the urgent need to address the Ukrainian crisis as a necessary step toward meaningful discussions on European security and progress on other global challenges.
An American Perspective
American experts stressed the depth of the crisis in post-Cold War Europe and acknowledged the failure of the West’s strategy toward Russia. This strategy sought to build a fundamentally cooperative relationship with Russia, mirroring other partnerships, which extended beyond those who formally joined Western institutions in the context of security and prosperity for all in the Euro-Atlantic family. Instead, the crisis produced by Russia’s recent policies—and the West’s response—reinforced the differences between Russia and the West over the status of Russia’s neighbors, particularly those that are not members of the European Union (EU) or NATO. Russia and the West have opposing visions of security in Europe. Washington and European capitals perceive Moscow as departing from international norms and agreed principles. This Russian departure is generating significant concerns about the direction of Russian policies. In Washington, the situation is perceived as dangerous, and is calling the broader agenda of cooperation into question. It was acknowledged by American experts that the Cold War, in its final decades, witnessed a gradual toning down of confrontation, in contrast to today’s situation, where the trend is toward renewed confrontation on a broad set of fronts. While US experts acknowledged that there should be, in principle, a common interest in halting and reversing the slide toward confrontation, they concluded that in practice a genuine meeting of the minds seems elusive for some time to come. There was no going back to status quo ante, but rather a re-evaluation of postCold War assumptions about Russia’s place in the EuroAtlantic family.
US experts began from the premise that resolving the Ukraine crisis on the basis of agreed international principles and norms that recognize the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine and Russia’s other neighbors was a sine qua non for improvement of Western-Russian relations. They acknowledged, however, that efforts toward a stronger partnership with Russia were increasingly perceived as part of the problem rather than the solution. Moreover, the past approach of building cooperation incrementally on initial successes in limited areas no longer seemed adequate in the current crisis. US experts advocated a change of approach for European security, away from cooperative efforts and toward “managing our differences,” while retaining some cooperative efforts on global security issues where Russian and Western interests are sufficiently aligned to make cooperation possible in the midst of the current tensions.
US experts offered an initial agenda for the EuroAtlantic area focused on resolve, which would also entail restraint and predictability to avoid misunderstanding, with measures such as:
- preventing conflict and rebuilding mutual confidence;
- maintaining, restoring, and extending nuclear and conventional arms control;
- pursuing dialogue on missile defense; and
- advancing nonproliferation objectives.
In addition, they suggested developing a common understanding on the “rules of the road,” given the competing interpretations of international law and agreed norms, and the nature of security and sovereignty as related to the Euro-Atlantic area. Finally, they underlined the detrimental effect of the Ukraine crisis on the broader agenda of cooperation beyond Europe and acknowledged that cooperation outside Europe would not necessarily facilitate the resolution of issues in Europe. Nonetheless, they agree that the United States and Russia must cooperate on global issues, from Iran and Syria to Afghanistan and North Korea.
US experts underlined the limits of existing institutions to tackle the current challenges. They stressed the need to confront some internal institutional limits, with first and foremost the task of reassuring exposed allies of the reliability of the NATO guarantee in its Article 5. US experts pinned some hope on track 2 possibilities to be more candid and innovative than official exchanges and to offer “outside the box” perspectives in an effort to move governments in the right direction.
A Russian Perspective
Russian experts, by contrast, analyzed the Ukraine crisis as a consequence of a dysfunctional security regime in the Euro-Atlantic space, pointing to a security environment in Europe that has become less transparent, less predictable, and less stable than in the twentieth century. They witnessed a gradual erosion of the security instruments and mechanisms inherited from the Cold War and the international community’s inability in the post-Cold War era to build a new, indivisible system respecting the interests of all its participants.
Russian experts pointed to various Russian proposals that did not meet with Western approval, as the West seemed focused on other priorities outside of Europe. They underlined, however, their continued attachment to stabilizing relations with the EU, in the hope of restoring the status quo ante (prior to the Ukraine crisis), and to move forward by calling for a pragmatic approach.
Stressing an “institutional deficit” in Europe, Russian experts also returned to earlier proposals to strengthen the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), acknowledging the necessary settlement of the Ukraine crisis based on respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country, but without shedding light on the different interpretations between Russia and the West on fundamental OSCE principles and commitments. Russian experts developed a proposal for reinforcing OSCE crisis management, conventional arms control, and confidence and security-building measures for the current situation in Ukraine.
In addition, Russian experts offered a different approach, complementary to ongoing efforts toward institution building, as these efforts may not deliver anytime soon. Dismissing the wisdom of sanctions, “NATO renaissance,” or any tit-for-tat or zero-sum approach to security in Europe, Russian experts argued for a tight network of international regimes around specific issues (a functional approach) or specific interests, which would provide for a less rigid and more open approach to cooperation, avoiding linkages between issues and stalling progress for political reasons. Ultimately, they concluded on the need for dialogue and the importance of track 2 activities to keep talking to one another in search of compromises and to making tactical concessions for strategic goals in full respect of each others’ interests.
A European Perspective
European experts offered a balanced perspective mindful of the diverging views within Europe vis-à- vis Russia and the challenge of agreeing on a common position. Their analysis rested on a realistic assumption that, without a realignment of current diverging interests and perceptions between Europe and Russia, it will be difficult to make progress on the creation of a common political, economic, and security space in Europe. They suggested that realignment would be needed in three key areas:
- addressing the growing value gap between authoritarian Russia and liberal Europe
- reconciling diverging visions on the status of the postSoviet common neighborhood
- reviewing the rules of the game of the Euro-Atlantic security order
Despite the magnitude of the challenge ahead, European experts offered a plea for continued efforts at cooperation is specific areas, recognizing that the tendency was nonetheless moving toward a geo-political struggle in the heart of Europe. They suggested a fiveelement approach as a basis for renewed cooperation:
- Measures to avoid military escalation and limit the danger of unintended incidents, urging restraint throughout all military chains of command and foreseeing a particular role for NATO in communicating clear and unambiguous red lines through a revamped deterrence and reassurance policy
- Support for Ukraine to avoid an economic collapse and a rupture of the Europe-Russia energy relationship, offering (in a context of a durable ceasefire in East Ukraine) a possible role for Russia in this economic bailout, and promoting the mediating role of the EU, notably through a trilateral process of consultations between the EU, Ukraine, and Russia on the implementation of Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU
- Humanitarian assistance and reconstruction support for war-damaged areas in Ukraine, notably through an international donor conference for the reconstruction of the Donbas region, potentially involving Russia and drawing on the expertise of the OSCE and the United Nations agencies in other conflict zones
- Dialogue on the future of the European security order, where track 2 efforts would seem essential given the diverging interests and interpretations of current crisis between Western and Russian-led institutions. European experts underlined the fundamental opposition between those who insist on Russia backtracking as a pre-condition, and those prepared to look at the failure of the European security order as it was prior to the Ukraine crisis in order to move forward.
- Cooperation on selected global and regional challenges, such as the Iranian nuclear program or trans-border crime, while acknowledging that the spill over effect of cooperation on global issues was not likely to trigger cooperation in Europe.
Finally, European experts acknowledged the productive role of the OSCE in managing the Ukraine crisis, and the potential to broaden its role to draw Russia into a discussion regarding the future European security architecture. They noted, however, that the OSCE role in managing European security affairs cannot develop at the expense of NATO and the EU and their respective engagements in eastern Europe and Central Asia.
- Read the Report (PDF)