RIAC Experts' Comments

Greater Europe: a castle in Spain

June 18, 2014

Author: András Radnóti, Independent researcher.

Measuring Europe’s logical development path against the actualities


Throughout the decade following the fall of the Soviet Union, the eyes of the Trans-Atlantic community lit up with optimism looking at Russia. The end of the division of Europe seemed like the dawn of a new Europe, whole and free. Whole and free meant united and strong; advanced cooperation and integration from Ireland in the West to Russia in the East. In the 2000s, the rising relevance of trans-border threats made the EU, Russia and the US acknowledge the need for security cooperation. The Great Recession showed that economic integration is needed to stay competitive against the rising East Asian and South American powers.


Political commitments have been made, often to the cheer of the expert community. President Dmitry Medvedev called for a European security community at the Munich Security Forum in 2008; President Vladimir Putin has declared economic and security cooperation from Lisbon to Vladivostok one of his foreign policy priorities several times throughout his newest term. Think-tanks continue to create consortiums, like the RIAC-ELN-PISM-USAK[i] one, to elaborate and advocate the idea of Greater Europe. Yet in May 2014 we are further from that than even in the decade preceding the fall of the USSR. The past months’ controversies over Ukraine evidently have a lot do with that, if less as a cause than as proof.

Russias foreign policy baggage

In Russia, geopolitics is undoubtedly still the tune of the day. One of the main reasons for Russia’s rocketing international standing in the 2000s was that it was seen as able to pursue its own foreign policy course. Understanding how this ambition — fully respectable in principle — led to increasing expansionism, instability and confrontation with the West means looking at the two narratives dominating Russia’s official foreign policy discourse: that of Russia’s ‘encirclement’ by the West, and that of its newly regained strength.


The paranoia that the West is seeking to ‘encroach, then strangle’ Russia first gained momentum upon plans of a NATO anti-missile shield in Central Eastern Europe (the European Interceptor Site). It was then exacerbated by Ukraine and Georgia’s plans for NATO integration. The 2004 Orange Revolution, the first light of opportunity that Ukraine might irreversibly take a European course, signified the moment when the Kremlin began to equate the EU with NATO. The EU’s 2009 Eastern Partnership programme, aiming to integrate six former Soviet republics into the common European economic space, further aggravated Russian fears of Western ‘encroachment’, and strengthened the notion that the EU and NATO are two means of accomplishing the same end. All this became evident with the 2014 Ukraine crisis. In Russia’s state-controlled press, the Maidan protests have been consistently interpreted as a Brussels-Washington plot to bring about the forceful association of Ukraine with the EU.


Russia’s status as a great power is enshrined in its foreign policy concept[ii]. The narrative that after its ‘humiliation’ and ‘exploitation’ by the West in the 1990s, Russia is once again a strong country, is omnipresent. This new strength, however, stands out as something achieved against those culpable for the tortures of the decade preceding Putin’s: Europe and America, as well as the ‘traitor’ Gorbachev and the ‘drunkard’ Yeltsin. The Georgian war, the blackmailing of Armenia, Moldova and the Baltics, the annexation of Crimea and finally the unrest in Eastern Ukraine were all meant to show the world that Europe’s new strongman claims exclusive influence in its neighbourhood, by which it means the entire post-Soviet space (minus the Baltics, the loss of which it regrets but is not trying to reverse).


José Ignacio Torreblanca notes that ‘due to the traumatic experiences of 1917 and 1991, when internal changes led to significant losses of territory and humiliation by other powers, Russia’s ruling elite now uses a concept of freedom different from that in normal usage: internally, freedom to choose the political regime without interference; externally, freedom to act without constraint by others (especially by US unilateralism); and the economic freedom (not necessarily liberalism) to achieve a degree of prosperity sufficient to sustain a strong state.’[iii] It is the combined effects of these two narratives: the Western ‘encirclement’, the sinister threat of a new ’humiliation’, and Russia's newfound strength, that allows it to pursue its own foreign policy without constraint. Any constraint: in April 2014, Leonid Kalashnikov, a Communist deputy in the Duma, denounced international law as a burden on federal radio. In a Freudian move, he was speaking the minds of many in Russian officialdom.

Expansive by nature

The great power aspirations and the encirclement paranoia, and the search for economic and foreign policy freedom inevitably lead to expansionism – not necessarily an expansion of the country’s borders, but certainly of its sphere of influence. In Georgians’, Ukrainians’ and Armenians’ decision to join NATO, sign Association Agreements with the EU, or both, Putin sees not the independent foreign policy choices of sovereign nations, but new steps forward in the Euro-American plot to ‘encroach upon’ Russia — a plot that Russia must combat with every available tool. The creation of two nominally independent mini-states in northern Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, was hardly in Moscow’s interest, considering the momentum it could have given to separatist movements just north of the border in Russia. But in Putin’s new Monroe Doctrine, the non-alignment of the near abroad was worth the risk of spillover effect. Fuelling separatist sentiment in and leading a campaign far into Georgia, Russia wrecked the country’s infrastructure and military capability, destabilising it to such an extent that it could not go through with the planned NATO integration.


The annexation of Crimea earlier this year was equally unexpected and, seemingly, irrational. The costs of its integration are running high, and that price is driven even higher by Western sanctions, enacted in response to the bold step. The Kremlin’s plans with the peninsula remain shady: there are reports of the construction of a bridge over the Kerch Strait, a mega-project[iv], the creation of a gambling paradise[v], a Russian Las Vegas, but also of creating a jurisdiction of English law[vi] to attract international business (McDonald’s restaurants in Crimea remain closed at the time of publication[vii]). Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol was secured within Ukraine until 2042 — or much longer if, as looks probable, Ukraine remains dependant on Russian gas — and the cancellation of this contract by any new authorities in Kiev was always highly unlikely. This base would have been the legal obstacle to Ukraine’s accession to NATO, a process that the annexation might have fuelled. Putin’s motivation in Crimea was, then, to destabilise Ukraine by exposing the weakness of the new authorities — so far a partial success. The annexation sold well at home, too — but for this, Putin can only thank his grip on the media.


Armenia’s case is much clearer yet. Yerevan was set on signing the Association Agreement with the EU at the November Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, a move Moscow took as a direct affront. To Armenians’ misfortune, Russia has a near-total grip on their country, providing almost all of its energy and holding key stakes in its transport industry, among others. But the Kremlin didn’t even need to threaten economic conflict. A threat to step up arms exports to Azerbaijan, potentially the fortune of war in Nagorno-Karabakh, was enough to convince a weak Armenian government to withdraw from the Association Agreement and, without announcing a date, declare its plans to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union instead.


In its makhinatsiya, Moscow cites international law, but in a cynical manner. It did not table a resolution at the UN Security Council on Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Crimea; but in the latter case, Putin famously said that “it's a good thing that they [Americans] at least remember that there exists such a thing as international law - better late than never”[viii]. The pattern of Russian aggression itself shows one-sidedness — a further proof of the defensive-aggressive motivation that is the fear of Western encirclement. While the Kremlin knows no compromise when it sees any sign of growing Western influence in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, it overlooks the rise of China’s role in some former Soviet republics to the East of the Caspian, counting on China as a potentially close ally, should Russian-Western relations further sour. Moscow has recently signed a big energy deal with China, and plans to beef up the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, providing common defence. It does not seem to address the obvious rivalry in Central Asia — as well as in the SCO — at all.


It can be argued[ix] that European leaders have been naive to close their eyes to the authoritarian and imperial-nationalistic trends within Russia, and hope for peaceful and mutually beneficial cohabitation and cooperation. But the reality is such that not even the sharpest-eyed Russia-watchers predicted Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the unrest he sparked and manages — the way they could perhaps, judging by the years of cynical (and, to some extent, mutual) provocation, have foreseen the 2008 conflict in Georgia. Political analysis in Russia today — as in perhaps any authoritarian state — resembles more psychology than the social and political mathematics, moral measurement and policy innovation seen in the West. Unpredictability and extra-legal pursuit of logically undetectable interest is characteristic of rogue states; in itself a threat to regional and global security.


In the West, Russia is seen as sabotaging the forces for good in the world: the spreading of democracy, the rule of law, the upholding of human rights, and the building of a stable and predictable, orderly and peaceful world. It is increasingly seen as a threat; by economic and military meddling in the neighbourhood it shares with the EU, and especially by redrawing Europe’s borders (in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and, most significantly, Crimea), it challenges the post-1991 world order and the European security architecture. Since Russia uses the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers as a pretext for intervention in the neighbouring states[x], the Baltics — some of which have large Russian minorities, and which, although NATO members, are militarily indefensible — feel threatened.


There would be a scope for a peaceful rise for Russia. The means are there — Russia has been granted a powerful voice on international issues. She is a member of the UN Security Council, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the WTO, and, until the annexation of Crimea, was a member of the G8 group of powerful nations. Cooperation has been successful at times; whether manifest in showing sympathy and sharing intelligence, as after 9/11 and the 2002 Dubrovka theatre hostage crisis, or in developing common frameworks to resolve international issues of concern, such as the Iranian nuclear programme or the Syrian civil war. But Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric — which has become ever more vehement since plans of the European Interceptor Site emerged in 2002 — has occasioned a series of hostile actions, from the all-out cyber attack on Estonia in 2007 to the Ukraine crisis this year, and these have relativised all previous progress.

The art of self-sabotage

The noble, ostensibly Russian-backed[xi], plan for a cooperative community in the Greater European space, intended to outline the route to continent-wide peace and prosperity, has never looked realistic because Russia has never allowed it to. Its expert advocates[xii] note for example that valuable resources in the Greater European space could be ‘used to meet social need and to promote economic innovation and cooperation’, but are instead ‘being invested in security arrangements and military modernisation programmes’. This pacifist observation is indeed reasonable; but, going further, even an increase in Russia’s military capacity would not be seen as a threat if peaceful cooperation characterised Russia-EU relations. The recent modernisation of Russian armed forces has not been matched by similar measures in Western countries — on the contrary, defence budgets in the EU have been steadily decreasing. President Obama renounced the EIS project and, reflecting mostly Germany’s position, all NATO deployments in Eastern Europe were halted in the past few years (only to be resumed in wake of the Ukraine crisis). Only when Russia’s modernised military invades its neighbours is it hard to argue against increased defence spending in the West. Greater Europe’s proponents highlight the need to resolve Europe’s frozen conflicts — and one wonders what the EU can do about Nagorno-Karabakh, where Russia is arming both sides; about Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia created; about Transnistria, where Russia is keeping separatist sentiment at boiling point, and troops stationed permanently; about Crimea, which Russia has invaded and annexed; or about Eastern Ukraine, where Russia is supporting separatist militias in every way it can.


The experts note that the region risks being dragged back into a conflict over spheres of influence; and it is an issue that deserves further scrutiny. In the 1990s, there were no spheres of influence in Europe. It is wrong, and a further symptom of the chronic paranoia of ‘encirclement’, to suggest that NATO’s massive expansion in Eastern Europe — or the plans for the integration of Ukraine and Georgia — were orchestrated from Brussels or Washington as part of a greater American plan. The will of the nations of Eastern Europe — who initiated the integration process in all cases — is not to be ignored, as Edward P. Joseph rightly points out in The National Interest[xiii]. The states of Eastern Europe did join the rival alliance, but as the USSR and the Warsaw Pact had collapsed, the rivalry itself was gone: this could hardly be called ‘defection’.


Washington’s power in Europe has been on the decline ever since the Yugoslav wars, a process that has sped up considerably with the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite all the recent strains on Trans-Atlantic harmony, particularly those caused by Edward Snowden’s revelations, the EU and the US continue to form a community of values, and consequently a community of interests — in the promotion of freedom, democracy, the rule of law, human rights and good governance around the world. Europe remains in America’s sphere of interest (and, it could be argued, vice versa), but not its sphere of influence. The EU and its member states are sovereign and independent — but they share values and interests with the United States.  For much of the 1990s, that was true of all of Greater Europe. All European countries, including Russia, were either allies or at least partners of the United States; there were no dividing lines, no spheres of influence. They first reappeared when Putin’s Russia claimed its sphere back. Insofar as official discourse suggests that Russia’s greatness is counterbalanced, or hindered, by a decadent West, the Russian sphere of influence can only exist in opposition to an imaginary Western one — and Russia’s vehicle for the solidification of this sphere is the Eurasian Economic Union, to be launched on 1st January 2015.


The think-tankers also call for mutual trust and confidence in Russo-European energy trade — but this will perhaps be the hardest nut to crack. The interdependence is clear: many EU members depend on Russia for their energy security, whilst Russia depends on Europe for the gas and oil revenues that make up over half of its overall trade, because existing infrastructure does not allow it to ship resources anywhere else. Any debate on who would suffer more from a sudden strain on this trade would not only be monotonous, but also, inevitably, fruitless. Both sides are working to reduce their interdependence – Russia is constructing new oil and gas pipelines to the East and South, and has recently signed a 30-year energy deal with China, while Europe — with the Nabucco, a planned gas pipeline from Azerbaijan under the Black Sea, looking dead — is seeking alternative sources of energy: renewables, fracking, and importing liquified natural gas. The EU has of course not commented on Russia’s search for alternative export routes — none of its business —, but Russia has been vocally displeased about European efforts to counter dependence on Russian commodities, and tried to thwart them, making side-deals with member-states, and putting a strain on European solidarity[xiv]. This has certainly not contributed to trust. What has had the most ruinous effect, however, is the perception of Russia increasingly using its energy exports to meet political ends. The halting of deliveries of oil and gas products to Estonia and Ukraine — the latter effecting many EU member states which get their gas by way of Ukraine — has left Russia’s image as a reliable supplier in ruins.


The very fact that reducing energy dependence on Russia is high on Brussels’ agenda is strongly suggestive. EU decision-making remains slow and ineffective, to a large extent trapped between inter-governmentalism and supranationalism, with disunity among member states often making key issues unresolvable. The fact that European leaders are now pressing ahead with the energy diversification agenda means that a the use the ‘energy weapon’ seems a very real threat to them.

Leeway in the West

Trust between the West and Russia is converging to zero. It is a trite to lay a share of the blame for this on Western powers for being insensitive and irresponsive to Russia’s security concerns. It is important, however, to consider Western countries’ Spielraum, often limited by their responsibility towards each other and the values at the core of their system. America has been the guarantor of global security for almost one hundred years, and it continues to see itself as the naturally imperfect, and constantly evolving, hero of global freedom and democracy. This is mirrored by the EU, a self-proclaimed ‘normative power’, a large part of whose raison dêtre is the promotion of the basic values laid down in Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty. In responding to Russia’s concerns, then, America and the EU face the dilemma of denying aspiring nations a helping hand with building free and democratic societies and securing respect for human rights, denying them economic association or military protection in exchange for their oaths to the values the West considers universal; the dilemma of risking their very integrity to avoid bothering Russia.


The Eastern Partnership deserves careful measurement in this respect, too. No-one disputes the EU’s right to have a vehicle for managing its relations and promoting its values in its ‘near abroad’. But it has been demonstrated[xv] that the ‘batch’, ’one-size-fits-all’ nature of the Association Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements that constitute the objective, the end product of the EaP, is a burden for several partner countries. The same stands for the EaP at large; the rationale for handling the EU’s relations with resource-rich, authoritarian, sceptical Azerbaijan and resource-poor, pluralistic, enthusiastic Georgia under a single umbrella is poor. The promotion of democracy, human rights, good governance and the construction of mutually beneficial cooperation, if pursued on an individual basis, could be seen as harmless. If pursued in batch, under a single programme, they send out the powerful, and potentially threatening, message that the EU is looking to tie its partners down in the ‘Euro-Atlantic’ sphere of interest. As it happens, the European Union has the resources (in the External Action Service) to step up relations with partner countries on a bilateral basis; this would certainly be more effective and look less threatening. As an integration tool, the Eastern Partnership looks set for partial success, but as a communication tool, it has failed completely.


Against the backdrop of Russia’s expansive and uncompromising foreign policy, the EU’s (and the Obama administration’s) doctrine of mutually beneficial cooperation  in the context of respect for the law and each other — stemming from the experience of the 90s — is hardly apt. What European leaders must realise is that there is no going back to it; the dialogue they try to get Russia to accept will not change the course of events. It will, as the quadrilateral Geneva agreement on the Ukraine crisis of April 17th showed, allow Putin to appear cooperative, giving him time to fulfil his plans: establishing exclusive influence in most of the post-Soviet area, grinding EU and NATO integration to a halt, and profiling Russia as a major power, a counterweight to the ‘US-EU tandem’, an alternative model or focal point for success.


These Russian ambitions pose a threat to the EU’s interests in its Eastern neighbourhood, but also to the very essence of its existence: not only the promotion of, but the adherence to its basic values, its integrity. Conflict, especially geopolitical, does not correspond with the EU’s nature. But any attempt to whitewash Russia’s expansionism in Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and the Baltic states, to stress Europe’s own shortcomings in its dealings with Russia and the need to return to the negotiating table and find a compromise is in fact exactly what Russia wants: yet another a sign of weakness.


For the time being, it seems, President Putin understands Brussels a lot better than Brussels understands him. Ukraine and Georgia will not join NATO, Armenia will not sign the Association Agreement with the EU, and the Baltic states feel threatened. In the EU, disunity, indecision, and chaos rule. Putin has outsmarted the EU, and its power of attraction is perhaps at an all-time low. It is, of course, hard for it to seem attractive while it is only slowly recovering from a disastrous financial and economic crisis. But the real threats to the power of attraction are not battered finances, but populism, opportunism, and cowardice: abandoning the values the Union is built upon, and forgetting about the basic principle of solidarity for fear of the fury of European business elites, and of voters tired of economic hardship and refusing to show solidarity with the peoples of Europe’s Eastern extremes. The exact opposite of these qualities – responsibility, vision, and courage, are needed to halt the mortal threat to the European project that is Vladimir Putin. These imply a blunt return to Cold War policies: economic pressure, independent broadcasting into Russia, and the increased use of soft power — capitalising on the power of attraction — in the neighbourhood. The sanctions enacted by the US and the EU in the past months were surely a step in the right direction. But they were too weak, and came too late.


President Putin’s Spielraum is larger than the EU’s — and by a whole order of magnitude. To achieve major foreign policy objectives, he is willing to bear significant economic pain. This is why the first rounds of European and American sanctions had limited efficiency. Many of the business figures in the president’s circle have been, and will continue to be displeased, about having to give up their luxury real estate in Miami, London and the Côte d’Azur, and not being able to visit their children studying at universities in Britain and America. But to suppose that these moguls, every penny of whose fortunes depends on Putin, will pressure him, is all but naiveté. The sanctions on some medium-sized Russian banks, and the consequent suspension of transactions on the part of credit card issuers Visa and MasterCard were a real blow to the people, and therefore the regime; but they have been quickly overcome. Minor economic sanctions, such as an American one on Russia’s high-tech sector, also result in no harm to Putin’s approval ratings. The only thing that could in fact ‘impose a cost’ on Russia for its actions in Ukraine and elsewhere, would be an all-out trade war that all Russians would immediately feel on their skin. This is a step that requires unprecedented unity, determination, and cooperation from European countries and the United States, and one that they, too, would suffer greatly from.


The EU’s strategic mistakes must be corrected: the Eastern Partnership, as well as the EU-Russia cooperation agenda, needs overhaul, poor communication needs fixing. But Europe has mostly erred not in its answers to Putin’s foreign policy, but in its lack of them. Yet the cool-headed, but determined, three-tier sanctions regime, along with the powerful voice that Poland and the Baltic states have acquired in Brussels, might well allow for the devising of a whole new approach to the neighbourhood, Russia, and European security and geopolitics. Such an approach would allow powerful financial and economic sanctions to be enacted and military muscle to be flexed. The objective should in fact not be to ‘impose a cost’ on Putin for violating the very bases of European security, for mocking the fundamentals of peaceful cohabitation. It should be to get him to stop it — or, more likely, make Russians depose of him.

Binary reality

This is the way Europe is moving, although how fast, and how the outcome of the May 25 elections will affect its direction, are yet to be seen. In Russia, however, the discrepancy between stated goals and political action is so evident, the number of contradictions so vast, predictability so low, that any hope for substantial change would be unfounded. For that, no doubt, the combined effect of the ‘encirclement’ and the ‘great power’ narrative are to blame. These are so deeply connected to, and in some cases, rooted in, other parts of Putin’s system, such as the hazy and schizophrenic historical memory, that it seems hard to believe that any change short of revolutionary will be capable of doing away with them.


The worst-case scenario is, then, one of continued — let alone increasing — disunity and indecision in Brussels. Key decisions to forge a powerful common foreign policy, especially vis-a-vis Russia, come at a cost: certainly economic and almost certainly political. But this is once again a time for Europe’s leaders to show responsibility and get their priorities clear. Failure to do so will result first in Russia’s increased influence in the Eastern neighbourhood: control of the South Caucasus and Ukraine, and ever more aggressive posturing towards the Baltics. Already in the medium term, such an outcome directly challenges the European project itself, insofar as it paralyses its soft power, its norm-setting capacity, and, on the Russian side, builds up leverage and means to contain its economy.


A best-case scenario is not the best of existing worlds, either. It would take sobriety, vision, determination, unity and, most likely, personal sacrifice. It would take an unprecedented, powerful, concerted effort on the part of European leaders to isolate and contain Russia. It would start with the immediate and unconditional suspension of all high-profile dealings, be that the French sale of two amphibious Mistral class ships to Russia, or the construction of the South Stream gas pipe, which involves many Eastern and South-Eastern member states. A simultaneous introduction of Tier-3 sanctions, imposing limitations on key sectors of the Russian economy, including energy, could make for a hit strong enough first to secure Europe’s position in the Eastern neighbourhood and halt Russia’s expansionism. In the long run, these steps might even have the knock-on effect of a regime change within Russia.


Should this scenario prevail, there will be peace in Europe — not one without tensions, but a peace nonetheless. Any talk of Greater Europe other than academic is completely off the table while Putin is in charge in Russia. For now, we must get used to living in a binary Europe and try to keep it at peace at least.






[ii] The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation (approved by President Putin on 12.02.2013) states, for example, that Russia's foreign policy "reflects the unique role our country has been playing over centuries as a counterbalance in international affairs and the development of global civilization". It states its awareness "of its special responsibility for maintaining security in the world both on the global and regional levels”.

[iii] Torreblanca, J.I., 2010. Russia Is Shifting. European Council on Foreign Relations. Available: http://ecfr.eu/content/entry/commentary_torreblanca_on_russia

[ix] As, for example, Edward Lucas does regularly since his 2008 A New Cold War.

[x] The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation (approved by President Putin on 12.02.2013) states that a basic goal is the "protection of rights and legitimate interests of Russian citizens and compatriots residing abroad". Of interest here is the vague term "compatriot", that could include all Russian-speakers, or people perceived to be ethnic Russians, living abroad.

[xi] A free-trade area 'from Lisbon to Vladivostok', to be achieved through an EU-Russia free trade agreement, was advocated by Putin, for example, in his 25.11.2010 op-ed in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/wirtschaft/putin-plaedoyer-fuer-wirtschaftsgemeinschaft-von-lissabon-bis-wladiwostok-1.1027908

[xii] Referred here is the RIAC-ELN-PISM-USAK consortium. /en/inner/?id_4=3055#top

[xiv] In particular, Russia has been vocally attacking, and has sued the EU for, the Third Energy Package, aiming to complete the single market in the energy sphere. See http://rt.com/business/156028-russia-sues-eu-energy/

[xv] This point is rather convincingly demonstrated, for example, by Michael Emerson in his CEPS Essay from 21.01.2014: After the Vilnius fiasco: After the Vilnius fiasco: Who is to blame? What is to be done?

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