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A compromise with Russia that respects core Western principles is an illusion – James Sherr

“Don’t put up with humiliation!” says the poster of a Communist Party of Russia protester near the American embassy. Photo: TASS
A compromise with Russia that respects core Western principles is an illusion – James Sherr
Article by: James Sherr
We continue publishing responses to the International Crisis Group report “Peace in Ukraine I: A European War” which recommends Europe to engage Russia in discussions of European security while “adjusting the current sanctions regime to allow for the lifting of some penalties if Russia contributes to real progress toward peace.” This article was first published by The Insider and is reprinted here with permission.

Six years after Russia annexed Crimea, a number of articulate and influential people in the West have become firmly convinced that a way out of the impasse must be found.

On the face of it, the proposition requires little justification. The toll exacted by the war in Ukraine has been onerous, and whilst there has been no major fighting in five years, the economic and humanitarian burdens remain considerable, and the risk of wider conflict persists. Moreover, recrimination and pressure now characterize the relationship between Russia and those whom its leadership acidly calls “our Western partners.”

It is hardly incidental that Ukraine’s not so experienced president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, believes that ending the war with Russia is his most urgent task.
In the political establishment, the most eminent figure determined to break the mold is France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, who has spoken eloquently about the need to “tie Russia and Europe back together.”

But examples of restlessness can also be found within the expert community, where some have turned the search for a compromise into a duty bordering on obsession. The latest report of the International Crisis Group (ICGis an elaborately even-handed example of this genre. It is hardly incidental that Ukraine’s not so experienced president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, believes that ending the war with Russia is his most urgent task.

More or less explicit in these approaches are three premises.

The first is that the risks of compromise — which must by definition entail some modification of Western (and Ukrainian) policy — pose fewer dangers than the indefinite prolongation of the status quo.

The second is that such a prolongation is not in Russia’s interests.

The third, which does not necessarily follow from the second, is that negotiation of a mutually beneficial compromise is within the bounds of realism.

The second proposition is the key one because Russia’s interests are the fulcrum upon which these calculations turn. Unless Russia is willing to end the war on terms that others can accept, these approaches are most unlikely to produce the results intended.

Western constructs of Russia’s interests have tended to be poor guides to its policy
The unpalatable fact is that Western constructs of Russia’s interests have tended to be poor guides to its policy. Four and a half years before it attacked Ukraine and over five years before significant Western sanctions were applied, then-Vice President Joseph Biden opined that Russia’s problems were serious and “over the next fifteen years…not sustainable.” Eleven years after that forecast, they are still being sustained, and whilst Biden was prudent enough to warn that Russia could become even more belligerent in the short term, he was wise enough not to say how long the short term might last.

A lack of vision for engaging Russia

President Zelenskyy while visiting conflict zone in Donbas, where he talked with soldiers more informally than his predecessor Poroshenko. Source: Priamyi

In October 2014 Russia’s most senior representatives at Valdai International Discussion Club and Sergey Naryshkin (then Chairman of the State Duma, now Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service) in February 2015 warned that the current international order was “deformed,” that the Baltic states should consider events in Ukraine and draw conclusions and that the West should relearn the lessons of Yalta or risk war.

These injunctions followed years of statements to the effect that Ukraine is not a proper state, that a third of its present territory was “given” to it by the Soviet government, and that its independence amounts to nothing less than the “division of Russia.”

If Russia is to come “back to Europe,” should it be on this basis or some other? If on another basis, who in Russia has proposed one? ‘

The singular weakness of Macron’s vision is the absence of any evidence that the Kremlin shares it.
Rather like Biden in 2009, some supporters of the Macron initiative (for example, during the discussions under the Chatham House rule in Tallinn, Helsinki, and Brussels) have argued ex-cathedra: Russia is isolated, its regime is becoming weaker, the Middle East is becoming a quagmire, and the occupation of Donbas is strengthening Ukrainian nationalism. On the other hand, other French representatives have argued that Russia is advancing on all fronts, making “engagement” that much more essential.

However, the ideas advanced for “engaging” Russia are breathtakingly vague. There must be a compromise. Nevertheless, the pillars of the Helsinki-based system must be upheld.

The singular weakness of Macron’s vision is the absence of any evidence that the Kremlin shares it.

Based on discourse and actions, one might more plausibly argue that Russia’s political strategy to weaken European and Transatlantic cohesion is working, that it is regarded with grudging respect from Libya to Iran, that its deviousness and malice are fraying the nerves of Zelenskyy’s conflicted administration; not least, that hardships at home and the constraints of sanctions, whilst far from trivial, are not of the magnitude required to challenge core priorities and beliefs.

It is clear from the views expressed above that some in the French foreign policy establishment perceive these things themselves.

How might one reassure Russia?

“Octopus maps” like this one were very popular in the XXth century to depict Russia’s expansionist policy, which still drives Russia today

Although the ICG report is a work of policy analysis rather than an exercise in statesmanship, it suffers from similar deficiencies. Nobly, its authors declare that “trad[ing] off Ukrainian sovereignty,” “questioning the principle of territorial integrity or the right to choose allies” would not be “desirable.”

But at the same time, they assert that the path to accord begins by “honestly acknowledging Russia’s security concerns and being willing to seek ways to work with Moscow to alleviate them.”

How is it possible to alleviate these concerns without eroding these very principles? Why should Russia surrender its leverage, position, and control for anything less?

Russia does not want reassurance. It wants changes.
The war did not begin over sanctions or weapons deployments, let alone “less divisive topics” (climate change, counter-terrorism, COVID-19), where, the authors believe, cooperation might “reassure Russia.” It began, as was said at the time (by Putin at Valdai Club in October 2014 and Sergey Lavrov in MGIMO and Diplomatic Academy of MFA, 1 September 2017), in order to put an end to “US diktat,” to uphold Russia’s “lawful place” in the world and re-establish an international order based on “balance of power” and “respect.” Russia does not want reassurance. It wants changes.

For the ICG recommendations to be practical, Russia would have to be changed. Indeed, it would have to be reinvented.

The Russia that exists today is no longer a wounded partner. It is an ambitious and a threatened power, whose apprehensions have grown in direct proportion to its sense of entitlement to limit the choices and sovereignty of others.

For Putin as much as for Nikolay I, the belief that Russian civilization transcends the borders of Russia is both an article of faith and a principle of state. This “civilizational” animus complements a system of governance — collusive, neo-feudal but also autocratic — that creates points of friction between Russia and many of the countries that border it. These frictions are reinforced by a pre-1914 view of security – defense perimeters, spheres of influence, client states, and civilizational “zones” – that is out of kilter with the political and legal regime that ended the Cold War and arguably in defiance of the UN Charter itself.

For the ICG recommendations to be practical, Russia would have to be changed. Indeed, it would have to be reinvented.
This outlook is not set in stone, but it has an intrinsic coherence and strength. It provides a basis for rational calculation, prudence, and a measure of cooperation. But it does no good pretending that it is not antagonistic to ours in essence.

Protivoborstvo: a systemic reality

A woman holds a sign saying “NATO is Russias enemy” at a protest in Ulyanovsk in 2012. Photo:

The Russian term for this state of affairs, protivoborstvo [antagonism, confrontation] is not a failure of statesmanship but a systemic reality. It will be overcome, when it is overcome, for systemic reasons. Negotiation is not a means of overcoming it, let alone an exercise in group therapy. It is one of the theatres in which this antagonism is played out. Whether or not we choose to approach it that way, the Russians most certainly do, as Volodymyr Zelenskyy is slowly learning to his cost.

There is no reason why a firm policy need impose major sacrifices on the West and no reason why it cannot manage the antagonism with Russia to its advantage. We are not on a wartime footing. Still greater defense outlays than those assumed since 2014 would be eminently affordable; the loss of trade with Russia thanks to the sanctions regime is modest, and the EU’s overall trade turnover has not been depressed.

Most of Ukraine is not on a wartime footing, although its economy has been damaged. Even so, it has partially recovered, and in some sectors, the rupturing of ties with Russia is stimulating innovation and growth. In Donbas, no one has benefited apart from mafias, brigands, and the curators of conflict. It is not beyond our collective ingenuity to alleviate conditions there, but unless Ukraine wishes to surrender its fundamental liberties as a state, we will not be able to transform them. That will only occur when Russia concludes that its interests in Ukraine are damaging more important ones at home.

A compromise with Russia that respects core Western principles is an illusion.
A case can be made that the COVID-19 crisis, amplified by the oil price collapse, might hasten that moment. To be sure, the effects of both have destabilized variables that the Kremlin believed it had mastered. That is not sufficient reason to suppose that it is more reconciled to the Helsinki-based (“hegemonic”) security order based on the legal equality of states, respect for their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and freedom to choose their partners and modes of development. Nor is there any indication that the Kremlin is willing to treat Ukraine as “a country like any other.”

Already, it is clear, as the Russian politolog Dmitry Suslov wrote in Kommersant, that “the pandemic has not softened the [international] confrontation, but has become one of its arenas.”

If the confrontation is to be “softened” in future, it is less likely to be because of the pandemic than because Russia’s state leadership, more likely a future one, concludes that the goals set out in 2014 — a return to the principles of Yalta and the “federalization” and “neutralization” of Ukraine — are not achievable.

The West’s policy will be an important variable in that calculation.

To realize its goals, the West first must accept the logic of long-term confrontation and reject illusory solutions. A compromise with Russia that respects core Western principles is an illusion. No compromise that Russia deems worthy of acceptance today will leave those principles intact. Putin’s resurrection of the principles of Yalta is an affront to those principles and the international order that emerged at the end of the Cold War.

Either the West bases its interests on a Europe of sovereign states, free to chart their own course, or it resigns itself to a coerced stability and the certainty of future conflicts.

Second, the collective West, both in the form of NATO and the EU, must maintain its own integrity and security, it must understand its own vulnerabilities, invest in its own resilience and capacity and accept the rigors of a hybrid peace.

Third, the West should continue to help Ukraine strengthen its own capacity (to the extent it is prepared to be helped) and its own deterrent capabilities. It should never pressure Ukraine to accept second-rate and infirm solutions where its own integrity and security are concerned.

To these ends, the United States and the United Kingdom, as signatories of the Budapest Memorandum should return to center stage. There should be no question of “selectively” removing sanctions (pace the ICG report) until the reasons for their existence are removed.

Fourth, the West should pursue cooperation with Russia where it makes sense to do so, laying particular emphasis on the repair of the multilateral arms control regime. It should continue to trade where trade is mutually beneficial. Not least, it should take advantage of any formats of dialogue and discussion that are open to it.

Finally, the West should affirm without equivocation that Russia’s internal affairs are Russia’s business. When it comes to the West’s business, we will not be asking for Russia’s blessing, and we will not be deflected by its disapproval.

James Sherr is a Senior Fellow of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at ICDS and an Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme of Chatham House. His last major publication (with Kaarel Kullamaa) was The Russian Orthodox Church: Faith, Power and Conquest (EFPI/ICDS 2019).

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