Oct 15th, 2017 - by Derek Fraser, Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria, former ambassador to Ukraine
According to press reports, U.S. President Donald Trump, in his desire for reconciliation with Russia, was initially considering removing sanctions on Russia and recognizing a Russian zone of influence in Eastern Europe. In fact, Trump might not have achieved reconciliation through such measures. What Russia seeks is more than a zone of influence: It wants to be recognized as a great power with a veto on all questions affecting Russian security, including the activities of NATO and the EU.
To understand Russian goals, we have to look at the roots of Russian policy towards the west. European Russia, like France, Germany and Poland, lies on the North European Plain. Like these states, it therefore lacks geographical defences against attack, and has historically regarded its principal neighbours as its enemies.
The west European states, as a result of their experience during the Second World War, resolved after the war to follow a new course. By creating common European and Atlantic institutions, the west Europeans came to regard their neighbours as their friends, and to recognize that international relations did not have to be a zero-sum game.
For the Russians, however, the Second World War had reinforced their traditional view that their neighbours were their enemies unless they were under Russian control, and that the defence of Russia required pushing its boundaries as far west as possible.
According to this view, therefore, the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union were disasters not mitigated by any understanding with the west on future relations. The west promoted democracy and was open to the integration of East European states into Euro-Atlantic Institutions. Russia sought instead to recover its position as a great power, including a zone of influence.
Putin pressures NATO and the EU
Russia’s boundaries had been forced back to where they were at the time of Peter the Great. As a result, Russia has never really accepted the independence of the other former Soviet Republics. It sought from the beginning to exercise its tutelage over them, and has been prepared to stop them, by force if necessary, from acting contrary to Russia’s strategic interests. One of Russia’s means of achieving control over these states has been through fostering “frozen conflicts” — Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and now the Donbas in Ukraine.
Russia’s treatment of its neighbours was — and is — in violation of the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations, the Helsinki Accords and all the agreements signed at the break-up of the Soviet Union, asserting the principles of the sovereign equality, territorial integrity and right to self-determination of all states.
Russia had also lost status with the west. Russia’s views were ignored in the Kosovo war of 1998-99, and in the Iraq conflict of 2003. Moreover, in both wars, the west attacked without the approval of the UN Security Council.
To the Russians, the United States’ withdrawal from the anti-ballistic missile treaty in June 2002 and its plans to deploy a missile-defence system against Iran, with installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, were further signs that the United States did not consider Russia its strategic equal. Then there was the slow expansion eastward of the EU and NATO. For the Central and Eastern European countries, the attraction of NATO and the EU were considerable. They believed in European integration. They wanted to consolidate their new democracies. They sought economic prosperity by lowering barriers and introducing reform. They wanted to avoid falling back under Russian control.
NATO and the EU were initially reluctant to admit the newly independent countries. In 1999, however, NATO accepted Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. NATO then received Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania and the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 2004. In the same year, the EU admitted Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus and Malta. Since then, the two organizations have expanded south into the Balkans, but because of Russian opposition, no other former Soviet republics have been admitted. Since 2004, the EU has offered those states, including Russia, only free trade and economic co-operation. Ukraine’s associate member status offers no assurance of full membership.
For the Russians, the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, established in 1997, and the EU-Russia Partnership Agreement of the same year, were not adequate compensation for western intrusion into the Soviet Union’s former area of control. Then, to add to Russian disquiet, came the “Colour Revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan from 2003 to 2005, which, to Putin’s conspiratorial mind, were western-organized, and in any case, could threaten his hold on power. Putin has also held the United States responsible for the Muslim uprising in the Russian Caucasus, the Arab Spring revolutions and the overthrow in 2014 of president Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine. Observers differ on to what extent the change, around 2004, in Russian policy towards one of increasing authoritarianism at home, and hostility toward the west, resulted from these events, or to what extent it resulted “more from Russian political and strategic culture as well as the persona of Putin.”
Russia wants zone of influence
In his broadside against U.S. domination at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, Putin, among other demands, called for a “new architecture of global security in which NATO would have to heed the opinion of Russia and others before acting.” A year later, in April 2008, at the NATO Bucharest Summit, Putin warned then-president George H.W. Bush against putting Ukraine and Georgia on the path towards NATO membership. If this happened, Putin threatened to dismember the two countries. In response, Germany and France vetoed any consideration of Ukraine’s and Georgia’s applications. Nevertheless, in August of 2008, Russians goaded Georgia into a war, apparently in order to mark out Russia’s zone of influence.
Russia followed up in the same year with two diplomatic initiatives that were designed to block any further EU or NATO expansion, and to facilitate bringing the other former Soviet republics back under its control. President Dmitry Medvedev proposed a European Security Treaty that would have given Russia a veto over any activities of NATO that Russia considered a threat to its security. The treaty would also have dropped the Helsinki principles of the equal rights and self-determination of peoples, the inviolability of borders, non-intervention in internal affairs and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The treaty would thus have the effect of making it harder for the west to criticize Russian actions in the former Soviet Union and of facilitating Russian pressure on the other former Soviet republics. Flowing from the idea of a European Security Treaty, Russia proposed a Union of Europe between Russia and the EU. The union would have co-ordinated energy, military, political and strategic matters, and prevented either side from strengthening security at the expense of the other. The union could thus have blocked the EU from acting independently of Moscow. The combined effect of the European Security Treaty and the Union of Europe would have been to exclude North America from Europe.
Instead, Sergey Karaganov, the honorary head of Russia’s influential Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a leading adviser to the Presidential Administration of Russia, told Germany's Der Spiegel that Russia wants “to be the heart of greater Eurasia, a region of peace and co-operation. The subcontinent of Europe will also belong to this Eurasia.” The Russian proposals for “a common European security and co-operation framework”remain the basis of Russian western policy. They have been regularly reaffirmed. The November 2016 “foreign policy concept” finds that the lack of a concrete western response to the Russian proposals has “resulted in a serious crisis in the relations between Russia and the western states.”
This past September, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared, “We all want to form a security space in the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasia that is equal for all. None of us will try to improve one’s own security at the expense of the security of others. Unfortunately, these declarations remained on paper as political promises. Our attempts to make them legally binding were rejected by western countries.” Since the massive demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2011-12 protesting the rigged presidential elections of 2011, and Putin’s return as president — demonstrations Putin has blamed on the Americans — Russia has become more active in pursuing its goals.
Misinformation and cyber attacks
Since 2012, there have been many Russian speeches and articles advocating a return to the Yalta-Potsdam or Cold War system of east-west relations, in which the Soviet Union had a recognized zone of influence and a veto on issues affecting its interests. More recently, some Russian commentators have suggested that a global concert of nations was what Russia sought. It is not clear what difference this change in designation would make in Russia’s goals. In pursuit of its aims, Russia has also devoted considerable effort to conducting a misinformation campaign, cyber attacks and spending large sums to support populist parties in Europe and the United States, so as to weaken the cohesion of NATO and the EU.
Russia has increased its pressure on the other former Soviet republics. In August 2013, Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, which is close to the Ministry of Defence, and the author of an authoritative study of the new Russian military doctrine, declared that, in order to achieve the aim of the Russian National Security Doctrine-2020, namely, the renaissance of Russia as a great power, Russian dominance over the other formerSoviet Republics had to be restored. Under the Russian Military Doctrine, Russia could, if necessary, use force to achieve its objectives.
The foreign policy concept makes it clear that Russia expects other former Soviet republics to give priority to integrating within the former Soviet Union and not to their relations with other states. Russia has developed various policies for exerting pressure on its neighbours to do its bidding. One of the instruments for re-establishing Russian dominance is the Eurasian Economic Union, or as it is known, the EEU, of former Soviet republics. The Russians hope that the EEU will grow into a geopolitical bloc. So far it has attracted only four other members — Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan — out of the original 15 former Soviet republics. For Russia, Ukrainian membership in the EEU is key to the success of the organization. Ukraine’s associate membership in the European Union excludes that possibility.
In September 2013, a few months before Russia’s actions in Crimea and the Donbas, Putin’s point man for developing the Eurasian Economic Union, Sergei Glazyev, warned Ukraine that should it sign the association agreement with the EU, it would violate the Russia-Ukraine Treaty on Strategic Partnership and Friendship of 1997, under which Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Then Russia could no longer guarantee Ukraine’s status as a state and could possibly intervene if pro- Russian regions of the country appealed to Moscow. At various times and in various ways, Russia has also called into question the statehood of Kazakhstan, the Baltic states and Belarus. It has especially warned Moldova, Belarus and the Baltic states that they should consider events in Ukraine and draw conclusions.
Since 2001, Russian law has allowed Russia to annex other states or territories, a provision it used in the annexation of Crimea. Since 2009, Russian law has allowed Russian armed forces to be used to intervene in support of Russian speakers abroad. The foreign policy concept sets out the obligation to protect Russian citizens and compatriots abroad, a principle that was invoked to justify the attack on Ukraine.
“Protecting” Russian citizens by armed foreign interventions
Under Russian law, since 1999, the term “compatriot” has included Russian citizens former Russian citizens, and descendants of the citizens of the former Soviet Union or the Russian Empire — in other words, almost the entire population of all former Soviet republics, as well as that of Poland and Finland. In 2014, Putin warned Kazakhstan that it had to remain part of the Russian world. In June last year, the speaker of the federation council, Valentina Matviyenko, warned that Russia would not sit idly by when Russians, ethnic Russians or Russian compatriots in Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus or Moldova were the objects of oppression and persecution. The latest foreign policy concept also brings back into effect the policy under which the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 in order to restore Communism. The doctrine states that it is Russian policy to assist members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, whose membership is almost the same as that of the EEU, “in eliminating the existing and preventing the emergence of the new hotbeds of tension and conflicts on their territory;” The official Russian press has made it clear that future “Colour Revolutions” will not be tolerated.
Russia placed the Baltic states under strong political and military pressure before NATO stationed troops on their territories. Most recently, Belarus has borne the brunt of Russian pressure. In view of the deep differences on Europe between Russia and the west, there is likely no quick fix to east-west tensions. An end to sanctions and recognition of a Russian zone of influence might not, therefore, achieve reconciliation. Instead, it might make matters worse. The foreign policy concept suggests that recognition of a Russian zone of influence would not end Russia’s attempt to neuter the EU and NATO. Without sanctions and western support for Ukraine, recognition could lead to the subjugation of Ukraine and some other former Soviet republics, as well as a shift in the balance of power. Finally, it would undercut the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, under which the United States and others gave security assurances to Ukraine and other former Soviet states if they gave up their nuclear weapons. This abandonment would undermine the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It will be several years before a compromise between the conflicting interests of Russia and the west can be worked out. In the meantime, east-west tensions can become more dangerous than during the closing phase of the Cold War because the old rules of conduct have largely disappeared.
What is now required is to be prudent in both words and deeds; to maintain, and possibly strengthen, sanctions and deterrence; to combat Russian misinformation and cyber-attacks and support for populist parties in western Europe and the United States; and finally, to continue to talk to the Russians, both to avoid military collisions and to look for areas of agreement and common interest, including negotiating nuclear arms reductions.
The article appeared in the October Issue of Diplomat and International Canada. With permission of the author.