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Europe needs security for Russia, and security with Russia

What can the Western bloc do to improve the cool relationship with the great power in the east, asks Manfred Huterer, diplomat at the German embassy in Warsaw. Is an open dialogue and mutual respect between the West and Russia possible?


In the wake of Russian international law's unlawful annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine, Russia and the West have ended up in an increasingly militarized confrontation. When Moscow questioned the European security regime, it was the culmination point of an already cool relationship. With President Putin's speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, in which he accused the West of systematically countering Russian superpower interests, and with the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, it became clear that Russia was defining its interests in delimitation against the West. Russia does not want to be integrated, but rather – with reference to "the near abroad" – itself needs to integrate. Since then, the Russia debates have revolved around the question of what role the West plays in this confrontation, and what the West can do to improve relations with Russia again.

Real politics without a value-based foundation does not hold.

Europe needs security for Russia, and security with Russia. In the light of the current situation, European Russia policy must have a dual strategy: "As much deterrence as necessary, as much cooperation as possible." The goal must be for Russia to once again commit itself to a rules-based security system in Europe. In order to gain confidence, the West should be prepared to engage in a dialogue on cooperative security policy, as well as show a willingness to carry out conventional and nuclear disarmament. A crucial question is how security and stability should be organized in the area between the EU and Russia. The military exercise "Zapad 2017", which took place at the NATO alliance's border from 14 to 20 September 2017, showed that the Russian forces in the area around the Baltic Sea have increased significantly in strength. As in the time of the Cold War, the exercise aimed to demonstrate military power against the West, as a supposed opponent.

Complex backdrop 

A coherent Russia strategy requires that we clarify some of our assumptions, such as the question of how this conflict situation arose. It is not an inevitable result of a defensive Russian reaction to a Western strategy of weakening and isolating, as Moscow puts it, and some Western neo-realists believe. (1) Another story here is that the United States used its dominance after the end of the Cold War to gain control of its interests, and that Moscow feared that Ukraine, after the country's upheavals in February 2014, could turn towards the EU and NATO.

Rather, the current crisis is the result of a complex causal structure, centered on erroneous assumptions (from both parties) about the intentions of the other side. In particular, the conflict around the interpretation of basic principles and norms, such as the prohibition on the use of armed force, respect for territorial sovereignty and integrity, free choice of alliances and compliance with basic constitutional and human rights standards. With this, today's crisis has become particularly acute, since Moscow considers the post-Soviet area (with the exception of the Baltic states) a political "special zone", where they can claim privileged interests and rights. As the Kremlin sees it, a sharp political development in this area can have direct consequences for Russia's power structure, which has led to a paranoia-like fear of "color revolutions". Thus, the Kremlin would perceive a democratic, European-oriented, politically stable and prosperous Ukraine as a threat. This indicates that Russian foreign policy is largely determined by internal factors (2) – and the turmoil of Western attractiveness.

Following the experiences of the mass protests in Moscow in 2011/13 ("The String Revolution", ed.), When power almost slipped for the sitting regime, Putin considers tying ties to the West of economic and civil society as a direct threat. The regime fears NATO to a lesser extent than its own population, so the regime's survival and its hostile attitude to the West are two sides of the same issue. (3)

Protests in Moscow December 24, 2011
Protests in Moscow December 24, 2011. Photo: Bogomolov PL, Wikimedia.

The crisis is sustained

Russia's concern that a merger with the West will threaten their own power is the main reason why Russia's political leadership has never grasped the German and European offer for a "modernization partnership", even though former President Dimitrij Medvedev originally felt serious about the goal of modernizing Russia. Moscow's demand to characterize security policy in Europe on an equal footing with the West was never substantiated by its own political and economic attractiveness. That this transformation in Russia has stalled, and that this has resulted in uncertainty among the Russian power elite, helps to maintain the crisis between Russia and the West. It is also reinforced by the fact that the Putin regime still follows the traditional one raison d'état, where only a strong state of power can guarantee security outwards and inwards.
In Russia, this leads to a strengthening of the authoritarian state bureaucracy, and also to a situation like the Russian historian Vasily Kljuchevsky in the 1800th century described in the following words: "The state did good and bold, but the people became poor." Thus, the regime has a serious legitimacy deficit and latent instability in the system. Unlike China, Russia has not exploited the benefits of globalization.

Geopolitical zero sum game

The West has not sufficiently taken into account the dynamics of conflict in Russia's domestic political factors and has underestimated the clear danger signals, such as Russian General Chief of Staff Valerij Gerasimov's speech in January 2013, in which he suggested that Moscow may in the future hybrid forms of warfare. (4) The speech was widely spoken in Russian media, but in the West it went almost unnoticed. Or other signals, such as the Russian trade blockade of Ukraine in the summer of the same year, and the military exercise "Zapad" in November 2013. Contrary to these indications that Russian politics would see no qualms about revisionist reflexes, Moscow's increased escalation in the geopolitical the game of influence in the EU-Russia area underestimated.

Despite this increasingly unfriendly climate, the then EU Commission – in the drag on Ukraine's signing of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) – responded to Moscow's geopolitical zero-sum game (preventing Kiev's signing of DCFTA at all costs) with its own zero-sum game ( DCFTA even excludes partial participation in a customs union with Russia). The political dimension of trade policy was insufficiently calculated. Strategic communications with Ukraine and Moscow – including the possibility of a DCFTA with maintaining closer economic ties between Ukraine and Russia or connected with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEC) – did not really take place on the part of the European Commission. One could get the impression that both the European Commission and Russia were more interested in win the drag fight than in preventing it. As a result, two trains dried up before the Vilnius Summit in 2013, and Ukraine faced a choice: the EU (DCFTA) or Russia (Customs Union). (5)

Moscow has missed its true goal.

In addition, a coherent Russia strategy that does not depend on wishful thinking, but realities, must also question who we really are dealing with. Proponents of continuing the principles of Eastern politics from the 60s and 70s tend to equate Russia with the Soviet Union. This is wrong in several ways. Different from Soviet foreign policy, which was about preserving the existing, the current leadership under Putin aims for a revision of the status quo. The establishment of foreign policy in Russia considers the year 1989/91 and the 1990s as a kind of "Russian Versailles", not primarily in territorial significance, but in view of Russia's influence.

From Moscow's point of view, Russia has the right to be as "significant" as the United States, which requires US recognition of Russian strength. Moscow's efforts to achieve de facto sovereignty over the "near abroad" are an expression of this occupation of status. Russia's interventions in Ukraine and Syria show that Putin's foreign policy has no clear ambition to follow a plan for systematic, confrontational expansion, but rather an opportunistic calculation to quickly and resolutely exploit opportunities offered at short notice, in order to ensure Russian influence, forcing Western influence back – and gaining status benefits. Although Putin does not shy away from improvisation, he is not a gambler. He tries to keep the risk of military intervention predictable. Military failures and high casualties would have a negative impact on the legitimacy of his authoritarian rule – here the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05 and World War I, which culminated in the October Revolution and the fall of the Tsar, as well as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 1979-1989, be useful for him to have in mind.

Unlike Chinese leaders, Putin is always more tactic than strategist. By its progress in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine, it has become clear that Moscow has missed its true goal – to maintain its influence on power in Kiev – and is actually farther away from this goal than ever.


What can, what should the West do in the current situation? Responsible politicians will not be satisfied with a cold peace as the supposed alternative to an even sharper confrontation. The notion of a peaceful coexistence does not fit into the 21st century, which is characterized by globalization, mutual dependence and mutual vulnerability. In any case, there is no room for big visions and bargaining at the moment.

It is an irony of fate that from US President Trump – which many have expected a lot from; he will strive for a balancing of interests with Moscow – no significant impulses have come in this direction. Trump's Russia policy is caught up in US domestic politics: Moscow's involvement in the US election campaign was counterproductive. Moreover, it has become clear that there are more differences of opinion between the United States and Russia on fundamental issues (for example, about Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, energy, nuclear weapons) than similarities. All the more is now required from NATO and the EU. The latter has an opportunity here to play a profiled role, especially if Moscow sooner or later admits that the anti-Western orienteringone has led the country into a dead end, and that the demonstrative brotherhood with China has not led to what was hoped for.

In difficult times, dual strategies have proven reliable. Even today, it seems that the concept of "as much containment and deterrence as necessary, and as much cooperation and dialogue as possible" is appropriate. Although a relaxation of relations with Russia has not been made in a single day, the success of German Ostpolitik has shown that dialogue and progress within the framework of "the small steps policy" is also possible in difficult times – at this point the analogy is valid. In spite of everything that sets us apart, it must be about a search for what is common.

On the hard "deterrent" side, the measures decided at the NATO Summit in Warsaw in 2016 point in the right direction; such as the rotating station of troops from NATO member states in Poland and the Baltic States. On the "soft side", attempts to get a defense against the Russian communications and hybrid war must be further developed. But security for each other will not stretch. We also need security with each other. Complementary to this, dialogue preparedness and offers of cooperative security should be aimed at minimizing uncontrolled escalation and arming dynamics, but also Russian misjudgments of the West's intentions. Therefore, it is important to continue the di-
the lodge in the NATO-Russia Council, to use crisis communication mechanisms (including contact between the Supreme Allied Commander Europe – SACEUR – and the Russian Chief of Staff) and other forms of conflict mitigation.

Nuclear disarmament

Dialogue on conventional and nuclear disarmament must also take place. Since Russia suspended the implementation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) in 2007, apart from the Treaty on Open Skies (OS), no harsh and legally binding conventional disarmament control rules apply. This creates significant risks. That is why the then German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier took the initiative in August 2016 to restart the conventional armor control. (6) The purpose of this initiative is, inter alia, to stimulate restraint, predictability, transparency and building trust, and to include new skills and weapons systems in agreements. Whether this will succeed in the end is uncertain. But not to try will at least be to play the cards right in the hands of the hawks on both sides.

The development of Russia's non-strategic nuclear arsenal, as well as Moscow's alleged breach of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), create considerable risk.

The same is true of disturbing trends in the Russian nuclear strategy, where the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons has been significantly lowered. The INF agreement, with its ban on land-based nuclear mid-range rockets, is a pillar of security in Europe, and it must continue. A nuclear armament in response to Russia showing muscle would for be the right thing to do. That is why the US-Russia talks on strategic stability are now particularly important and should be intensified.


In the current phase of the crisis of confidence, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) should be further strengthened as an inclusive dialogue forum, and at the same time become more vigorous and effective in the work to prevent conflicts. The German OSCE Presidency (2016/17, ed.) Provided some impetus here – such as a structured dialogue to reach agreement on new confidence-building measures or more frequent contact between OSCE member states' armed forces, although it became clear that it is a "rocky road". In this context, it is important to underline the principles of the Paris Charter for Peace and Basic Security of 1990: If the notion that the Charter should have been a kind of misunderstanding gets a breakthrough – then for Moscow from the start it should have been about common security than shared values ​​- in political practice this would mean that the OSCE regulations, which include the human dimension as the pillars of the comprehensive OSCE security concept, are diluted as a basis for promoting claims.

A strategy with the goal of limiting the risk of conflict scaling, and of submitting offers of cooperation, will only succeed if it is agreed with collective resolve. Both NATO and the EU must speak with one voice. Precisely the unity of the EU and NATO after the annexation of Crimea has made an impression on Russia's leadership. This also applies to the sanctions issue. However, it is right to signal again and again to Moscow that EU sanctions are not an end in themselves, but that they are political tools and that their abolition can also be an encouragement. In this way, the sanctions could also be lifted gradually, if significant progress is made in the implementation of the Minsk agreement. The key question remains how to organize security and stability in the EU-Russia area.

Putin is more a tactician than a strategist.

Formally assuring Moscow that it will not include Ukraine or the other countries in the region neither in NATO nor in the EU, as Matthias Dembinski and Hans-Joachim Spanger recently suggested in their otherwise substantial and interesting strategic document Plural Peace, would not be the right way to go. Such a formal guarantee would not only weaken the principle of freedom of choice for the Eastern Partnership States (EaP: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan), but also bring the Eastern and Central European partners of the EU and NATO into the arena, and for them would kind of «Russian sanitary cordon»Be totally unacceptable. It would come close to a new Yalta – something Putin is striving for.

In doing so, we would also have sacrificed the maxim in German and European East policy that a cooperation policy with Russia should not burden third-party states, or that decisions should not be taken over their heads. The result would be no more, but less certainty, also because there is no reason for the assumption that such a move would result in some civilization of Russia's foreign policy behavior. In any case, Russia's security interests are already characterized by the fact that a Ukrainian membership in NATO or the EU is in fact not on the agenda.

Pragmatic approach

Due to Russian zero-sum thinking and real Russian influence, the divergence of EU-Russia interests in our common neighborhood will not be apparent in the foreseeable future. Here it is only possible with pragmatic approaches that do not have new dividing lines as a goal. This also includes examining the possibilities of how the economic areas of Eurasia can become more closely linked. The model that proved to be sufficient for the EU's institutional enlargement in Eastern Central Europe will not matter to the Eastern Partnership area, not least because it also lacks consensus within the EU.

This is also why the implementation of the "comprehensive and deep free trade agreement" with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia is at the forefront. At the same time, it is appropriate to strengthen the competence of the Eastern Partnership countries, to withstand the pressure from Russia. The stabilization and backing of Ukraine will thus be a key task. It also opens up opportunities for enhanced cooperation and coordination with Poland, possibly in the fields of decentralization and modernization of the Ukrainian administration. This is part of a positive German-Polish foreign policy agenda that is currently more needed than ever.

A normalization of relations with Russia would not be possible without a clear relaxation in the Ukraine-Russia conflict. The yardstick here is still the full implementation of the Minsk agreement, including the withdrawal of Russian troops and control of the Ukrainian-Russian border. At the same time, there may be positive impetus from talks on Russian and Ukrainian considerations surrounding a possible UN peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine.

Needs confrontation

In the short term, we cannot expect a basic relaxation in the relationship between the West and Russia. Germany and its partners need perseverance and strategic patience, also because domestic policy factors, which determine Russian foreign policy, will not change from one day to another. The authoritarian system in Russia, which also, due to internal weakness, needs confrontation with the West to legitimize its own existence, is far more obstinate than many Western observers believe. A coherent strategy must therefore be based on factors that, in the long run, favor peaceful conduct. These include cooperation in trade and economics, education and science, a liberalized visa policy and the building of intersocial relations. Here, the troubled parts of Russian civil society should not be forgotten. Precisely because the EU and NATO are value societies and, unlike the 19th century, foreign policy is no longer cabinet policy and needs democratic consensus, real politics without a value-based foundation will not suffice. This is precisely why we should now give diplomacy a chance.


Huterer is a diplomatic envoy at the German Embassy in Warsaw, and former Head of Unit for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and EaP in German
Foreign Ministry.

Translated into Norwegian by Thomas Kolåsæter.


(1) For example, John J. Mearsheimer: Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West's Fault, Foreign Affairs, September / October 2014, pp. 1–12.

(2) Detailed described in Hannes Adomeit: Internal Political Determinants of Putin's Foreign Policy, in SIRIUS, Journal of Strategic Analysis, 1/2017, pp. 33–52.

(3) Hannes Adomeit rightly points out that in an analysis of Russian claims ("reckless" Western behavior) one must always distinguish between the cognitive and the instrumental dimension. One will be what the Russian leadership pretends to think, so as to secure their legitimacy and power, the other is what they really think: Hannes Adomeit, Everything's thinking takes place in New Russia. Domestic policy determinants of foreign policy, in Portal for Political Science (, 26.9.2017,

(4) Valery Gerasimov: Cennost 'nauki v predvidenii. Novye vyzovy trebujut pereosmyslit 'formy in sposoby vedenija boevych dejstvij. Voennopromyslennyj courses, 27.2.2013/14632/XNUMX,

(5) Samuel Charap, Timothy J. Colton: Everyone Loses. The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia... London, 2017.

(6) Frank Walter Steinmeier: More security for everyone in Europe – For a restart of the armor control. FAZ, 26.8.2016/XNUMX/XNUMX.


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Huterer is a diplomatic envoy at the German embassy in Warsaw, and former head of unit for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and EaP in the German Foreign Ministry. Translated into Norwegian by Thomas

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