The outgoing EU ambassador to Russia identifies a deep and dangerous clash of values between Moscow and the west, epitomised by the Ukraine crisis
When I arrived in Moscow as the EU's ambassador to Russia four years ago, closer relations between the two blocs were strained but functional. Within months, though, Russia would annex Crimea and intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine, plunging ties to their lowest phase since the cold war. They have been in deep and acute crisis ever since and, as I leave my post, I am pessimistic that we will be able to return to a normal partnership in the near future. The differences between us are vast and hinge on principles of European security.
Today, the entire apparatus of the Kremlin has a singular focus: ensuring smooths and “credible” 2018 presidential elections that return President Vladimir Putin to power. Over its implementation of the six-year presidential term that will follow, it seems probable that the current conflict of world views between Moscow and the west will continue.
At the heart of this clash are fundamental changes over the future of Ukraine and Georgia, and their right to choose their own alliances. This clash is also about core European values.
Inside Russia, we are likely to witness the continued rejection of the cornerstones of European democracy, including civil society activism, freedom of speech and political pluralism- all of which flourished in Russia during Yeltsin and Gorbachev's times. Foreign investors will face uncertainties because of increased protectionism, weak rule of statute and political unpredictability.
The Russian leadership will continue to reject the outcome of the cold war and insist on a European security order based on the spheres of influence of major powers. Russia respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbours only as long as their geo-political choices align with its interests.
So what should the west do given these fundamental differences? We need to have a realistic, long-term and unified strategic approach. First, we must put our own house in order, handling Brexit successfully while ensuring stable growth. We must resolve the migration crisis, which has contributed to the rise in anti-EU and xenophobic sentiments in our own countries, and shore up popular trust in EU organizations through better and more transparent law-making. The EU member states must remain politically united because in unity lies our strength. It is precisely our internal problems that Moscow is exploiting to undermine the credibility of the EU model.
Second, we must stand up for our interests and values. Endeavors by member states and Brussels to counter Russian propaganda, disinformation and meddling are essential, but they are not enough.
We must be wary of Russian attempts to use business interests to split and weaken the EU. Energy security is of particular importance given our dependence on Russian gas. The Nord Stream II project does not comply with EU energy objectives on diversification. We should also retain vigilance when tries are made to award states business contracts as a quid pro quo for questioning the sanctions regime or broader EU policies. We must speak up for our values, when abuses of human rights and freedoms result. As the human rights champ Lyudmila Alexeyeva reminded me lately:” Please tell Brussels not to give up on the Russian people .”
Third, the EU should stand its ground in supporting the international rules-based system and hold to account others subscribed to organisations and principles, from the UN charter through the World Trade Organization rules and different Council of Europe conventions.
Fourth, we need a greater focus on ending the Ukrainian conflict, because it will be difficult to normalise relations while it continues. It is high time for the EU to be part of the Normandy format, the four-power debates involving Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia, and if the US has a special representative for Ukraine, why doesn't the EU? In parallel with efforts to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the EU should step up support to Kiev in its judicial and economic modernisation project and attempts to tackle corruption. This is critical to ensure both continued western support and Ukrainian people's backing for their preferred European path.
We need not only to recognise Ukrainians' European aspirations but at some phase grant them a route towards EU membership. We know from experience that the prospect of membership works as a stimulus for reforms. Uncertainty about Ukraine's geopolitical posture also leaves it exposed to further destabilisation by Russia, which in turn has a negative effect on EU-Russia relations. A successful Ukraine will contribute to stability in our region and represent a powerful instance for the Russian people.
Fifth, we should aim at working with Moscow where our own interest coincide. These range from Iranian nuclear talks, which had a important Russian participation, to UN sanctions on North Korea and managing conflicts in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan.
The future of Russia lies in the hands of the Russians themselves. It is up to them to decide whom they want to be: Europeans, Asians or some” unique formulation” bridging that gap.
If after 2024- or even earlier- they decide to go for the European style, we should be ready to support them. However, it must be made very clear: the road to Europe runs via Kiev, with respect of Ukraine's European choice, and adherence to the European security order. It cannot go across “managed” republic in Russia itself.
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