International affairs is about whose story wins. The fine line between diplomacy and public relations is about the distinction between communicating policies and selling them. Nothing illustrates this better than the current hyper-polarized talk about clashing “narratives” on World Order between the West and Russia.
Major summits get reduced to a battle over semantics and serve as mere images for the kind of world order we are supposedly living in. Russia refers to the 1945 “Yalta order” that laid the basis for post-war arrangements between superpowers. The West refers to the basis created by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the 1990 Paris Charter which, among other things, enshrined mutual respect for borders in Europe.
On that basis, the West reproaches Russia for seeing sovereignty as relative when it comes to its neighbours. According to some observers, Putin’s Russia is the only sovereign state in this neighborhood. None of the other states, in this view, have truly independent standing. The “New Yalta”, according to this logic, will be about which of the two truly sovereign powers (Russia and the US) prevails in deciding where its borders end up. To that end, Russia is seen as creating “frozen conflicts” to maintain a level of “controlled instability”. The evidence cited for this includes Russian support for separatists in the enclave of Transnistria in Moldova and in the break-away Georgian provinces Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and Russian support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine.
Many Western governments see Russia as a disruptive actor in foreign affairs plotting to undermine the “rules-based international order”. For all of Russia’s talk about a rules-based system founded on territorial integrity in a multi-polar world, the selective application of that “territorial integrity” in its neighborhood is indicative of a narrative inconsistency.
Russia concedes that it violated bilateral treaties with Ukraine, but not the international order created in 1945. Instead, Russia is reproaching the West of using “democracy promotion” and “humanitarian interventions” as a pretext for regime change. It claims the West sparked “colour revolutions” in its neighborhood – such as the 2004 “Rose revolution” in Georgia and the 2005 “Orange revolution” in Ukraine – and of having “humiliated” and “encircled” Russia by breaking verbal pledges from the 1990s that NATO would not enlarge eastwards. The standard response to Western accusations of Russian breaches of international law is a reminder of the West’s failure to honour the sanctity of the UN Security Council by illegally bombing Serbia in 1999, illegally invading Iraq in 2003, and by skewing a “Responsibility to Protect” argument to justify regime change in Libya in 2011.
Both sides accuse each other of engaging in “information warfare” and spreading “disinformation”. The West accuses Russia of employing ominous new forms of “hybrid warfare” while Russia accuses the West of stirring up anti-Russian hostilities – often misrepresenting the relation between government and the press in open societies.
Entering a ‘post-Western’ world
The talk in some circles in the West of a creeping re-Sovietization of the post-Soviet space is a reflection of the short supply of Area Studies expertise on Russia. Universities and research institutes had allocated funds to prioritise other areas instead of Russian studies and were caught off guard by the 2014 Ukraine crisis.
Yet, the West is not a unified bloc, as US President Trump’s forays into international diplomacy have shown. It is a time of major uncertainty over the future of not only US and European relations with Russia, but of transatlantic relations themselves – partly due to the Trump administration’s mixed signals about the longevity of NATO and multilateralism in general.
The EU’s position on Russia sanctions would be undermined if Trump’s administration was to engage in a “deal” linking the lifting of US sanctions on Russia with nuclear arms reduction concessions, as alluded to by President Trump. “The Bering Strait is only four kilometers wide and that’s what separates us”, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said during his remarks at the 2017 Munich Security Conference. He underlined the “special responsibility” of the US and Russia in world affairs and cited the need to coordinate policies on Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, drug trafficking, and “conflicts in Europe”.
Issue-specific cooperation and engagement here should go hand in hand with encounters on multiple levels. Unwisely, however, most European governments have suspended high-level interactions with Russia in the wake of the 2014 Ukraine crisis, including military-to-military cooperation. This leaves them guessing about Russian policy motives. Work in the NATO-Russia Council has also been suspended.
Against this backdrop, track II conferences and exchanges can bring together state officials and experts from both sides to have the kind of frank discussion about their countries’ differences that their governments cannot. These conferences provide face-to-face meetings among professionals working with and on Russia. I found this out for myself when I participated in a ‘Public Diplomacy Program for Young Leaders’, organised by the PICREADI Center in February 2017.
Dialogue fosters an appreciation of the other’s mindset, which mitigates confrontation. Even if exchanges can be uncomfortable, they can help clarify disagreements and explore concrete areas for incremental cooperation on other issues –- from educational fellowships to the survival of the Iran nuclear deal. For these reasons, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee urged for a “people-to-people strategy” to build bridges with the next generation of Russian political and economic leaders.
It is this understanding that former US permanent representative to the UN Samantha Powers referred to in her obituary of Russian UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin – her most publicly visible political foe on many issues. She wrote: “It is imperative that we try to build relationships with individual Russians, who are as complex and contradictory as the rest of us”.
This is a particularly important reminder at a time where the alienation on a political level produces nothing but empty rhetoric, like Theresa May’s call to “engage but beware”. Joint Russian-Western expert discussions and face-to-face exchanges between both sides are key to preventing the political alienation from damaging societal relations for generations. Interaction is needed – not in spite of grand narratives about World Order clashes – but precisely because they ultimately serve to debunk them.