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19th-century diplomacy can help deal with 21st-century Russia

Okay…what now? EPA/Mykola Lazarenko

There is at last perhaps some cause for optimism in the Ukraine crisis. A ceasefire agreement has so far held, and the Kiev government has announced that the bulk of Russian forces in Ukraine appear to have withdrawn.

But despite the dialling down of combat, this is still a crisis. It’s been confirmed that new EU sanctions on Russia will begin from September 12, though they will apparently be reversible if the situation in Ukraine improves; the US is expected to implement new sanctions of its own as well.

All this shows how much damage the Ukraine crisis has already done to the fragile order that has kept Europe relatively stable since the Cold War ended – and how ill-equipped the EU and US are to ensure stability in the future.

Russia’s current stand-off with the West reflects its deep frustration with the post-1991 order. Russian foreign policy has reverted to its traditional great power pattern, which it briefly abandoned under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.

The EU’s response has been painfully slow and ineffective – while Russia’s behaviour, when viewed from the Kremlin’s perspective, has been perfectly understandable.

Minding their business

Russia’s concerns centre on what it sees as NATO’s insidious eastward encroachment and its lack of regard for Russian sensitivities over national status and security. From Russia’s point of view, the West’s old Cold War structure wasn’t replaced with all-inclusive security mechanisms after 1991 – it was retained and expanded into the Russian sphere.

The major break came over the Yugoslav campaign in 1999. By getting involved there, NATO ceased to be a purely defensive alliance, with Russia having no formal means to push back against its sudden interventionism.

Russian opposition to apparent Western unilateralism grew stronger with the Iraq War, and with the colour revolutions in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004). It moved from verbal opposition to the use of force with the 2008 war with Georgia (2008) – and, more provocatively, with the annexation of Crimea and involvement in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Putin’s growing authoritarianism at home has isolated Russia even more thoroughly. After his re-election in 2012, he initiated new policies explicitly intended to secure his autonomy from the West: increased military spending, the “nationalisation” of elites (a crackdown on rich Russian officials keeping their financial assets in overseas banks), anti-liberal social laws (the ban on “gay propaganda” targeting under-18s), and closer ties with the BRICS countries (including a recent $400 billion gas deal with China).

Meanwhile, the West’s principal response, the introduction of sanctions, has in many ways played into Putin’s long-term goal of weaning Russia off its reliance on the West.

This struggle is, therefore, over much more than Ukraine. It is an opportunity to drive home Putin’s refusal, voiced most notably in his famous Munich speech, to accept the US-dominated post-1991 system, and his determination to reverse Russia’s post-Soviet decline.

However, the importance of Ukraine should not be underestimated. Russian elites and public see Ukraine as essential for Russia’s national security and its identity as a centre of the Russian world, rather than any kind of independent country. This in turn means they have displayed an unusually high level of resistance to the effects of sanctions.

The post-Cold War order, which was in essence based on the assumption that Russia would eventually converge to Western norms, is no longer working. Clearly, it is time for a radical rethink of Europe’s security mechanisms.


An obvious approach, of course, would be to model a firm settlement on the approach taken after World War I: a “Versailles 2”, perhaps. This would force a powerful nation, in this case Russia, to accept Western norms of international behaviour. That, of course precisely the point of drastic sanctions.

The obvious problem with this approach is that it would leave a major country in Europe more discontented than ever with the established order, without doing anything positive to change the situation. That in turn would mean inherent instability and division, all coming at substantial expense (economic, political and ultimately military) to the West – as well as to the citizens of a sanctioned and isolated Russia.

Surely, there are other ways.


One alternative would be a move towards a new Treaty of Yalta – a Euro-Russian agreement to draw clear lines between each party’s sphere of influence.

But it would be unthinkable to deny European nations their right to self-determination in favour of stability, with Russia handed some right to control any ex-Soviet republics it saw fit to absorb. There is also no real indication that this is the order Russia wants to establish: it lacks the capacity to sustain any such structure (much as the USSR crumbled under its own weight), and nor does the Russian elite want to abandon its fabulously lucrative economic relations with Europe – even in favour of territorial expansion.

Most importantly, the post-Yalta system was built on foundations that simply don’t exist in the same way today: the clash of two fundamentally polarised ideologies, and a global military-nuclear stalemate.


Another option altogether would be to return to the 19th century system of the Concert of Europe, which was created at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

The key to the Concert of Europe’s success was its inclusiveness. It was based on the recognition that any new post-war order would be terminally unstable if one of the principal powers involved was opposed to it. This meant that France, the main loser from the Napoleonic wars, was included in the club as an equal.

The deep ideological differences between great powers (constitutionalism in Britain and France, absolutism in Russia, Austria and Prussia) did not stop them from maintaining international order through collective responsibility; at the same time, they gave themselves sufficient room to adjust to new balance of power as the century progressed.

This inclusivity and flexibility marks the Concert of Vienna out from superficially similar 20th century efforts, such as the League of Nations (dominated by the victors in World War I) or the UN Security Council (which has institutionalised the post-WWII deadlock between two superpowers to everyone’s detriment).

Such a forum, able to tackle the most sensitive issues with respect for the Russian viewpoint (the eastward enlargement of Western institutions), might have prevented the current crisis. And if the Ukrainian mess is ultimately resolved through some kind of Russian-European compromise, the construction of a similar diplomatic mechanism to help do so would be a very positive outcome.

To work, it would have to offer Russia sufficient incentives to join in without compromising essential Western interests, including the security of democracy in wider Europe. In practical terms, this could mean a giving Ukraine neutral “buffer state” status, with a guarantee of its current borders (probably minus Crimea), special provisions for its Russia-oriented civilians, and joint EU-Russian aid to restore Ukraine’s collapsing economy – including a reasonable price for Russian gas.

New provisions on how to resolve future conflicts must be made part of any deal to firmly end the crisis. That could be done by giving a reformed OSCE more prominence, or by creating a new NATO-EU-Russia forum of some kind. The key is to have an all-new, all-inclusive European security structure, transcending the East-West divide, which could settle political disputes without resorting to military force or economic pressure.

All this may sound optimistic – but the alternative of progressing with the current approach is doomed to fail.

To Hell in a handcart

The West has failed to properly integrate Russia into its worldview since 1991, and there is an obvious vacuum of ideas for how to deal with it. The default reaction is to fall back on the Cold War paradigm - sanctions, containment, and hopes of Russian regime change.

This is folly. There’s no knowing how long it will take for Russia to change tack, if it ever does; nothing guarantees that a new regime in Russia would be any more pro-Western. There’s also apparently no idea how to handle Russia in the meantime, especially while it remains a crucial part of crises like those in Iran and Syria.

For the US, whose strategic focus is on East Asia and the never-ending disaster in the Middle East, a full-on effort to somehow “contain” Russia until it crumbles or changes would be deeply misguided. It would directly undermine US objectives in more immediately important regions, for example by driving Russia and China even closer together.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has shown that the placeholder post-Cold War order Europe and Russia inherited urgently needs replacing. With a ceasefire in place at last, the search for an alternative is on. The Geneva talks in April this year could be its basis; but nothing truly transformative will be achieved until the US, EU, Russia and Ukraine all recognise the need for compromise. This will take quite a while yet.

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