by Hannes Swoboda

Reflections on the occasion of a meeting of experts from Russia, USA, EU and the Balkans in Zagreb

Consensus and Compromise

Both, the relationship between Russia and the West and the relationship inside the Transatlantic Community - between the EU and the USA - have changed dramatically in the past years. The EU has been built as a post - national community. National borders and cleavages as well as mere power plays must be overcome. Negotiations and compromises, on the basis of internationally designed rules, should in future be dominating in international relations. Inside the EU much progress has been made in that direction especially with the Lisbon Treaty confirming some clear community priorities.


However, the EU is also an entity which was and is interested to expand its community by offering economic benefits and participation in decision making and integration into a value-based community. NATO, on the other side, is extending its alliance by offering collective security especially by the biggest military power, the USA. Consensus is characteristic for the internal and for the external policy making of these institutions, even when bigger member countries have a bigger influence.


A new (dis)order

Already in the past ten years some new developments became visible. Nationalistic parties became stronger and with Brexit the first country decided to leave the EU. Still, negotiations and looking for a compromise are in the centre of EU decision making processes. Globally, the nationalistic trends became stronger. The order of the post war years and of the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union became more fragile. Russia as well as the USA with President Trump are demonstrating their power more clearly and China is underlining its global - predominantly economic -power.


Fyodor Lukyanov wrote recently the following analysis: "We can witness the reappearance of more classical patterns of international relations: an increased role of states, a renaissance of national-interest-based approaches, and interstate competition." Even if direct military interventions are not in the centre of that enforced power play, political and economic instruments including sanctions are a highly appreciated instrument of power influence these days. This is especially true for the US. But even the EU is using sanctions - for example as an answer to military activities like the occupation of Crimea by Russia or various actions of the Syrian government. It is, nevertheless, also a fact, that no such reaction to the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 as well as other actions predominantly coordinated by the US and/or NATO have occurred.


Certainly, the US with President Trump is much more inclined to use political and economic force than Europe. The latest example is the cancellation of the nuclear agreement with Iran and the proposal for new sanctions by the US. Already the unilateral sanctions against Russia without consulting Europe demonstrates the willingness of President Trump to "rule the world without its allies" as it was recently described by Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times. These political measures will put a strong strain on the Transatlantic Community as does the threat of new tariffs on European products. President Trump is moving from soft power to certain forms of hard power. When Russia is supporting hybrid wars, the USA are implementing hybrid forms of power to dominate world politics for its own interest.

Fixing alliances and changing cooperation

In spite of growing differences between the EU and the USA the Transatlantic Alliance - especially NATO - is still alive. The weakest point for the moment is Turkey, but Turkey is not in the centre of this analysis while its importance as a NATO member and its position in the region is highly acknowledged. And therefore irrespective of critical domestic policies the West should continue the dialogue with Turkey.

Russia - and China - on the other hand are not eager to conclude strong and mutual alliances with strict obligations for solidarity. This allows them to be more flexible as we can see now especially with the capacity of Russia to speak with all sides in the war stricken Middle East, which is not possible for the US or e.g. Great Britain. Whereas Russia is able to act according to the actual and changing conditions (antagonistic to Turkey and then in alliance with Turkey) the USA are in strong alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, this limits the possibility for mediating and finding compromises.


President Trump is trying to mix fixed alliances - for example with Israel and Saudi Arabia - with more freedom of choosing its cooperation partners. It is demonstrating power as such, not based on ideology and values but rather on necessary support at home to guarantee re-election and to strengthen a more unilateral position of the USA in the global system.


Even if economic measures (including tariff threats) to secure jobs at home are upsetting allies like many countries of the EU and NATO, the US keeps its strong position while challenging the alliances – simply because they have the power to do so. 


However, one of the most important projects seems to be to implement an " America First " policy. And irrespective of originally friendly relations between the presidents Trump and Putin, Russia is pushed into isolation or into cooperation with China and other international actors. Power gives strength but creates also new divisions and alliances.


How to react to a more assertive Russia?

Marc C. Johnson - former CIA official - wrote recently a contribution with the title "Don't Fear Moscow. Marginalize It." But I don't think this is a helpful advice. What the West needs is rather a policy of seeing in Russia a serious competitor who is trying to regain power and influence, which it lost in the years since the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The methods are often not in line with international law, but that is not unique for Russia. It is important to say clearly though, that the invasion of Iraq by the USA and a "coalition of the willing" is not justifying the annexation of Crimea and vice - versa. A break of the rules does never justify another break of the rules.

Concerning the issue of national interests, the actions of Russia in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea had a direct impact on EU interests. That is one of the differences to US policies in Iraq.


Irrespective of violations of international and humanitarian law the actors must restart a dialogue on the issues which are affecting all of us: the war(s) in the Middle East, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, global warming etc. The problem is that there is no united "West" with one position on all these issues. These differences between the EU and the USA are characteristically for the new world disorder. The lack of dialogue with Russia is another one.


Dialogue with Russia from a strong political position

We will not see a decisive return to the past world order. Nor will we see a competition between two ideological oriented blocks. Neither will we be confronted with a weak Russia ready to accept the dominance of the West in economic, political or societal terms. Even if Russia is demographically weakened and characterized by many economic problems we see it united behind Putin’s policy of strength and his flexible approach to change partners.

The EU should, however, not refrain from criticizing violations of international and humanitarian law but it should have a clear "moral" attitude also towards its own allies and it should fight against deviation from lawfulness, openness and tolerance in its own ranks. The EU should advertise and lobby for peace and a stability-oriented policy to prevent wars and bloody conflicts.

What should not be a reaction to Russia's activities is to refrain from enlarging the European Union into the Balkan region. The promises to these countries must be kept and implemented - as long as the Balkan countries themselves do continue to want it. This is also true for NATO enlargement in this region. These countries are far away from the Russian border. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are different cases and here one should find common ways with Russia how to proceed, maybe with common security guarantees from both "sides". 

In addition, the "West" and Russia should find an agreement on a comprehensive European security system. If President Trump would not be ready to join this debate, the EU should start this discussion. The EU should also start serious discussions with the Eurasian Union. Both should develop some common policies on regulations in order to enhance the economic connectivity between these two economic blocks.

Another important issue for joint EU - Russian talks is the future of the Middle East. Both have the capacity to speak with all actors in the region and as the EU is already now seen as a future payer for the reconstruction of Syria it would be necessary to be part of the discussion about the political future of Syria. Importantly, after Trump has been leaving the nuclear agreement with Iran, the EU and Russia should try together to keep Iran in that agreement with the other partners of the agreement.


Russia will stay a difficult partner to the EU and the USA. However, we should also wake up and see how the USA - respective President Trump - is trying to weaken the EU. The aggressive trade policy, sanctions against EU companies which are doing business with certain Russian companies or with Iran are clearly demonstrating Trumps offensive actions against the EU. This does not lay the ground for an alliance with Russia. But pragmatic relations with Russia beyond all "ideological" or geo-political differences are a must for a Europe which is no longer respected as a strong ally by the USA government. A new start with Russia is not only possible but also necessary: not out of weakness but in order to strengthen the EU and to have a more secure and stable neighborhood. We should not cut the ties with the USA but we should enhance the links with Russia, because without any dialogue or cooperation, the EU is hardly able to influence Russian policies or to support any of its democratic moves in the future.