The Kremlin’s buzzword now is Russia looking East

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared last month that although the European Union (EU) was Russia’s biggest trading and investment partner, Moscow was “ready to break ties” with the EU after criticism of the jailing of Opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

He added that Russia worked with the EU in only a few areas, dealings with the EU were “sporadic” and related mainly to energy and foreign policy issues such as Syria and Iran. The Kremlin later mitigated the Minister’s comments, denying that severance of diplomatic contacts was imminent, though such steps might be considered in response to EU sanctions affecting sensitive areas of the economy.

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Idea of a common home

A Swedish soldier in the 18th century, Philipp-Johann von Strahlenberg, defined the Ural Mountains as the border between Russia and Europe, a view warmly endorsed by Russians associated with Tsar Peter the Great’s westernisation programme. In 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle proposed “a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals”, the idea of a common European home echoed later by Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev. President Boris Yeltsin (1991-99) pursued this concept, but his commitment to refashion Russia after the European model failed to result in the inclusion of Russia in European security or political architecture or the removal of Cold War tensions. Instead, Moscow’s embrace of liberalism legitimised sovereign inequality, with the EU lecturing Russia on liberal norms and assuming a role to influence Russia’s domestic affairs, though treating Russian influence beyond its borders as illegitimate and ‘meddling’.

The EU’s attitude was never sustainable since it rested on sovereign inequality. Democracy was advanced when the West assumed the right to promote liberal values in Russian civil society and shape its political opposition, but democracy was under attack whenever Russia attempted to influence the West. Moscow held the contrary view; that power and values could not be decoupled; and refusal to include Russia in European institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the EU continued the structures of the Cold War, and consolidated the opposing Russian and European basic security interests.

Where Europe went wrong

Europe’s mistake in dealing with Russia after the re-unification of Germany in 1990 was in expecting it to westernise unilaterally. This ignored Gorbachev’s warning that “the states of Europe belong to different social systems; recognition of this fact and respect for the sovereign right of each people to choose their social system... are the most important prerequisites.” After its transitory revival in the 1990s, the objective of a common European home remains as unrealisable as ever. On the contrary, it seems that after 300 years, Russia will end its West-oriented approach although Europe and the United States have yet to acknowledge this historic shift.

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The West’s support for the 2014 Ukraine uprising, and the NATO and EU’s relentless forward policy in States bordering Russia are intensely resented in Moscow, and the EU’s claim to a monopoly of European values and identity fuels this animosity. The Kremlin’s Greater Europe concept has now been replaced by the more feasible Greater Eurasia Initiative, with Russia looking East for economic connectivity and institutional integration. The current emphasis is on Russia’s sovereignty and independence, the idea of a unified European civilisation replaced by competition in values, and instead of closer collaboration with Europe, the Russian and European integration initiatives will go their separate ways.

The Russian liberals

Ever since the French Revolution, the Napoleonic period and the Decembrist revolt against the Tsar, Russia has been suspicious about liberal political movements, thereby obliging Russian liberals to identify with foreign counterparts and appearing as a fifth column. Upon Russia’s humiliation in its war with Japan in 1905, Russian liberals sent messages congratulating the Japanese Emperor, and used the hardships of the First World War to delegitimise the authority of the Tsar, although it was the Bolsheviks who seized power in the ensuing chaos. Russia’s exclusion from post-Cold War Europe revived its distrust of domestic liberals, who draw encouragement from western support for colour revolutions and anticipate regime change during every street protest in Russia. U.S. President Biden, after pledging to pursue values-based diplomacy, now adopts Washington’s tried-and-failed toolkit of sanctions and use of force.

The Moscow visit by the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell that provoked Mr. Lavrov’s outburst demonstrates that efforts to reset relations are compromised when mutual expectations about the form and nature of ties are far apart. Moscow rejects EU efforts to intervene in its domestic affairs while the EU feels disrespected and rebuffed. Russia is transitioning from Greater Europe to Greater Eurasia, and diplomatic disengagement may be expedient until the new reality is understood. Paradoxically, Russia’s emphasis on Greater Eurasia might improve the climate for Russian liberals, because a responsible liberal presence in the Russian political system is necessary, and could come about by decoupling liberalism from great power competition.

India, under ever-closer international scrutiny over its human rights abuses, should scrutinise the EU-Russia stand-off and draw the relevant conclusions.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 4:57:07 PM |

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