The European Union, Russia, Europe, and the necessary reset

, by Marc Nikolov

The European Union, Russia, Europe, and the necessary reset
The Great Kremlin Palace, Moscow.

The recent events that occurred in Ukraine – the Russian invasion of the Donbass region and the Crimean referendum on joining the Russian Federation in 2014 – have resulted in Russia and the EU imposing sanctions on one another, heralding, some would have it, a “new cold war”. Russia is presented, in the EU and in the West more broadly, as a revisionist, expansionist and authoritarian power that oscillates between “progress” in terms of democracy and alignment with our interests on the one hand, and a “return” backwards to its old demons. Even worse, Russia is said to be attempting to “revive the Soviet Union”.

Yet this picture only makes sense in the context of Western paradigms, inherited from the cold war hand from how the latter has ended. These paradigms are of course long outdated: portraying Vladimir Putin as attempting to revive the USSR is just as absurd as claiming that Angela Merkel is trying to impose Germany’s yoke on the EU. Western misunderstanding of Russia, the latter’s interests and protestations, is at the heart of the issue. Thus, when Putin has claimed, in 2014, that Russia had been “plundered” [1] by the West, it may be wise to hear him out and try to figure out why he would do so.

Two worldviews

In order to understand, one needs to go back in time – at least back to the end of the cold war. The West has seen it as a victory – some even called it the “end of history” [2] – and therefore as a Soviet defeat. Thus, a weakened Russia – politically, economically, militarily, and most of all ideologically – was no longer to stand in the victorious West’s way. Most importantly was the understanding that European values of democracy, rule of law and human rights were now to be adopted by all peoples: an understanding based on the assumption that all peoples wanted to emulate our model [3], and that only their authoritarian leaders stood in the way to progress. Thus on the continent NATO and the EU – perceived as an area of Kantian democratic peace benefitting everyone – unstoppably expanded eastwards. And indeed, Russia – initially enthusiastic – accepted those values, in the shape of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Russia, however, has learned another story. For if the cold war ended peacefully, surely Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies played a role. And more importantly, if thermonuclear war was avoided, surely that was a victory for everyone, including Russia. Yet Russia, a centuries-old great power, was suddenly ignored in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya. Its protests against the enlargement of NATO – historically anti-Russian – as far as Russia’s borders [4], as well as against the United States’ deployment in Eastern Europe of an anti-ballistic missiles shield, were also ignored. Worse yet, the international system itself was challenged by the proliferation of “humanitarian” interventions, the aims of which have been perceived as in fact very pragmatic, and which threatened the international system’s most fundamental norm, indeed enshrined in the United Nations Charter (art. 2): sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs. From a Russian viewpoint, none of this was agreed internationally – in a Yalta fashion [5] – and the West is cynically exploiting international law and its own allegedly universal values [6] to expand its sphere of influence [7]. This helps understand why Russia would be angered by “colour revolutions” [8], by interventions unauthorised by the UN Security Council, by the West’s constant criticism of Putin’s regime, elections in Russia – in short by our leaders, politicians and media constantly demonising Russia. [9] It also sheds light on Moscow’s growing disenchantment for the values to which Russia has subscribed

A humiliated Russia

When we criticise Moscow, deny it legitimacy in the concert of great powers, oppose Russia and Europe, we are in fact denying Russia its very identity [10]. A unique identity, yet still part of Europe’s diversity. Ideas, norms and values that may be at times different, but in no way inferior to ours. Some in Russia regret the missed occasion, in 1991, to relaunch a “greater”, multipolar, Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok; as opposed to our current Brussels-centred “wider” Europe. And thus, Russia’s reaction becomes understandable: enabled by high oil and gas prices, Russia is defending what is left of its sphere of influence, attempting to counter-balance Western hegemony, while Putin is defending his own regime against perceived Western attempts to overthrow him – or even kill him, like Ghaddafi – and against European values, perceived as an instrument for realpolitik.

So while Russia has gone too far, forcefully changing national borders, one must keep in mind that Western countries were the first to do so – by illegally bombing Serbia and recognising Kosovo’s independence. We are far from irreproachable indeed. Verbal – and political, in the form of sanctions – escalation will lead nowhere. After all, Russians have survived much worse than sanctions. What we need now is a new Yalta, a wide agreement between – at least – Europeans and Russians on the continent’s, and the world’s, future security. For without Russia, Europe will be unable to solve the issues it is facing, from terrorism to global warming through drug trafficking. We thus need to welcome them in a Pan-European structure – for instance a propped-up OSCE – as fully-fledged partners. At the same time, contacts and exchanges between our civil societies must be intensified: by dropping visa regimes between us, by stepping up the Erasmus Mundus partnership, and by ceasing to demonise Russia and Putin’s regime, no matter how imperfect it is. This is also how we can win back Russia’s trust in Europe and its values; this is also how Moscow will accept to honour its commitment to those values.


[1Putin, V. (2014). Address by President of the Russian Federation, March 18, 2014. §14

[2Fukuyama, F. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press

[3MacFarlane, N. & Menon, A. (2014). The EU and Ukraine. Survival: Global Politics and Strategy. 56 (3). 95-7

[4Mankoff, J. (2014). Russia’s Latest Land Grab: how Putin Won Crimea and Lost Ukraine. Foreign Affairs

[5Sakwa, R (2014). Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands. London: I.B.Tauris. 114-118

[6Lukin, A. (2014). Eurasian Integration and the Clash of Values. Survival: Global Politics and Strategy. 56 (3).41-7

[7Mearsheimer, J. (2014). Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault. Foreign Affairs.

[8Wilson, Jeanne, ’Coloured Revolutions: The View from Moscow and Beijing, Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, 25:2&3

[9Sakwa, R (2014). Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands. London: I.B.Tauris. 486-7

[10Sakwa, R (2014). Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands. London: I.B.Tauris. 169-70

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