Russia’s strategies to divide the European Union over the Ukraine crisis have failed so far, but Moscow will try again to divide the bloc, against the background of the Syrian war, professors said yesterday (21 October) at a discussion organised by German and US think tanks.
Organised by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, the event, “Russia Re-Emerging, the end of the liberal order”, took place under Chatham House rules. The three main speakers were professors from Europe and North America.
The speakers broadly agreed that the EU had been remarkably united in the handling of the Ukraine crisis, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “surprised” by the bloc’s strong response to the Russian action against Ukraine, in the context of the illegal annexation of Crimea, and the destabilisation of Donbas.
The Kremlin’s strategy of “divide and rule” has failed in Ukraine, but Putin will make another attempt to divide the EU, as a new “bargaining situation” is taking shape, one of the speakers said.
Speakers argued that it would be “wise” for the EU to prepare for the Spring, when the issue of lifting the EU sanctions would arise.
The EU restrictions for Crimea and Sevastopol would stay, but the more hard-hitting sanctions targeting sectoral cooperation and exchanges with Russia, as well as the restrictive measures (asset freezes and visa bans) could be lifted in case the Minsk agreement is observed.
“What we are observing now is that things can work better for [Russia] now, that there is fatigue in Europe, that there is really big pressure among business communities,” said one of the speakers, adding that Russia has strong lobbies in several EU countries.
In addition, it was said that Russia’s strategy was to use the situation in Syria, “because this is where the Europeans don’t have a policy and a capacity”. The Kremlin and the Russian armed forces realise that they don’t have the capacity to deal with Syria either, but they know they have the capacity to maintain the conflict and put pressure to the EU, the argument was.
‘Weak and brutal regime’
Speakers said the sanctions against Russia had “worked to some extent”.
“They have hit a corrupt and clientelist leadership,” a speaker said, adding that Putin wasn’t just a president, but “a kind of oligarch”. Russia’s regime was described as “weak and brutal”.
The situation in Russia was described as a deep economic and social crisis, but it was admitted that not only the sanctions, but mostly falling oil prices had hit the Russian economy. The question was raised how long Putin could afford to pursue his policies within his country, but also with the EU, as he had spoiled his country’s relations with its most important partner. The issue of the loss of patience of European businesses who are also suffering from the sanctions was also raised.
“Russia is not an emerging power. It is a superpower in military terms, but beyond that, the country has failed to modernise its economy,” a speaker said. Russia, he said, has the ambition to be a “nuisance power”, “to block things, to disturb things”, not to project its power constructively.
The further assistance to Ukraine was described by a speaker as another major challenge for the West.
‘Tremendous success of the liberal order’
One of the speakers said that what had happened during the last three years since the Ukraine crisis erupted was “a great triumph for the liberal order on the East-West standoff over Ukraine”.
The concept of “liberal order” was explained as “international order maintained by states devoted to rule of law, peace and democracy”. However the French speaker said “liberal order” wasn’t a concept to be sold to the French audience, who perceives the word “liberal” in a very negative way.
Arguments for the success of the West were mentioned, not only its unity over Ukraine, but also the reassertion of Ukraine’s national identity.
One speaker said that the Ukrainians renamed Kyiv’s central square from Maidan to “EuroMaidan” not because they believed they would be a member of the EU anytime soon, but because this was a short way of saying “we want rule of law, democracy, we want to end the corrupt regime”. “This is exactly what worries Putin,” the speaker said.
“In Kissingerian terms, if you want to be cynical about it, a country that was in the Russian sphere of influence is now in the Western sphere of influence,” another speaker stated, referring to Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State who served under Nixon and Ford.
Reconstructing pan-European security
One of the speakers said it was urgent to reconstruct the pan-European security order, going beyond the Ukraine issue.
He said that the situation was now similar to the 1960s, because the Cold War tensions at that time helped create in 1975 the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or CSCE, now OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe). Such an institutional framework needs to be rebuilt to guarantee the pan-European order and good governance, by combining elements of deterrence, and of collective self-defense with elements of détente, the speaker said.
The fundamental difference was that while in the 1970s the US played a key role, now a lot more will have to rest on European, and on German shoulders, the speaker said, admitting that it was a “really difficult challenge how to do that”.