Linkevicius: Dealing with Russia is like playing football against a rugby team

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Linas Linkevičius

Calls for returning to “normal dialogue” and re-establishing “pragmatic” relations with Russia only show that some in the EU have not learned the lessons of the recent past, writes Linas Linkevi?ius.

Linas Linkevi?ius is the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania. He contributed this op-ed exclusively to EURACTIV.

Time and again the prophecies of Aleksandr Dugin, a geopolitical scientist, who has a strong effect on Kremlin’s policies, are at the forefront of our minds. His recommendations have been consistently and persistently followed for quite some time already. Russia needs to strengthen Eurasia, which must become a weapon in its competition with the West, in competing with America in particular.  

Western Europe must be torn away from the United States by consolidating as much as possible Russia’s cooperation with “old Europe”, particularly with the largest European states – Germany and France, while Iran should be one of its closest allies in the Islam world.

NATO held the Bucharest Summit in April 2008, where it agreed that Ukraine and Georgia would become members of NATO. It was a compromise wording, as some were firmly against the two countries being offered a NATO Membership Action Plan, which would have meant bringing Ukraine and Georgia closer to NATO membership in a bureaucratic way. The arguments such as “not to provoke” Russia and to act “in a pragmatic and responsible manner” were used then.

At the same time, the decision did not arouse respective emotions in the Kremlin. Moreover, at the NATO-Russia Summit in Bucharest, Russian President Putin urged his western partners not to cooperate with Ukraine, claiming that the country is an artificial creation, rather than a state. That seemed to have set off an alarm clock. However it was not heard, or the West comfortably chose not to hear it. Ukraine experienced the impact six years later, while Georgia witnessed warfare on its territory soon after, in August.

With Russian actions in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, areas of the sovereign country were occupied. The protests of the international community, NATO and the EU were forgotten within several months and the “pragmatic and responsible” position had the upper hand, i.e. cooperation with Russia was going on as usual. Russia did not ask for anything; it was the West that took the role as usual because “isolation is harmful, not profitable”, etc.

Ronald Asmus, a former State Department official, even wrote a book about the eight-day war, A Little War that Shook the World. Unfortunately, the title needs to be adjusted – the war did not shake the world, as all was soon forgotten. The Kremlin was not provoked by action and signs of active support by Georgia’s partners; it was provoked by inaction – that’s what actually the so-called “pragmatic and responsible” politics is about.

We should have learnt from our mistakes, shouldn’t we? As soon as we loosen the reins, the Kremlin sees it as a sign of our weakness, as another opportunity, or even an encouragement to act with more energy, to demand or negotiate on the new ground “gained”. Such testing and probing tactics is consistently used in practically every crisis which – it is noteworthy – was directed by the Kremlin itself. Not only in Georgia. It was previously used in Transnistria, then in the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. Even in Syria, to some extent. By the way, Iran is, just as recommended by Dugin, one of its main allies there, together with the Assad regime and with the terrorist Hezbollah.

So what are the lessons we have learnt?

Calls for returning to the “normal dialogue”, to non-isolation of Russia as isolation is not productive, to “pragmatic and responsible” behaviour can be heard again. There is a desperate search for ways wthat Russia (better say, the Kremlin) can “save its face” in this miserable situation. And those, who recommend and search, must be convinced that they will be thanked in the end.

We take on the role of demandeurs, we plead guilty to worsening relations again. We advocate for the Kremlin more often than they do it for themselves; and we desperately look for possibilities of opening “channels of communication” as if we had too few. One can hardly recall the times, with as numerous as we see now ministerial meetings, summit meetings, phone conversations, various Normandy and other “contact” formats. As a matter of fact, the Kremlin does not ask for them; it does not need anything. Those, who ask, are usually colleagues in the West.

There is no doubt that it is the Kremlin where the key to ending the aggression against Ukraine lies. Decisions made by the Kremlin do matter in setting time and action limits to the separatist gangs rampaging lawlessly with Russian-provided weapons, in how long the economic blockade against Ukraine is permitted to last. Let me remind you, and underline, that we do not want to see the link between Syria and Ukraine, and that we will not solve one crisis at the expense of the other. We look forward to constructive cooperation in the case of Syria, irrespective of belonging to different coalitions and differences in comprehension over how to deal with the crisis, and what future development of Syria might be.

The Kremlin has found a new enemy. It is Turkey. Unlike Russia, the Turks try in all possible ways to deescalate the situation. Anti-Turkish hysterics, in the true sense of the word, is going on in Russia. The “reliable and close” partner of yesterday has become a genuine monster. Mutual flights, strategic projects, and tourism are blocked; even football players may not sign contracts with Russian clubs. There is another example which shows the uselessness of phytosanitary norms when everything is highly politicised, when they serve the political purpose. Thus the import of numerous allegedly “low quality” food products from Turkey has been stopped.

Then again, counteraction is sought in the same “reconciliation” logic. There are proposals now – is this sheer coincidence? – to start establishing relations between the EU and Eurasia. Suggestions are now being made that Russia could be readmitted to the G8 club, even though Russia does not ask for it. Investment is being made in projects such as Nord Stream, which can undermine Europe’s unity.

Nord Stream II has nothing to do with Europe’s energy security, and makes no economic sense, except the geopolitical “benefit” of eliminating Ukraine and still heavier dependence of Europe on Russian suppliers. 

It is now that European and Euro-Atlantic unity is evidently challenged, and the Harmel Report is recalled. I had to point out during the summer that in 1967, when a similar challenge was made to the unity, when France withdrew from the NATO military structure, when Americans were considering whether to diminish the presence of their forces in Europe, the proposal of “warming up” relations with the Soviet Union was put forward, which implied acting “pragmatically and responsibly”.

In conclusion, it is just the same game again. It’s like playing football, when Russians add elements of wrestling and rugby to it, and we adapt to it “pragmatically and responsibly”.

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