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Moscow’s conflict with the West: Rebuilding trust will be difficult

Moscow’s conflict with the West
Rebuilding trust will be difficult

A guest contribution by Thomas Kunze and Tim B. Peters

Russia’s President Putin can look back on the negotiations with the USA, which largely bypassed the EU, as a success. However, it is currently unclear how the points of contention between Moscow and the West can be resolved. The right framework for talks would be the OSCE.

If one follows Russia’s catalog of demands, then Russia sees its external security threatened: by a NATO that has expanded to its borders, possibly taking in other states from the post-Soviet region, by allied troop contingents, maneuvers and by certain weapon deployments. In the draft treaties for the United States and the other NATO members, which the Russian side presented in mid-December, the United States is still asked not to set up any military bases in the post-Soviet space and not to enter into bilateral military cooperation in the region.

For the Kremlin, the timing of submitting these demands is proving opportune. With the troop deployment of more than 100,000 soldiers on the Russian-Ukrainian border and the speculation about the establishment of Russian military bases in Cuba and Venezuela, Russia is creating an impressive backdrop of threats.

This occurrence was made possible by fundamental changes in global geopolitical constellations. The People’s Republic of China is one of the big winners of globalization and the open movement of goods. However, the country is increasingly getting into a conflict with the USA over global leadership. In the meantime, the Russian Federation has succeeded in steadily expanding its foreign policy room for manoeuvre. Today, Russia is once again a geopolitical factor. This resurgence was achieved above all through a selective but effective rearmament of the armed forces and through the willingness to use them – such as in Syria – i.e. to rely on military conflict solutions.

China guarantees flank protection in the east

Added to this is a Russian merger with rising China. The new partner enables Russia, as an alternative buyer of its raw materials, to become part of a huge Eurasian goods transport area through the new Silk Road. China also guarantees security flank protection in the East and mutual non-interference in internal affairs. This allowed Moscow to focus more on its neighborhoods to the west and south. The plight of some of the allies in the post-Soviet space offers Moscow an opportunity to tie them closer together than before. The multi-vector foreign policy (i.e. one that is open in as many directions as possible), such as that pursued by Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus and Nursultan Nazarbayev and his successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Kazakhstan for a long time, proved to be dangerous for their own political hold on power in an emergency.

Moscow deliberately pointed out this risk to its fickle allies and made it clear that if they continued, they could no longer hope for support from Russia in the event of domestic and foreign policy problems. The Russian influence in the South Caucasus, Central Asia and Belarus is greater than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union.

This is having an effect: negotiations are being held on an equal footing with the USA on questions of security policy in Europe – and this while largely bypassing the EU. The NATO-Russia Council, frozen by NATO at the moment of its greatest crisis with Russia, seems to be revived. For Putin, these are achievements.

“Finlandization” or neutrality would not be acceptable to Ukraine

A different scenario presents itself in Ukraine. A successful continuation of their economic and political reform development would mean that a post-Soviet area state in the immediate vicinity of Russia would encourage constant system comparisons. The country embarked on a reform path in 2014; the European and Euro-Atlantic course was even included in the Ukrainian constitution. From Ukraine’s perspective, any form of “Finlandization” or neutrality would be unacceptable. In doing so, it invokes basic principles of the OSCE such as free choice of alliance and rejection of zones of influence. From the Ukrainian point of view, any Russian security guarantees would also not be sufficient due to the experience with the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 and the conflict situation in the east of the country. (In the Budapest Memorandum, the USA and Russia, among others, undertook to recognize the sovereignty of Ukraine.)

The question remains whether a compromise on security policy can be found in the various negotiation formats. Despite the new position of Moscow’s relative strength, it should also be clear in the Kremlin that the demands are maximum security policy positions that would de facto turn the clock back to before NATO’s eastward expansion of 1997.

Compromises would probably be most conceivable in the question of not stationing certain types of weapons, a waiver of large-scale maneuvers near the border and a certain limitation of troop stationing. Moreover, for all its shortcomings, the OSCE remains the only international framework in which all transatlantic and Eurasian actors can come together. Due to its membership structure alone, the OSCE offers the prerequisites for a common area of ​​security from Vancouver to Vladivostok in purely geographical terms. However, it is a long way to rebuilding trust.

Thomas Kunze is head of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s office in Russia, Tim B. Peters is head of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s office in Ukraine (Kiev).

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