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Igor Ivanov

President of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (1998–2004)

A new cooperation framework between Russia and Europe has to be created on a fundamentally different basis. We have to avoid the mistakes of the past, that is, we can’t try to build relations on the basis of common values. Not because common values as such do not exist between Russia and its western neighbours – this is not the case – but rather because “values” as a notion is both too general and too contradictory to use as the basis for developing a foreign policy strategy.

Meeting of the Task Force on Cooperation in Greater Europe, London, December 11, 2015.

First of all, I’d like to express my gratitude to the ELN for organizing this meeting, and for their commitment to our joint project. 

I’m confident that the work of ELN – a truly unique organization – is in a great demand right now. We have seen how difficult it is to build a political dialogue over the key issues of our time. And not just between Europe and Russia – all is not well within the Euro-Atlantic family as well.  

That’s why bold, innovative – yet still realistic – proposals are expected from ELN and its partners in Russia, Europe and the United States. I, for one, am convinced that our proposals on the future Euro-Atlantic security system, which we have worked on with ELN, were the right ones, and were thought through very carefully. But they were ahead of their time: the political elites in our countries were not prepared for such ground-breaking ideas. We should learn this lesson. We need to be more realistic and develop proposals that go along with the political situation. That means not falling behind, but also not racing ahead of ourselves.    

I’d also like to share my view of the situation in Europe and make some suggestions about possible areas for joint work.

The crisis in relations between Europe and Russia, or, more precisely, between Russia and the West, is unprecedented since the Cold War.

The way I see it, trading sanctions is equivalent to putting up a new iron curtain between us. But it was predominantly an ideological curtain during the Cold War, and it fell rather easily when the Berlin Wall collapsed. The new iron curtain, on the other hand, reveals deep political differences between the two sides on the key issues of our time. That’s why lifting the sanctions, which will happen sooner or later, will not heal the deep psychological trauma that has been inflicted upon the peoples of our countries any time soon.      

The security situation in the Euro-Atlantic is equally disturbing. Instead of uniting our efforts to fight common threats (terrorism, extremism, refugees, etc.), we have apparently entered a new phase of the arms race. It is not hard to assume, for example, that once the U.S. has deployed its missile defence system in Poland, Russia will respond by deploying its own Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad Region. The missile crisis of the mid-1980s is still fresh in our minds. But at least back then there were mechanisms for dialogue and restraint. We don’t have that today – even the smallest incident could spark a major conflict.      

If my analysis is correct, then we need to concentrate our efforts on changing this negative trend and begin to gradually build up relations once again.

If we are to make plans for the future, then we need to objectively look at the path that we took after the end of the Cold War.

As I see it, the origins of the current crisis of a Greater Europe lie in the fact that we cannot agree on how this Greater Europe should be built. And these differences in opinion did not appear in 2014. They didn’t even appear in 2000, when Vladimir Putin came to power. They existed long before. But for the longest time, all of us – East and West – tried to smooth them out, tune them down, or even ignore them completely.   

The West has always seen the construction of Greater Europe as the expansion of existing western institutions towards the East. That’s why negotiations on Russia–EU cooperation had little to do with finding reasonable compromises. Rather, they were little more than Europe attempting to force Russia to adopt the “rules of the game”. Russia had to play by Europe’s rules, because these rules were supposed to be clearly better than any other alternative.       

The Russian leadership had a different vision of what Greater Europe should be. That is, it was supposed to be the result of negotiations between East and West – with both parties being on an equal footing – the product of mutual concessions and the result of balancing the interests of everyone involved. Europe was supposed to meet Russia halfway even though this would involve some difficult steps.

Clearly, such polar approaches inevitably caused difficulties and frustrations on both sides, often blocking the most promising areas of Russia–Europe cooperation. Perhaps the most vivid example of this is the decade-long and, unfortunately, largely futile endeavour on the part of Russia and the European Union to come to an agreement on energy.    

We have to acknowledge the fact that the political, economic and even intellectual elites in Eastern and Western Europe were not willing to build a common future together. They did not demonstrate the strategic vision or the political will to carry out such a large-scale project. If Europe and Russia really valued these projects, do you honestly believe that they would have allowed this ridiculous game of sanctions and counter-sanctions to unfold? Do you think they would have allowed the Ukrainian crisis? And now history is making us pay for our political short-sightedness and arrogance. And we will be paying for many years to come.      

Does this mean that we have to abandon the idea of a “single European space”, a “common European home” and a “Greater Europe”? Any strong and critical judgements are a dangerous thing in politics, and it is still too early to pass a final verdict on the prospects of the European unity. But looking at the logic of how the crisis has played out thus far (which I have already outlined), it is hard to disagree with the conclusion that the construction of a “Greater Europe” seems almost impossible for the foreseeable future.  

It is much more likely that the two geopolitical blocs – the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasia – will accelerate their internal consolidation. In fact, this process has already begun in both the East and the West. On the one hand, Euro-Atlantic mechanisms and institutions – political, strategic, economic, financial, etc. – are becoming stronger. On the other hand, new multilateral Eurasian institutions are being set up quicker than ever before, and bilateral cooperation between Russia and China is going on at a new level.     

We could argue about whether this is good or bad, or point out the numerous potential costs of a new continental breakup. But there is reason to believe that the tendencies which have appeared in recent years are here to stay, regardless of what happens in Ukraine. And if this is the case, then it is up to politicians and diplomats to try and avoid an ugly confrontation between the Euro-Atlantic region and Eurasia, ensure that the two work together constructively, and, in a perfect world, create the necessary preconditions for a possible reunification in the distant future. 

Yes, the Ukrainian crisis has set a point of no return between Russia and Europe. Relations between the two sides can and will never be the same again. We are entering a new, no doubt very lengthy, stage of Russia–Europe relations where both sides will have to let go of the illusions and fantasies about the recent past, cast off emotions and mutual grievances, and start to assess, realistically, the possibilities for working together in the future. And such possibilities do exist, without a doubt.     

A new cooperation framework between Russia and Europe has to be created on a fundamentally different basis. This is crucial. We have to avoid the mistakes of the past, that is, we can’t try to build relations on the basis of common values. Not because common values as such do not exist between Russia and its western neighbours – this is not the case – but rather because “values” as a notion is both too general and too contradictory to use as the basis for developing a foreign policy strategy. The debate about what true Russian and true European values are is an everlasting one. Now, at a time when both Russia and Europe are faced with challenges never seen before, these debates are becoming even more intense and emotional.

The vulnerability of the “value approach” to international relations has been exposed on a number of occasions, and not only in Europe. The whole of the United States’ Middle East strategy from the beginning of the 21st century has been built upon the conviction that the countries in the region should take on and share the fundamental values of western democracy. And what has this strategy led to? There is no doubt whatsoever that the Middle East is no closer to western values now that it was 15 or 20 years ago.   

The fundamental values of peoples and societies are particularly rigid – they change and converge over the course of generations, not a few years. Nevertheless, neither Russia nor Europe does not have the luxury to wait so long before we start working together. Therefore, the most practical and efficient thing right now would be to build cooperation around concrete issues where our interests are objectively the same. And rather than focusing on building new and heavy structures – we’ve got more than enough of these already – such cooperation could be directed at promoting flexible and democratic pan-European regimes in individual sectors. 

I will list just a few areas that are in urgent need of such cooperation: the war on international terrorism and measures to prevent political extremism; managing migration flows and solving the refugee problem; preserving and expanding the pan-European space in education, science and innovation; tackling environmental issues and coordinating positions on climate change; standardization and unification of the transport and logistics infrastructure in Eastern and Western Europe; working towards removing barriers and other bureaucratic obstacles to economic cooperation.     

To some these tasks may seem excessively mundane. But solving them is the only chance to lay the new foundations for a common European home in the future. For too long, we have been trying to build this house from the roof down, rather from the foundation – with political declarations, rather than concrete actions. This approach was not successful, even during the period of relative stability in Europe. So there is little hope that it can bring success in the turbulent times we are living through right now. Our common goal is to move past this dangerous period with as little collateral damage as possible.      

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
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