The war in Ukraine has already proven that Russia is not a credible partner. Its defeat has the full potential of becoming one of the most profitable processes for the rules-based international order, our security, and economy since 1991. To make it happen we shall however establish a completely new and broad Russia policy, by eliminating the mistakes of the past and boldly looking forward, with CEE actors playing an active part in this process. This new strategy should be based on defining the ultimate goal of the ongoing confrontation with the Kremlin as a long-lasting peace and security for the whole CEE, not only for Ukraine. The prerequisites of achieving this goal lay i.e. in assuring the political transition in Russia to a democratic and non-imperialistic state and rebuilding Ukraine as sending a powerful signal to other nations about the rightfulness of our values and the fact that they can bring prosperity and security.
It is not an easy task to write about future relations with Russia while at the same time the news headlines are packed with information related to the new offensive in the Eastern parts of Ukraine. Being however one year into the Russian invasion it is completely safe to say that we are facing the point of no return in relations with the Kremlin. It has become obvious that the future of security in CEE will be to a great extent decided on the battlefields of Ukraine. At the same time however, it is also obvious that the elements of the West’s past political thinking about Russia brought us to this point, and that they have to be put into serious reconsideration. It is time to think big. The war started with the belief that Russia is too big to lose. Right now we have to overcome the belief that Russia’s imperialism is too powerful to fail for good. As our future Russia policy is in statu nascendi, we shall also acknowledge the fact that our up-to-date approach was not effective in many ways. Sometimes not ambitious enough, sometimes omitting the regional actors in CEE, and sometimes simply too mercantile. Now, when all these elements were put into doubt, it is time to use this point of no return and construct a coherent strategy for our future relations with Russia. From our regional – CEE – perspective, it is simply the best time possible: with a visible interest of the US in the security of the region, with a rising regional identity and self-consciousness of interests versus Russia.
The ultimate goal of this war is security for the whole CEE
Long-lasting peace for the whole CEE should be the ultimate aim of our strategy towards post-war Russia. For almost a year now the policy-making circles and experts from the West are trying to define the Ukrainian victory in this war. Fears of escalation, conflict spillover, and nuclear threats from Russia are still preventing many of them from stating in a concrete way what is the final goal. While Ukraine proved its enormous resistance to Russian aggression and rising preparedness to achieve the goal of restoring the internationally recognised borders of 1991, there are still voices that try to limit Ukrainian ambitions related to the annexed territories, including Crimea. At the same time, thinking about this war in terms of the Russia-Ukraine conflict only is absolutely limiting the understanding of its impact on the whole region. That was well understood by the governments of NATO’s Eastern Flank that decided to step in quickly with military support to Ukraine and still continue to advocate on behalf of Kyiv in relations with their Western allies. Nevertheless, the history of the regional conflicts with Russia proves that despite small and bigger victories over this aggressive neighbour, there is often Russian revanchism that drags our nations back to war. Therefore the understanding of the war’s final goal for the nations bordering Russia is obvious – those have to be long-time peace and security, based on policies that would prevent the Kremlin from reviving conflict in not only 20 years, but during generations to come. At the same time, the rising role of CEE as the forefront of European security is clearly visible. It sometimes amounts to the statements defining this change as „an emerging new centre of gravity”. It would be however naive to think that the future relations with Russia will be set without taking into account a broader European and international impact thereof. However, the current situation requires from our Western allies that the importance of the region, the leadership it projects when it comes to the security of Europe, and its rising identity, will be taken deeply into consideration while addressing probably the most important long-term effect of this war – the change of Russia, and the West’s policy towards it.
In this light, the war in Ukraine has proven that Russia internally is already a collapsed state and absolutely not a credible partner. With the rising impact of the Wagner Group, it lost elements of internal sovereignty such as a monopoly on violence. While already having huge demographic problems, it also lost hundreds of thousands of people – the whole new generation – that are either dying in the fields of Ukraine or fled the country to escape the mobilisation. It showed racism towards its own people and terrorism towards the rest of the world. The current administration of the Russian state headed by the president put itself into the point of no return for rebuilding the relations with the West without a substantial change in its leadership and policies. At the same time, the declining popular support for Putin should rather convince his successors to initiate change as a fast way to benefit from a possible detente. This proves that the Putin-style authoritarian regime is an unsustainable system in the long term and Russia must observe a post-Putin liberalisation. Whether that would bring democracy or some kind of a transitional hybrid regime doomed to fail under the rising economic dissatisfaction of Russians, remains in question. We should not be however frozen with fear over the dynamic and conflictual character of this process. As rightfully observed by Vladimir Milov, the cost-benefit analysis proves that there will be very limited space for radicalisation.[i] This assumption is based on the mere fact that Russian political leaders will not be able to sustain the economic downfall of the state while at the same time being internationally isolated for a long time. There is simply a lack of resources within the Russian state – both in economic and social terms – for a continuous aggressive course. In fact, it might be more dangerous for us in the West to continue the policy of treating a nuclear warmonger Putin as a prerequisite of stability in the Kremlin, than to risk this change. This brings a simple assessment – Russia’s defeat has the full potential of becoming one of the most profitable processes for the rules-based international order, our security, and economy since 1991.
Only non-imperialistic Russia can be truly democratic
Democratic Russia is not enough. System change is often mentioned as the main prerequisite for peaceful relations with Russia. For years it has also dominated the narratives of both Western politicians and internal opposition to Putin’s rule. For those in the West who strongly believed that the current regime in the Kremlin is nothing more than an aberration from the route Russia undertook in the early 1990s, the perspective of the democratic change for years served as the evergreen hope for a turn back to the end of history narrative. For these Russians openly opposing electoral frauds, imprisonment of political activists, and assassinations of the Kremlin’s opponents, democracy became a common banner for the activism aimed at finishing the current regime. The only possible and rightful way forward for a more civilised rule that would eliminate the atrocities committed by Putin and his cronies.
Indeed, the democratisation of Russia is the cornerstone of any changes that may lead to the disentanglement of this country from the current disastrous relations with the West. Russia however had only a short unsuccessful romance with the democratic system, that never had the chance to develop into the establishment of a fully democratic society. Bits of its heritage are still welcomed in the groups of Russians opposing politically Putin, but at the same time, the whole generation was brought up into the Putin-dominated state narrative. Mauled by the educational system rich in imperialistic references, even in the cultural works from the past, and historical thinking rooted in the same words that run through the Kremlin’s war propaganda these days. Given the broad history of Russian oppressive statehood, dating back to centuries before its current president, it is safe to assume that real democratic change cannot happen overnight. Any change of this kind shall be based on a deep reconstruction of the Russian statehood and the societal change that would assess the role of imperialism that runs deeply in the architecture of Russia’s state thinking. The fall of Putin should bring not only democracy to Russia, but should clearly open a completely new state-building process that would eliminate imperialistic thinking from different levels of society.
At the same time, we cannot underestimate justice as the prerequisite for reconciliation in the region, most importantly between Ukrainians and Russians. Any form of Russia’s dealing with the past should be based on the capability of its society to assess the level of atrocities and war crimes committed not only by its political and military leadership but also by regular soldiers. Ukrainians’ willingness to establish the international tribunal for this case should be regarded not only as a retributive action but in fact as an indispensable element of the post-war security and peace in the region. Although there is currently a lack of a commonly agreed assessment about the level of support for the war among ordinary Russians, in reality it doesn’t matter if we are facing broad support for war or simply an ambiguity to the state’s violent actions. All in all, the silent majority of Russians, by simply staying silent, becomes part of the war machinery that allows these terrorist actions to happen. Acknowledging this fact in the future could become the first step in building a democratic society in Russia, just as it was in post-war Germany.
Any choice of Russia-policy is and was deliberate
It wasn’t just Putin’s trick that put the West in that state of relations with Russia before the War in Ukraine. Any successful future strategy towards Russia shall learn from the mistakes of the past. When in his 2007 famous Munich speech, Vladimir Putin almost explicitly labelled the eastward expansion of NATO as a threat to his perception of Russia’s national security, hardly anyone understood that statement as a symptom of thinking that may lead to a full-scale war in Ukraine.[ii] When in 2008 Russian troops invaded Georgia, it did not prevent most of the European governments to continue cooperation with the Kremlin on projects directly connected to the region’s security, such as Nord Stream 1. Even after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, despite the limited sanctions appearing in relations between Russia and the EU, the Union’s strategic documents did not exclude selective engagement with Russia with hopes of openness for compromise in the future. This alone, not to mention the assassination of Litvinenko or the unsuccessful poisonings of Skripal and Navalny, were not considered by many European policy-makers enough serious threats to European security to assess potential Russian military threat with all its gravity. At the same time, dependence on Russian gas continued to grow.[iii] Time to face it openly – we knew about Russian aggressive military stance, we knew that Russia doesn’t exclude the use of military force against its neighbours, we knew that Europe is continuing the policy of bonding our energy markets to the Russian resources, yet the decisions were made. The West’s blame – as completely opposed to Mearsheimer’s opinion – lays in the fact that we not only did not recognise the Russian threat on time but also accepted Russian aggressive actions for the sake of economic cooperation and crooked belief of Putin’s role in securing Russia’s stability.[iv] The sooner we acknowledge the fact that we weren’t tricked by Putin but alone chose to cooperate with him – with all the knowledge of his system’s nature – the sooner we understand that we cannot repeat that mistake with any new authoritarian Russian leader in the future.
Rebuilding Ukraine is also a security choice
Flourishing and prosperous post-war Ukraine is the best incentive for a change among nations subject to Putin’s rule. For Vladimir Putin there exists a concept of the mutual identity of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians as „one people” – a triune nation, that in modern times emanates in a notion that „true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in the partnership with Russia.” This partnership – in his opinion – was always a source of competitive advantages for Ukraine’s economy and its prosperity. Whereas at the same time, the West’s advancements in Ukraine are „a disguise for a takeover of the rest of the Ukrainian economy.”[v] What Putin omits in his article is that in fact, these were the decades preceding the pro-European change in Ukrainian politics as the result of the Revolution of Dignity that actually brought economic downfall resulting in the inability to diversify Ukraine’s traditional exports of agricultural products and raw materials, as well a lack of foreign investment.[vi] Not surprisingly they overlapped with a long-term negative influence of Russia on Ukraine’s political scene and its economy.
Opposed to Putin’s conspirational theories are also the views of Ukrainians themselves, who a month into the Russian invasion on their country, decided to show record high support for the EU membership of Ukraine amounting to 91%.[vii] Of course, the EU membership cannot be overstated as a source of economic prosperity for Ukrainians. At the same time however, it is without a doubt that the current mood of Ukrainians is also largely impacted by the reality of the Russian invasion and the images of violence and terrorist behaviour of the Russian state. This can only support the feeling of a civilizational choice between the Western values of democracy and human rights versus the rotten concept of the Russian World. But apart from the political nature of this choice, we shall acknowledge the fact that the institutions building process in Ukraine has a profound security impact on the region. The EU membership is strongly linked to a notion of stable institutions that follow rule of law, democracy, and human rights. Ukrainian state considered for years as highly corrupted will have to transform itself to the acclaimed concepts of operating within a fully democratic system[viii]. The change that can resonate greatly among Ukraine’s neighbours. In fact, Russia’s fear of Ukrainian membership in the EU and NATO comes from an assessment of the impact this fact will have on its own citizens. If a part of what they perceive to be „a triune nation” would be capable of rising the life standard drastically better from simply being a part of the organizations built up on Western values and institutions, the whole offer of the Russian World becomes – to say the least – an absolute failure. New, more effectively governed Ukraine, with a prosperous economy boosted by foreign investments constitutes the best – somewhat revolutionary – example to follow for others who are trapped in Putin’s authoritarianism with its economy based on an oligarchic spoils system and corruption-driven servilism.
There is certainly a place for Russia in the rules-based international order, but it cannot be Putin’s Russia nor any other that would repeat a similar imperialistic scheme of governance and aggressive attitudes versus its neighbours. Until the change comes, we shall accept the fact that Putin put himself and his country in a state of no return, and no space for detente. A state in which it cannot be treated by no means as a partner, but as a concrete threat. The current situation shall also serve as a time for a broad reconsideration of our Russia policy, which would also need to include CEE’s view on its aggressive neighbour. The elements of this policy can be identified by answering to at least 4 prerequisites:
- defining the ultimate goal of the war with Russia as building security not only for Ukraine but for the whole CEE region by protecting it from Russia’s aggressive policy, for years to come;
- assuring the political transition in Russia to a democratic and non-imperialistic state, aware of its aggressive past behaviour towards neighbours;
- acknowledging the fact that the new Russia policy should represent the collective interest of the West, and that securing stability in Russia cannot be based on the acceptance of any authoritarian regime nor on the economic benefits of cooperation with it;
- rebuilding Ukraine as sending a powerful signal to other nations about the rightfulness of our values and the fact that they can bring prosperity and security to them.
Author: Bartłomiej Kot, Head of Advoccacy Office, Pulaski Foundation
[i] Vladimir Milov, Future Scenarios for Russia: An Optimistic, but Realistic Outlook, Zentrum Liberale Moderne, accessed February 17, 2023, https://libmod.de/en/network-russia-policy-paper-milov/
[ii] Vladimir Putin, Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, Kremlin, accessed February 17, 2023, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/copy/24034
[iii] Stefan Meister, A Paradigm Shift: EU-Russia Relations After the War in Ukraine, accessed February 17, 2023, https://carnegieeurope.eu/2022/11/29/paradigm-shift-eu-russia-relations-after-war-in-ukraine-pub-88476
[iv] See also: Gideon Rachman, It makes no sense to blame the west for the Ukraine war, Financial Times, accessed February 17, 2023, https://www.ft.com/content/2d65c763-c36f-4507-8a7d-13517032aa22
[v] Vladimir Putin, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, Kremlin, accessed February 17, 2023, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181
[vi] Richard Disney, Erika Szyszczak, Ukraine’s accession to the European Union: what difference would it make?, Economics Observatory, accessed February 17, 2023, https://www.economicsobservatory.com/ukraines-accession-to-the-european-union-what-difference-would-it-make
[vii]  Support for EU accession hits record high at 91% in Ukraine, while that for joining NATO slides – poll, Ukrinform, accessed February 17, 2023, https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-society/3449439-support-for-eu-accession-hits-record-high-at-91-in-ukraine-while-that-for-joining-nato-slides-poll.html
[viii] In 2022 Ukraine ranks 116 out of 180 countries in the world. Transparency International Ukraine, Anti-corruption pendulum in Ukraine: A step forward after a step back, accessed February 17, 2023, https://ti-ukraine.org/en/news/anti-corruption-pendulum-in-ukraine-a-step-forward-after-a-step-back/