09 Mar 2022

The European security order after Putin’s aggression

W(h)ither the ‘right to choose’?

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Rival visions of pan-European security have persisted for years – a Venn diagram with non-intersecting circles. Despite insistence that war in Europe had become ‘unthinkable’, Western and Russian officials could only talk past one another for so long before a broken status quo could no longer be sustained.

Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, rooted in decades of grievances and faulty assumptions, is an illegal act of aggression which must be condemned and actively opposed. But there are also lessons to be learned from the failed policies of the past three decades. Whether these lessons are internalised may determine the future of European security once the dust has settled on the ‘hot’ phase of this war.

From five guiding principles to one war

Other than strengthening the EU’s resilience, what will remain of former EU High Representative Federica Mogherini’s five ‘guiding principles’ after the war has ended is unclear. With the two breakaway Donbas republics now recognised by Moscow, the Minsk agreements appear all but dead. Selective cooperation seems out of the question so long as Putin sits in the Kremlin. The EU’s ability to develop closer relations with post-Soviet countries will partly depend on the outcome of the war. And closer civil society links will not only prove more difficult in an increasingly repressive Russia, but also risk further escalating tensions with a regime trying to ensure its survival.

The EU’s Russia strategy is clearly at an inflection point. Yet of these five policy areas, perhaps the greatest irritant in Russia-West relations throughout the post-Cold War period has been the status of states in Russia’s ‘near abroad’. This issue intersects with several unresolved questions resulting from the Soviet Union’s collapse, but which also have antecedents across centuries of Russian political thought: what the boundaries of the ‘Russian world’ are, what the privileges are flowing from Russia’s claim to great power status, and who gets to write the rules governing the European security system.

The EU – and broader Western – position is that post-Soviet countries should be able to choose their economic, political, and even geopolitical orientation freely. This principle is seen as flowing directly from their status as sovereign states and their right to self-determination. Given the limited scope of the EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement in deference to Russian concerns, one could claim that the Western approach does not necessarily cross Russia’s red lines. Yet ultimately, one cannot avoid the zero-sum nature of this issue. Either Russians and Ukrainians are a single people or they aren’t. Moscow either has a veto over its neighbours’ foreign policies or it doesn’t. And Russia is either a rule-maker or a rule-taker.

The effect of defending this principle was to antagonise Russia without offering Ukraine the benefits of EU or NATO membership. Nor has it helped that different principles have consistently been lumped together in Western discourse, only the first of which enjoys universal appeal: the right of sovereign states to have their territorial integrity respected, the special right of democracies to determine their future, and the right of states to join a military alliance irrespective of the objections of any third party. More than one quarter of UN Member States failed to condemn Russia in a recent General Assembly vote – including major countries such as India, Vietnam and South Africa. This reveals the extent to which even the most universal of norms can flounder in the face of strategic considerations.

Perhaps Russia did present the US and NATO with draft treaties on ‘security guarantees’ which were designed to be rejected as a pretext to justify a war. But the refusal of Western states to discuss the status of Ukraine on a point of principle, even merely to test Putin’s true intentions, only underlined the fact that the Kremlin would not be able to achieve its goals through diplomatic or more circumscribed military means. By comparison, a deal between Moscow and Western capitals that agreed to put NATO expansion on hold seems far more preferable to the death and destruction being witnessed in Ukraine right now. This is to say nothing of the risks of an inadvertent escalation between NATO and Russia resulting from a prolonged clash – something which appears increasingly likely. Having bet his future on an ill-conceived war, Putin cannot settle for anything less than securing Kyiv’s neutrality.

Having demonstrated an impressive degree of unity and after imposing sanctions much more severely than initially expected, Western leaders are now demonstrating fewer qualms about explicitly labelling Putin a ‘dictator’. The wholesale embrace of a binary worldview of ‘democracies vs. autocracies’ is unlikely to serve the cause of de-escalation, however. Repeated rounds of sanctions after 2014 have encouraged Moscow to see little upside in making concessions to the West. With Putin now internationally reviled, sanctions relief appears politically unpalatable, which has the effect of reducing the coercive potential of the adopted economic measures.

Russia isn’t going away

Given Russia’s recent efforts to sideline and humiliate the EU, many in Europe may welcome the prospect of Putin’s demise. But irrespective of the outcome of this war, Russia will continue to exist in some form. A stable European security order will remain impossible without granting its declared security interests a form of official legitimacy. Managing relations with Moscow will prove a significant challenge, whether Russia emerges from this crisis more emboldened, revanchist, repressive or humiliated. And although the US may take the lead in reinforcing Europe in the short term, European countries will eventually be forced to bear the brunt of this effort, given that Washington will inevitably have to shift its attention towards Beijing and the Pacific theatre.

Perhaps a post-Putin Russia will care less about the fate of other post-Soviet countries, content to think of Russia as ‘just’ Russia and convinced that buffer zones no longer matter in an era of intercontinental ballistic missiles. But hope is not a strategy. EU Member States may be buoyed by the (possibly temporary) momentum facilitated by the war towards strengthening their hard power. But reflexively – and inflexibly – citing norms is not the hallmark of a geopolitical actor. In this crisis, resolve must be paired with visible attempts at de-escalation; beyond this crisis, the task of building some kind of inclusive European security system will be at the top of the agenda.