Russia is a threat to European stability because it has mounted a frontal assault on the treaties, agreements and principles that ended the Cold War and defined Europe as we have come to know it.
To be sure, the rules had been transgressed before. They were transgressed by Russia in Moldova and the South Caucasus in the 1990s; they were transgressed in more dramatic form by NATO in Kosovo in 1999. But let us not forget that what occurred in Kosovo was a response to a real humanitarian catastrophe, to real expulsions, to real massacres. It occurred in the wake of Serbian defiance of UN resolutions and in the context of elaborate efforts by the six-nation Contact Group to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. Finally, all members of the Contact Group apart from Russia concluded that peaceful options had been exhausted.
At the time, I opposed NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. But there is no parallel between what occurred there then and what is occurring in Ukraine now. In May 1997 Russia concluded a state treaty with Ukraine that confirmed in final form what had already been confirmed in multilateral treaties and agreements: Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and borders. In turn, Ukraine confirm edits undertakings to observe fundamental principles of human rights and specifically the rights of minorities. In the 17 years between the signature of that treaty and the appearance of “little green men” in Crimea in February 2014 Russia did not once before any international body raise a single complaint about Ukraine’s policy towards Russian minorities. Indeed in all that period the UN, the OSCE, the PACE (the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) praised Ukraine for its ethnic, linguistic and religious tolerance, and this was reaffirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues in January 2015.
We are therefore expected to believe that in the days before Viktor Yanukovych fell from power a threat was mounted – in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea, home to the Russian Black Sea fleet – against the rights and security of Russian “compatriots” – and on a scale to warrant military intervention, first by stealth and then overtly. The brazenness of this claim and the acts that followed is staggering, and that in itself is a challenge to us all.
If the proposition today were reversed, if it were argued that the EU has been a threat to Russia – I would also agree. But I would introduce one key nuance. EU policy is no threat to Russia. But the European system, which is a rules- and values- based system, is, objectively, a threat to the system of power that has emerged in Russia over the past 15 years. And that includes the system of economic management as well, because it is based on patronage rather than rules and because money and power, business and the state are closely intertwined. This system, which leading Russian experts describe as predatory and neo-feudal, is now presented by the Kremlin as a “civilisational” alternative to liberalism and post-modernism. I don’t think I need to remind a Hungarian audience that the Soviet Union also felt threatened by political and economic systems that were more attractive than its own. Then there was an Iron Curtain to keep foreign influences out. Today, there is not. If Ukrainians, who Putin insists are a “common people”, can live in the EU’s universe of values and rules, then why should Russians not be able to do so?
Thus Russia’s governing elites perceive that the enlargement of NATO (which they term a “military-civilisational” bloc) and latterly the EU threatens the country’s security. It is very difficult for them to see what Hungarians understood perfectly well in the 1990s: that the fundamental reason for enlarging NATO was to enable the countries of Central Europe to exit a civilisational and geopolitical grey zone. This for Hungary and for others has been a matter of existential importance. The object was not to pose a threat to Russia. In fact, NATO’s military reforms over the last two decades have been designed to enhance capability outside Europe. They actually weakened capacity for national, i.e. territorial defence.
Russia is perfectly entitled to its own view of national security. But the question is what effect its views have on others. Under both Yeltsin and Putin, Russia has officially equated its own security with the limited sovereignty of its neighbours. Every single Russian proposal for a new security architecture qualifies the liberty of neighbouring states. It is not just their relationships with NATO that are at stake, but their right to integrate with Europe. In the weeks and months before the November 2013 Eastern Partnership summit, Russia applied brutal pressure against Armenia and Ukraine not to sign Association Agreements with the EU, despite the fact that these agreements provide no membership perspective at all. Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and has no aspirations to join NATO. The “non-bloc status” of Ukraine was a major pillar of Yanukovych’s policy and was codified in law. A previous Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, defined the essence of independence as “freedom to choose”. Russia’s view is that others are free to choose as long as they do so “jointly” with Russia. As we can see from events in Ukraine (and the two Minsk accords), Russia insists that Ukraine’s internal arrangements be decided jointly as well.
My penultimate point is that the conflict in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has now invoked the spectre of restoring “historic Russia”. He has thrown into sharp relief previous declarations about the “artificiality” of certain states and the “legitimate rights” of Russia’s “compatriots” abroad. These positions, which have no basis in international law, have direct implications for at least two of the Baltic states as well as other states with new frontiers and “old” Russian communities on their territories, even where, as in the Baltic States, these communities are quite new. The pressure upon these states – some of them NATO and EU members – is not theoretical but real. At the October 2014 Valdai Club session, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Moldova and the Baltic States needed “to consider events in Ukraine and draw conclusions”.
In conclusion, it is most unlikely that we will find a quick solution to the challenge that the Kremlin now poses to Europe. That challenge is ideological (“civilisational”) as much as military. It is designed not only to fragment and enfeeble Ukraine, but create a new “belt of security” around Russia’s borders and, by financial and intelligence means, support anti-EU parties well to the west of this supposedly “privileged zone”. It is for these reasons that Russia poses a threat to the stability of Europe. Its policy will change only when Russia’s power structures conclude that it is damaging Russia’s national interests and their own. Until then, we will be obliged to find effective and intelligent ways of constraining Russia and protecting our allies and partners. That will require wisdom, conviction and patience.
Talk given at the conference Do Putin’s Policies Threaten European Stability, organised by the Danube Institute, Budapest, 9 March 2015.