Russia needs to defend its interests with an iron fist By Sergey Karaganov Financial Times March 5 2014
The disintegration of the Soviet Union was not viewed as a defeat by the Russian people, but the west treats Russia as a defeated nation all the same.
President Vladimir Putin has been trying to bring together most of the countries of the former Soviet Union in an economic alliance. This would have strengthened the region’s economic competitiveness and helped ward off the kind of instability that bedevilled the Weimar Republic after the dissolution of the German Empire. However, the west has done more or less everything it could to prevent this legitimate rapprochement.
The Ukrainian elite has been unable to steer its country towards a more prosperous future. In 1990 Ukraine’s gross domestic product per capita was similar to that of Belarus; today, it is half. Each change of government has brought a worse cadre of incompetents and thieves into Kiev’s corridors of power. The elections in 2004 – in which the west openly interfered – ushered in the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko: nationalist, unbelievably incompetent but staunchly pro-western. In 2010 he was replaced by Viktor Yanukovich, whose flaws were just as deep.
This discredited elite has clung to power by playing off Russia and the west, extracting favours in return for fleeting professions of allegiance. The last round came when the EU, humiliated by a string of rejections, offered an association deal that would have precluded Ukrainian participation in the Russian-led customs union. Mr Yanukovich, hoping either to secure a loan from the west or to blackmail Russia into generosity, pretended to embrace Europe. When Russia responded with the promise of a loan, Mr Yanukovich duly switched sides.
Demonstrators who were disgusted by this behaviour took to the streets of Kiev. Soon they were joined by murky rightwing fringe groups, who attacked police with firebombs on and off for weeks. The Russian government believes these protesters were openly supported by the west. Then the shooting began and Ukraine plunged deeper into chaos.
These events happened against the backdrop of a campaign of anti-Russian propaganda and smears that lasted for more than a year. I lived through two decades of the Cold War, but I am hard pressed to remember such an avalanche of lies. This took an especially vicious form during the Olympic Games in Sochi, which were a triumph for Russia and its athletes.
In Russia pundits saw a clear purpose in this campaign: to lay the ground for a new policy of containment. This refreshed memories of the double standards and lies that have been characteristic of the west’s behaviour for the past 20 years. We were reminded of the eastward expansion of Nato, over the pleas and protests of a weakened Russian state. Had Ukraine been absorbed into the alliance, Russia’s strategic position would have become intolerable.
When calls for reason proved powerless to stop Nato’s expansion, Russia halted it instead with an iron fist. In 2008 Russia responded to an attack by Georgian troops that killed Russian peacekeepers and scores of Ossetian civilians. Ukraine has since designated itself a nonaligned state, although Nato officials continued to try to lure it.
It is against this background that Russia’s actions over the past week must be seen. The iron fist is once again being shown to revanchists seeking consolation for the geopolitical and moral loses of the last decade. Of course, some in the Russian establishment also want to strengthen their positions or cover past mistakes by seeking confrontation with the west.
To prevent the situation from deteriorating further, all sides now need to calm down. A trilateral conversation on the future of Ukraine should take place between that country, Russia and the EU, as Moscow has repeatedly proposed.
The outline of a compromise is clear. A federal structure for Ukrainian institutions – and a switch to a parliamentary system in place of a presidential one – would enable the people of each region to make their own choices over language and cultural allegiance. Ownership and control of the gas transportation system should be shared between Ukraine and its neighbours. The country should be allowed to participate both in Russia’s customs union and the EU association deal.
The crisis has exposed the failure of our post-Cold War policies, but it can be put to constructive use. We should belatedly begin work towards the common goal of an Alliance of Europe stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, in which people and trade would flow freely. We should merge the soft power of Europe with hard power and resources of Russia, as prominent Europeans and Mr Putin have often proposed.
Russia is at last turning economically towards the rising east. It will be a great loss – for Russians and other Europeans – if this shift is accompanied by political, social and even cultural estrangement.
The writer is dean of the faculty of international economics and foreign affairs of the National Research University – Higher School of Economics in Moscow