The past knocks at the door

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A new agenda for world security is called for that must sidestep the logic of revenge, without giving in to frustration and pessimism.

History is riddled with examples of a transition from one world order to another producing strains, tensions and multiple crises. In the 20th century, such transitions took the form of two devastating world wars.


Today, the world has once again entered a transitional period: the Cold War ended a quarter-century ago, but so far we have not achieved a new world order. We are approaching a precarious threshold beyond which a large-scale military conflict could erupt. This probability is not limited to traditionally explosive regions like the Middle East. It extends even to Europe, where an extremely high concentration of military power – both conventional and nuclear – still exists.

Not everyone is ready to recognize this unpleasant reality. The Cold War ended more than 25 years ago, and the prospect of a large war in Europe, not to mention a global nuclear war, did not appear realistic in the 21st century. This century is about soft power, economic interdependence and globalization, or so we thought.

But we are witnessing an accelerated arms race, proliferation, territorial disputes as well as belligerent rhetoric and harsh political statements by state leaders and mainstream politicians. Major international players do not trust each other; nationalism is strong; most important international organizations appear to be either paralysed or clearly dysfunctional.

In sum, relations between Russia and the West are in deep crisis. As the Russian Federation’s former foreign minister, I particularly regret this bleak state of affairs. Along with my Western counterparts, I myself invested much time and effort in building a stronger partnership, with all of its security, political, social, economic and humanitarian dimensions. I am sure that many in the West share my frustrations and concerns. However, there is little sense in being disappointed and pessimistic; we should instead analyse the mistakes and blunders of the past in order to reveal the opportunities of the future. The most graphic manifestation of the deep gap that has emerged between Moscow and Western capitals is, of course, the situation in and around Ukraine. Both Russia and the West bear their fair share of responsibility for the unfortunate developments in that country since autumn 2013. But Ukraine was not the main cause of the crisis between Russia and the West; the Ukrainian crisis rather became a catalyst for more fundamental rifts that had emerged over the last few years. It is not an accident or bad luck; it is a failure of a whole generation of diplomats, politicians, intellectuals and opinion leaders. I do not wish to downplay the efforts of the committed men and women in both the West and Russia who have done much to strengthen our cooperation. But the overall balance sheet is not impressive.

I believe that the reason for our common failure was a deep gap between our two visions of the post-Cold War world. The West has always viewed the new world order as an expansion of existing Western institutions towards the East. That is why negotiations on Russia-EU or Russia-NATO cooperation had little to do with finding rea sonable compromises. Rather, they were attempts by the West to force Russia to adopt the rules of the game.

The Russian leadership had a different vision of the world after the Cold War: negotiations between East and West, with both parties on equal footing, would produce mutual concessions and a balancing of the interests of everyone involved.

These polar approaches inevitably caused difficulties and frustrations on both sides, often blocking the most promising areas of cooperation, including security. As a person who has long been involved in the development and implementation of Russia’s foreign policy, I remember very well the incredible effort that it took to open a new page in our relations with the United States and other leading Western states following the end of the Cold War. After 9/11, Russia was the first country to extend a hand of solidarity to the American people.

In May 2002, President Vladimir Putin and Western leaders signed a declaration on the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council with the hope of eventually forming a unified and indivisible security system across the entire Euro-Atlantic space. In May 2013, the leaders of Russia and the European Union signed an agreement on the creation of common spaces, including economic spaces, with a view toward eventually erasing the dividing lines in Europe. And the list of concrete, difficult steps taken by Russia goes on.

The reaction of our Western partners to Russian initiatives is well known: the unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; an unwarranted and wholly unjustified expansion of NATO, drawing it ever closer to the Russian borders; the war in Iraq in circumvention of the UN Security Council; the provocation and support of the colour revolutions in former Soviet countries; and so on. The West treated Russia as a defeated power that had to accept the new order as defined by the victors. Such an approach was bound to generate a backlash.

Today, it would be hypocritical and counterproductive to ignore the deep gap in perceptions (one might even say gap in values) between Russia and the West. But this gap, however profound, cannot be an excuse for not working together wherever possible. Even less justifiable is the current reluctance on both sides to maintain open lines of communication .

After the Ukrainian conflict broke out, the West and Russia were in a position to cooperate on a number of critically important international problems. The P5+1 multilateral agreement on the Iranian nuclear problem is one telling example. The elimination of the Syrian chemical arsenal is another. Should such cases be regarded as exceptions to the rule of confrontation? Or should we rather build on such successes, identifying new low-hanging fruit for potential collaboration?

Would closer interaction between Russia and the West on fighting Islamic State (IS) constitute a unilateral concession by one side or the other? Would more cooperation on the Arctic region imply a policy of appeasement? Do we believe that sacrificing existing contacts between Western and Russian universities, research centres, civil society organizations and professional associations makes our respective positions stronger and more consistent?

Cooperation, even in areas that are not politically sensitive, is not possible without trust between the parties. Indeed, mutual trust is critical to any successful cooperation. But how can trust be restored if we do not interact? Trust is only generated by working together and testing each other’s commitments, consistency and integrity.

First, the US-Russian nuclear dialogue must be resumed. Our inability to talk to each other means that the new world order is likely to be based on a continuous arms race, expanding membership in the club of nuclear states and a return to the old notions of deterrence, mutually assured destruction, unacceptable damage and the whole archaic strategic culture of the Cold War era’s bipolar world.

Second, the West and Russia have common interests in many regional crises and zones of instability: Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Korean peninsula, to name but a few. The failure to agree on Ukraine is already having a major negative impact on our ability to work together on other regional matters. But this is no excuse not to try. Each of the aforementioned regional conflicts has its own logic and dynamics, driving forces as well as domestic and international participants. As far as possible, we should approach each problem on a case by case basis.

Third, the two sides should under no circumstances sacrifice their cooperation on fighting international terrorism and extremism. There is simply no alternative to such cooperation. Neither side wants to see a world saturated with terrorist networks, extremists overthrowing legitimate governments, dangerous weapons floating around and mercenaries migrating from one conflict region to another. To continue cooperation in this area is not a concession granted by the West to Russia or vice versa. It will be a long-term challenge for our societies and the rest of the world.

Finally, Russia and the European Union should refrain from hostile and inflammatory rhetoric that fuels public mistrust and hatred. The vicious spiral of today’s propaganda war has to be stopped and reversed, at least at an official level, if we do not want to turn the current crisis into a drawn out confrontation that will divide our common continent for years, if not decades, to come.

There are many reasons for pessimism about the future of relations between Russia and the West. Nevertheless, pessimism cannot generate the new strategic vision that both sides so desperately need. Every crisis contains an opportunity that should not be missed. The wisdom of statesmanship is the ability to look beyond immediate gains and losses, to put aside tactical disagreements and personal ambitions, and to generate a broad and compelling strategic vision. The time for such an approach has come. 

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