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A Renewed Policy of Détente towards Russia?

Increasing tensions

We are living in an uncertain world and in dangerous times. This is not only because of the pandemic. Tensions in the world are escalating. The use of violence in the world has increased in the last ten-year period. Before that, the use of violence was declining. In the past decade, the Global Peace Index (GPI; Institute for Economics & Peace 2020) has presented trends of more global violence and less peacefulness. We see a new arms race (IISS 2021), valuable arms control treaties have been cancelled, first by the Trump government and then by the Putin administration. For example, the very important INF Treaty (Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty), which banned ground-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, or the Open Skies Treaty, which has been so cruical in building confidence between the world powers. Fresh hope is coming with the new Biden administration which seems to have an interest in prolonging the START agreement, which has limited and reduced the number of the strategic nuclear missiles.


Furthermore, recently there has been a worrying rhetoric in the international arena. Biden calls Putin a “killer”. The visit of the EU's High Representative Josep Borell to Moscow and his humiliation by the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lawrow at a press conference, where he stated that the EU is not a reliable partner. And the harsh rejection of North-Stream 2 by the new US government, including the continuation of the exterritorial sanctions towards companies, involved in the building of the new pipeline from Russia to the EU, demonstrates that the relationship between the EU and the USA with Russia has reached another low point. And Nawalny case has contributed to the tense situation we are in the moment. We are facing a fragile state of continental security in Europe. A prolonged confrontation seems to be inevitable. How can we stop this new cold war? Is there a way out of this deadlock? It is not appropriate to continue muddling through.


How can we demand a new policy of détente under these circumstances, following the strategy of Willi Brandt as German SPD Chancellor at the end of the 1960s? From this chapter of history we learned that it is possible to overcome the high risk of a cold war quickly becoming a hot war. If we want to preserve peace and stop wasting money on armaments, we need a return towards a renewed policy of détente under different circumstances than at the end of the '60s.


The principle of the renunciation of violence and the peaceful coexistence of two different social systems were fundamental for the policy of détente. It was a kind of antagonistic cooperation. Disarmament, cooperation and trust-building were the main principles of the policy of détente. It has been built on the capacity of deliberating what effects the measures of one side has on the other. Détente is based on the ability to put one's self in the position of the other party. Such an approach can overcome the security dilemma (Heuman 2020), according which measures that improve the security interests of one's own state but worsen those of the other. The policy of détente led to an end of the bloc confrontation and the fall of the iron curtain. It stabilised peace in the world, favoured the development of Gorbachev and the fundamental change in the state socialist countries of Eastern Europe. In the end, it was the main prerequisite for the peaceful transition of the states, which had been under the control of the authoritarian and despotic system of the SU since the end of the Second World War. The slogan of the policy of détente was “change through rapprochement”. And this concept worked in a practical way. German reunification and the fundamental changes in the Eastern European states would have been inconceivable without the policy of détente. The policy of détente marked a shift in the European history. The Cold War came to an end.


Policy of détente opened the door to disarmament treaties. For example the SALT-1-Agreement: a treaty between the USA and the previous Soviet-Union (SU) which limited the number of intercontinental strategic missiles. Real disarmament was achieved in 1991 with the START I Agreement which limited the number of nuclear war heads after the end of the east-west-conflict.


The goal of the policy of détente was to generate trust between the western and eastern blocs. For this they organized new formats for talks to minimise tensions. An important outcome was the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The states were committed to respect their borders. This was an acknowledgement of the realities of two different powers. Furthermore, a better economic cooperation should promote trust. Conflicts should be solved peacefully and by diplomatic means. They also promised to uphold human rights and not to interfere in the affairs of other states.


At the moment the logic of deterrence of mutual destruction is determining the international policy. The logic of détente-policy has been pushed back.


Reasons for the new cold war

Two aspects are the main trigger for the tense situation in Europe: The NATO-enlargement towards the borders of Russia and the annexation of the Crimea by Russia (Kronauer 2018), which is against fundamental law, just as the war of the western states against Iraq or the former Yugoslavia. The low-intensity war of Russia in the eastern Ukraine is another important reason for the new cold war. The Russians have attacked the sovereignty of another state. This cannot be accepted. But general sanctions against Russia are not effective. In these cases a smarter reaction from the EU can be the global human rights violation mechanism, which allows targeted measures against specific people, who are in charge for these measures. Even if we have to take into account the failure of the EU to propose a solution for the political crisis in the Ukraine that involved Russia. A Ukraine that pursues the goal of becoming a member of the EU and, prospectively, of NATO can be seen as a threat to Russia. US think tanks have determined that Russia cannot be defended any longer if the Ukraine is a member of NATO. Furthermore, if the Ukraine would become a member of NATO, would they ask for military support that could lead to a direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia?


I would like to remind you that there was a broken promise to Gorbachev in the context of the reunification of Germany. The representatives of the leading western states promised that they did not want to expand NATO towards Russia's borders. After the breakdown of the SU in the '90th the Baltic states and all Russian border states to the EU have become a member of NATO. Therefore, potential admission of the Ukraine to NATO would affect the security interests of Russia, especially due to the fact that Russia has its navel base in Sevastopol. The conclusion of the Ukraine-conflict is: a political solution for the Ukraine can be found only with the cooperation with Russia. This has also to be taken into account regarding the EU's eastern-partnership - Post-Soviet states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

There is an integration competition for the so-called “countries-in-between” between Russia and the West. Russia is concerned about increasing influence of the EU in these countries. Therefore, a dialogue with Russia must have the goal to analyse security interests of all, to create collective security system in Europe.


We can conclude that the peace-dividend after the end of the first Cold War has not brought the promised and sustainable advantages. In general, the failed integration of Russia into European security structures is one of the main reasons of the confrontational situation in Europe today. Although Putin made several offers, such as his speech in the German Parliament in 2001, stating his vision to become a part of the European peace order and to build together the common European house. Later he gave up trying to find a good partnership with the western European states. He has acted aggressively not only in the Ukraine but also in other countries such as Syria and Libya. Some experts point out that this aggressive course was caused not only by the unwillingness of the western states for better cooperation but also by domestic reasons in Russia. Putin wants to achieve domestic consent with his foreign policy. Therefore, Putin has come up with this policy to foster nationalism at home, to strengthen his own political position. This cannot be in the interest of the EU. In the same way, it cannot be in the interest of the EU to destabilise the Putin government or even worse to follow a policy of “regime change”. The effects are incalculable.


Russia wants to play an important role in global policy. It really is a geographically-large country with a lot of potential in Europe. But at the moment their high expectations are built on a weak economy. 75% of the the Russian economy depends on exports of gas and oil. This is not very sustainable, because the world is now on the path to find a way out of the climate-damaging greenhouse gases. Russia's GDP ranks 13th among the world's economies, behind Italy and Brazil and ahead of South Korea. At the same time, they are spending 5 % of their GDP on armements. But this is only a tenth of the money that the USA is spending, and only a fifteenth of NATO spending. So Russia is overstretching itself with its military activities. And Putin is losing more and more of his political legitimacy due to widespread corruption in Russia. Russian's role as a great power is grounded primarily by its nuclear weapons.


On the basis of the experiences of the policy of détente, however, the EU needs a new approach to create a peaceful and cooperative path with Russia. The alternative of confrontation has too many risks. The best path would be a strategy of pragmatic cooperation on the basis of common interests.


More European sovereignty

It is obvious that the relation of the EU with the US under the new Biden administration will improve. Biden's foreign policy is based on the concept of common interests, values and multilateralism as in Europe. But in the long run we can see that the cooperation of the western states is eroding. The concept of more European sovereignty is reflecting this. It means that the EU will be strong enough to provide measures, that are in accordance with human rights and are able to meet the fundamental needs of the EU itself. Often this concept is linked with the intention of building a new militarised EU to be more independent of the USA. A sustainable EU policy, which is obligated towards peace and disarmament, should focus more on their soft power instead of their hard power, more on diplomatic than on military means.


The USA and the EU have different historical views on the end of the cold war. The USA is saying: "We won the cold war because the arms race was crucial for the break down of the SU." Contraray to this, in the EU we find the interpretation that the Cold War came to an end due to the policy of change through rapprochement. The USA is not interested in a strong EU. But they are allies. The USA needs the EU more as a kind of toolbox for their international activities. Their external military interventions are often coordinated from Europe, where their armed forces including their technical equipment are stationed.


Moreover, the fundamental difference between the EU and USA in their relations with Russia is simply geographical. Russia and the EU are neighbours on the same continent. Preserving peace is in the fundamental interests of both and so it is a matter of survival finding new forms of cooperation. Another fact is that the USA is focussing its foreign policy more and more against the emergence of China as a new superpower. Many economic experts are emphasising that China is challenging the USA to become the strongest economic power in the world. In no more than 20 years China will be economically stronger than the USA and will put into question the leading role of the USA in the world. Therefore, for the USA China is the real rival in a changing multilateral world.


For the EU, China plays an important role with its huge single market. And the EU foreign policy must take into account the fact that a policy against Russia will push the latter into the arms of China. This cannot be in the interest of the EU. At the moment there is a process of deepening the economic relations between Russia and China.

A renewed policy of détente

We are living in a globalised world with many problems, which must be solved politically in solidarity by diplomatic means without using military violence. Some of the challenges are obvious. The pandemic is a threat, which we can conquer only with international civil and fair cooperation. There are more and more worldwide supply chains on which all nations depend. We must fight climate change. There are so many international conflicts, which can be solved only by including Russia: for example Syria, Libya, the middle-east-conflict, the nuclear deal with Iran (JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action)). If the EU wants to solve these global problems sustainably, two things must be done regarding Russia: we need cooperation and toughness (Paikin 2021) for a clear stance on democracy, human rights and international law. Regarding the latter, the EU is losing credibility, you need only look back on more than 20.000 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean on their way to Europe in the last six years.


Cooperation with Russia should not be built on illusions. The EU must be aware of the fact that Russia has no interest in a strong EU. It prefers a foreign policy that focuses on individual EU member states rather than the EU. This was the clear message of the Russian foreign policy minister Lawrow, when Borrell visited Moscow. This means that the EU must act together.


The policy of toughness includs sanctions. It is debatable whether sanctions against Russia are a meaningful instrument to change their political behaviour in terms of respecting international law and human rights. Although the sanctions after the Crimea annexation have weakened the Russian economy, it has not changed its policy regarding the annexation or its low-intensity-war in the eastern Ukraine yet. Despite that, it has strengthened Putin's position in Russia. Therefore, it seems to be more successful to follow the concept of detente “change through rapprochement”, which includes change through trade. So the North-Steam 2 project should be completed.


My main conclusion is that we need a long-term strategy of cooperation, instead of confrontation. We must distinguish between short-term everyday incidents and the long-term strategic interests. The spiral of escalations has to be stopped. We must carve out a new equilibrium between toughness and engagement or restraint with Russia. It is time to recalibrate the five-principle approach of the European foreign policy with Russia - The five principle are: 1. implementation of the Minsk agreement as a prediction to lifting sanctions; 2. selective cooperation with Russia; 3. closer relations with post–Soviet neighbours; 4. enhancing EU resilience to Russian threats; 5. support of the Russian civil society.

This concept means that it is almost impossible to improve the relations with Russia. On the one hand, we must remind Russia that it must respect human rights and international law. As a member of the Council of Europe, Russia is obliged to act in compliance with these norms. On the other hand, following the tradition of the policy of détente we have to recognize the realities, even though we do not like them. The recognition of realities in the relationship with Russia means moving away from fixation on the Ukraine conflict and to open the door for more cooperation, for example in the field of the global fight against climate change. There is a lot of potential to develop hydrogen together with Russia. And the North-Stream 2 pipeline can be used as a very useful hydrogen-import channel (Deutsch-Russische Brückenenergien 2021). More voices along these lines can be heard not only from Germany, but also from Italy and France. In this case, the EU needs more sovereignty in their relationship with the USA. The new government - like the previous one - wants to stop this project because it has an interest in exporting its fracked gas to the EU. It is not acceptable that the US government is imposing extraterritorial sanctions on European companies involved in the construction of this pipeline. This is not covered by international law. It must also be mentioned that fracked gas is not a part of a sustainable strategy that will focus on renewable energy.


Furthermore, there is a need for more new formats of talks between Russia and the EU to discuss various problems. The OSCE is one opportunity, but we need more different and coordinated cohesive approaches. One element of the strategy of pragmatic cooperation, for example, is civil-society cooperation to enable visa-free travel. This could promote trust in the relationships. At the same time, we need more arms-control talks for example in the scope of conventional arms. I cannot possibly rate the military as highly as some of the conservative politicians do. The new draft of the SPD election program states: “In Europa we can achieve peace only with Russia not against it.” Let's do it.


Written by Prof. Dr. Dietmar Köster MEP


Prof. Dr. Dietmar Köster is a Member of the European Parliament | Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament (Germany).


Photograph: Larry Koester|Flickr.com