The Roots of the Russia-West Conflict, and Toward Europe 2.0

21CQ Topic President's Blog


Irvin Studin


9 years ago

In late April of next year (final dates coming shortly), 21CQ and GB, in partnership with the Canadian Forces College, will be hosting top practitioners and specialists from key countries to discuss, in clinically analytical and then practical terms (sans dogma), the sources of, and solutions to, today’s Russia-West conflict and tensions. On Day Two of the conference, we will be examining a forward cooperation agenda between Canada and Russia on the Arctic – territorially, militarily, diplomatically, in science, the environment, and economics.

The Psychological Roots of the Conflict

The roots of today’s conflict between Russia and the West lie neither in the “end of history” moment in 1991 nor with the present batch of leaders on both sides, but rather in the year 1994. What happened in 1994? For Western strategists and intellectuals, that was the year of Rwanda – a massacre of biblical proportions that we vowed would happen “never again,” especially given that the Cold War had ended and there was sufficient strategic leisure and fiscal wealth in leading democracies to allow us to participate in the generalization of the good life.

For the Russian strategic and political classes, however, 1994 was Chechnya. Rwanda did not make the top 10 list of important world events that year. Chechnya was about keeping together the territorially massive and ethnically diverse Russian Federation – a brand new state (barely three years old) – in the face of significant centrifugal forces that threatened to tear it apart just as Moscow was trying to fashion a new, post-Soviet legitimacy at the heart of Russian political life.

The Rwandan genocide, supplemented by Srebrenica massacre the following year, led to the creation of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) doctrine, which holds that state sovereignty becomes conditional or is even nullified to the extent that states cannot protect their populations or are otherwise parasitic on their populations through the commission of mass atrocities or genocide. In leading Western universities, the number of PhD’s produced on the strength of RtoP today numbers in the upper hundreds or low thousands. Huge numbers of academic and policy careers have been devoted to the refinement of the doctrine.

Question: how many PhD’s on RtoP have been produced in the leading universities of Russia or indeed much of the former Soviet space? Answer: close to zero.

Russia and the West, therefore, are not only speaking completely different languages (Russian versus English), but about completely different things. Where the West speaks about what it sees as obvious goods in terms of saving lives (who could disagree with this?) or, more maximally, spreading the good life (or democracy, or democratic alliances), the Russians are primarily exercised by the very fragility of their state, surrounding post-Soviet states, and the global security system more generally. Where the West, in seeking to stamp out evil and injustice, aims for perfection in international affairs and governance, the Russians will assert that the path to any such heaven on Earth travels directly through hell in the form of the destabilization of implicit equilibria in world affairs and, more dangerously, war between great powers.

If the Western mind sees a genocide and rightly asserts that this can never happen again, then the Russian retort today is: we can try to prevent or stop it as long as such efforts do not result in a more general war (in which case many more people will die). In the context of the Syria crisis, then, this translates to: there is no ‘life-saving’ moral argument for removing Assad, whatever his crimes, because his removal will lead to even deeper anarchy and more deaths in Syria and the region.

The Russian posture is not born of ideology. It is improvisation built on a far more acute sense of life and death and the consequences of war and revolution than we enjoy in the West. It is, in this sense, not neo-imperial or maximalist (this is more us), but rather minimalist and survivalist. But it is no less intelligent, and its proponents – lest we be confused – are not by any stretch less astute.

Toward an ‘Algorithm’ for Solution

What’s to be done to fix this divide, which has led us to a moment of unprecedented mutual distrust? First, in order to avoid further escalation and the very real possibility of accidental or deliberate Russian-Western clashes and multiplication of contested theatres, we must move decisively into a period of new military and civilian confidence-building measures between Moscow and Washington and key Western capitals. These should involve very regular and active information and opinion exchanges about military and political plans and capabilities at the highest levels and down through the systems, as well as new joint Russian-Western initiatives (and, very soon, exercises) in areas of extant cooperation, such as the Arctic.

Second, we must revisit the late Cold War period to understand that if perestroika and glasnost lost Gorbachev both the Soviet state and the larger contest with the West, then his other major idea remains apposite for purposes of Russian relations with the West: if Europe 1.0 was intended to deal with the German problem, then ‘Europe 2.0’ this century must be built to reckon with Russian integration. The idea of a reasonably common economic or strategic space (or a space of peace) between Birmingham in the west and Vladivostok in the east is compelling, and would address the ‘interstitial’ problem that found Ukraine torn apart by the competing gravities of the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union.

I elaborate on this logic below.

Gorbachev’s Third Idea and Fixing the Present Conflict

Gorbachev’s first two big ideas – glasnost and perestroika – lost him the Soviet state and the Cold War. But his third big, less vaunted, idea – that of a ‘big Europe’ (it sounds better in Russian) or, in today’s parlance, ‘Europe 2.0’ – may well be the key to the general peace in international affairs in the post-Cold War order. In other words, if today’s European Union or Europe 1.0, now comprising 28 countries, began as a response to the German problem of the last century, then Europe 2.0 should be this century’s response to the problem of Russian integration or reintegration.

Political personas and morality plays aside, the Ukrainian revolution was fundamentally the result of a fragile, albeit major, post-Soviet state, with poor governance and weak institutions, torn apart by the competing gravities of the European Union to the west and Russia (and the broader Eurasian Customs Union) to the east. These same gravities, consciously and unconsciously, continue to pull savagely on post-revolutionary Ukraine, which is now all the more weakened by the Donbass war, quasi-bankruptcy, and a vulnerable central government in Kiev.

Ukraine is what might be called an ‘interstitial problem’ in modern international affairs. Two regimes – the European Union and the Eurasian Customs Union – pull on a geographic space that is otherwise incapable of resisting, resulting in chaos in the contested space and mutual isolation and warfare by other means (for now) between the two regimes. The Arctic space is another such interstitial theatre that will experience increased contestation by major countries and regimes in the coming decades. What’s to be done? Answer: build strong but flexible tendons to bind the regimes across the contested interstitial space. The Gorbachev vision of a Europe 2.0, on this logic, was meant precisely for such interstitial problems and the broader challenge of soldering Moscow to a more predictable, less anxious geopolitical logic to be addressed through the creation of a reasonably common economic, administrative and strategic space between Birmingham in the west and Vladivostok in the east.

Today’s bottom lines for Europe and, by extension, global governance structures, are as follows: first, Ukraine cannot thrive or survive without Russian reengagement (no amount of Western funding or goodwill can make up for Russia’s absence); second, Russia cannot thrive without the economic reengagement of Europe; and third, Europe cannot thrive and may one day collapse without the resolution of this interstitial conflict. Any future Russian systemic collapse or war involving Russia and Europe would mean the end of the European Union as we know it.

No one today in Russia or any European capital is seriously speaking about the absorption of Russia into the European Union. But what is eminently reasonable, on the Gorbachev logic, is a long-term trilateral framework between Brussels, Moscow and Kiev to begin to address core interstitial issues like energy, product regulation and markets, travel (Ukraine and Russia just recently decided to block mutual air travel), agriculture, and national security.

The good news is that the seeds of this trilateral framework and an eventual Europe 2.0 have already been planted by the improvised reactions of key countries to the present crisis. The quadrilateral Normandy format Minsk talks between Paris, Berlin, Kiev and Moscow to address the Donbass war and the trilateral gas talks between Brussels, Moscow and Kiev to address Ukrainian and European energy requirements for the coming winter are, taken together, today’s equivalent of the six-country European Coal and Steel Community that created the embryo for the far larger and more comprehensive peace in Europe eventually engineered through the European Union. The goal now must be to buttress and multiply the tendons and ties that bind, even if the initial centrifugal forces among major players may seem overwhelming. Peace in Europe in our time will depend on this pioneering work.

What of Syria? This brings us to our fourth bottom line. For if we understand the conflict in Europe between Russia and the West over the Ukraine as at core an interstitial problem, then we can begin to see the eventual resolution of the chaos in Syria and the broader Middle East as emanating from a Europe 2.0 in which the major countries – Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Russia – are bound more tightly in a common logic in the service of more enduring continental cooperation. Washington and other key global capitals should be firmly in support of this logic, as the terrible conflicts of the Middle East cannot be solved without the one in Europe being solved first.

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