Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its proxy invasion of eastern Ukraine has convinced a group of German, U.S., British, and Russian former diplomats to try to rebuild Euro-Atlantic security.
This is despite the fact that Russia has no intention of ceding control over the Crimean peninsula or of ending its meddling in Ukraine. What trust that existed prior to the Ukraine crisis between the Kremlin and most Western governments has all but dissipated.
Rebuilding trust, which is what these diplomats are seeking, will require a completely new strategic outlook on the part of the West.
Détente was a Cold War invention designed to introduce predictability into relations between the West and Russia. It worked as long as the West never challenged the Kremlin’s hegemony over Russia’s sphere of influence.
Yet the signing almost forty years ago of the Helsinki Final Act, which sought to improve relations between the Communist bloc and the West, dented that hegemony. It was a remarkable document that provided solace—if not legitimacy—to individuals and human rights movements in then Communist Eastern Europe and Russia itself.
Indeed, once Poland’s Communists agreed to a roundtable with opposition Solidarity leaders in 1989, the party was over for one-party rule.
The Kremlin knew that too. But it was unprepared for the blistering speed at which Europe’s new democracies worked to join the Euro-Atlantic structures of NATO and the European Union.
The West too was unprepared for this phenomenal change across Europe and its impact on security issues. Western nations relied on traditional structures such as the OSCE and the forum for reducing conventional arms in Europe in the belief that the old mechanisms could prevail into the post–Cold War era.
In retrospect, the West didn’t grasp the implication of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision in December 2007 to withdraw Russia from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which set limits on certain conventional military equipment in Europe. That decision signaled Russia’s slow rejection of the principle of détente.
As for Europe’s new democracies, what they most wanted was a complete break from the influence of their former masters. They wanted a security that would be comprehensive. Not only that: they did not want to exclude their Eastern neighbors, which have now become embroiled in a complex struggle between Russia and the EU, as exemplified by Ukraine.
That struggle has become so intense and so polarizing that the old method of rapprochement is no longer applicable. If Western and Russian diplomats do want to establish a new framework for cooperation, the Western players will have to acknowledge that the tools of the Cold War period are outdated.
Those tools depended on a school of détente that saw the crises in Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe through a Russian prism. While that prism is being adjusted, belatedly, it has gone nowhere near far enough to allow the West and Russia to accept that the post–Cold War structures have run their course.
In practice, the necessary shift in approach would mean changing the format of any discussions between the West and Russia. First and foremost, talks should fully involve genuinely independent nongovernmental organizations and civil society movements from across Europe, Eastern Europe, and Russia.
NATO too has to be involved at the highest level. To believe that trust between the West and Russia could be rebuilt without the full participation of the alliance would be more than shortsighted. It would play into the hands of those Russians and Westerners who believe that NATO is the hindrance to creating a broad new pan-European security architecture long propagated by the Kremlin.
NATO’s involvement is a must, not only to understand how the organization sees its strategic interests and future relations with Russia, but also to ensure the presence of the transatlantic alliance. To exclude NATO would be to downgrade the alliance and expose Europe’s security and defense vulnerability. Russia would hardly object to that.
This kind of wider gathering is long overdue because security and threats now mean different things to Western and Eastern European governments, Russia, and civil society movements. Security and threats encompass the huge challenges of globalization, social media, and the question of how the West is going to articulate and defend its values.
Furthermore, security and stability can no longer be separated from democracy and human rights, however much the proponents of realpolitik and détente would challenge that assumption. It’s time to change the dynamics of the Euro-Atlantic debates.