How did Russia and the West get here and how do we move forward? (Part 3)

How did Russia and the West get here and how do we move forward? (Part 3)

Anastasia Vishnevskaya
Freie Universität Berlin

Anastasia Vishnevskaya (Freie) offers the third in our series of responses to the current state of Russia-West relations, following her participation in the inaugural UC Module at the Harriman Institute.

First and foremost, I would like to stress that the current crisis is a systemic one. The differences between Russia and the West have been piling for quite a long time and the Maidan revolution in Ukraine has triggered an escalation, but by no means caused the crisis. The fundamental difference in perceptions of global politics between Russia and the western world has been put forward by Putin in his famous Munich speech: while the West wanted Russia to be a partner of the NATO, Putin aspired a fundamentally new security architecture in Northern Atlantic with Russia as a member. This difference turned out to be one that could not be bridged, so the gap between the two sides started growing continuously.  

Generally, the Russian and Western establishment have fundamentally different views on what is going on in the world. In the Western perception there is a growing multitude of actors, not only states, but also TNCs, NGOs and international organizations, processes, conflicts and links. This highly complex environment demands complex answers and an ability to simultaneously disagree on individual issues, while cooperating on others and dealing with a multitude of actors. The Russian leadership still thinks in patterns of the Cold War. According to this thinking, there are Great Powers and the rest of the world. In order to solve existing problems between Russia and the West a new Yalta Conference is needed, during which terms of co-existence would be negotiated. Additionally one of the fundamental differences here is whether Russia actually is a great power, which Putin and Russian population claim and Obama denies.

Based on this 19th century thinking, the Russian leadership was not able to take Europe seriously. The Russian establishment has very little expertise on EU institutions and mechanisms of decision-making. This is why nobody in Russia has expected that the EU-sanctions would be imposed, that EU, this clumsy creature, would be able to overcome so many differences. Underestimating the EU was a huge mistake, as the Ukrainian crisis is actually the first European post-Cold War crisis, which is dealt with almost exclusively by Europeans themselves, without outsourcing the conflict resolution to the USA. This is a new experience for Europe, but also for Russia, which is used to the idea that everything is to be settled with Washington.

I strongly believe that empowering Europe in this crisis is also the key to its solution. The Cold War-thinking can be overcome only by strengthening multi-lateral institutions and formats. Therefore, the timing for the German OSCE Chairmanship could not have been better. German leadership and Chancellor Merkel as well as the foreign minister Steinmeier have proven their commitment to finding a sustainable solution to the current crisis without compromising on the major interests of Ukraine, Russia or Europe. A stronger and more vocal OSCE might bridge the existing differences and create a basis for a new security architecture in Europe.