DIALOGUE WITH RUSSIA: A MISSION FATED TO FAIL?
Who would say no to mutually respectful and rewarding relations with Russia? Who would not be happy to see Russia work reliably and responsibly towards solving global problems? Few countries would be happier than Estonia if this was to happen. But what kind of Russia are we talking about exactly, and is dialogue the only road we can take?
The term dialogue has recently returned to the vocabulary of the Western leaders when talking about Russia. Even Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid has justified her meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this spring as a dialogue between the leaders of two neighbouring countries.
The President of Finland Sauli Niinistö holds regular meetings with Putin, and the French President Emmanuel Macron is convinced that it would be a huge strategic mistake to push Russia further away from Europe. The US President Donald Trump made his second attempt in as many years to invite Russia back to the table at the G7 meeting in Biarritz.
Emphasis on dialogue is integral for the Western cultural space. This reflects the readiness of one side to hear the opposing party, and find points of contact through conversation. In diplomacy, dialogue is the direct opposite of the language of ultimatums. Dialogue should end up with an agreement or a compromise on how to go from point A to point B and make both parties feel like they have won. Dialogue is the road to a win-win solution; it underlies the kind of diplomatic relations where words carry more weight than force.
This is where the first problems spring when the question of dialogue with Russia is raised. A dialogue that requires compromises, or concessions from both parties, is a complete taboo for Russian diplomacy with its preference for zero-sum games, or is at best seen only as a temporary setback. For example, the Soviet Russia viewed the Treaty of Tartu, just like the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, as nothing but an unavoidable obligation which was rejected at the first opportunity and which is still not acknowledged as one of the corner stones of Estonian-Russian relations. We could find dozens more examples of Russia violating treaties from the last one hundred years. One of the most recent examples is the breach of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Even the Russian Constitution itself can serve as a diversion or an information operation for the authorities, being exploited at home and abroad as a handy parallel reality for manipulation purposes.
Examples are easy to find. Over the past couple of decades, inter-parliamentary communication has played a significant role in the relations between Estonia and Russia. All this time, border treaties have remained a crucial topic; this has been the biggest unsolved issue in the relations between the two countries since the withdrawal of the Russian forces from Estonia in 1994. Every time we have moved towards a solution by stressing dialogue, this has been stopped by the actions or unwillingness of the Russian side. The last time the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee talked with its Russian colleagues was in February 2014, right before the aggression against Ukraine.
The partial occupation of Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, and thousands of fatalities has been one of the main factors why the Western powers who respect the principles of international law and the territorial integrity of sovereign states have imposed sanctions on Russian activities, and have prevented the return to business as usual. The European Union Member States decided in 2015 that there would be no return to business as usual with Russia before Moscow has put an end to its aggression against Ukraine and has started to implement the Minsk Agreements. Georgia’s experience was still fresh in everyone’s mind then.
Five years is a long time. It is an absolute eternity in the political landscape of democratic states. You need results to win elections. France and Russia generally viewed each other with sympathy throughout history. Relations with Russia hold internal policy weight in debates in Paris. Maybe even more than in Germany. Macron probably senses that he must demonstrate leadership qualities before the 2022 presidential elections to win Marine Le Pen and elevate France to a leading position, at least in Europe.
In his book Revolution, published during the previous elections, Macron wrote that ‘France must retain the special and independent position that enables to enter into a constructive dialogue with others.’ By stressing relations with Germany as the most important, Macron is also not discounting Russia. ‘What relationship do we want to have with the Russians, our fellow Europeans? Do we want to go back to a seventy-year regime of out-and-out conflict, as we had during the Cold War,’ Macron asked, and responded that he was working towards an intense and frank dialogue with Russia. Macron sees Russia as a valuable ally, especially in the fight against terrorism and in the field of energy.
Macron puts his words into actions. Brexit and the resignation of Merkel give him the excellent opportunity to hoist the European flag above all others. He has been working consistently with Russia to achieve a less tense atmosphere. Although the first step was successful, it raised a number of questions. Macron is considered one of the main influencers behind the complete restoration of Russia’s rights in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) this past summer. This was done without setting a single precondition at a time when Russia is continuing its warfare against Ukraine.
It would be interesting to know how much Macron’s advisers are influenced by the memory of the 5 July 1989 speech of the then leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev at a PACE sitting right there in Strasbourg. Back then, Gorbachev ingratiated himself with the Western Europeans by speaking about a common European home without borders; in his mind, he was thinking that NATO would soon fall into oblivion and the Soviet Union would retain its power over Central and Eastern Europe. Gorbachev listed four elements that should form the foundation for our common European home: restraint-based collective security (based on OSCE) instead of deterrence, complete economic integration, environmental protection, and protection of human rights. Of course, Gorbachev’s goal was to prepare the ground for the continued influence of Moscow, and even strengthen it on the eve of Eastern European revolutions.
Be it what it may, today Macron is sincerely talking about a single space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. In his speech to the French Ambassadors in the end of August, he said that it was not in our best interests to push Russia towards isolation or into an alliance with China, continuing that ‘the European continent will never be stable if we do not ease and clarify our relations with Russia.’
Interesting logics – Russia attacks, kills, occupies, and annexes a territory of a European country, but Europe is still to blame for pushing Russia away. Macron does not want a new Cold War, but this is happening nevertheless. It is a sad fact that the strategic objectives of the West and Putin’s Russia are poles apart. While the West is living in the spirit of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, with assurances of mutual respect and consideration, Russia’s goal is still to dismantle NATO and create a new security architecture in Europe. On about the same bases as Gorbachev once offered at the instigation of KGB analysts.
But what kind of Russia is Macron hoping to have peace and transparent relations with? The Russia who wants to get the whole Europe under its thumb, who does not give a damn about international law or its own Constitution, who wants to reconquer the territories of its erstwhile empire, or set up puppet governments? Or the Russia who does not wage wars against its neighbours or subject its people to mental terror, who cares about its international commitments, and who uses its national resources to increase the well-being of its citizens?
The Russia of today sadly continues to live under the yoke of its Bolshevik revolution. Its views on Europe and the West have not changed within the last one hundred years. Just like the democratic West was the arch enemy of the Soviet Union, the West continues to play the same role in the eyes of the current leaders of Russia. Just like they wanted to crush the Estonian government in 1924, they wanted to do the same in Montenegro to stop NATO enlargement in 2016. Just like Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico in 1940, Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London in 2016. Just like a South Korean commercial flight was shot down in the Far East in 1983, a Malaysian passenger aircraft was shot down over Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Just like the Baltic states were occupied and annexed in 1940, the same was done to the Crimean region of Ukraine in 2014. Just like Russia destroyed its citizens in a wave upon wave of terror launched since 1918, it has also sent them off to be killed in the wars in Chechnya and in senseless anti-terrorism operations. Just like the members of the Soviet Union Pioneers youth organisation, the members of the Russian Young Army (currently over 500,000 members between the ages of 8 and 18) are raised in the spirit of anti-democratic pseudo-patriotism. Just like during Stalin’s era, history is twisted to justify the crimes of the state. Just like during the Soviet era, the people have no democratic freedom of choice. The list goes on and on.
In the West, we are seeing the proliferation of the dangerous idea that the continued Russian aggression against Ukraine has been caused by the rigid views of the previous President of Ukraine. Supposedly, it would now possible to move forward with Zelensky. The exchange of prisoners is one step towards a new peace meeting in the Normandy format which is carefully controlled by Russia. Even if Kyiv decided, for some mysterious reason, to resign itself to Donbass autonomy (read: hand it over to Moscow’s control), it would only be another victory for Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, and a welcome breather to prepare for new conquests. However, for Ukraine it would mean closing the door to NATO and the European Union. Hopefully, Macron does not have an offer like that for Putin up his sleeve.
The ready stream of visitors to Moscow and the one offer of dialogue after another has convinced Russia that the West is spineless and that the victory would not be with the most eloquent but with the most forceful. At the international level, times are turning difficult for Estonia and the other Baltic states; we need to keep our wits about us in diplomacy so as not to find ourselves in very dangerous isolation one day. We need to work with all our allies to avoid the spirit of the Yalta agreements returning to the Europe of today. Dialogue with Putin’s Russia is very complicated, but not completely impossible. However, the West needs to have credible deterrence in place, and defend its value space. Promising a European Union perspective for Ukraine would be one step among many.