Opinion: Siege mentality or the paradox in interacting with Russia (I)

Russia, or Putin, may be harbouring hopes of a restored glorious Soviet Union spanning once more from the Baltic to the Chukchi Sea. Maybe this vision includes the state expanding to new horizons through means beyond brute force. Or maybe there are intentions of surrounding itself with a cordon of satellite states to buffer the slow advance of liberal democracy into the region. Maybe Russia wishes to simply strengthen itself in the face of its potentially decreasing influence with a new dichotomy building between the US and China, or possibly a broader separation of East versus West (or North versus South, if you subscribe to an optimistic view of the BRICS) where Russia is now simply a partner, not the major player. Maybe the responses to events in Georgia or Ukraine are simply knee-jerk reactions or short-term oriented actions.

There is any number of views and interpretations available, some more credible than others. Whatever the state or its leaders intend, however, it is unlikely to be based on particularly friendly or altruistic thinking. And given that it is important to heed the Latin saying that if you want peace, you have to be prepared for war. And I don’t mean necessarily armed conflict, economic warfare and information warfare are also part of this.

At the same time it is necessary not to forget that we don’t actually want war. Whatever preparations are made have to be weighed and measured many times over. Being prepared is crucial. The preparations have to be balanced, however, by adequate interaction with your neighbours and specifically the neighbour being discussed – Russia. Being too well prepared could be more harmful than helpful.

Both politicians and citizens in states on the receiving end have to be aware of the Russian embrace. They have to have no illusions about where things may potentially go in the long run. Russia may not pose a direct threat or an immediate one for many states, but this does not mean that one can assume it will be a reliable partner when put to the test.

Indeed, for states in the closest proximity, under especially heavy pressure from the Russian soft power, such an awareness is absolutely key. The annexation of Crimea has illustrated exceptionally well how an initial application of soft power can translate into very real gains very quickly. States around Europe and their citizens, especially in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, have to be keenly aware of just how much influence Moscow may hold in their countries, be it through the provision of natural resources, cultural exports, minority groups or economic ties.

Non-tolerance toward Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine is a crucial sign from the West, showing that the NATO bloc has finally realised that Russia has not quite been rehabilitated from its imperial and soviet past. It is important to see how Russia will keep stretching the limits on Western tolerance as long as it will be able to. Responding negatively and showing that failing to adhere to the contemporary international playbook will have consequences is important.

The Baltic States and some of the other post-Soviet bloc states are able to see the situation quite clearly through their historical encounters with the various incarnations of the Russian state, sometimes so clearly they miss the point. The United States is yet again confronted with the shadow of the Soviet Union and doesn’t need to rely on imports from Russia. These two groups of states have demonstrated clear willingness to take a stand in the current climate, albeit not without internal grumbling from business lobbies and other interested parties. The positions they take are strong to a fault at times even.

This is contrasted by the actions of some of the major members in the EU and some of the less significant ones. To be more specific, it isn’t necessary to look any further than the responses from the big three of Germany, the UK and France, or to take some smaller examples – Bulgaria and Hungary. It is unfortunate to know that more adequate and coordinated responses from the EU are blocked by the taste so many member states have acquired for Russian gas and oil, as well as its large internal market. Nevertheless, standing up, objecting and taking concrete measures is a step in the right direction, even if it is the wavering step of an addict. Unless those wishing to stop the soft paw of the Russian bear actually push back, it will keep reaching further and further.

It is crucial to be prepared to push back against Russian influence, as inaction serves only as an invitation. When Russian influence reaches critical levels, one shouldn’t be too surprised to witness Crimea scenarios elsewhere, even in NATO and EU affiliated countries. For example, with over a quarter of Latvia’s population claiming Russian nationality, it wouldn’t be impossible for Russia to attempt to pry open the NATO and EU bloc’s doors by claiming it is protecting ethnic Russians in case of civil unrest in the state. And likely enough, such unrest could very well be sponsored from Russia. All this said, it is important to tread carefully. We have to look to Russia to see why too much preparation and too much negative attention toward the giant is detrimental.

Jurgis Vedrickas is a graduate of Aberystwyth University, UK. He has a BA degree in International Politics.

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