It is important not to be too antagonistic in interactions with Russia either. Note that the previous sentence states “not to be” rather than “not to appear”. This won’t work if we aren’t earnest. We need to aim at cooperating and working toward common goals, however few there may appear to be at times. Russia may have (or may not have) unfriendly aims, however, it is a part of the global economy. Just like almost any other state it needs to keep its economy going and so far autarky has not quite worked out for any one state. Furthermore, the Russian state will want to keep economic interactions continuing in order to retain influence on whatever markets it can access.
Similarly, for example Europe can’t really do without trade with Russia either, especially states that are extremely reliant on Russian fuels. Along with this, peaceful interactions and trade help foster a very different view of the EU and the West for home audiences, which starts picking at whatever amount of siege mentality may be built up on the Russian home front. There’s venues for economic conflict, but by diversifying it is possible to reduce conflict situations as it is questionable how daring Russia would be where it clearly no longer has a monopoly level advantage.
Aiming for amicable relations is important at every level, not just the economic. There can be no doubt that a strong stand has to be made concerning Russia, but this has to be done carefully. There is no need to return to Cold War labelling, clear cut enemies no longer exist unless we come to discuss small state or sub-state actors. Many in the older generations who experienced the Soviet regime and some of those who grew up immediately after freedom are bound to have some negative views of Russia, especially as nearly our entire history is built on one or another sort of conflict with the various incarnations of the Russian state. Be it medieval experiences of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania fighting with the various Slavic duchies and kingdoms that one day would make up Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Be it the experience of Imperial Russian occupation for well over a century. Be it the nightmare of the fifty years of Soviet occupation. There have been numerous examples of cooperative and neighbourly behaviour, but some of the greatest tragedies of our nation and state were experienced through Russia. We must not forget this, but it should not cloud our interactions.
The Baltic States and Poland have had strong things to say about Russia and its actions throughout the years. This has been very necessary, if no one in the Western bloc spoke up there would be grave issues at this point. At the same time we should always remain aware of the message we send. It is true that historical factors can provide insight. They should never take precedence over contemporary realities though. This applies not only in political matters, but also in public discourse. Both as states and as societies we should remain open to friendly interactions, not despite what our shared history is like, but because of it.
Although it is necessary to aim for amicable relations, even when Russia doesn’t always reciprocate, I can only hope that some of the supposed “hawkishness” of the Baltics and Poland rubs off on their bigger EU partners. The West’s general response to Crimea has been altogether inappropriate. By slowly ramping up and leaking inability to commit to strong decisions we are simply playing our part as “The Enemy.” Obviously it is impossible to imagine the EU acting quickly, but that was exactly what Crimea required. The West had to put its foot down quickly, but it didn’t, not even the US which had the stronger response. Not make lists of sanctions that would be unveiled one at a time over months, but immediately come out and show that international law and agreements still mean something. Now at least a part of the West has shown itself quivering against the mighty Russia. The Kremlin didn’t even need to orchestrate this image for its home audiences.
In the current situation the Russian autocracy, kleptocracy or democracy, whatever you would prefer to name it has momentum behind it. The world, with the exception of the Chinese, has to play catch up. A strong image has been sent to the Russian public – the West is weak and yet it is also antagonistic and greedy, bowing to Russian gas and oil exports. In such an environment, obviously one looks to a strong state that can make use of its strengths and its enemy’s weaknesses while seemingly getting encircled by hostiles. At this point the Kremlin will not be stopped by anything but the harshest of sanctions and it isn’t even likely those will work. The Russian economy has and is suffering from the international backlash, but the West’s slow response gives Russia time to at least attempt to buffer any problems it may have with oil and gas money. There isn’t much the West can do for Ukraine at this point, but one can just hope that a lesson has been learnt. We cannot be weak, but we must not be too strong in our message either. Like it or not, the current situation has been mostly beneficial for the Russian regime (albeit probably not Russia and its citizens), now only a question remains of how we can prepare for whatever Moscow sets its sight on next and whether we will talk to Mr. Putin as equals, well-meaning equals or as weak and interest bound opponents.
The fortress built on natural resources and aggressive state management will eventually crumble, Russia is not exactly looking very sustainable in the long run. The question is, how we will measure up in the face of the Kremlin’s ambition and interests. We can’t storm the fortress, so if we don’t do our waiting prudently it may first collapse on us before itself.
Edit: The article was written before the tragedy of flight MH17. I would like to offer my condolences to the families of all those who perished. This may change much in the conflict for Ukraine, depending on what sort of spin the Russian information services manage to put on the situation and what the actual findings are. But will it change the general trend? Likely not. It shows that even if conflicts may appear remote, somewhere on the TV or computer screen, they can very easily become part of our reality. Si vis pacem, para bellum. If you want peace, prepare for war. We don’t want war, no-one really does. If we are not prepared to handle it, if we are not able to prevent it by making sure that potential aggressors think twice, then war will come to us by itself.
The shooting down of MH17 shows this in very strong colours, no matter who shot the aircraft down or how. Not through the daily reports of violence in Ukraine and the slowly building casualty counts which grey out the matter. Through an immediate and very clear-cut tragedy. With a strong and appropriately weighted initial response from the West this sort of thing would never have happened. With such a response the death toll in Ukraine throughout this year would never have been this terrible.
In conclusion though, to avoid tragedies it is not a good idea to hide behind the ramparts of your own state or alliance. Dialogue is necessary, peace requires two parties, just as does war. So let us be prepared, prepared not only to defend ourselves, but also prepared to talk.
Jurgis Vedrickas is a graduate of Aberystwyth University, UK. He has a BA degree in International Politics.