During the last seventy international relationships are based on laws. The relationship between EU, Russia and US., for instance, was influenced by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the post-Cold War settlement and the 1990 Paris Carter for a New Europe.

It is also a world in which there were fundamental differences between the main powers, China, Europe, Russia and the USA. The European Union and the USA were founded on certain values, like human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, as a way to coexist in peace and prosperity.

Russia on the other hand is an amalgam of authoritarianism, corruption and nationalism, which ideology and policies can count on elite and popular support, despite the stagnant economy and significant repression of civil society. 

Russian insecurity, disappointment and distrust of the liberal order have led to Russian attacks on international law and state’s sovereignty which have reached an unacceptable level of aggression, so have attacks by the Putin government or its proxies against American and European democracies, attacks which seek to divide by means of weaponizing information and cyberspace.

These attacks are unprecedented and have the purpose to protect autocratic values and discredit basic Liberal values by strengthening the isolationist and destructive forces in Western societies in order to destabilize Free Liberal Society and the foundations of democracy which confirms Russia as the existential threat to Europe and have led to mistrust in the decade long progressive erosion of the Russia-EU relationship. .

With the rise of national populism weaknesses in U.S. and European democracies have been exposed resulting in the weakening of institutions and value systems.

As  Grigory Yavlinsky concludes in his book “The Putin System”

“The weakening of Western democratic institutions is a long-term trend that emerged well before Moscow’s interference in Western countries internal politics. Actually the weakening made the interference possible, even though, in a vicious circle of sorts, Moscow’s interference may have exacerbated the damage to institutions and democratic values.”

These vulnerabilities have also contributed to the rise of the radical right. The flow of refugees, increased military engagements, decline of the middle class and increased inequality have contributed to the rise in Nationalism and racism, this poisonous cancer which led to fascism and which has played such a destructive role in history.

Today’s autocrats use “fake reality” or “lügenpresse” which term goes back to 1914 and has a long history as a powerful instrument to influence the general public, a tool Hitler, Stalin used and recently Trump used, which no longer distinguishes between analysis and propaganda, or between truth and lies suggesting there are different truth’s, destroying the notion there is one “truth.”

Methods to target Western Democracies with fake reality and influence the general public have been perfected during elections in Russia and in Eastern European elections are now used to attack US. and Western Europe with obvious results..

Russian attacks against the U.S. have also played a role in the 2016 and 2020 elections, however this involvement is only secondary to other internal factors. It’s safe to conclude this meddling by Russia is no different from the meddling the US has done all over the world. Great powers meddle in other countries because they can.

Despite U.S. traditional obsession with Russia, the main factors for the election of the would-be mobster Donald J Trump in 2016 must be found in the vulnerabilities and polarization in U.S. society, which grievances’ have been growing since the Nixon years and have resulted in a dysfunctional Congress.

In West Europe despite the support of the growing radical right circles in the U.S., Israel and Putin’s little helpers, these attacks during the elections in The Netherlands, France and Germany were less successful, but in Italy they were effective for a short period of time, but the economic connection between Russia and Italy has always been strong and especial since Berlusconi Russia can count on its friendship

During the 2016-2019 the U.S., French, Netherlands, German and EU elections in which more than 200 million people voted were attacked with disinformation so was the Brexit vote, seeking to manipulate public opinion which showed in the U.S. and UK a disturbing level of success.

Cultivation and befriending by the Kremlin of European conservative politicians, who were willing to defend Russian interests such as Gerhard Schröder, Silvio Berlusconi  and Milos Zeman started early in the 2010’s and has been a long term trend,

Influencing of European democracies was increasingly done by financial and media support and mutual legitimization of a wide range of the major conservative nationalist and populist movements in Europe, including France’s National Front, Britain’s U.K. Independence Party, Germany’s Alternative for Germany, the Netherlands’s Party for Freedom, Austria’s Freedom Party, and Hungary’s Jobbik.

National populists and radical-right political politicians like Victor Orban, Marine Le Pen, Milos Zeman, Mateo Salvini, Nigel Farage, and Geert Wilders all have affinity for Vladimir Putin and seek to exploit the cancer of Nationalism and racism, while seeking the return to the nation state without immigration and disintegration of the European Union.

Victor Orban, the former Liberal turned autocrat of Hungary has filled the courts with sympathetic judges and has tampered with the rule of Law damaging the institutions and the economy.

In the tradition of all populist demagogues Orban has claimed to be “Europe’s defenders of Christianity based on nation, family and Christianity” and has infused “xenophobia, racism and nationalism” in the political culture, labelling refugees a treat to Hungary and European Christian values. In 2017 a law was passed forcing all asylum seekers in detention camps.

Orban’s “Brussels must be stopped” has moved away from the Liberal democracies of Europe and has become one of Putin’s closest allies in the attempts to destroy the EU from within, while benefiting from the same European Union and following the Russian narratives on the benefits of ethnicity and the advantages of the Judeo-Christian civilization over multi-culturalism and regimes like this should not have a vote and seat at the main EU table. The same holds true for Poland with its attack on the independence of the judiciary and the free press.

In this regard it has been a failure of the European commission not to address the violations of the rule of law sufficiently and more strongly. The EPP Group has played a major part in this, by ignoring crony capitalism, corruption with EU funds, violations of the rule of law by some of its members.

But also radical-right populists in Europe have learned the lessons from Brexit and the coming post Imperial hangover and have taken an EU exit for the time being off the agenda.

It is an illusion of the Russian leadership to think that the free liberal order is “absolute” as Tsar Vladimir Putin has suggested, words which remind of the 1930’s fascists when they pronounced the era of the liberal democracy was over. 

Or can be intimidated or destroyed by attacks by Russia against Liberal democracy and the European Union with the help of Putin’s little dwarfs in Europe, an order which is in need of consolidation, not expansion.

Perhaps the EU must even consider divestment of illiberal democracies which are combined in the Visegrád group, the alliance of the CzechRepublic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia as these countries might feel more at home with Vladimir Putin’s Eurasia and his views on the rule of law and Christian fascism.

As Francis Fukuyama recently noted

“because of the highest aspirations of all humans is the recognition and acceptance of their rights, liberalism will inevitable triumph.”

The core attributes of the liberal order – peace and stability among major countries – are still in place, which is confirmed by a decline in war and annexation since WWII.

For sure the day to day reality is the liberal international order is incomplete and has many faults, but it has made the lives of most people better than in any previous system people lived in. By cooperating, people are able to realize better outcomes and create solutions than by working alone. Without cooperation between states the alternative is nationalist competition and sleepwalking into another conflict, like we have seen so many in Europe caused by the poisons of nationalism.

These attempts by the Russian leadership at strategic relativism must be opposed with any and all means, economic, political or military in order to protect our free liberal society.

These attempts are based on the premise Russia cannot become stronger and instead of addressing its own problems, reducing the dependence on the oil and gas sector together with the diversification of the economy and the necessary infrastructure as suggested by Alexey Kudrin. Putin has during his terms in office been unable to create a stable state, with succession principles in place and the rule of law, but has continued stagnant economic policies, showing his inability for reform the state. So in order to relieve the pressure it must make others weaker and become more like Russia.

Should this mean countries like Hungary, Poland or others who orchestrate an assault on pluralist democracy and which seek to establish this form of illiberal Democracy without constitutional constrains, check and balances they should be sanctioned and unless they adhere to Democratic values be forced to leave the EU. This is the kind of repressive authoritarianism in which the independency of the courts is under attack and opens the door to fascism.

With the election of the populist nationalist Donald J Trump in 2016 protection of our free Liberal Society, human rights and international law was taken off the agenda by President Trump, this despite the attacks by Russia on American and European democracies.

This during a time that the Liberal order needed unity not disintegration and the U.S. became an adversary to Europe and its interests and U.S. commitment to our international system of rules, norms and values, the value of US security assurances were in doubt. After the withdrawal in 2020 from Iraq best was to expect betrayal, in the same way the U.S  left the Kurds to defend themselves and face the prospect of ethnic cleansing by Turkey.

The damage done by Trump to U.S. credibility, reliability and reputation has also been caused by the demise of the Open-Skies Treaty and the cancellation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF)  which actions have only increased the instability in Europe and is most likely permanent. It seems doubtful this damage will ever will be fully repaired, despite some repairs which are envisaged by the Joe Biden Presidency.

But the winds of our times started to change with the George W Bush presidency changed when the U.S. turned away from Europe due given different disagreements on Iraq, ICC, Climate Change and Barack Obama continued this trend when he pivoted to Asia and cancelled Missile Defence. Angela Merkel confirmed as much in 2017 when she noted “The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over.”

We Europeans have no choice but to agree with Emmanuel Macron and accept the EU needs to re-prioritize EU strategic interests, integrate faster and strive for greater European autonomy, increase its defense spending thereby becoming gradually more self-reliant in areas ranging from security, economics to climate change.

Against this background and changes in global environment the Russian – Europe relationship should also be reviewed with the understanding Russia has its own civilization, a autocracy in need of modernization which does not seek to join our rule based “civilized world” and shall remain our adversary.

Russia is an adversary who only understands strength, an adversary which seeks to  intimidate us in order to deter the United States and NATO from considering taking any military action against Russia—in Ukraine, Syria, or elsewhere. Part of this is putting all options on the table if any of the current conflicts seem likely to draw in the United States or NATO against Russian forces which takes us back to the potential for nuclear war of the 1980’s with all the consequences of full annihilation, a truly insane and incomprehensible prospect.

We Europeans should have no illusions, Russia favours a Europe that no longer is based on the liberal values on which the post-war period was based, but on a transactional relationship whereby Russia primary motive is to pull Europe into its sphere of influence.

Russia has long rejected the U.S.-led Liberal order and sought the weakening of the Transatlantic relationship and sees the European Union and NATO, which remains the deblock of our security, as obstacles towards its main goals, the gradual reversal of  the European state and the rise national governments.

In Putin’s view this is a Europe without NATO and without any other strategic alliances that are embedded in the European Union’s security concepts. This would give Russia military and security parity with European forces. This is European Union which is more like lawless Russia and without the rule of law.

From Moscow’s perspective, the European integration project and collective institutions limit Russia in its goals and it’s broader security strategy. Russia seeks transactional relationships with the individual European countries, not embedded of broken away from NATO or the EU, not with major political blocs. This are relationships without mutual responsibilities with countries which can be intimidated and give Russia the clear military advantage in any configuration of opposing forces.

This Russian premise which seeks to exploit weaknesses in the Atlantic relationship is not acceptable, whereby the United States and Russia come together again, in a “new Yalta,” to thrash out on Russia’s terms adjustments to the current order that would recognize Russia’s special status in regions of Europe and Eurasia that once constituted part of the Russian and Soviet empires. In this regard a re-election of Trump would have been disastrous, not only for the U.S. but also for Europe and could have brought a new Yalta nearer.

With the clear understanding of Russia’s geopolitical goals, which are deeply rooted in the country’s strategic culture and experiences with expansionism and insecurity, the questions is also “can Russia even be an acceptable partner in European security as long as it seeks NATO’s elimination?”

Nevertheless there is still the need for the parties to create a more stable and enduring security environment. Under tight circumstances, parties must engage and return to dialogue, work together and find solutions for the Global issues and conflicts despite the fundamental differences between U.S,, EU, China and Russia.

To solve the Ukraine issue based on the Minsk accords is essential, since this is also preventing initiatives in other diverse areas. But today there is not much which gives confidence that good faith on Russia’s part can be assumed.

The key in this to accept today the new wars are not between civilizations as Samuel Huntington believed, but between those who believe in the clash of civilizations and those who believe in universal values and international law.

Vladimir Putin and the Russians who support him belong to the first group. In their view, it is legitimate to disregard international law in the name of the integration of the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine into Russia. We in the west belong to the second group.

Given the long term interest on both sides it is essential to reduce the risks of possible conflicts find a “cold peace” formula in order to adjust the present interests and demands . What is required is some realism and pragmatism from all parties and to enter into a wide ranging dialogue, using diplomatic tools to deescalate the conflict, a dynamic, but frozen conflict which is worsening. But such a dialogue cannot take place in the present climate, during the Kremlin’s ongoing attempts to destabilize Europe.

The return of Russia in 2019 to the Council of Europe was therefore premature and not helpful since Russia does not share the liberal values which are necessary to sustain the Council of Europe and as the weakest player actively seeks to undermine the international order. It was thought to be a helpful first  step towards changing the overall tone of relations between Europe and Russia.

The EU-Russia relationship, given recent developments was further burdened the poisoning, arrest, and sentencing of Alexei Navalny as well as the related mass arrests of thousands of demonstrators showing the European Union and Russia are growing father apart and are today as far apart as during the end of the cold war as the Josep Borrell visit showed.

The typical Russian attempts seeking to limit the conversation by seeking to intimidate the EU foreign policy chief, threatening to sever relationships with the European Union and expulsion of three European diplomats during this visit is not a sign of strength but of typical weakness.

In addition to human rights issues there are diverging views in a number of topics, ranging from Ukraine, Crimea to cyber-attacks against the European Union. But there is also areas of common interests which link Europe and Russia and there is potential for cooperation in facing global challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and in the Arctic region.  

Despite views to the contrary, Russia and Europe live under the same roof and despite our ideological and value differences have no alternative but to coexist respecting the limits of this relationship. But there are also contrasting views between Europe and the US which only confirms the need for greater strategic independence of the European Union as President Emmanuel Macron has suggested.

Today its more necessary than ever for parties, once circumstances allow this, with the clear understanding of Russia’s geopolitical goals, to seek and find common ground on the many issues which divide us. One of them is a new security arrangement in Europe, to reconcile the difference between Russia and Europe, in order to reduce the risks of miscalculation and escalation of the conflict leading to war.

To find an arrangement for the Ukraine issue will take time and most likely will be based on a large territorial settlement with land swaps and population transfers which already have been and are taken place, enabling the Ukraine to  concentrate on solving its more direct problems and execute the required reforms.  

Regarding the sanctions against Russian interests and  recognition of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, it’s rather illusionary to think the Crimea will ever be returned to Ukraine and there should be no high expectations for an early solution to these issues given the involved players.

As to the treat of additional sanction, such as banning Russia from the SWIFT banking system this will be as ineffective as the previous sanctions and will only damage the economic relation and increase tensions father.

Conceivably Russian history and culture can give some needed guidance and perhaps it’s time to modify our objectives and recognize the sanctions have served  no real purpose and have only worked contra productive. Perhaps it’s time to realize Russia will hardly change with or after Vladimir Putin.

Looking at this pragmatically, the Crimea is an rather insignificant family dispute and the annexation of the Crimea has become a fait accompli, not uncommon in our European history which has known enough peace treaties which have had territorial concessions enabling overall solutions.

Perhaps in time when wisdom prevails and a better international climate has been created pragmatic solutions can be found.

William J J Houtzager

February 20th, 2021

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