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Europe and Russia: Five statements, five questions

In December 2014, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) set up an expert panel to provide advice on how to rebuild European security as a common project writes Robert Cooper. One year later, the panel published its final report and recommendations. The five statements below are the report’s core propositions, and the questions that follow are the author’s personal reflections.

1. The situation in Europe is the most dangerous in the last forty years.

In Europe, the Cold War was unpleasant, but it grew into stability. Elsewhere it was a real war, fought by proxy, doing great damage. Today the proxies and the war are closer to home, and Russia has grown less predictable. Both changes reflect weakness, but that does lessen the danger of violent conflict.

The Soviet Union represented an ideology with worldwide reach; if Russia today has ideas, they are national, backward looking, defensive, and focused on the country’s neighborhood. Ideology once made the Soviet Union difficult for the West to understand. Today, Russia’s unpredictability comes from its one-man rule—no politburo or presidium to discuss important decisions. Surprise keeps opponents off balance abroad, and the president displays mastery domestically. But this style of decisionmaking increases the risk of miscalculation on both sides.

How should the West respond?

The West needs to learn from its mistakes. Western leaders have taken neither Russia’s words nor its actions seriously enough. The 2008 Russian-Georgian War was forgotten too soon. The West has responded better in Ukraine but should not settle back into an illusion of normality while an abnormal situation continues there. The West needs to match Russia’s growth in defense capabilities but also think about how to use such instruments. Matching surprise with surprise would be risky; but so is giving the other side a monopoly on surprise.

2. History is contested.

The OSCE report tells the story of how the hopes of 1989 became the hostility of 2015. Or rather, it tells two stories. The Western version gives no hint that mistakes might have been made: the only thing that has gone wrong is Russia’s behavior.

The Russian story is one of resentment as Western expansion pushed Russia back into a narrowing space, and of Russia’s response “in the only language that gets Western attention.” The two stories are not incompatible, but neither tells the whole truth.

Are the narratives in some way equivalent?

The Western narrative lacks reflection on the impact of Western actions. The Russian story conveys a sense of passivity: everything is someone else’s fault. The certainty of the Western version misleads: there were doubts and debates every step of the way. Many who supported the 1998–1999 Kosovo War were nevertheless uncomfortable with it. But the West justifies its actions for what they are. Russia, by contrast, makes Western actions a point of reference. How strange that Russia justifies its March 2014 annexation of Crimea with the precedent of Kosovo’s self-determination when it refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Russian complaints that the NATO-Russia Council is window dressing have a ring of truth. But Moscow ought instead to recognize that what drove NATO enlargement was Russia’s own actions in the past. The Western and Eastern alliances were no more equivalent than the two narratives: NATO is a voluntary association that the United States leads by providing security; the Warsaw Pact was an alliance of the unwilling, created and maintained by coercion.

The contrast between the hopes of 1989 and the reality of today is great; so is the human cost. The question of how this came about needs an answer. The material is in these two narratives, but progress will be possible only when they become one.

3. Geography is also contested.

The central point of the OSCE report is that the end of the Cold War created a zone of geopolitical uncertainty, a group of security orphans that are the objects of a real or imagined competition between Russia and the West. Stability during the Cold War grew out of a territorial status quo accepted by both sides. This was ratified in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which came into being only after West Germany signed treaties recognizing the borders of Poland and the Soviet Union and the Berlin Agreement ended uncertainty about the city’s status. All countries in Europe belonged to one of the alliances or were recognized as neutral.

The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and of the Soviet Union (and then of Yugoslavia) left many countries unattached. Russia acquiesced to the decision by some of them to join NATO. The contest is about those that remain.

What is the solution to this contest?

The report does not offer one. Instead, it proposes that:

4. The competition between the West and Russia should be resolved by a diplomatic process.

Many different solutions can be imagined for what the report calls “the countries in-between.” But what matters is not what can be imagined but what all parties can agree to. This is not an age when such things can be settled by great powers and then forced on smaller countries. The best solutions will come out of concrete dialogue, not out of abstract thought.

A good place to start would be with the recognition that NATO is not likely to offer membership to countries such as Ukraine or Georgia anytime soon, but also that it will not say so—that would look like giving in to Russian pressure. The effect is to create instability. The countries concerned remain insecure and Russia remains suspicious. Searching for a security status acceptable to all parties is a better idea.

What is required is old-fashioned diplomacy. Someone needs to explore with Moscow, Washington, Kyiv, and others what they would regard as a sustainable solution. It is not enough to talk in terms of principles: the Helsinki Final Act needs to be applied in a real and imperfect world.

What is the chance of success?

No one will know unless they try. It would have been better to have started ten years ago, before the Russian-Georgian War, before the annexation of Crimea. Whatever is done now must be in private conversations. The questions are uncomfortable, and the answers will be sensitive. But an agreement on Ukraine’s status could be a complement to the implementation of the Minsk accords aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

It will not be easy. Russia has made Ukrainian membership in NATO impossible by creating that conflict. Why should Moscow entrust to others what it can guarantee for itself?

5. The best way to security is cooperation.

Security comes from good political relations, insecurity from shifting calculations of power. In between is the idea of cooperative security. Mutually assured destruction created a need, even among enemies, for mutually assured stability.

Cooperative security rested on three premises: a settled territorial status quo, a fear that conflict could be triggered by misunderstanding, and the risk of mutual annihilation. These conditions are no longer present. There is no accepted status quo, and the existential fears of the Cold War have disappeared.

The Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev was conscious of U.S. power and of America’s readiness to use it. In contrast to the cautious Brezhnev, Russian President Vladimir Putin is ready to take risks: if you can establish a fait accompli—as he did in Crimea—then deterrence may work in favor of a new status quo. The United States today is not going to take the risks that former president John F. Kennedy took during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Might this change?

Nothing is ruled out. Putin might decide to surprise observers by cutting his losses. The EU was naive to dream of being surrounded by well-governed neighbors; but what good can it do Russia to surround itself by weakened and poorly governed countries? That is not the route to modernity and security for Russia. But it may also be that at heart, Putin does not want to modernize Russia.

Modernity in foreign relations means openness. The good political relations that bring security come from cooperation; and cooperation needs common instruments like the European Commission or NATO’s headquarters. The name of the OSCE links cooperation and security. In the end, there is no security without cooperation. A first step toward modernity in European security would be to give the OSCE Secretariat real authority—within a framework of accountability. This should have been tried twenty-five years ago.

Robert Cooper was an adviser to former EU foreign affairs high representatives Javier Solana and Catherine Ashton. He was part of the editorial team assisting the OSCE panel. This article was first published by Carnegie Europe. more information can be found at

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