Beyond the Ukraine war

Whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine, eventually the West, and especially Europe, will have to learn to live with Russia, finding a path forward based on mutual respect.

Ukraine on the “grand chessboard”
Ukraine has become a strategic piece on the “grand chessboard” of geopolitics. © GIS

An unfortunate fate has befallen Ukraine. On one hand, it has become a bargaining chip in a larger security confrontation between Russia and NATO. On the other, the Kremlin considers the country an essential part of Russian identity.

Now, Russian troops have invaded Ukraine. The outcome of this conflict remains uncertain. The Ukrainians’ bravery in their resistance deserves our admiration and support, and we must acknowledge that Russia’s aggression has had a unifying effect on Western and Central Europe. Still, it is necessary to analyze the situation with a cool head and look beyond the war.

Misconceptions abound

The dominant view in the West is that the blame lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s megalomania and hunger for power. There is even widespread speculation that he has gone mad. But this may not be the case, since it appears that the broader Russian public still shares President Putin’s views.

Some in the West think the best way to live with Russia is to change it. This is arrogant and strengthens Russian assertiveness.

In Russia, the official narrative is that NATO – in reality, a defensive alliance – is acting aggressively. The regime offers the bombing of Belgrade in the 1990s as an example that the North Atlantic alliance frequently behaves this way. Russia worries about the security of its long borders, which stretch thousands of miles, as well as about foreign intervention in its internal affairs. In Russia, Western culture and some of its values are widely considered decadent. Russia wants to avoid being forced to apply the West’s systems.

This is important to understand. There is an attitude in the West that the best way to live with Russia is to change it, to have it implement Western standards of governance and values. This is a dangerous preconception: it is arrogant and strengthens Russian assertiveness. Another view is that a change in Russian leadership would be advantageous and allow for a better relationship. This may also be a shortsighted misconception.

Living with Russia

Taking a neutral view, we can see revisionist behavior on the Russian side, justified by the pretext of national security. On the Western side, we can see a missionary-like drive to enforce certain “values” that might not be accepted by the Russian people.

What can be done in the short and long term? Certainly, the bloodshed in Ukraine has to be stopped without Ukrainian capitulation. Terms need to be carved out. Most European countries have acted decisively, although some, such as Germany, were very late in doing so. They are supporting Kyiv’s defense and President Zelenskiy, and putting pressure on Russia. Finally, the long-ignored need to improve European defense has become obvious.

We hope that Europe’s new assertiveness will prevail, allowing it to negotiate with Russia as an equal. This could also help Ukraine.

It is not certain that Russians are ready or willing to adopt what Europe claims are its values.

European countries need to live with Russia, which used to consider itself European. This history can be an advantage. However, it is not certain that Russians are ready or willing to adopt what Europe claims are its values. Their refusal to do so will need to be respected, and this understanding could, hopefully, be used as a foundation for forming a peaceful neighborhood and engaging in economic cooperation.

The North Atlantic partnership with the United States is crucial for Europe. It has protected European countries for close to 80 years. However Russia, a European and Asian power, is the Old Continent’s closest neighbor. The long-term objective must be an equitable relationship, ideally based on mutual respect.

Nevertheless, European countries need the means to ensure peace and the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors. Respect also means that the West should not try to intervene in Russia’s internal matters. Yet Western and Central European countries also require a strong defense, to act as a deterrent against incursion.

Finding a deal

For now, Ukraine needs immediate help. Turkey is one country for which Ukraine’s independence is of utmost importance. Moscow is Ankara’s main rival in regional geopolitics and security. Ideally, Turkey would mediate discussions and help find an agreement on a new framework for security in Europe and the Black Sea. Creating such a framework is in the interest of all sides. The sole precondition should be an immediate cease-fire. (While demands for Russia to retreat are justified, they are also unrealistic.) The objective would be to protect the sovereignty of the countries from the Baltic Sea, through Ukraine to Georgia.

Such an agreement should not leave room for interpretation and guarantee Russia’s neighbors’ full sovereignty and their right to self-determination.

Investing in defense protects peace – it is not warmongering.

To ensure compliance, European countries would have to increase the size and effectiveness of their militaries. Germany, which over the past 20 years has irresponsibly neglected its defense, has begun to make up for lost time.

Like some before him, former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski saw Eurasia as the great prize in geopolitics. He expounded upon this point in his 1997 book “The Grand Chessboard.” He argued that without Ukraine, Russia would cease to be a Eurasian empire. He pleaded for Ukraine to be admitted to NATO, but also appealed for the West not to corner Moscow. He excluded any possibility for Russia to join NATO, since it would shift the balance of power within the alliance, but he did propose a special partnership.

These are interesting proposals, especially from an American point of view. However, it also shows that Brzezinski, a visionary, saw ways to achieve a close, fruitful coexistence. On the other hand, he argued that to protect U.S. interests, Washington should not allow Western European countries’ relations with Russia to become too close. This position does not contradict the above vision for a Russia-West relationship that benefits both sides.

Now, determination and efforts to improve defense will be key for Europe. The Romans used to say that if you want peace, prepare for war. Switzerland and Sweden were the only two European countries to avoid major conflict in the 20th century, which saw both World Wars break out. These countries both had strong defenses, making it too costly to attack them.

Investing in defense protects peace – it is not warmongering, to the contrary of various political groups’ claims. Investing in a fire brigade does not mean you want a fire to break out.

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