On May 21, 2019, the Valdai Discussion Club held its sixth European conference in Vienna. The central topic of the forum was multilateral diplomacy. The need for multilateralism in solving global problems is often discussed in Moscow and in the European capitals. Does this mean that we can find a common language? As the discussions in Vienna showed, this is not easy, since the two sides do not always agree on the definition of this concept.
“There is no alternative to multilateral diplomacy,” said OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger, speaking at the panel session. “In the modern world, there have been serious violations of fundamental principles, which leads to a complete collapse of trust between states. It is necessary to point to the advantages of multilateralism and the costs of the ‘each to his own’ policy.”
According to Greminger, the main threats to multilateral diplomacy are the destruction of the arms control regime, rivalry between countries over trade and within integration projects, as well as a reduction of trust between states. “Most countries today rely on themselves alone,” he said. “There is a frightening paradox. Countries within integration projects solve their own problems, but not the mutual ones.”
Alexander Grushko, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, agreed that multilateral diplomacy is threatened these days. In his opinion, the key threats are the increase of sanctions and the number of countries which use them, as well as violations of international law.
According to Grushko, the European countries are forced to act in a context that does not conform to the norms of traditional multilateral diplomacy. This is reflected in the growing military activity of the North Atlantic Alliance, which is putting increasing pressure on the NATO-Russia Founding Act. “The OSCE’s potential, which we consider to play a core role in building a ‘common European home,’ still cannot reach its ‘design capacity’ due to the unhealthy atmosphere established in the Euro-Atlantic region,” he stressed.
Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative at international organizations in Vienna, in turn noted that Europe does not take an active position in the field of arms control in space. “When voting at the UN General Assembly on the Russian draft resolution on the non-deployment of weapons in space, the Europeans preferred to take an absentminded position. Apparently, because of the desire not to annoy the United States,” he said. “Meanwhile, the threat of the militarisation of space is becoming more than real, because of new decisions made by Washington. If the prospect of an arms race in outer space does not suit Europe, as we would hope, it could take a more active and principled position on this issue.”
According to Konstantin Kosachev, Chairman of the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs, Russia is one of those countries that have always defended multilateral diplomacy and used it successfully. Russia does not coerce its partners, it persuades them and negotiates with them over controversial details, he stressed. Kosachev praised the Astana negotiation process on Syria as the best example of multilateral diplomacy. As a result of the talks, different sides with opposite positions regarding the future of Syria were able to sit at one negotiating table. However, in the West, the Astana talks received restrained or even negative assessments, which is not surprising, given that when the process was created, it did not involve the Western powers.
During the session on sanctions, Alexander Grushko noted that the sanctions policy is becoming an instrument of economic war. “The practice of introducing illegitimate unilateral restrictions against many countries shows that the real purpose of (introducing) sanctions is to create competitive advantages for (their instigator) or gain geopolitical advantages,” he said. “This is a new reality in a political sense. This practice, which was unimaginable a couple of years ago, has become part of the nitty-gritty of diplomacy and international relations.”
Of course, the question was raised about the impact of sanctions on Russian-European relations. According to Alexander Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, European companies are interested in lifting the sanctions against Russia. According to him, they are already losing to Chinese companies, which, unlike them, have access to the Russian market and get settled successfully there. Ninety-four German companies want to lift anti-Russia sanctions, he stressed.
Shokhin also drew attention to the fact that secondary sanctions are often more painful than the primary ones. A striking example is the “nuclear deal” with Iran. The United States withdrew from the deal and again imposed sanctions against Iran, forcing European companies to curtail business in the country. According to him, for the European business community, compliance with the US sanctions regime is more profitable than utilising the INSTEX special payment mechanism, which was created by the EU for trade with Iran. However, Russia does not believe this mechanism is doomed to failure, Mikhail Ulyanov added. “Americans and Iranians are sceptical of this initiative, but I think we should give more time to this mechanism to show how much it is able to improve the situation,” he said.
Judging by the discussions in Vienna, the city where the “nuclear deal” was reached, Iran remains one of the topics where Russia and Europe have found a common ground. Amanda Paul, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, said that Iran is very important for Europe, and its position on the Iranian issue convincingly shows that the EU does not always follow in the wake of US policy.
And yet, despite the common economic interests and the coincidence of positions on some international issues, there are still disagreements between Russia and Europe. Tellingly, the Russian participants, speaking of successful examples of multilateral diplomacy, mainly turned to the experience of the non-Western world – including not only the Astana process, but also the Belt and Road initiative and the EAEU – and urged the EU to enter the “Eurasian dimension”. Although the European experts strongly emphasized that economic cooperation with Europe is much more beneficial for Russia than trade with China, it was obvious that there is no return to the past. However, what awaits us in the future is also not very clear, but all the participants of the Valdai Club European conference are convinced of the need for a dialogue in a truly multilateral format.