To Be Engaged or Not to Be Engaged: Does Russia Need to Return to Old Forms of Dialogue With the West?

The several past weeks have been marked by an active discussion in the Russian expert community as to whether it is really necessary for Russia to return to former forms of dialogue with the West, which were frozen with the onset of the Ukraine crisis. The discussion was sparked, first, by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s statement that Russia could rejoin the G8 under certain conditions. Second, the West came up with the initiative, after a long lull, to hold an ambassador-level meeting of the Russia-NATO Council.

On the one hand, no one, clearly, doubts the need for and the importance of restoring contacts with the West. This dialogue is of vital importance for international stability and, in the present environment, at least for preventing further harm from being done to global and regional security. As is only natural, these contacts should be based on a certain institutional and organizational infrastructure. And it is a highly positive signal that the Western leaders have realized the importance of dialogue and are putting feelers out for as to whether it can be revived.

On the other hand, however, two years without the old formats (G8, biannual Russia-EU summits, the Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and others) have changed the situation significantly. This new state of affairs, in turn, has become habitual and – there is no point in pretending otherwise – even more comfortable and natural for Russia’s foreign policy system. So it is quite logical to ask: Do we need to return to the past? Hasn’t it outstayed its welcome?

Previous formats were based on the US and EU idea of the early 1990s that Russia should be engaged in the new post-Cold-War western-centric system of international relations. This philosophy found an ample expression in the Trilateral Commission’s famous 1995 report, Engaging Russia, which made no bones about the West’s aims: “The importance of engaging Russia [into a western-centric system] rests on a two-part foundation: the possibilities for political and economic reform in Russia, and the deep interests of our countries in Russia’s external behavior.”

The new post-Soviet political elite was highly pleased with this approach, with the “response to engagement” becoming the hallmark of then Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev’s tenure. It was this period that saw the emergence of institutional formats for Russia-West dialogue and presumed cooperation, which existed up until the Ukraine crisis.

But the first stage of engagement proved contradictory for Russia. And it was not only that the public soon came to accept Kozyrev as preeminently a Western puppet and traitor to Russia’s national interests, but mainly because this engagement strategy proved a one-way street: as it turned out that usually our Western partners were not inclined to heed Russian views or interests and eventually accepted either a decision that suited the West or opted for no decision at all. It was quite logical, therefore, that the first stage of engagement culminated in the 1999 Kosovo crisis and the first break-up between new post-Soviet Russia and the West was symbolized by Prime Minister Primakov’s U-turn over the Atlantic on the first day of NATO bombing attacks on Yugoslavia.

This first break-up lasted for about two years (1999-2001). The newly elected Russian President, Vladimir Putin, suggested a new pragmatic foreign policy strategy which, coupled with 9/11 terrorist attacks, changed the situation. The subsequent Russia-US cooperation on Afghanistan made it possible to state that for the first time since World War II Russia and the United States became partners in the military sphere. Russia-NATO relations were unfrozen and Russia went so far as to make no particular objections to another wave of NATO expansion in 2002.

What is perhaps most important is that Russia-EU relations were given a new powerful impetus in that period as the tenth President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, presided over the drafting of a strategy for four Russia-EU common spaces (economy, external security, law and order, and education, science and culture). The four relevant roadmaps formed a solid basis for cooperation and it seemed that the one-way street would never be revived. This was the second stage of engagement that gave rise to great hopes in Russia.

But the honeymoon was short-lived and ended in vitriolic altercations over the US 2003 invasion in Iraq. Next there was a head-on clash of political interests in the post-Soviet space. The geopolitical logic of what happened was quite clear: by 2004 NATO and the EU had completed another stage of their expansion by incorporating all former allies of the USSR. After digesting Central Europe, the West focused on the post-Soviet space, orchestrating the “orange revolution” in Ukraine and the first “gas war” around Ukraine.

Russia-EU relations were further negatively affected by a more reserved Russia policy introduced by Mr. Prodi’s successor, Jose Manuel Barroso, who seemed to have a dim view of the four spaces idea. As a result, it was soon started to hollow out and eventually faded away. The biannual Russia-EU summits became a mere formality: as non-mandatory, their resolutions were often put on hold by bureaucrats in Brussels. (For more detail on this, see my previous article). The crisis was further aggravated by the majority of EU countries recognizing Kosovo’s independence de jure and by Slobodan Milosevic’s highly suspicious death in The Hague Tribunal’s prison. The energy dialogue was increasingly hard-going due to the way Brussels politicized the issue of Russian gas supplies to EU countries.

Nevertheless, this buildup of political differences and problems did not lead to a new break-up in relations. The existing institutional formats for a Russia-West dialogue, albeit increasingly formal, continued to function. At the same time, Russia grew increasingly convinced that bilateral relations with individual Western countries were much more efficient and mutually beneficial than contacts with NATO, EU, Council of Europe, and G8.

Barack Obama’s early reset policy managed to revitalize the Russia-US dialogue. In Europe, even the most critical problems were usually addressed at the bilateral level. A case in point is the intensive dialogue we carried out with France at the height of Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia in 2008, which culminated in the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement that put an end to combat operations.

Russia’s involvement in the launch of some fundamentally new formats for global political cooperation like BRICS (seen from the start as an alternative to West-centric institutions) likewise stemmed from the awareness that any multilateral dialogue with the West was unproductive. It was in the same period that the comprehensive Russia-China partnership took shape and strengthened. Russia was starting its pivot to the East. To reiterate: all of this began long before the events in Kiev in 2013-2014. Thus, the several years prior to the Ukrainian crisis saw what was, in fact, the beginning of Russia’s disengagement from the West. The events in Ukraine only served to underline the process.

Today, when Federica Mogherini says that there will be no business as usual in relations with Russia, a lot of people in this country, paradoxically, are willing to agree with her, because they do not want the old inefficient and hypocritical formats to be restored. The two years since the breakup proved that we can live without a partnership with the West.

Moreover, Russia has done a lot to strengthen its alternative network of multilateral partnerships (the EAEU, the CSTO, the SCO and BRICS), where, unlike in the West, Russia is accepted as a serious and respectful partner, and for this reason diplomatic dialogue is quickly transformed into concrete political decision-making. Our bilateral partnership with China is also on the upswing. As it becomes increasingly clear, this partnership is emerging as a possible cornerstone of global politics in the long term. Logically, the Russian public may be justified in asking: Why do we need the West again? Is it in order to hear new accusations and practice hypocrisy?

The rethinking of Russia’s place in the world over the last two years leaves no constructive slot for the West in this picture. It is not accidental that the Russian Foreign Ministry’s communique on the recent meeting of the Russia-NATO Council seemed to apologize for its outcome by hinting that its convocation was not Russia’s idea and that Russia would see if it needed further meetings at all.

As far as Mr Steinmeier’s G8 statement is concerned, all leading Russian political scientists were practically unanimous that the G8 was an archaic format no longer needed by Russia. All of this is a reaction to a qualitatively new social outlook in Russia, where no one is willing to try a third engagement with the West. For current contacts, ad hoc formats are quite enough.

To reiterate: Russia without the West is where we stand now. Do we need the West again? The answer depends on whether our Western counterparts can propose a new constructive agenda for dialogue with Russia. The ball is in their court. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.