There Is No Such Thing as Post-Soviet Space

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has seemed that new rules were being established for the conduct of international relations in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The watchwords were independence and interdependence; sovereignty and mutual responsibility; cooperation and common interests. They are good words that need to be defended.

But the Georgia crisis provided a rude awakening. The sight of Russian tanks in a neighboring country on the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia has shown that the temptations of power politics remain. The old sores and divisions fester. Russia remains unreconciled to the new map of Europe. The Kremlin's unilateral attempt to redraw that map by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia marks not just the end of the post-Cold War period, it is also a moment that requires countries to set out where they stand on the significant issues of nationhood and international law.

Although President Dmitry Medvedev says he is not afraid of a new Cold War, Europe doesn't want one. He has a big responsibility not to start one.

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Ukraine is a leading example of the benefits that accrue when a country takes charge of its own destiny and seeks alliances with other countries. Its choices should not be seen as a threat to Russia, but its independence does demand a new relationship with Russia -- one of equals, not that of master and servant.

Russia must not learn the wrong lessons from the Georgia crisis. There can be no going back on fundamental principles of territorial integrity, democratic governance and international law. It has shown that it can defeat Georgia's army. But today Russia is more isolated, less trusted and less respected than it was a month ago. It has made short-term military gains, but over time it will feel economic and political losses. If Russia truly wants respect and influence, it must change course.

Although Prime Minister Vladimir Putin described the Soviet Union's collapse as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century, most people of the former Soviet bloc hardly see it that way. It will be a tragedy for Russia if it spends the next 20 years believing it to be the case.

Indeed, since 1991, the West has offered Russia extensive cooperation with the European Union and NATO, as well as membership in the Council of Europe and the Group of Eight. These outlets have been developed not to humiliate or threaten Russia but to engage it. The EU and the United States provided critical support for the Russian economy when it was needed, Western companies have invested heavily, and Russia has benefited significantly from its reintegration into the global economy.

But the Kremlin has recently met European efforts with scorn, from suspension of its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe to harassment of business people and cyber-attacks on neighbors. Now there is Georgia.

Of course, Russia can and should have interests in its neighbors, but like everyone else, it must earn that influence. Indeed, these countries do not make up some "post-Soviet space" to which Putin often refers. The collapse of the Soviet Union created a new reality -- sovereign, independent countries with their own rights and interests.

Russia also needs to clarify its attitude about the use of force to solve disputes. Some argue that Russia has done nothing not previously done by NATO in Kosovo in 1999. But this comparison does not hold up.

NATO's actions in Kosovo followed dramatic and systematic abuse of human rights, culminating in ethnic cleansing on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II. NATO acted only after intensive negotiations in the United Nations Security Council and determined efforts at peace talks. Special envoys were sent to warn then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic of the consequences of his actions.

None of this can be said for Russia's use of force in Georgia.

Likewise, the decision to recognize Kosovo's independence came only after Russia made clear that it would veto the deal proposed by the UN secretary general's special envoy, former Finnish President Martii Ahtisaari. Even then we agreed to a further four months of negotiations among the EU, the UN and Russia in order to ensure that no stone was left unturned in the search for a mutually acceptable compromise.

By contrast, in Georgia, Russia moved from support for territorial integrity to breaking up the country in three weeks and relied entirely on military force to do so.

Russia must now ask itself about the relationship between short-term military victories and long-term economic prosperity. The conflict in Georgia has been followed by a sharp decline in investor confidence. Russia's foreign-exchange reserves fell by $16 billion in one week, and Gazprom's value fell by the same amount in one day. The political and economic risk level in Russia has skyrocketed.

Isolating Russia would be counterproductive because its international economic integration is the best discipline on its politics. Moreover, isolation would only strengthen the sense of victimhood that fuels intolerant Russian nationalism. Isolation would also compromise the world's interests in tackling nuclear proliferation, addressing climate change or stabilizing Afghanistan.

But the international community is not impotent. Europeans need Russian gas, but Gazprom needs European markets and investment. Europe's approach must be hard-headed engagement. That means bolstering allies, rebalancing the energy relationship with Russia, defending the rules of international institutions and renewing efforts to tackle "unresolved conflicts" -- not only in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but also in Transdnestr and Nagorno-Karabakh. Each has its roots in longstanding ethnic tensions, exacerbated by economic and political underdevelopment.

Ukraine, with its 8 million ethnic Russians, many of them in Crimea, is a key factor. Its strong links to Russia are firmly in both countries' interests. But Ukraine is also a European country, which gives it the right to apply for EU membership, an aspiration voiced by Ukraine's leaders. The prospect and reality of EU membership has been a force for stability, prosperity and democracy across Eastern Europe. Once Ukraine fulfills the EU's criteria, it should be accepted as a full member.

Nor does Ukraine's relationship with NATO pose a threat to Russia. The strengthening of Ukraine's democratic institutions and independence that will result from it will benefit Russia in the long term.

Europe also must rebalance its energy relationship with Russia by investing in gas storage to deal with interruptions, diversifying supplies and establishing a properly functioning internal market, with more interconnections between countries. It must also reduce its dependence on gas altogether by increasing energy efficiency and by investing in storage technology for coal, renewable resources and nuclear power.

In all international institutions, Britain and Europe must review our relations with Russia. I do not apologize for rejecting knee-jerk calls for Russia's expulsion from the G8 or for EU-Russia or NATO-Russia relations to be broken. But we do need to examine the nature, depth and breadth of relations with Russia. And we will stand by our commitments to existing NATO members, while renewing our determination that Russia will have no veto over its future direction.

The choice today is clear. No one wants a new Cold War, but we must be clear about the foundations of lasting peace.

David Miliband is Britain's foreign minister. © Project Syndicate