2 Crises Derailed Attempts to Improve EU Ties

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The year 2008 will receive a special mention the history books of Russia's foreign policy. The Georgia war in August brought a host of consequences demanding attention, and the convulsions of the global financial markets in September and October redefined the boundaries of what Russia could realistically achieve. Together, they helped shape the framework of Russia's national interests.

In responding to Georgia's attack on South Ossetia, Russia, probably for the first time since the Soviet collapse, took major action without worrying about the international community's possible reaction. The Kremlin concluded that the course of action favored by its international partners would come at too high a cost for Russia's vital interests. This is a necessary stage for the formation of a state identity.

However, it is also necessary to identify which national interests are so vital that they must be upheld at any cost. The second crisis played a role here. The global financial crisis showed, first of all, that all countries are interdependent. It also established economic -- and as a result, geopolitical -- limits to Russia's ambitions. Hard reality always forces us to focus on our priorities and to discard matters of secondary importance.

After the Soviet collapse, Russia's main task was to preserve something of the international status quo by holding on to at least some of its former geopolitical assets. Russia is perceived to have made a sharp turn toward revisionism over the past two years, changing the rules that had been generally accepted up until that time. Despite these bold moves, however, Moscow remains an advocate of preserving the status quo. (Abkhazia and South Ossetia are major exceptions, but this situation also shows how many problems can arise when the status quo is broken.) The problem is that Moscow wants to uphold a status quo that, in reality, no longer exists. Russia is trying to return to principles of international order that were agreed upon in the past. Yet these principles underwent unspoken but profound changes following the end of the Cold War, even if they ostensibly remain intact.

A distinguishing feature of recent years has been the deepening contradiction between international rules that nobody questions and the actual principles governing states' actions. International organizations and legal standards remain relatively unchanged since the end of the Cold War. They have changed, however, even though they remain in force. The basic understandings of what constitutes state sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the criteria for the use of force in resolving conflicts, have been washed away.

New concepts such as humanitarian intervention or soft power have appeared to serve the political purposes of the leading states, even though there is no provision for them in international law. Most states have refused to review the rules of the game. That is why there has been no official change to these rules, even while the gap between the letter and the spirit of the law and how it is applied continue to widen. The United States, as a dominating de facto international actor, has refused to follow rules of the Cold War era.

It has been aptly noted that President Dmitry Medvedev's call for a pact on European security that he made last summer in Berlin and developed further at a conference in Evian, France, this fall is essentially a repeat of the final act of the Helsinki Accords signed in 1975. However, these ideas require a new legitimacy now because of the above-mentioned divergence between the rules and the reality of how states operate. Today's Europe bears little resemblance to the Europe of just a few decades ago. The outstanding spirit that animated the Helsinki Accords should be restored in full with regard to the military-political, economic and humanitarian aspects of international policy. Europe needs an authoritative confirmation of those principles reached more than 30 years ago, especially because the challenges facing the continent today are almost identical to the problems that confronted it then.

First, at issue is the military-political balance and the establishment of mutual trust in matters of security. Russia was unsuccessful in its attempt last year to discuss problems with the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Moscow's negotiating partners were not interested because the OSCE has long ago ceased dealing effectively with such issues.

Another pressing problem is that states' borders need to be reaffirmed. Since the time they were last agreed upon, the map of Europe has been redrawn several times so that not a single post-Soviet state -- including Russia -- can confidently assert that its borders are 100 percent guaranteed and can be justified, both naturally and historically.

Second, the economic situation in greater Europe requires consideration. Europe is a complex mix of political and economic interests. It is impossible to separate economic cooperation -- especially in the field of energy -- from security issues. The economy is becoming increasing politicized by every participant, and this reflects the generally low level of mutual trust present.

Third and last, humanitarian concerns should be addressed. The protection of democratic principles and human rights are Europe's crowning achievements, and it would be beneficial for OSCE member states -- Russia included -- to reaffirm their commitment to these principles. But democracy must be protected not only from encroachment by authoritarian regimes, but also from transforming the idea of democracy into a tool to serve geopolitical ambitions. That is exactly what happened when the United States used military and other types of might to "promote democracy" abroad.

Nonetheless, we should not expect to see any progress toward the creation of a new European political architecture. Apart from Russia, nobody has any enthusiasm for such a plan. Both the European Union and the United States are satisfied with the current arrangement. Given the changed economic situation, it would be difficult for Moscow to insist upon any fundamental reappraisal of the existing system. The reserve fund that Russia has accumulated does not seem as large now as it did only a short time ago, and the political weight carried by Russia's main exports and bargaining tools -- hydrocarbons -- has subsided for a time. Higher oil and gas prices will one day come, providing renewed political influence to Moscow, but Russia must find a way to survive until then.

In all likelihood, Moscow will have to content itself with a little regular maintenance and fine tuning in place of a major overhaul of EU-Russian relations. Some form of temporary compromise might be found concerning the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and the strategic plans of the United States. Substantial negotiations on any new European setup will take place only after the current crisis has subsided and its results become clear, because the future balance of power depends on which states suffer the least from the current economic downturn. Russia will have to make serious efforts now if it wants to maintain its position as an influential player in the future world order.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.