The present crisis in relations between the European Union and Russia is being exaggerated on both sides. Part of the problem is that too many Western commentators still set as their standard for good relations the utterly Western ambition of the early 1990s -- a ‘‘democratic’’ Russia that would be completely subservient to the West.
Russians too are often still reacting to their experience of humiliation and exploitation in the 1990s with a counterproductive prickliness, arrogance and suspicion. Both sides need to ratchet down their rhetoric and seek pragmatic solutions to the concrete problems dividing them.
They also need to remember that in the long historical term, responsibility for the peace of Europe lies in the hands of the major powers of the Continent. Europeans, including Russians, are fated to live together -- or die together, as they did in the past at Poltava, Borodino, Sevastopol, Tannenberg and Stalingrad.
In the face of this bloody history, present difficulties hardly look so bad. With luck, they will diminish as the confused post-Soviet period ends and Russia’s economic recovery leads to a new equilibrium. Policy on both sides should be directed at achieving such an equilibrium.
For this, West Europeans must understand that on most issues they are simply not strong enough -- even with America’s backing -- to dictate to Russia. They should also recognize that, given their own past imperial crimes and massive Russian public support for Putin’s policies, hectoring criticism is counter-productive.
Russians, on the other hand, need to understand that they are not strong enough either to push back against the West on many issues, or to develop their economy without massive international investment, and that this requires fostering confidence on the part of international investors.
Equally important, they must realize that, while the British government was gravely culpable in giving political asylum to Boris Berezovsky and his minions, that does not give a license to the Russian security forces to arrest them.
On all these counts, Russians would do well to learn from the pragmatic, restrained and very successful strategy of China. Russia’s cancellation of some very one-sided energy deals of the 1990s may well be morally and even legally justified. But it is not necessarily wise when it comes to Russia’s own long-term interests.
By historical standards, such disagreements will not lead to tragic crises. There is, however, one issue that could do so one day: the question of the rights of Russian speakers in Latvia and Estonia, coupled with the responsibility for the security of these states assumed by the European Union and NATO. This issue has been dramatized in recent weeks by Moscow-backed rioting in Estonia against the government’s decision to move a Soviet war memorial revered by the Russian-speaking minority.
In response, the European Union needs a combination of approaches. First, it must make absolutely clear to Moscow that the Union and NATO are prepared to defend their Baltic members against Russian pressure and subversion. Should this increase to really dangerous levels, West European troops should be sent to the region.
Secondly, West European countries should publicly deplore provocative actions like those of the Estonian government. Britain and France in particular should state strongly that the defeat of Nazi Germany was overwhelmingly due to their Soviet allies, and that they expect the memory of the Red Army to be honored by other EU members.
Thirdly, the European Union needs to do far more to defuse the situation on the ground in Latvia and Estonia. While the Union has softened the most discriminatory aspects of these states’ behavior towards their Russian-speaking minorities, this policy is still overwhelmingly directed to assimilating these minorities, not to integrating them. This applies especially to the area of Russian-language education, where both states have been allowed by the West to flagrantly break promises made before independence.
The European Union also should help reduce this problem in the long term by granting the broadest possible rights to Russian-speakers at the level of the Union as a whole and, in particular, by encouraging members of the Russian-speaking minorities to move to Western Europe to work. At the moment, the noncitizens who make up large proportions of the Russian-speaking populations face great obstacles in this regard. Given that Spain and Italy both have programs to encourage immigration from Latin America, this kind of strategically directed migration program is entirely feasible.
Finally, the West Europeans need to learn the most important lesson of the Estonian crisis, which is that history does not end when countries join the European Union and NATO. Given that it is by no means certain that we will have the means or even the courage to defend the internally divided Baltic States against a really serious threat, it is insane to pretend that we would defend Ukraine.
For the West to go on talking publicly about further NATO and EU enlargements that will in any case almost certainly never happen is not just foolish, it is deeply immoral.