The characteristic trait of our epoch is its distinct globalized nature. Political, economic and cultural interdependence erodes national boundaries and renders the isolation of societies increasingly impossible. The global economic crisis and threats stemming from climate change reveal the truly supranational character of today’s challenges. However, when it comes to the troubled relationship between Russia and the West, striking anachronisms prevail. In fact, virtually every major bone of contention since the demise of the Soviet Union can be framed in the categories of the Westphalian Nation State paradigm, 19th century inspired great power fantasies, and Cold War policies of containment.
Firstly, for Russia, the US‐led interventions in former Yugoslavia and Iraq constituted a severe breach of Westphalian principles of state sovereignty and illustrated vividly the threat that emanated from a unipolar state system under US hegemony. Secondly, Washington’s interference in Moscow’s alleged sphere of influence by enlarging NATO or spreading “color revolutions” brought back memories of the 19th century “Great Game” in Eurasia. Thirdly, fierce quarrels over the deployment of missile defense in Eastern Europe were interpreted as a frightening relapse to the Cold War logic of deterrence.
For the West, “neo-Czarist Russia” (Robert D. Kaplan) has become a difficult partner during Putin’s presidency. Apart from the above‐mentioned conflicts, increasingly authoritarian policies on the domestic level, endemic corruption and a regulatory environment ever more hostile to foreign investment in Russia have mirrored the tendencies of the Soviet State. In its foreign policy, Russia has displayed an eagerness to balance US hegemony. Conflict over gas supplies with Ukraine were seen as ultimate proof of the reckless use of energy resources for political objectives. The Russo‐Georgian war revealed “paranoid, aggressive impulses that had surfaced in earlier times in Russian history", as Condoleezza Rice quipped. In short, it seemed as if past epochs had powerfully cast their shadows on the beginning of the 21st century.
Russia Awoken by Climate Change
It was remarkable, however, how quickly both sides found the “reset button”. Since then, former divergences have been replaced by the emphasis of common goals and an impressive record of successful cooperation. Non‐proliferation of nuclear weapons, the fight against international terrorism, piracy and drug trafficking are only a few such examples. Ironically, it seems that Russia and the West had a harder time leaving the 20th century behind than in entering the 21st century together by confronting “new threats” cooperatively. Going beyond the nation state is imperative in tackling these global threats, as they are likely to challenge the capacities of national governments in an unprecedented manner.
The threats for Russia emanating from climate change are a case in point. This year’s devastating wildfires are likely to have only been a foretaste of eco‐catastrophes that will haunt Russia in the future. According to the World Bank, climate change constitutes an “enormous threat to Russia” that will have fatal economic and ecological consequences. The energy sector is especially worrisome: As 75% of the oil‐ and 93% of the gas production is located in areas of permafrost, global warming will seriously damage pipeline infrastructure and do great harm to Russia’s economic lifeline. In this sense, climate change constitutes one of the biggest challenges for Russian national security.
This challenge becomes even more daunting when we consider the state of Russia’s economy: Moscow lost US‐$ 210 billion in currency reserves between August 2008 and February 2009. In the same period, Russia’s GDP plummeted 13.5%. The lack of investment in the energy sector in the past decade has led to a decrease of 5.2% in oil exports. To counteract these hardships, Russia has drafted its “Energy Strategy until 2030”. The long‐term goal is to make Russia independent from fossil fuels and to embrace nuclear and renewable energy. As President Medvedev urged, Russia needs more than ever “the modernization and technical update of the entire sphere of production. This is a matter of survival of our country.” Thus, Russia’s top security priority at the beginning of the 21st century is to adapt to socio‐economic challenges that will be aggravated by the effects of climate change. Modernizing the excessively inefficient energy sector is the only lever available to achieve this goal. However, it is no secret that Moscow relies heavily on external expertise and massive foreign investment for this endeavor.
Engines of Interdependence
This opens up a considerable window of opportunity for reconciling Russia and the West. For various reasons, Germany is in an ideal position to push‐start this endeavor and to serve as transmission belt for the goal of greater reconciliation. Politically, Russia strongly prefers bilateral relations with EU or NATO member states to cooperation with these organizations as a whole. From an economic perspective, Germany is by far the most important of Russia’s Western partners and should be used as a potent lever. As the following charts illustrate, intensified cooperation in the field of energy efficiency could not only yield significant economic gains for both countries, but also contribute to the improvement of Russia’s disastrous ecological balance sheet.
Germany’s energetic balance sheet (fig. 1) lends powerful evidence to two claims. Firstly, it shows the great potential which stems from the modernization of primary energy use resulting in a significant reduction of CO2 emissions. Secondly, the chart strongly refutes the argument that a reduced output of CO2 comes at the price of economic decline – quite to the contrary if we compare the widening gap between the two graphs. Figure 2 indicates how badly Russia’s crisis‐ridden economy needs to reduce its gigantic energy inefficiency. Given that on a global scale, Russia ranks third in terms of CO2 output per capita and emits in comparison with Germany almost ten times the amount of carbon dioxide for every GDP unit produced, it is obvious that economic incentives for cooperation abound – with potentially enormous effects on Russia’s ecological footprint.
Again, engaging Russia through bilateral cooperation and intensifying energy interdependence is to be seen as a first vantage point to foster closer economic and political ties. The objective should be to establish a very stable, pragmatic, and in that sense somewhat modest foundation for mutually beneficial cooperation. As the history of European integration suggests – and this applies equally for Russia and the West, sustainable reconciliation, political, economic and cultural rapprochement has to commence with pragmatic steps. Only then can a grander vision be drawn – one that does not risk ending on the verge of collapse as was the case less than twenty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe.
Russia and the West: A New Beginning
Russia is not willing to settle for a role as the West’s junior partner. The Russo‐Georgian war has unmistakably shown that the self‐image as the great Eurasian power is too deeply engrained in the Russian mindset. However, once the smoke had cleared, Russia and the West quickly realized that common challenges and the existing degree of interdependence did not allow for a long interruption of cooperative efforts.
However, the stalemate in negotiations with the EU, the inefficiency of the NATO‐Russia Council, the deadlock on the Energy Charter Treaty and unanswered calls for Medvedev’s new European security architecture indicate that the existing framework did not live up to its expectations; to some extent, because they were not devised on equal terms and certainly not mutually beneficial. Thus, a new start is needed – but we do not have to start from scratch.
The “reset button” has shown that every crisis reveals potential for change. Change in the relationship between Russia and the West has to begin with pragmatic steps of mutually beneficial cooperation which would establish a foundation for more sustainable integrative efforts. Germany is the bilateral linchpin in this endeavor. Bilateralism is the necessary first step in a grander strategy for sustainable integration between Russia and the West.
In the long run, increased interdependence in the energy sector will pay off on a multilateral, European scale and ultimately spill over to other institutions and policy fields. The result would be increasing interdependence in the Russo‐Western relationship. This will be facilitated by an increasingly comprehensive understanding of related issues such as energy efficiency, energy security, climate protection and market integration within Europe and to a lesser extent in Russia.
A revised Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) should be the first outcome in shaping a multilateral institution that fosters mutually beneficial reintegration of Russia and the West in the spirit of visionary pragmatism. It must be remembered that similar pragmatic considerations brought together six nations in Western Europe in 1950 to form the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The rest is history, as they say. In fact, a remarkable success story in terms of sustainable reconciliation.
Matthias Conrad is a student of Environmental Engineering at the Free University of Berlin.
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