It is striking how much Russia polarises Western elites, how the debate on Russia is dominated by hot-headed emotions rather than rationality and farsightedness. Conservatives in Central and Eastern Europe succumb to this temptation and engage in Russia bashing rather than making constructive proposals on how we should deal with present-day Russia.
Take, for example, former Czech Defense Minister and Ambassador to Russia Lubos Dobrovsky, who has called on the West to finally treat Russia as an enemy. He mocks EU Russia policy as being subservient and refers to Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier as a "political clone of the Russian employee Gerhard Schröder."
When it comes to Russia, our political culture is not particularly sophisticated: it's all black or white, good or evil, with hardly anything in between. Anyone who makes even the slightest attempt to question the usual criticism of Russia is dismissed as an anti-Western apologist. This is not a plea to uncritically accept everything that Medvedev and Putin say and do. On the contrary, Russia's attempt to challenge Georgian territorial integrity is, quite clearly, not acceptable. Medvedev's recent rhetoric on the Russian sphere of "privileged interests" and "the need to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they may be" has worrisome Soviet undertones and clashes with his previous emphasis on the sanctity of international law.
My concern is a different one. Russia is splitting Europe in the same way the Iraq War did: "Old Europe", mainly Germany and France, appears to be insensitive to recent history in Central Eastern Europe, while "New Europe", i.e. Czech Republic, Poland and the Baltics, appears to derive some strange sort of Schadenfreude from worsening relations with Russia .
So who is right? Russian well-wishers like former Chancellor Schröder, or cold warriors like outgoing US vice-president Dick Cheney and a substantial part of New Europe's foreign policy elite? I would argue that neither is correct. The problem is that when the debate is shaped by agenda-setters like the above, the manoeuvring room for more pragmatic political solutions becomes increasingly constricted. In fact, both the friends of Russia and the Russophobe experts who call for the country's isolation play into the hands of cold warriors. As the Russian political scientist Lilia Shevtsova argues in a recent essay, both extremes help the Russian authoritarian regime solve the problems of its own preservation.
Let us criticize and oppose Russia in cases where our values and security interests are challenged. But let us not content ourselves with threatening language as a foreign policy instrument. Mere Russia bashing will neither intimidate nor tame Moscow. Difficult as it may be for some of us to accept, is it not in our own interest to ask questions like: What needs to be done in order to overcome the present confrontation? Or, how we can better integrate Russia into the world order and encourage it to be a more responsible player? How can we help Russia overcome its suspicion of the West and its zero-sum thinking without compromising our interests and values? How can we get Russian (state) companies to accept EU standards of corporate governance, transparency and environmental protection?
Declaring at the outset of negotiations that we will treat Russia as an enemy is - diplomatically speaking - not particularly results-oriented and effective. This should be common sense. After all, I don't tell my boss he is a mean capitalist exploiter when I'm asking for a salary increase. Mistrust and animosity rarely create a good breeding ground for successful negotiations.
Whether in talks about the future of the Druzhba oil pipeline or about Russian plans to station Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, dialogue and confidence building measures will be a better guide than public threats of containment. The discredited and soon to be unemployed neo-cons in Washington never grasped this point but Old and New Europeans should.
Tobias Wolny is an Eastern Europe specialist and worked in the Office of the President of the Czech Republic in the 1990s. He currently works as a Policy Director for BP Alternative Energy and is a founding members of the Atlantic Initiative.