A strategy for improving Russian-Western relations has to take into account the possibility of sudden, unforeseeable change in both Russia and the West. Western policy should therefore insulate itself against political short-term developments while strengthening transatlantic and Russian ability to deal with long-term change. Focusing policy on Moscow's current leadership alone is too risky. Instead, a bottom-up approach is required: The ordinary citizens of Russia should be reached out to in order to have a partner in times of uncertainty.
When we speak about Russia, we usually concentrate on two things. Firstly, the immense size of the country and secondly, the small elite that controls all branches of federal and state government, most of the nationwide media and the economy. In German policy debate, many argue that a country of this size cannot be measured by Western standards of democratic liberties. Hence, all that Germany can do is engage in commerce while condemning only the worst violations of human rights and generally hope for the best.
This kind of policy has resulted in a continuous stream of natural gas to power Germany's growing demand for "clean" energy and an equivalent stream of money from German consumers to the coffers of the Russian elite. To be sure, this new wealth has also benefited the common people but certainly not to a sufficient degree. Paradoxically, freedom in Russia has both increased and declined in recent years. Customers enjoy unequalled freedom of choice, which is quite laudable. On the other hand, political freedoms and the rule of law have increasingly suffered and have been effectively ignored during the last number of years.
The exchange of natural gas for cash cannot be relied on to keep stability and peace between both sides indefinitely. For Russia, an economy based on the exploitation of raw materials and heavy industries is vulnerable to serious shocks from events outside its control - no one can tell whether demand for those products will keep on rising or not. New technologies and ever faster changing consumer patterns may decrease demand for fossil fuels earlier than expected. Technological progress is not dictated by five-year plans but by sudden and seemingly arbitrary change. Right now steady growth in the raw material industries is the key to keep the Russian population in check. For the West, there can be no interest in a large country to the East that it is too dependant on a single source of national income. Once oil and gas lose their current value, Russia's already existing social problems will become more acute and leave much of the country an administrative wasteland. We don't know how this vacuum will be filled, but history suggests that the absence of government will not only affect Russia itself negatively but also its neighbors.
This uncertainty has to be accounted for when we talk about improving Russian-Western relations. Therefore, we should not rely on the ever-continuing rule of Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev and their likeminded successors. We do not know if future American governments will focus on domestic policy instead of shaping global politics. We cannot trust forecasts on Western Europe's energy consumption in 2050. Neither personal harmony between individual political actors nor grand energy schemes are going to improve Russian-Western relations in the long term. They will rather make change all the harder.
So what can Germany do in this situation? While there is nothing wrong in having economic interests (after all, international trade is fundamentally based on mutual consent), Germany has to attach values to its businesses if it wants to have any business at all in Russia in the future. This implies strengthening the belief of 140 million Russian citizens in governmental accountability and the rule of law. Giving hope to millions of people is the best insurance against negative effects of sudden developments in Russia's economical and political power structure. Better to have a fair share of engaged citizens when central power erodes than to face millions with no better hope than the demagogues' lofty and dangerous promises.
But how to instill this kind of hope? The German government has different direct and indirect instruments at hand.
- Publicly appreciating those Russians that languish in prison on bogus charges
- Meeting with opposition leaders when on state visits
- Expanding Russian-language broadcasts by Deutsche Welle to counter the Kremlin's news monopoly - as long as the Russian people can't voice their concerns it will be our duty to hold Russia's leaders publicly accountable for their actions
- Offering more technical assistance to the Russian government
Granted, this will not produce rosy images from high-level conferences and state visits. Rather, it will generate heated arguments with the Russian government. As a gesture of its positive intentions, Germany should offer much more technical assistance to the Russian government, be it in areas such as justice reform, public health and environmental protection. Improving public services may strengthen the current leadership's grasp on the country now.
For example, overhauling Russia's broken prison system would benefit Russia's society as a whole. Unfortunately, these modern prisons also hold political prisoners which would provoke criticism by human rights advocates. But do we really want to wait with technical assistance until the day a fully democratic government takes over in the Kremlin? The answer is no: There would be a huge risk that this government would disappoint the electorate's hopes for swift change and end the idea of Russian democracy for good.
- Should be carried out by non-governmental entities
- Universities, think-tanks and private clubs should be encouraged to develop stronger ties to the remaining institutions of Russian civil society
- Germany should open its borders for young people from Russia to study and work there and encourage its European partners to do the same. A common European visa-policy and science programs assisted by the Commission could be cornerstones of the Union's approach to Russia
- Entrepreneurship and innovative thinking have to be supported. Not only would this help to diversify Russia's economy but also allow the West to tap into the vast intellectual potential of Russia
Concerning security issues, surely Russia is no longer to be seen as an enemy. The so-called "New Cold War" hasn't happened. However, we must not accept Russia's claim as being the sole guarantor of security in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Every sovereign country should have the right to decide if and with whom it wants to cooperate in security matters.
Unfortunately, prior German governments dismissed our new allies' fears of economic and military confrontation with Russia as paranoid. Russia's military campaign against Georgia, however recklessly the Georgian government might have acted, shows Moscow's willingness to use force in its neighborhood. Drawing up contingency plans for the Baltic States and the Central and Eastern European states as well as regular maneuvers are the least that can be expected to improve our Eastern allies' (and prospective members') trust in NATO and prepare the alliance for an uncertain future. Threat of actual war may be little. But seeing as we can't measure the impact of such a conflict, Germany's political leadership should commit at least some military resources for credible deterrence.
This approach will surely provoke allegations of a military buildup against the Russian people. To counter this impression, Germany should firmly promote the planned missile-defense as a project for American-European-Russian cooperation. A missile-defense system designed against Russian attacks would be a financial, technical and political nightmare. Instead, a trilateral program would be more effective against "rogue" nuclear powers and make the financial burden easier to bear, compared with an exclusively transatlantic solution.
Additionally, NATO States and Russia should engage further in conventional arms control to build up trust. There must be no ambiguity concerning Western capabilities and purely defensive intentions. However, Russia should not have a vote in European security affairs, at least for now - it will take Europe years to formulate a common policy. Adding Russia's vote now would stretch this process indefinitely.
Without promoting accountability and the rule of law in Russia, the West cannot expect to engage in commerce with Moscow in the long-term. Western focus should be on the general population, not self-declared elites that may turn out to be false friends. Helping to modernize Russia's public services will be overall beneficial to both Russia and the West. NATO should play a key role in insuring Central and Eastern Europe against future threats. Finally, Germany's position has to be firmly in the West, not somewhere in the middle between Paris and Moscow. Only firm values and beliefs will make Germany's position credible and contribute to better Russian-Western relations.
Philipp Große studies Law in Bonn.
This article is shortlisted for atlantic-community.org's student
competition "Ideas with Impact: Policy Workshop 2010" sponsored by the
U.S. Mission to Germany.
Read the other shortlisted articles in the category "Russia and the West" here.