Revisiting Russia

In West, Cold War No Guide for Ukraine Policy

Putin DPA
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to speak to the media after his talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk, Belarus, last week.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Economic sanctions against Russia over the Ukrainian conflict are failing to produce the desired results. A long-term solution should take Russia’s changing world role into account.

  • Facts


    • The Budapest Memorandum established Ukraine’s territorial integrity and required that it give up its nuclear weapons, but the agreement was never ratified.
    • The United States doesn’t have as much influence over Ukraine as Russia thinks, the author argues.
    • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy enjoys strong support in Russia.
  • Audio


  • Pdf

Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading Russian foreign policy expert, explains what a solution to the Ukrainian crisis could look like – and why he still sees his country as part of Europe.

Handelsblatt: Mr. Lukyanov, the West is using sanctions in an attempt to deter Russia from intervening in eastern Ukraine. Why isn’t it working?

Lukyanov: The economic sanctions are too small scale. And, for the first time in history, the West is using sanctions to try to achieve political change in a country the size of Russia — a country that has nuclear weapons and is a member of the United Nations Security Council. Perhaps the West will succeed in damaging Russia economically. But they are producing the opposite effect politically, as (Russian President Vladimir) Putin becomes more and more popular.

You recently wrote of a new “perestroika” in Russian foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin. What do you mean by that?

For many years, Moscow thought it made sense to bow to the rules of the West, mainly for economic reasons. With the annexation of Crimea, Putin has shown that Russia is acting more clearly in its own interest – even if it means violating agreements that Russia sees as one-sided rules established by the West.

But Russia itself agreed to these rules. They include treaties like the Budapest Memorandum, which obligated Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons and Russia to respect the post-Soviet borders.

The Budapest Memorandum was a declaration of intent, not an internationally binding treaty, and it was never ratified. The main goal of the United States at the time was not to achieve territorial integrity for Ukraine, but the withdrawal of its nuclear weapons. In this sense, no one paid any serious attention to whether or not it was valid.

Only when Ukraine, under then President Viktor Yushchenko, became seriously interested in joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did Moscow invoke the memorandum again – as a basis of security policy in lieu of NATO accession. The only problem is that neither Kiev nor Washington took the treaty seriously at the time. And then Russia’s hopes were dashed when NATO expanded to its borders, contrary to verbal agreements. The Kremlin sees NATO accession for Ukraine as an existential threat. In Crimea, it’s a question of Russia trying to reset its national interests and international rules. It was a risky but politically realistic maneuver designed to improve Russia’s standing in world politics. But this foreign policy is spinning out of control in the war in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has become embroiled in a conflict that the Kremlin can’t win.

Has the Kremlin lost control over the separatists in Ukraine?

There is a certain amount of political influence, but there is no absolute control. It is an illusion to believe that the eastern part of Ukraine would immediately become stable if Russia stayed out of the conflict. Even before the war, the signs of an impending social and political conflict were obvious. Now, we are seeing a civil war made worse by Russian influence, and yet it is primarily being waged by local forces.

Will it remain that way?

I don’t think Russian troops will invade. On the contrary, Moscow is willing to end the conflict. But it isn’t quite that easy. At home, it would look as if Putin were abandoning the freedom fighters. It would be a political fiasco.

The West should stop trying to impose its value system on Russia. The Western democratic model failed in Russia.

How else could the conflict be resolved?

We need a package of treaties among Ukraine, Russia and Europe. First, we need a political solution on how people in the east can coexist in a civilized way in Ukraine. This will likely require certain autonomy rights. Second, a natural gas agreement will be needed, with reasonable prices, realistic quantities and transit agreements for Europe. Third, Ukraine’s non-aligned status needs to be off the table. Fourth, Ukraine needs a program for how the country can survive economically between Russia and Europe. All the things this package contains would be difficult to achieve individually, but it could succeed if they are tackled together.

E.U. countries like Poland and the Baltic nations are worried that Berlin could reach an agreement with Moscow against the will of the Ukrainians. Do you believe that a divided E.U. is capable of reaching a compromise with Russia?

Then the E.U. will simply have to pull itself together! A unified position will hardly materialize in Europe. People in the Baltic countries will always see Russia as a horrible aggressor. That’s why countries like Germany have to lead the way and mediate. The alternative is that the war in eastern Ukraine continues to the point of complete self-destruction.

How could Washington contribute, or should the United States stay out of it and focus on Iraq instead?

The Russians systematically overestimate the Americans’ influence over Ukraine. The United States is very far away, while the Europeans are the ones affected by the consequences of the conflict. For the United States, the war isn’t about Ukraine but Russia. From the standpoint of the Americans, the Kremlin has become a problem again, one that requires a strong response and in this sense, they’re trying to exert influence on Europe and Ukraine. But I don’t see this happening, nor that the U.S. is driving the war.

Will Russia always ignore rules of international policy from now on?

No, I don’t think so. The Russians are just more self-confident. Nevertheless, the Kremlin knows perfectly well what the global community expects from Russia. And the costs resulting from its Crimea and Ukraine policy are so great that the Kremlin will shy away from showdowns in the future. However, should the Ukraine crisis and the sanctions regime lead to a new confrontation between political blocs, as in the days of the Cold War, the Russian leadership would have no choice but to search for new partners. There are more than enough countries in the world that believe the world order is unfair. It’s just that no one is willing to lead a resistance movement against American dominance in global politics. Russia could assume that role.

We should stop imagining Russia as a giant version of Poland, one that simply needs much more time to become as democratic as the rest of Europe.

Putin wants to greatly expand economic cooperation with China. Is a political bloc against the West taking shape?

It isn’t inevitable, but it is a possibility. Beijing is taking a careful look at political cooperation with Moscow. Conversely, this creates great risks for Russia, because China is bigger and stronger economically.

Doesn’t it bother the Russians that their country is moving farther and farther away from the West – and turning toward China, a completely alien cultural world?

A large portion of the Russian population is enthusiastic about Putin’s foreign policy. And today Putin also enjoys the support of a large share of the urban middle class that protested against him three years ago – including the entire left-wing and right-wing camp. Only the liberals are critical of the Kremlin’s policy, but they play only a marginal role in Russia.

Is Russia still part of Europe?

I don’t think Russia is serious about and, in the long run, capable of distancing itself from the West, if only because of strong economic ties. It would be optimal if Russia put an end to this nonsense while retaining its autonomy within Western civilization. Then it would be like Brazil, which lives in another world but doesn’t deny its European roots.

What can Europe do so that Russia is more in line with us once again?

Nothing. That’s precisely the mistake. The West should stop trying to impose its value system on Russia. The Western democratic model failed in Russia, in the chaos of the 1990s, partly because many here believed that Russia had to become just like Europe. Nothing came of that, for which we are just as much to blame as the West. We should stop imagining Russia as a giant version of Poland, one that simply needs much more time to become as democratic as the rest of Europe. European values aren’t some body of laws, valid forever once passed. When Russia joined the European Council close to 20 years ago, the rights of sexual minorities were not as critical as they are today. Europeans should take a sober look at Russia as a country that, while its culture resembles that of Europe, is not part of a community of values, as the E.U. sees it.

And Putin is a flawless European?

Putin is certainly a European. How flawless he is depends on your point of view. He is closer to the European West than Asia, albeit the kind of Europe that existed a few decades ago. I believe he would have gotten along famously with Bismarck, Churchill or de Gaulle. Those were interest-driven politicians, not morals missionaries like today’s European politicians.

This story first appeared in WirtschaftsWoche. It was translated by Christopher Sultan. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!