What is the myth?
Since the end of the Cold War, successive Russian leaders and senior officials have argued that the institutional elements of the European security architecture – particularly NATO but also the EU, which has built an increasingly strong profile in Central and Eastern Europe – exclusively serve the interests of the leading Western countries. Their argument is that:
- By marginalizing Russia and ignoring its concerns, these ‘Euro-Atlanticist’ structures perpetuate a dangerous and unstable geopolitical division of Europe.
- These structures should be superseded by a treaty-based and continent-wide arrangement that integrates Russia and takes full account of its vital interests.
- By creating an inclusive and cooperative relationship with Russia, this would lay the foundations for long-term stability and security in Europe.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
In the 1990s the Kremlin called for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to be transformed into Europe’s pre-eminent security institution. In 2008–09, President Dmitry Medvedev proposed a pan-European treaty that would inaugurate a new regional system of collective security. Since then, senior Russian officials have continued to attack the alleged Western-centrism and anti-Russian orientation of Europe’s security architecture.
Although Western decision-makers have rejected calls to overhaul existing European security institutions, parts of Russia’s narrative have still found favour in certain quarters. Thus, some observers and policymakers in Berlin and Paris were sympathetic to Medvedev’s draft European security treaty, even though this more positive response partly reflected German and French opposition at the time to the US-led push to grant NATO Membership Action Plans to Ukraine and Georgia. Similarly, in 2019 President Emmanuel Macron of France called for ‘a new architecture based on trust and security in Europe’ as part of a strategic rapprochement with Russia.
Why is it wrong?
Russia’s calls for a pan-European security system are problematic for three reasons. First, they ignore basic differences between Russia and Western countries over the issue of sovereignty. Russia’s understanding of sovereignty is rooted in an earlier epoch. It envisages a special position for itself (and other ‘great powers’) in a reformed architecture. This would give Russia a veto, entitling it to block initiatives that it disapproved of (for example, further NATO enlargement). It would limit the rights of smaller adjacent countries (for example, by stopping them from joining NATO or obstructing their integration with the EU). By sanctifying the principle of non-interference in states’ domestic affairs, Russia’s view of sovereignty also lacks a normative dimension. By contrast, established Western thinking about European security does not grant great powers privileged rights, rules out ‘spheres of influence’ and – despite inconsistent application – attaches considerable importance to the values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Russia’s calls for a pan-European security system ignore basic differences between Russia and Western countries over the issue of sovereignty.
Second, Russia’s proposals for pan-European security are illogical. They suggest that an inclusive, continent-wide security system would erase current geopolitical difficulties. In reality, these difficulties are caused by radically discordant views of European security that would stop such a system from functioning.
Third, the detail of Russian proposals for pan-European security has frequently been vague. Besides making it difficult to engage meaningfully with them, this has prompted suspicion among Western policymakers that Russia is concerned less with agreeing new rules of the game than with breaking down existing ones by dividing Western-led organizations – and paralysing NATO, in particular.
What is its impact on policy?
Generally speaking, Western policymakers have been sceptical of Russian demands for a pan-European security architecture. Nonetheless, the central proposition underpinning Russian proposals – that a new security system would eliminate geopolitical divisions in Europe – remains seductive. As noted, it has in the past struck a sympathetic chord with certain Western decision-makers, who are understandably concerned about the damage and potential dangers that poor relations with Russia cause. Because the current stand-off with Russia has unpalatable policy implications, calls for a pan-European security system can encourage lingering hopes in Western capitals that a significantly more cooperative relationship with Russia might yet be built. The effect is to obscure how dissimilar Russian and established Western approaches to European security really are. Consequently, the myth could distract Western decision-makers from developing or implementing the difficult policies that are needed in responding to the Russian challenge.
What would good policy look like?
First, policymakers need to be clear that disagreements with Russia over the European security architecture stem from fundamental differences over the question of sovereignty. Russia wants privileges for itself, limits on the sovereignty of neighbouring countries, and agreement that states should not be criticized if they run their domestic affairs in ways inconsistent with the values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. This essentially 19th-century perspective is at odds with core Western interests and values.
Second, Western diplomats and politicians should understand that when engaging with Russia over European security, the policy challenge is to manage these divergent worldviews, not design new institutions that might, in ways that no one has ever explained, dissolve them. The former is difficult but realistic and achievable; the latter is tantamount to chasing a chimera.
Third, while recognizing that differences with Russia over European security are profound and unlikely to be reconciled, Western governments should make concerted attempts to manage these differences in ways consistent with their interests (e.g. practical confidence-building measures, resumption of arms control initiatives, focused political dialogue) – to the extent that this is possible. Even if it only clarified disagreements with Russia, such activity would be helpful. Reducing the risk of misperception, misunderstanding and miscalculation is better than pretending that significant differences do not exist or can be papered over; the latter would simply result in policymakers deceiving themselves about the prospects for cooperation, and would risk persuading Russian leaders that Western governments are more receptive to such thinking than is really the case.
Fourth, Western politicians and stakeholders need to keep calm. Russian policymakers will keep trying to unnerve Western audiences and shake the latter’s support for existing European security institutions by amplifying the dangers of instability and war to which such structures allegedly give rise. In itself, a bad relationship with Russia is no tragedy; nor does it necessarily undermine Western interests. It is simply a reminder that those interests clash with Russia’s – and that the friction that this generates needs to be acknowledged openly and addressed soberly.
Russian policymakers will keep trying to unnerve Western audiences and shake the latter’s support for existing European security institutions by amplifying the dangers of instability and war to which such structures allegedly give rise.
Fifth, the West needs to ‘do better’. As noted, certain values are central to Western thinking about security in Europe. Russian policymakers have never taken this seriously enough – partly because their outlook is different, but partly too because Western countries often do not live by their word. It is unrealistic to expect that interests and values can be completely aligned. But it is still important that Western countries at least eliminate the more egregious and obvious discrepancies – for example, championing the rule of law and human rights while engaging in, or facilitating, ‘extraordinary rendition’ (in plain English: kidnap and torture) – so as to blunt the accusations of hypocrisy and double standards that weaken their international standing. By acting more often in accordance with their proclaimed values, Western governments would enhance their authority, be heard with greater respect and, consequently, be able to defend and promote their interests more effectively.
Lastly, Western governments should be prepared for further friction over the issue. It is likely that Russia will again table proposals for far-reaching reform of the European security architecture. The largely unchanging nature of Russian thinking suggests that, when this happens, the issue of sovereignty will once more provoke sharp disagreements. That will again prompt some uncomfortable policy choices, but so be it. Western governments should deal with Russia as it is, not as they might like it to be.