James Nixey
Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Richard Sakwa
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
James Nixey and Richard Sakwa present two opposing views on the legitimacy of Russia’s geopolitical interest in its neighbouring states.
An underground crossing decorated with graffiti of the Soviet Army in the Second World War in Tula, Russia. Photo via Getty Images.An underground crossing decorated with graffiti of the Soviet Army in the Second World War in Tula, Russia. Photo via Getty Images.

There are many disagreements between Russia and the West at present – Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Kosovo, human rights, energy deals – to name a few. But it is European security, and specifically the security orientation of post-Soviet countries, that constitutes the crux of the fallout. James Nixey and Richard Sakwa present two perspectives on this key geopolitical debate.

It is impractical and immoral to abandon the post-Soviet states to Moscow

by James Nixey

It is often stated in outwardly reasonable commentary that the West must ‘listen to Russia more’ or ‘respect Russia’s legitimate interests’. While not necessarily untrue per se, such statements always need unpacking as they frequently conceal a different exhortation.

Decrypted in full, they imply that Russia is the preeminent country of all of the 15 successor states to come out of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and that the other 14 must defer to Moscow on important matters - in deference to Cold War history, and because Russia is bigger and stronger. Neutrality might just about work, but subservience would be better. Full freedom of foreign and trade policy – specifically over which Western clubs they can join – is ‘unacceptable’.

In fairness to the Russian side of the argument, the Kremlin has been more open about this than many western commentators, in speaking of privileged interests. It believes it has a natural right to retain some form of control over countries on its border that have historically formed part of a Russian cordon sanitaire. At best the successor states are not fully independent in the eyes of the Kremlin – they are ‘one nation’ (a phrase Vladimir Putin repeats ad nauseam about Ukraine): for them the Westphalian model of sovereignty does not apply and never has applied to the post-Soviet states.

The supposed interests of the Kremlin, and, it has to be said, the majority of Russians who “feel” close kinship with those with whom they were once joined, apparently supersede the interests of the other 14 and the majority of their populations who wish to be fully independent (some want membership of Western organizations, others just want to be authoritarian in their own way). Most if not all of the successor states who do wish to join organisations such as the EU or NATO, do not yet make the grade. But it does not matter. For Russia it is a point of principle.

Russians and Westerners alike offer numerous attempts at justification for this approach which inhibits freedom of movement for the rest of the post-Soviet 14:

  1. ‘Historically conditioned’. The idea that because it was so once, at least some of the privileges of control Moscow once insisted upon are carried over beyond the logic of the Cold War (even though in signing the Helsinki Final Act and accepting the independence of the other 14, Russia formally gave up those ‘rights’).
  2.  Security. The idea that Russia needs a buffer zone or cordon sanitaire. But why? The Cold War is over. To protect itself from whom? Who since Hitler has been insane enough to even consider invading Russia? In what way could Estonia’s current, Montenegro’s imminent and Georgia’s possible membership of NATO possibly be a threat to Russia - unless Russia attacked any of them first and Article V were invoked?
  3. Economic security. A loss of favoured market access as a result of membership of a free trading area such as the EU. Perhaps. The Russians had a valid argument around the issue of goods being manufactured in the EU and re-packaged in Ukraine and then exported to the Russian Federation as Ukrainian produce. But their main concern is around the geopolitical implications of Ukraine not being in their trading bloc. Either way, to be competitive, Russia will need to make better cars, clothes and consumables. 
  4. Best not to antagonize Russia, it could provoke unpredictable reactions, perhaps even military conflict. Also conceivable. But are we to kow-tow to all of Russia’s demands for this? How far? What are the limits? Is threat of nuclear annihilation a trump card Russia can bring out at any time?
  5. Best not to antagonize Russia, the West needs to trade with it. Ideally, yes. But at what non-economic cost? If the above is nuclear blackmail, is this not economic blackmail?
  6. Maintain geopolitical balance against the US. If the US does it, why can’t Russia as a means of regaining some of the USSR’s sway?
  7. Big states have always held sway over small states. It was true in classical times and it is true now. There is nothing we can do about it. Historical determinism notwithstanding, it may be true that Russia is more committed to the other post-Soviet states than the West is. But it is certainly true, in the long run, that all of the post-Soviet states are more committed to their own independence than Russia is committed to limiting it. In fact, these smaller, weaker states have done everything they can to rebuff a Yalta II-type deal imposed by Russia. For the Kremlin, spheres of influence are the natural order of things, and the world is now returning to them.

Such justifications are dangerous for European security to say nothing of the betrayal that would be involved towards the post-Soviet states. Policy should not be formed on this basis.

To accept limited sovereignty for these countries is to surrender to the logic of the Cold War. The expansion of NATO is seen as a particular provocation (although it was an EU trade treaty which helped spark the current Ukrainian upheaval). In contrast to, say, the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union or the Collective Security Treaty Organization, no independent country has been coerced into membership of anything. The Baltic states practically begged to join NATO and the EU and for those countries who still seek membership the West has welcomed their aspirations to join and required interoperability and a public majority in favour.

Whether or not existing NATO members’ security has been weakened is unproven – though it is often stated as fact. Either way, any objection to this can only be from the point the point of view of a third party’s – Russia’s – displeasure that its former satellites are lost to the Russian World.

European security and fundamental principles of sovereignty and legitimacy can surely not be organized according to supposed Russian interests – actually, Kremlin interests. Those who talk about respect for Russia’s interests need to also respect the interests of countries on Russia’s periphery. Interests are not rights.

True sovereignty comes not from Europe but from within

by Richard Sakwa

A quarter of a century has passed since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, yet the fundamental character of relations between the former Soviet states remains contested. There is no agreement on what is legitimate in relations between these states, and the limits and constraints on the exercise of sovereignty by the former Soviet republics. The post-Soviet ‘space’ remains precisely a politically undetermined area, with questions raised over whether it represents a coherent region at all. It is not even clear what to call this part of the world, since the use of the prefix ‘post’ by definition accentuates what came before, rather than focusing on what the region now is or what these countries could become.

The question of what is legitimate in post-Soviet Eurasia is fundamentally contested, and reflects broader divisions about the end of the Cold War, the security promises made at that time and, ultimately, conceptualization of the ‘imperial’ character of the Soviet Union and its continuer state, Russia. The concept of legitimacy is always relational, dependent on understanding the broader political context, the character of historical time and a country’s relative position in a power system. Equally, sovereignty is rarely absolute but part of a broader dynamic of international relations.

Few would deny that Russia has legitimate security interests in the region, but how can these be assured without infringing on the sovereignty of its neighbours? The question focuses on the balance to be drawn between competing theoretical viewpoints, narratives and interests. The claim that Russia as a putative great power has a special quality of sovereignty and that its interests are somehow more legitimate than those of its neighbours would be challenged by partisans of the liberal international order. However, the view that Russia has some special concerns, because of its historical role, its size, its status as a nuclear power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and ultimately as the guarantor of some sort of order in the region, while controversial, could nevertheless be advanced as a legitimate proposition.

Realists would argue that just like the United States in its hemisphere and now globally, and Germany increasingly in Europe, Russia remains a hegemonic power in the region. The notion of hegemony entails a tension between coercion and consent in the way that it is exercised. The realist perspective would suggest that if the objects of hegemony are lucky, hegemony can be exercised in a benign manner and achieve substantive developmental and other goals, above all the delivery of security. If the putative hegemon cannot deliver enough of these international public goods, then alignment will give way to defection. To maintain hegemony, more coercive methods will have to be applied. Liberals would claim that this is the trap in which Russia now finds itself, provoking neo-imperial responses, coercive diplomacy and exploitation of dependencies.

The debate over these issues in the post-Soviet space does not take place in a vacuum. At one level, there is a continuing search for some sort of stable model of relations between the former Soviet states, including the maintenance of humanitarian links and cultural ties. This would be hard enough in the best of circumstances, given the long history of conflicts, strained relations and current aspirations to forge sovereign nation states in a Eurasian space where borders are largely contingent and lacking determinative spatial signifiers such as mountain ranges, seas and rivers.

However, the circumstances are far from the best. The failure to create a substantive pan-European community in the post-Cold War era means that new lines of division have been established between competing political projects and security communities. In systemic terms, the European Union remains the heart of a distinctive community of peoples based on a certain set of norms and aspirations to overcome the history of European conflict, but in security terms it remains embedded in an Atlantic security system. This entails a shift from temporal normativity to spatial contestation.

It is within this logic that the debate about legitimacy and sovereignty inevitably now turns. Although Europe is awash with institutions, most are of a bonding character – strengthening exiting ties, while bridging institutions – which could overcome historical divisions on a pan-continental scale – remain weak and undeveloped. Realists would accept the situation, and then talk of frontline countries such as Ukraine becoming neutral buffer states. Liberals categorically refuse to accept the notion of spheres of influence or the balance of power, although realists note that that the Atlantic system resolutely extends its sphere of influence (now categorized as somehow universal and devoid of power consequences), and resolutely changes the balance of power in its favour. Resistance is denounced as illegitimate, as are attempts to create alternative institutions or integrative projects to create a more pluralistic and diverse Europe.

Ultimately, both the realist and the liberal views are inadequate, and only entrench a competitive dynamic reminiscent of the worst periods of European history. This is accompanied by ‘information wars’ and the degeneration of public discourse into a set of primitive axiological propositions. Aspirations to join ‘Europe’ become the functional analogue of the socialist utopia, while the Atlantic security community becomes a mythologised Seventh Cavalry, snatching poor benighted countries from tyranny and despotism.

In both cases the solution of the historical problems of post-Soviet Eurasia are externalized, and in effect the resolution of developmental and security problems are outsourced. They are thereby not only deprived of legitimacy, but also ultimately of efficacy. Only forms of legitimacy that are generated in a dialogical manner within and between societies can generate the true sovereignty that comes from the authenticity of the autonomous resolution of historical problems. Neither legitimacy nor sovereignty can be borrowed but have to be created.

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