These remarks were delivered as part of the annual Vaclav Havel European Dialogues on 29 May in Prague.
The recent Riga Summit was a typical product of a method born in the EU’s internal politics, where doing nothing – or seeking compromise and making marginal adjustments in the hope of changing policy next time – is often the only way to proceed. The summit also showed the characteristic EU tendency toward politics as textual improvement: more effort went into negotiating the final declaration than getting the over-arching politics right. But given the scale of the current crisis, neither approach is adequate. Our panel looks at the EU from the perspective of the eastern partners, where I can find at least seven underlying reasons why Europe has gotten the Russia-Ukraine crisis so wrong.
1. BUREAUCRATISM: THE EUROPE OF RULES
I will begin unoriginally. As my colleague Volodymyr Yermolenko has eloquently written, this conflict pits the “Europe of rules” against the “Europe of values”:
“There is the Europe that presents a more or less emotionless face of rules and regulations. This Europe ends somewhere along the frontier between Germany and Poland. A kind of Euro-Protestantism prevails: it has lost faith in European civilization but preserved its sense of morality. The European idea has been transformed into a set of rules and a collection of institutional procedures. Where there is no faith, rules become paramount. The other Europe is spontaneous and emotional, the Europe of faith. This is Young Europe, comprising in the main the countries of the former socialist bloc. For the people living in these countries, Europe is still a vision, an ideal utopia.”
This is a useful distinction that can be taken further, on both sides. I actually see four related problems with the “Europe of rules.” First, Old Europe can’t think beyond rules. The EU no longer has any grand projet or moral élan. It sits behind the forest of thorns that is the acquis communautaire, which was designed a generation ago.
Second, the rules-based approach of the Eastern Partnership is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how post-Soviet societies work. They are anti-Weberian. The EU is founded on the Weberian assumption that rules are applied by rational and benign bureaucracies, and that rules are Kantian, in the sense that they are universally applicable and applied blind. But in post-Soviet societies, “rules” are deliberately arbitrary. The law is deliberately capricious – a means of punishing enemies and rewarding friends. Bureaucracy is a sinecure, a means of extracting rent from the hapless general public. When government positions come with a price list, you know something is wrong.
So the EU’s Eastern Partnership offer of “more rules” doesn’t actually make sense, unless politics is changed locally and unless local states and political cultures are changed first. The EU should start by trying to strengthen the rule of law, not the misrule of bureaucracy.
If a tipping point is reached toward the rule of law, rules can help rein in corruption and rent-seeking; if not, they may actually end up strengthening them. Too often, the technocratic bias of the Eastern Partnership has translated into a de facto form of “autocratic modernization.” Partnership with existing states through trade and functional economic reforms is designed to make those states stronger, but it risks making local autocracies stronger too.
Third, if EU rules are for export, they are a hard sell in a competitive market, and in places like Ukraine, where there is war and a highly emotional existential struggle.
Fourth, the rules are too often hollow. The EU assumes that states like Ukraine are more interested in declaration than implementation but maintains the rule-export process anyway. Tick-box cynicism means that genuflecting to the rules is all that matters. I heard this a lot in private in early 2013 – let’s sign the Association Agreement with Ukraine, but we don’t expect Yanukovych to actually implement it.
It is therefore pretty obvious what’s wrong with the Eastern Partnership. The offer of rules, and an apparatus checking compliance with those rules, has created a giant patron-client, donor-NGO relationship. The Eastern Partnership only pretends to be an exercise in systemic transformation and is aimed primarily at economies and societies; it seems incapable of transforming local states, and it is local states that are the problem. The Eastern Partnership has been unable to lever the key things that matter, such as preventing the consolidation of authoritarianism under Yanukovych, preventing state capture by two oligarchs with entrenched spheres of influence in Moldova, and preventing political prosecutions in Georgia.
2. THE EUROPE OF VALUES, AND THE EUROPE OF VARIABLE GEOGRAPHY
Although the ENP exists for both East and South, and has not been formally split, the Eastern Partnership implicitly acknowledges the difference. The East is assumed to be vaguely but indeterminately European, in a way the South is not. The northern, western, and southern borders of Europe are supposedly clear; it’s only the eastern border that we are not sure about. The East is supposed to become more clearly European by adopting policies based on the values of the Copenhagen Criteria; so the problem is one of wavering commitment.
This vague and permeable border in the east might be thought to be an advantage for the six Eastern Partnership states, but the assumptions it depends on are trebly wrong. Historically Europe’s borders have never been clear in any direction. All of Europe’s nation-states have varied over time in their commitment to Europe. And Europe is not just about a choice of values; it is also about history and geography.
The EU’s version of “European values” is doubly new. Western Europe embraced democracy only after 1945 (and Spain, Portugal, and Greece even later) and embraced multiculturalism (gradually and still far from entirely) only after 1968.
All European states, East and West, define themselves by histories much older than 1945. And a history of variable, instrumental, and often opportunistic relations with Europe is also true of all. Historically, Eastern European states have sometimes been part of Europe, sometimes not. But so has everybody else. The idea that only the eastern border of Europe is undefined is ahistorical. In the south, the Greco-Roman world invented the idea of the Medi-terranean. That world was the reverse of today’s Euro-Europe: instead of the frugal north against the profligate south, there was a civilized south against a barbarian north. The Romans didn’t often march beyond the Rhone or the Danube, but the Black Sea was an integral part of their world. In Roman terms, Romania and Georgia are therefore more European than Germany or Poland. Scandinavia was off the map. The north is often the edge of civilization, as viewers of Game of Thrones will know.
Europe’s Western states, open to the Atlantic, often looked beyond Europe. To the north and west is mainly sea, but the sea was a bridge rather than a barrier in the pre-modern past. It’s not just the UK that has trans-Atlantic interests and identities: so does Spain, so once did France. There are still strong undercurrents of a trans-oceanic pan-Celticism and an island-hopping Scandinavian geography that reaches as far as Maine.
Almost every European pole state therefore has three alternative identities – and larger powers have a fourth, post-imperial identity. There are nativist myths that place individual nations on their own. There are kinship myths to build alliances: the idea of Scandinavia, or of north versus south, of “new Europe,” or Protestant Europe. And there are identities that link any given nation to Europe, but this can be done in many ways: the nation as the leader of or best of Europe, the nation as the edge of or defender of Europe.
The choice among them depends on circumstance – both in the West and in the East. Georgia has seen the return of both nativism and Russophilia after the almost über-Westernizing Saakashvili era. The Baltic states have not. One reason why they have been so relatively successful in absorbing themselves into the EU and NATO is that the historical carriers of the Russophile idea were the Baltic Germans, and they are long gone.
In the West, an independent Scotland would not be likely to have Celtic allies and would more likely adjust to an alternative “Scandinavian” identity instead. Ireland has gone back and forth: although it is now one of the EU’s most open states, it used to be the opposite, having opted for a Romantic isolationist nationalism after 1922 because Eamon de Valera wanted to disentangle the new state from residual commitments to the United Kingdom, not join new organizations.
So “Europe” is both chicken and egg. If Europe is a success, it’s attractive – both to potential new members and within the current borders of the EU. Even advocates of a Wider Europe with whom I am naturally sympathetic have it the wrong way round. They assume the European project will be complete when it ticks all the boxes, when it has expanded to include all parts of objective Europe. In fact it is the relative success of subjective Europe that determines how the pole states choose among their three options. If the EU is a success, in other words, it will get bigger. If not, it may well shrink.
There is a recession paradox. The more that EU standards of living have been threatened since 2008, the keener we are to preserve them. As one Ukrainian activist recently put it, “Western politicians live and die by tenths of GDP. We [Ukrainians] are prepared to endure the wreck of our economy, even though you are so much richer.” Actually, not all Ukrainians: the number prepared to make sacrifices in the name of economic reforms has risen (pdf) to 41.4 percent, but there is a marked difference between the figure of 56.2 percent in the west and 22.9 percent in the east.
But it’s not just that EU Europeans are materialist. Mercantilism is essentially a philosophy of marginal gain, predicated on the assumption of stable politics. But at the moment the math fails to add up – those gains disappear when the politics isn’t right. France defends the Mistral contracts worth $1.7 billion, but Western companies have lost billions more in Russia from missed investment opportunities, trade wars, and bond losses, because the politics isn’t right. Ukraine’s bondholders face a “haircut” because the politics isn’t right. Ukraine’s oligarchs, for that matter, have lost billions because the politics isn’t right.
The eastern states of course also want prosperity, but their path to prosperity depends on getting the politics right first.
Next are three intellectual sins. Seen from the Eastern Partnership states, so-called modern “European values” are not necessarily the values of Weber or Kant, but the values of post-modern Europe. The crisis has exposed the limits of moral or even factual relativism. The intellectual revolution since 1968 has run its course. We need a paradigm shift, one that would keep the critical theory, the underlying commitment to emancipation from outdated authorities, and our belief in cultural pluralism, but ditch nonjudgemental relativism and clichéd responses in the garb of world-weary “realism” or cynicism.
The manner in which Russian propaganda exploits Western journalism has been well-described elsewhere. Here I will add three common intellectual traps.
According to which we cannot criticize A, because B is the same – which all too easily becomes a disarming moral pacifism. In the opposite permissive form of this paradigm, if X can do Y, then why can’t we do it too? Russia is particularly adept at framing its actions as the mirror-image of America’s. Crimea is the same as Kosovo; if America can invade Iraq we can invade eastern Ukraine.
(ii) An aversion to moral clarity
The first paradigm precludes what should be easy judgments. As Ukrainian writer Yuriy Andrukhovych put it when receiving the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought in 2014:
“My foreign acquaintances doubt. To doubt is an altogether positive trait of a true European. And my acquaintances as true Europeans also doubt. They ask me, ‘Is it possible in general that good is only on one side, and evil on the other. Isn’t the truth somewhere in the middle, or at least in between?’ …
Post-modern consciousness foresees the removal of conflict and excludes a black-and-white approach. ‘Court-martials’ and torture [on the Russian side] are not enough [evidence] for my acquaintances. They are looking for villains on both sides of the conflict.”
The Western view of events in Ukraine is distorted by the constant search for “balance.” But Ukrainians often see a simpler picture, preferring to err on the side of moral clarity. It was interesting how much Ukrainian social media during the Euromaidan increasingly used popular culture tropes of the Yanukovych regime as Mordor, or depicted the final confrontation in Kyiv as a moral showdown equivalent to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
According to which the West provoked Russia by NATO expansion, or somehow the opposite, by giving it too much assistance in the 1990s. This is false moral piety; not self-abnegation, but a narrowing of moral agency to the self. Fault never lies with the other side. Some Europeans know full well that Russia is an aggressor, but such language is squeezed out of a public diplomacy based on the search for “peace.” Even worse, other Europeans have lost the language needed to define an “aggressor.”
5. (NOT) THINKING ABOUT RUSSIA
Paradoxically or not, these post-modern European reflexes are even more damaging when combined with fossilized Weltanschauung, like German war guilt (Kollektivschuld ) exclusively oriented toward Russia, or interpreting the conflict in Ukraine through the Soviet “anti-fascist”’ prism of 1941-1945. There are Spaniards fighting in Donbas to “pay back” the debts of the Spanish Civil War, which is, to put it politely, a static view of history at best.
One of the most dangerous fossils is anti-Americanism. Either in its domestic forms, particularly in France, Germany, and the UK, where criticism of American methods and motives has deep cultural roots, or in the mindset that transfers American agency and omnipotence to Eastern Europe. Events in Kyiv or Tbilisi are always assumed to be somehow orchestrated in Washington. The United States is assumed to be “behind” the Maidan, when the real story of the last few years has been Washington’s radical relative absence.
The other key fossil is the remnant of German Ostpolitik. Germany has a special term for Rußlandversteher (understanders of Russia), though their equivalents exist throughout Europe. But “understanding” is precisely what such people do not do. This type of “understanding” is a one-way process. There is no critical analysis, just the constant refrain of how we must listen to Russia’s worries, interests, and legitimate concerns, and assuage its supposed psychology of “humiliation.” All are treated as objective givens.
And this is a broader tendency among so-called “realist” commentators. I used to warn my students about the pitfalls of using the cliché that “Russia is different.” Now I have to warn them about the pitfalls of using the cliché that “Russia is normal,” that is, just a normal state defending what anyone would agree are Russian national interests.
Putin’s Russia is constantly on the lookout for perceived slights. But the real problem is that both supposed Russian national interests and tropes like “humiliation” are not objective givens but are the product of Russia’s political technology propaganda machine. Tropes like “Russia has been humiliated,” “Russia is surrounded by enemies,” “The West destroyed the USSR” – none of these is really true. Deep-seated structural problems caused the USSR’s decline but not its collapse. The Soviet Union reached a negotiated end, and the only negotiators were Russians, Ukrainians, and the leaders of the other then-Soviet republics.
Russia is a propaganda state or “political technology” state. Its day-to-day diet is myth. Its foreign policy is full of dubious assertions and fake facts, such as the current process of “reassuring” Russia over entirely spurious objections to the trade agreement with Ukraine.
Our problem in the West is therefore not just classic appeasement. Nor is it even that we have internalized so much of Russia’s agenda. It is that we do not understand the nature of that agenda, and the modus operandi that generates it.
6. POST-ORIENTALIST THINKING ABOUT UKRAINE
We are no better at understanding the European East. We are now used to following Edward Said’s invitation to inverse perspective and see the problems of the Middle East and Near East as the legacy of empire. But European intellectuals are not so good at doing the same for our other orient, the European East.
There are many dangers in deconstructing Orientalism. It could easily make Eastern Europe free of all responsibility for its own ills. Analysts who try to give the region voice can accept that voice too uncritically, simply reproducing local myths and stereotypes.
But Ukraine has been made triply subaltern. The Eastern Partnership makes it a supplicant of Europe. Russia behaves toward Ukraine as an imperial power. But, worst of all, Europe all too often views Ukraine through the eyes of Russia, without recognizing Moscow’s imperial perspective. How else would the European left be able to talk about Russia’s “legitimate interests” in Ukraine? One cannot imagine similar talk about Britain’s’ “legitimate interests” in south Asia, or France’s “legitimate interests” in the Maghreb.
Ukraine is not allowed to be a subject. This is bad enough at the diplomatic level, as with the notorious Boisto process, to which Ukraine was not even invited. It is even worse at the cultural level and the level of popular understanding, where the classic Orientalist tropes about Eastern Europe – it is always in crisis, it is full of neo-Nazis and ethnic hatreds – still color perceptions of events.
7. THE EASTERN PARTNERSHIP IS AN INADEQUATE RESPONSE TO RUSSIA’S PUSH FOR A YALTA II
So, finally, seen from the Eastern Partnership states, it’s clear that the EU and Russia don’t just speak a different diplomatic language; they are on different foreign policy planets. The EU seeks solutions, Russia seeks crises. The EU abjures “military solutions” and relies on the soft power of economic sanctions. Even Russia’s “soft power” is really hard. I have written elsewhere that Russia does not have “hard power” and “soft power” in our sense, but a choice between groznaya syla and grubaya syla – the power of public intimidation and the power of private sleaze.
Russia’s different type of power is also put to different use. The language of a new Yalta is openly stated in Russia. Whereas in the West, “Yalta,” like “Munich,” is a synonym for bad diplomacy and the betrayal of the sovereignty of small states to realpolitik, in Russia it is spoken of positively.
According to Sergei Naryshkin, the chairman of the Russian Duma, by condemning the 1945 Yalta Agreement, the West is “deleting from its own history and the history of world diplomacy one of its best and noblest moments.” Yalta kept the peace because of its “military realism” and created a “system of international relations that was more effective than the previous one” until “almost until the end of the 20th century” and prevented a Third World War.
Which only shows again how different the Russians are. The implications of praising an agreement with such a bad reputation in the West are startling.
The Eastern Partnership is at least three gear shifts out of date. It would still have had trouble working in a world in which only the EU existed. It is expansion on the cheap, free-riding on the assumption that the neighbors are prepared to march toward Brussels and do all the hard work themselves. In which case, the policy’s labeling was self-defeating – “neighborhood policy” is existentially offensive.
The Eastern Partnership also mistakenly copies the EU’s traditional Schuman Method – start with economic transformation and political transformation will follow – but in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus “it’s the politics, stupid.” Transformation needs to start at the top, with corrupt elites and inefficient and/or predatory states.
Second, the world has changed radically since 2008, when the Eastern Partnership was conceived. The EU is much weaker. The United States is more withdrawn. Russia is not necessarily stronger, but it is more competitive. In fact, to be exact, Russian overreach at a time of growing Russian domestic weakness is the precise nature of the problem. But Russian ambition has more impact and more resonance in an increasingly multipolar world in which the EU’s famously post-modern foreign policy project is not only one of many poles of influence, but is increasingly clearly unique.
Third, the Eastern Partnership doesn’t address our own inadequacies. “Partnership” should be about both sides. But the Eastern Partnership is designed as a technocratic policy to isolate Eastern Europe from national politics in EU nation states where immigration has become one of the key issues since 2008. It is not just that our increasingly inward focus prevents us from designing a proper policy for the East – the Eastern Partnership is designed to protect that inward focus. There was actually a sense of pan-European solidarity in 1989 that has now been lost. “Solidarity” is increasingly an internal issue, not an asset for revenue-sharing and burden-sharing with potential new members.
But the difference between Ukraine today and Afghanistan in 2001 or Syria since 2011 or Bangladesh in 1971 is obviously only one word long: Europe. We are not in Ukraine to be the world’s policeman or because of a post-imperial reflex or as a blundering and ineffective mega-NGO. We are in Ukraine to decide the future of Europe. Ukraine is at war. But our policy is far from being based on these basic facts. “Neighborhood policy,” in other words, is not based on strategic thinking, but it has strategic consequences that too often remain unrecognized. But we continue to act like a giant EU-NGO.
The current crisis is not just about Ukraine. It’s also not just about “losing” Eastern Europe; it’s about Europe losing itself. Plenty of EU countries are rediscovering their inner nativism. Ukraine, you may be surprised to hear, is in some ways an island of multiethnic tolerance compared with the toxic nationalisms on either side, in Russia and in European states like Hungary and France. But choice depends on circumstance. If Ukraine fails, because Putin’s Russia is so desperate for it to fail, then we will see a much more dangerous downward spiral across borders, with nationalisms and protectionisms feeding off one another, west and east.
Andrew Wilson is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a reader in Ukrainian Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.