Principles for Europe's relations with Russia after the war

Opinion piece (Eurodefense)
11 June 2023

Sooner or later, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine will end. What Western governments don’t know is what kind of Russia they will be dealing with at that point. Despite the wilder fantasies one occasionally hears about Russia’s collapse and disintegration, the likelihood is that, for good or ill, the country will still fill as much geographical space as it does now – though hopefully not one inch of Ukrainian territory will remain under its control. But where will its political evolution take it? Will it look for friends in the east and enemies in the west, or vice versa? Or will it become a giant North Korea, suspicious of everyone? Or could it become what many of its citizens wanted it to be when the Soviet Union broke up – a ‘normal country’? Unless they live in Alaska, North Americans enjoy the luxury of distance from Russia; their relations with it can be reduced to a bare minimum if necessary. For Europeans, however, Russia will remain a neighbour. Whether relations are good or bad, there will have to be relations. This article sets out some all-weather principles on which to base Europe’s post-war relationship with Russia. 

Deal with Russia as it is. Speaking at the Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn in May 2023, Thomas Bagger, formerly the foreign policy adviser to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and soon to be the State Secretary in the Federal German Foreign Office, said “Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine… came as a fundamental, serious, strategic shock to almost everyone in Germany… We projected our own focus on economic rationality upon our adversary… Most of us felt that such a war would be suicidal for the Russian business model, and it was. And yet it happened”.

Such an honest mea culpa from a senior German official is welcome; but other Europeans should not be smug. Most of Western Europe was taken by surprise; some were inclined to disbelieve US and UK intelligence almost until Russian tanks crossed the Ukrainian border. Yet the Russian attack on Ukraine should not have come as a shock to anyone who looked at the reality of Putin’s Russia without filtering it through the prism of Western assumptions.

Putin had shown repeatedly that he did not respect the independence of post-Soviet states. Even in the 1990s when he was a minor official in St Petersburg, he described Crimea and northern Kazakhstan as “areas which have historically always belonged to Russia” and asserted a Russian responsibility for ethnic Russians in neighbouring states, as Oxford Professor Timothy Garton Ash recalled in 2014. In 2008, he told US President George W Bush that Ukraine was “not even a country”. He invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 – though the West managed to persuade itself in the former case that it was the fault of then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and in the latter that Crimea really wanted to secede from Ukraine (though it had voted in 1991 to be part of an independent Ukraine) and that what was happening in the Donbas was a ‘separatist conflict’ (which just happened to involve Russian intelligence officers and even regular troops). Central and Eastern European countries and the Baltic states repeatedly warned Western Europeans and North Americans of the real dangers posed by Russia; they were dismissed as hysterical Russophobes.

The post-war relationship with Russia has to start with the determination to analyse developments in Russia objectively and shape policy accordingly. That does not mean assuming that all Russians – even all Russian leaders – are irredeemably evil; it does mean accepting that history and experience have conditioned them to behave differently from citizens of comfortable Western democracies. Well-meaning Westerners must not assume that this is Putin’s war alone – as an excellent recent book by Dr Jade McGlynn argues in its title, this is ‘Russia’s War’, and a significant part of the population believes not only in the war but in the narrative of Russian victimhood and Western wickedness that underpins it. Whether Putin remains in control of Russia or not, Western leaders must not assume that their Russian counterparts will have the same view of the world and how to respond to it that they themselves have.

Defend yourself and your allies and deter future attacks, of all kinds. At the start of the war, most Western analysts (including this author) assumed that Russia would win a conventional war quickly, though it would probably then face a prolonged insurgency. Countries in Europe began to beef up their defence budgets in the expectation of facing an increased Russian threat at NATO’s border.

Because the Russian army has subsequently performed terribly and the Russian air force has been almost invisible, there will be a strong temptation after the fighting is over to reverse increases in defence and security spending on the assumption that Russia no longer poses a threat. That would be a mistake: First, because despite all their shortcomings, Russian forces have been good enough to occupy more than 60,000 square kilometres of Ukraine – almost exactly the area of NATO member Latvia; second, because (unless there is a very dramatic change of political direction in Russia) Moscow will make re-armament a top priority after the war; and third, because Russia has many ways to attack the West and its neighbours other than by the use of conventional military forces.

Though the term ‘hybrid warfare’ has been over-used and sometimes misused over the last decade, Russia has shown that it is able and willing to carry out sabotage attacks on NATO territory, notably blowing up weapons storage facilities in the Czech Republic in 2014. It is highly likely that Russia destroyed all but one of the various pipes making up the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines across the Baltic Sea; it has certainly been carrying out surveillance of other critical subsea infrastructure around Europe. It has assassinated or attempted to assassinate its domestic enemies when they have sought refuge in European countries, with no regard for collateral damage – notably in the cases of Aleksandr Litvinenko, murdered in the UK with radioactive polonium that contaminated a number of locations in London, and Sergei Skripal, who survived an attack with the nerve agent novichok that poisoned an innocent British woman.

After the fighting in Ukraine stops, Europe must continue to invest in its own defences, learning the lessons from the war. For decades the West has produced small numbers of increasingly sophisticated weapons; the assumption has been that wars would either be low-intensity, as in Afghanistan, or short in duration, as in the invasion phase of the war in Iraq. Russia’s attack in Ukraine has marked a return to high-intensity, long-term conflict, demanding huge quantities of munitions. When more sophisticated equipment has run low, Russia has been able to fall back on large stockpiles of ageing Soviet kit. European armed forces have neither the production capacity to replace munitions as fast as they would be used in a Ukraine-like scenario, nor the Cold War-era stockpiles to fall back on. It will be uncomfortable for politicians to increase defence spending at a time of economic hardship, but national security should be the number one priority for any government.

Europeans must also invest in resilience – ensuring that redundancy is built into energy and communications infrastructure, building the military and civilian capabilities needed to monitor potentially hostile activity around oil platforms, offshore wind farms and other vulnerable facilities, and maintaining the pressure on Russian intelligence operations that has seen about 600 Russian intelligence officers expelled from NATO countries since the war began.

There are two ways to deter attacks: one is to make the chance of success too small to justify the risk; and the other is to ensure that you can credibly threaten retaliation on a scale that outweighs any possible benefit from the attack. Europe’s objective should be to have the capacity to deter future Russian aggression, military or hybrid, in both ways.

Constrain Russia’s military strength and economic and political influence. Power is relative: you can change the correlation of forces by making yourself stronger or making your enemies weaker. In the run-up to the war, Russia did both. It carried out a considerable military build-up (though, as it turned out, with less success than most Western observers thought). And it worked to weaken both neighbouring countries, including Ukraine, and its Western rivals. It interfered, with some success, in European and US domestic politics, exploiting existing divisions in society and building up a close relationship with both far left and far right political movements in a number of countries, encouraging polarisation that paralysed decision-making.

Russia also exploited the naiveté or greed of Western businesses to modernise its armed forces. According to investigative journalists, even after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, French defence manufacturers continued to help the Russians improve their weapons systems, supplying thermal image cameras for tanks, and navigation and infra-red detection equipment for fighter aircraft as late as 2020. Regardless of whether these deliveries technically complied with EU sanctions (which is unclear), it should have been obvious much earlier than 2020 that Russia posed a serious threat not only to Ukraine but to neighbouring EU and NATO countries. There should be no question of supplying Russia with military equipment of any kind for the foreseeable future.

Western export controls are already having some success in limiting Russia’s ability to build high-tech weapons; once the war is over, those controls, and restrictions on the export of dual-use goods that can be used for civil or military purposes, must be maintained. There must also be greater efforts to prevent circumvention of sanctions. Europeans have traditionally opposed secondary sanctions – a favourite US tool for punishing countries that do not follow US sanctions against Cuba, Iran and other ‘rogue states’. But they may have to moderate their opposition, and to join the US in putting pressure on notionally allied or friendly countries like Türkiye and Georgia that are doing too little to stop sanctioned goods being exported to Russia via their territory.

Before the war, and even during its initial months, Europe contributed to Russia’s ability to pay for the war because of its dependency on Russian oil and gas imports. It should not make the mistake of resuming purchases and helping Russia to rebuild its war-chest. If China and India want to prop up Russia’s war economy by buying its raw materials, the West cannot stop them. But it should do what it can to reduce Russia’s economic power, including blocking its access to Western investment and Western capital markets.

Above all, Europe must eliminate Russia’s ability to influence its politics. In the UK, the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee’s 2020 report on the Russian threat noted: “Several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to Putin are identified as being involved with charitable and/or political organisations in the UK, having donated to political parties”. More specifically, the Conservative Party has received large sums of money from donors who, although they are British citizens, have or had Russian nationality and made their money in Russia.

In France, the Front National (now renamed the Rassemblement National) took a €9.4 million loan from an obscure Russian bank, the First Czech Russian Bank. Russia has assiduously courted far-right figures from political parties including Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, as well as more mainstream politicians like former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (appointed to a number of lucrative posts on the boards of Russian energy companies). Many European states need tighter rules on foreign funding of political parties; almost all need to scrutinise the overt and covert involvement of Russia in influence operations, including social media campaigns.

Engage with those who might make Russia a better place. Though many Russians may support Putin and his genocidal war, or at least share his belief that the West is out to destroy Russia, not all do. Some of Putin’s opponents are in jail; some have been intimidated into silence; a few are still resisting; and many are in exile. For understandable reasons, most Ukrainians and many Central and Eastern Europeans are reluctant to give Russians the benefit of the doubt, unless they have been very explicit in their opposition to the war. Nonetheless, once the fighting stops Europe should do its best to re-establish channels to Putin’s opponents or potential opponents, and even to ordinary Russians, to the extent that it is possible to reach them. At some point Putin will be replaced, whether he retires, dies or is deposed, and it is in Europe’s interest that Russians know that there are alternatives to perpetuating his authoritarian system of government.

Since the war began, it has been harder to engage with Russian think-tankers and the like, and visiting Russia is definitely a high-risk activity for critics of the regime and nationals of countries regarded as hostile. Still, Europeans should be willing to include Russian experts in webinar panels or help them to travel to in-person events in Europe (the Lennart Meri Conference managed to bring together Russians from the diaspora and Russians still based in the country, for example). Student exchanges between European and Russian universities should resume when possible, though there will need to be careful scrutiny to ensure that they are not abused by the Russian intelligence services.

European broadcasters like the BBC Russian service and its French and German counterparts should step up their output and try to reach audiences outside Moscow and St Petersburg. As with other forms of engagement, much will depend on the situation in Russia after the war: If Putin or a Putinist regime remains in power, it is likely to remain difficult for Western media organisations to broadcast directly to Russians. More effort will have to go into alternative means of feeding European messages into the Russian information space.

Help Russians to confront their history. Putin has put a lot of effort into shaping the beliefs of Russians about their history. Putin’s heroes are the authoritarian rulers who expanded Russia’s borders while suppressing internal opposition – men like Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Josef Stalin. In every conflict, the victim, who rises again in triumph, is Russia; the villain is the West.

In the late Soviet period, human rights activists such as Andrei Sakharov exploited Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of ‘glasnost’, or more transparency in government, to expose and discuss the crimes committed under communist rule. Putin has made it almost impossible to talk honestly about such issues; even the 1940 Katyn massacre of Polish officers by the Soviet secret police is once again being attributed to the Nazis, as it was in the Soviet period.

Russia can never be a ‘normal country’ unless it confronts the dark elements in its past, as Germany had to after the Second World War. Ideally, it would do this in a collaborative process with its neighbours, the main victims. The model might be the work done, in somewhat better times, by teams of Polish and Russian historians led by Adam Daniel Rotfeld and Anatoly Torkunov, that produced the book ‘White Spots – Black Spots: Difficult Matters in Polish-Russian Relations, 1918–2008’.

But if the authorities in post-war Russia, and indeed the bulk of the population, continue to cling to a version of history in which Russia is always the hero and its European neighbours always the villains, then Europeans will have to promote their own counter-narrative. At the very least, European ministers and officials dealing with Russia should always be briefed on the main historical distortions that they are likely to face, and rebut them strongly. Far too often, for example, Putin has been allowed to get away with implying that Russia alone suffered all the casualties of the Soviet Union in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (ie the Second World War from 1941 onwards, once Stalin’s alliance with Hitler had broken down). In fact, Ukraine and Belarus suffered far more casualties in proportion to their population.

When this war is over, Russians will have to face up to the things their forces have done in Ukraine. Those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, and those who launched the war and committed the crime of aggression, should face justice. It would be wrong to attach collective guilt to the Russian people, however. But ordinary Russians should feel collective responsibility, just as the Germans who turned a blind eye to Nazi crimes had to: They could have stopped this happening if they had shown the same courage and resolution as the Ukrainians. If Russians prefer to go on believing in the perpetual innocence and victimhood of their country, then the cycle of Russian violence against its neighbours will inevitably continue.

Don’t make things worse, in Russia or in Europe. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote that the aim of doctors should be “to do good, or do no harm”. However noble the intentions of those who started them, Western interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 (perhaps, in the case of Afghanistan, even since 1979) have done more harm than good. In helping Russians, not all of whom had good intentions, to unleash wild capitalism and the forces of the free market on post-communist Russia before the rule of law, independent courts and honest and effective law enforcement agencies existed there, well-meaning Westerners contributed to the conditions in which Putin rose to power.

Subsequently, by allowing the ‘victors’ of post-Soviet Russia to launder their ill-gotten wealth in London, the Côte d'Azur and elsewhere, European governments contributed to corrupting their own institutions and undermining their own democracies. In dealing with Russian organisations, governmental or non-governmental, after the current conflict, Europeans should ask themselves, on every occasion, whether they know who their interlocutors are and what their motives are. When assessing every project they are asked to fund, they should focus on what could go wrong and who the unintended beneficiaries might be.

That is not to say that Europeans should be mere spectators of post-conflict Russia. But it is a reminder to weigh up every intervention’s up-side and down-side risks. Europeans should be humble in evaluating their ability to change Russia for the better after this bloody and disastrous conflict; in the end, only Russians can do that, if they choose to.

Ian Bond is Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform in London and is a member of Eurodefense-UK. He was a member of the British diplomatic service for 28 years.