Saturday, September 06, 2008

Better Russia as an ally than a foe
Peter Sain Ley Berry
EU Observer, 04.09.2008

When I was at university, there used to be a game, still popular around the world today, called Diplomacy. The players each represented one of the major European nations as they existed about one hundred years ago: France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Russia and so forth; their mythical armies and fleets (no aeroplanes then) battled for territory and power on a large board representing the map of Europe and the seas around it.

The game was known as Diplomacy because, as it is difficult to attack and to defend oneself at the same time and as a single country did not necessarily have the force by itself to overcome an opponent, the object was to arrange strategic alliances and non-aggression pacts with other players while bluffing about your true intentions.

It was, however, a time consuming game. Even in the real world, diplomacy is a task that requires a slow and steady hand. Besides, the game could only really be played effectively if discussions could be clandestine. Diplomacy by megaphone, though fashionable, is counterproductive

What used to strike me as significant, however, was the characteristics of the nation being played did not reflect, as they would in any other game, the characteristics of the player. Rather it seemed that whoever played Russia, for example, or Britain, would always end up playing that country in the same way.

What is true in a game, I suspect, holds no less true in real life. Unlike that of most of its neighbours, Russian foreign policy has not changed significantly in 300 years, despite cataclysmic changes of regime. It would be naive of us therefore if we were to pretend that Russian foreign policy is likely to change now, rooted as it is in the country's geography and history.

I am sure that President Sarkozy of France, as president of the European Council, will bear this in mind as he steps on to the Moscow tarmac on Monday accompanied by Mr Barroso and Mr Solana, to discuss with Mr Putin and President Medvedev how best we move on from the Georgian imbroglio.

For, in a sense, Europe has been caught facing two ways. Ostensibly it has broken off the current round of partnership talks with Russia, designed to set a new framework for co-operation, until the Russians withdraw their troops, now occupying parts of Georgia, to the positions they held on 7 August.

Yet it is hard to see Monday's Kremlin talks other than as a re-invigorated attempt to find a secure basis for just such a partnership. If agreement can be reached on Georgia on the basis of some mutual understanding how much easier will be be to extend the same understanding to other issues? One does wonder, however, how much is likely to be achieved in a single short day. Given the importance and intractability of the issues, more time is surely needed for something worthwhile. 'Trop de zèle,' as Talleyrand might have sighed.

But whatever the length, it is surely important that we on the European side understand Russia's legitimate fears and aspirations which, of course, extend far beyond the Caucasus. These have been well rehearsed in the press - not least in an excellent analysis by Jan Oberg in these pages last week. Of course, to understand does not necessarily mean to agree, still less to cave in.

But by understanding the Russian position - including why so many actions taken, semi-innocently, by the West are seen as provocative and threatening by Moscow - we shall be better able to reach a positive conclusion rather than a conversation that remains a dialogue of the deaf, which is what occurs when politicians posture and issue empty threats.

We in Europe need also to understand (and with a degree of humility) how our own actions, over Kosovo in particular, are seen by Russia. It is no use saying, as French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner does, that Kosovo is 'unique.' Everywhere is 'unique' in that sense, including Georgia. As a reason for transgressing international law, uniqueness is worthless.

We Europeans like to pat ourselves on the back and tell the world how we have replaced 'war' with 'law.' We pride ourselves on our adherence to the principle of a rules-based international order, but we omit to add the rider - "when this suits us," as it didn't, as it happened, in Kosovo. That the United States has an even stronger stake in this hypocritical position should not cloud our judgement.

We accepted that international law should be broken when first we bombed Kosovo and Serbia and then again when a majority of member states recognised Kosovo's illegal independence. A number of European states also joined the equally illegal and ill-fated crusade into Iraq. With such stains on our collective conscience, it ill behoves us to lecture Russia about adhering to international law; we are both tarred with the same delinquent brush.

Yet once we accept this - admit that we have no moral superiority here - we can sit down on an equal basis with Russia and talk about how it would be in the interests of both parties to see a future in which we both, really and truly, abide by international law.

Heaven knows we need a stable and effective partnership with Russia - and not just to run our own inter-bloc relations - but for the wider world as well. Europe needs Russian help in the Security Council on issues such as Iran, militant Islam, the Middle East, climate change, nuclear proliferation and so forth.

This does not mean abandoning the Caucasus, still less backing down from fierce criticism of Russia's record on human rights and democracy. But it does mean ceasing to treat Russia as though she were simply a blank space on the map.

The issues at stake are complex. They include trade, security, energy, democracy all the way from the Arctic to the Black Sea. They will take time to resolve. We must be prepared for give and take. Russia is not the old Soviet Union bent on ideological domination by force. We can deal rationally with modern Russia.

Talk of a new cold war is simply short-sighted.

We both need a rules-based world. And we both need to help each other stick by those rules. Russia is better an ally than a foe.

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