Five years ago I wrote an op-ed calling for a new pan-European security treaty. The piece opened with these words: “We are in the middle of the worst political crisis since the end of the Cold War and there is a very real, albeit still remote, possibility of war in Europe.”
That piece was written in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and the political crisis that followed. Everyone became very nervous as the fighting in Donbas escalated, culminating in the downing of Malaysian commercial airliner MH17 in July 2014 that took tensions to a new level. An undeclared war had broken out in Ukraine that was in danger of getting out of hand.
Here we are five years on and basically nothing has changed. The fighting in Donbas continues, albeit at much lower level now. We are once again in a political crisis and the talk of war is back. Russia has unnerved the US and EU, not to mention Ukraine, by bringing up a large amount of troops to the Ukrainian border and reinforcing those already in the Crimea – the biggest non-scheduled troop movements since 2014.
“The problem is that unlike the Cold War, there are no rules to govern relations in the middle of Europe. As commentators such as Mark Galeotti and Professor Stephen Cohen have argued, despite its adversarial nature the Cold War was governed by a set of unwritten rules worn smooth by long use, which prevented the war ever getting hot. But all of those mechanisms were destroyed in 1991. It is time for Europe to sit down with Russia and draw up a new pan-European security pact,” I wrote five years ago.
The need for a new security pact is as acute today as then, as this last few weeks have shown. Without one we are destined to be plunged into these crises. And each one is pregnant with the possibility of mistakes leading to a hot war in Europe and beyond.
A security deal could put a permanent lid on those dangers. And the salient point here is actually the Russians want a new security deal. It has already thrashed out a possible framework and circulated it to the EU, NATO and other partners for discussion. But it was simply ignored. But it is not too late to dust that draft off and take a serious look at the proposals as a starting point for talks to end this dangerous insecurity.
Them and us
The existing security arrangements in Europe have not changed much since the Cold War, except those arrangements have been significantly weakened after the US unilaterally withdrew from one missile treaty after another, including the ABM ballistic missile treaty in 2002, the INS nuclear missile deal in 2018 and most recently the Open Skies military surveillance treaty this year, to name the most significant.
NATO remains at the centre of ensuring Transatlantic security, but the alliance was set up as a Cold War “them and us” organisation that was specifically designed to unify US-European security through collective commitments (Article five) and unifying defence systems. NATO was specifically designed to point guns and bombs at the Soviet Union.
Russia has inherited some of the assets of the Soviet Union, including its massive military machine and its nuclear weapons, but the Russians complain it is not the Soviet Union, but has still had the “them” mantel thrust upon it.
The Cold War was an ideological clash between socialism and capitalism, whereas modern Russia is now “on our side” in that it has embraced capitalism. The material well-being of its people has been transformed out of all recognition as a result and it is committed to becoming a market economy.
Of course the state still plays an important role in the economy, but Russia has a well-developed market economy and boasts some world-class privately owned companies such as Europe’s most valuable tech company Yandex, a sophisticated telecoms sector, a flourishing agricultural sector, a rapidly developing light manufacturing sector, an already large automotive sector and several of the biggest retailers in Europe amongst many other things.
Economically Russia is now fully integrated into the global market as the attempt to sanction Oleg Deripaska’s aluminium company Rusal in 2019 showed: a ban on doing business with Rusal caused the price of aluminium on the London Metal Market to spike by 40% overnight and the leading Western investment banks howled in pain as hundreds of millions of dollars of Rusal securities had in effect to be marked to zero overnight.
That is not to say Russia has finished its transition to a fully fledged market democracy. It continues to face serious problems with corruption and weak democratic institutions. Its political opposition is small, fragmented and weak, thanks to state repression. But the same can be said for many of the former Warsaw block countries like Hungary and Poland, and all of those in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
I won’t labour the point, as there is plenty to discuss here, but it is clear that Europe’s relationship with Russia is deeply conflicted as it treats Russia as, on the one hands, a political problem, and on the other, as a large and lucrative business partner.
Brussels has sanctioned Russia for annexing the Crimea and Berlin has slammed the poisoning of anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny. German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a point of meeting with Navalny personally when he was recuperating in a German hospital last year – a clear gesture of solidarity with Russia’s political opposition to Putin.
But at the same time Merkel has repeatedly stressed the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would directly connect Germany to Russia’s Yamal gas fields, by passing Ukraine entirely, is a purely “economic” project. The two points of view – political problem, lucrative market – are contradictory and leave the EU weak and divided on Russia.
The same is not true for the US, for which investment and trade with Russia play a much smaller role, so its rivalry in geopolitics is the main consideration, allowing it to be much tougher. The main constraint on the White House is its desire to repair relations all but destroyed by Donald Trump and so take European concerns into account when it comes to dealing with Russia.
Moscow itself has got fed up with this dual approach, where European firms hope to make fat profits selling creams, cured meats and consumer electronics to Russians with one hand, but political leaders slap Russia down with sanctions in the other. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov explicitly rejected this dual approach in his now famous joint press conference with the European Union's top diplomat Josep Borrell in February, where he laid out new rules of the game. Russia will no long accept “economically damaging” sanctions and is prepared to break off diplomatic relations if any more are imposed. At the same time, Lavrov said the Kremlin is happy to sit down to discuss arms control and climate change co-operation, provided the US is prepared to sign a commitment to mutually refrain from interfering in each other's domestic affairs.
The Russian troop movements around Ukraine have brought relations to a new low, but ironically today is also one of the best opportunities to strike a new deal with Russia in years, as for once there is a lot of common ground between two sides.
Arms controls: Putin’s response to rising tensions since his famous Munich Security Conference in 2007 has been to sacrifice the prosperity won in the noughties boom years to re-equip the military and to build up a fiscal fortress to make Russia immune to sanctions. That came at the price of low growth and stagnating real incomes that are causing political problems on the domestic front as dissent at home is clearly rising.
The Ministry of Finance has basically been running an austerity budget since 2012 and that has hobbled economic development. The Kremlin would love to loosen the purse strings and leverage up the economy, which could lead to an economic boom, but won't do so while it feels threatened by the US.
The US also seems to have taken a new tack. Despite all the tough man “pay the price” rhetoric, US President Joe Biden has actually only done two things with Russia since taking office: mirrored the EU by imposing token sanctions on only nine officials in connection with the poisoning of Navalny; and rapidly signing off on a new START III missile deal in January.
Given that US has withdrawn from one Cold War arms treaty after another this is a major change of policy for Washington. Moreover, Biden has made it clear that he wants to continue the arms control talks and prevent a new arms race developing.
The Russian side ratified the deal within 24 hours of it being inked and the foreign ministry immediately suggested that Washington and Moscow start work on putting the INS missile treaty back in place.
Common market: Putin’s long-term foreign policy goal is to create a common market “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” – a mantra that he has repeated many times over the years.
Although the current tensions are driving Moscow into Beijing’s arms, Putin sees Russia’s future as a partner of Europe, not China. Russia is a large country but in the coming decades it will be dwarfed by China, the US and the EU. It has to join a block if it is to remain relevant. I asked the former First Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich if Russia intended to throw in its lot with China during an interview a few years ago. “No, we are a European country and our future is with Europe,” he replied.
The Kremlin is as worried about China’s rise as Washington. But in the face of the relentless US aggression, which China also suffers from, Moscow has turned to Beijing, with whom it is presenting an increasingly united front against Washington. It's a temporary arrangement, but it will last several more years.
Putin’s solution has been to set up the Eurasia Economic Union (EEU), which is modelled on the EU, and in the long term could do a supra-national trade deal with the EU to create the Lisbon-to-Vladivostok single market.
Climate change: The world is not going to solve the climate crisis without Russia’s help and willing participation. Russia ratified the Paris Accord in 2019 and after a slow beginning the pace of doing something about emissions has picked up rapidly since the start of this year.
A spate of environmental disasters and the growing awareness that Russia’s permafrost is melting and will cause tens of billions of dollars worth of damage is pushing the issue up the Kremlin’s agenda. Analysts reportedly in the last week are warning that new cost of carbon fines could wipe out earnings for all of Russia’s utilities entirely if the worst-case scenario for such fines is imposed.
A new EU Green Deal in place that is supposed to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050. It comes with new taxes and duties on carbon-intensive imports, which is obviously much of what Russia sells. The details are all still up in the air, but as mutually important markets there are a lot of negotiations ahead.
The US will also have to engage with Russia as Biden has put the climate high on his agenda, and as Russia is a global top five emitter of CO2 no comprehensive plan can leave it out.
Russian draft security deal
A new European security deal is not a "pie in the sky" idea. The Russians want it and they have already prepared a comprehensive draft deal they hope will appeal to Brussels.
In 2008, Putin ordered the foreign ministry to draw up a proposal, which was supposed to enshrine in international law the "principle of security, a legal obligation, under which no state or international organisation in the Euro-Atlantic area could strengthen their security at the expense of other countries and organisations."
Copies were sent to the leaders of the countries concerned, as well as the executive heads of international organisations in the Euro-Atlantic area: to NATO and its eastern counterpart, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), as well as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and others.
The document was very specific, based on the Charter of the United Nations and grounded in international law. The preamble of the draft opens with: "Reminding that the use of force or the threat of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other way inconsistent with the goals and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, is inadmissible in their mutual relations, as well as international relations in general."
But at the core of the document is the recognition of mutual respect of national interests: "Parties, including in the framework of any international organisation, military alliance or coalition, shall be implemented with due regard to security interests of all other Parties," the draft says.
The Russians also proposed a three-step mechanism culminating in an Extraordinary Conference of all the signatories to the pact to resolve disputes.
All this is precisely what is needed now to de-escalate exactly the situation with Ukraine over the last six years. It would also provide a concrete mechanism, including commitments made by Russia as part of the deal, to prevent exactly the crisis we are currently facing.
If this deal had been accepted when it was proposed in 2008 then the subsequent annexation of Crimea should have been prevented.
I’m no legal expert and perhaps there is a lot to object to in the Russian draft security deal. Certainly if talks on the deal start now they will be very difficult. Many will say that a new security deal cannot be cut until Russia withdraws from the Donbas and gives back Crimea. But those are non-starters as positions.
The only way to start talks is to take the normal diplomatic route of doing a deal step by step, agreeing on the issues that can be agreed on and putting off the knottiest issues for later.
But this approach has also already been proposed by Europe in the so-called Steinmeier deal, a scaled down version of the Minsk II accords, suggested by former German foreign minister and now president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who suggested breaking up the deal into bite-sized pieces that could be achieved and rewarded as each step is made. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has also already agreed to the Steinmeier deal as a way to end the Donbas conflict.
All the pieces are already in place to do a security deal. It’s high time to finally close the chapter on the Cold War arrangements and do a deal for European security that looks to the future of Europe where Russia is an active trade partner even if it remains a prickly neighbour, that forges the political rivalries with the economic realities in a single mutual framework that takes account of the new realities of post-Cold War Europe.