By Prof. Dr. Rick Fawn
Professor of International Relations, School of International Relations
He also convenes the St Andrews section of the ‹Around the Caspian› Marie Curie Innovative
Training Network, which is funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Programme.
This policy paper was first published in ECN Perspectives, and can be accessed here
Regarding its foreign policy, Russia’s Coat of Arms could feature not one but two
The first double-headed eagle concerns incompatible Russian and Western views
on the post-Cold War peace, especially in Europe. This is not old history, but
painfully alive issues. For the Russian leadership, Russia is sinned against. It
was (now seen as mistakenly) a good team player in the early 1990s, keen to
forge a common peace, with Russia enshrined in it. But Moscow feels itself to
have been misled, mistreated and ultimately abused. The North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO), a Cold War military alliance should have disbanded; instead
it expanded in 1990, 1999 and 2004, and then again in 2009 (and 2017), and most
alarmingly in the latter stages intimated membership for the post-Soviet states of
Ukraine and Georgia. Worst still, NATO bombed Russia’s tiny Slavic Orthodox
fraternal Serbia in 1999, over spurious claims of defending human rights. The
Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) was Russia’s (and
others’) grand hope for post-Cold War pan-European security. By 1994, just as
United States (US) President Bill Clinton stunned Moscow by pronouncing that
NATO enlargement was no longer a ‘question of whether but when’, the CSCE was
hopefully transformed into an international organisation, but one which was, in the
eyes of successive Russian leaderships, quickly turned against it and even used to
foment revolution in the post-Soviet space.
The eagle’s second head declines to see, however, Western perceptions (and
facts) of the accommodation of Russia in this period. Russia gained membership
in key pan-European and international formations, including the G-7 which became
the G-8 (until Russian aggression against Ukraine). Russia received special status
with NATO; Western governments backed Russian President Boris Yeltsin when he
bombed his own parliament in 1993, and then closed their eyes to the conduct of
Russian military operations in Chechnya from 1994, and even rewarded Russia with
membership of the Council of Europe. For the West, Russia was underachieving
economically and politically, yet over accommodated institutionally.
No easy solution exists for these opposite facing heads; yet to proclaim the
entirety of that relationship as a New Cold War is counterproductive. Indeed,
Western governments and Russia can and still cooperate on key international
issues – be it for energy or against forms of terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and
common concerns should not only be pursued but used as bridgeheads for better
understanding and tangible cooperation.
The second pair of opposing eagle heads concerns Russian views – and actions –
towards neighbouring, post-Soviet states. The dynamic of first pair head is mirrored
again in contradiction. Indeed, an added dimension is that Russian policy flipped
from accepting the European Union (EU) enlargement to exhibiting hostility to the
Eastern Neighbourhood (EaP). The EaP, top Russian officials all proclaimed, was
forcing post-Soviet states to choose sides.
That view is only a recent backdrop to the double-headed approaches to the
former Soviet Union. One head professes a moralist, even altruistic and norm-advancing Russia: it keeps the peace and protects the innocent. It rallies selectively,
and purposefully (again) against Western double standards (particularly NATO’s 1999
bombing campaign and the wider but not complete Western recognition of Kosovo/a’s
February 2008 unilateral declaration of independence). Russia militarily defended
South Ossetia against (so it claimed) ethnic cleansing and genocide was the height
of selfless virtue. Recognising it and Abkhazia (where conflict start in August 2008
once Russian forces advanced from it) was an act of righteousness. He also claimed
to protect Russophones (and others) against a ‘fascist’ coup in Ukraine, sponsored
by the ever-conniving West, was both necessary and honourable. Annexing Crimea
protected the innocent and reversed injustices of history, an act codified again by
both reference and practice of key international norms, including the benediction of
a referendum (with no issue of its haste, in conflict circumstances, and a severely
polarised mini-campaign that visually pitted Nazi barbed wire against the freedom
the Russian tricolour).
In other, long-standing post-Soviet conflicts, Russia has positioned itself, if not as
an outright instigator of them, then as an early contributor to conflict sustenance
through supply of personnel and material. That role then morphed into mediator.
Moscow brokered, necessarily and commendably, ceasefires in such places as
Karabakh and Abkhazia, and was a co-guarantor of the peace settling Tajikistan’s
civil war. But in the former conflict, Russia remains an arms supplier to both Armenia
and Azerbaijan; since 2008 it is the outright and essential protector and patron of
Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has little interest in settling Karabakh; nor has
it supported Karabakh-Armenian self-determination. Status quo in this dangerous
standoff serves Russian interests. Apart from arming both Armenia and Azerbaijan,
Russia has integrated Armenia more deeply into its own military structures.(1)
Again, none of that prevents Moscow from simultaneously offering mediation.
After 2008, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev ramped up Russian mediation –
with presumably the agreement, or at least absence of objection from its other
co-chairs in the Minsk Group. Russia is also an unmovable, if also admittedly and
indispensable party to talks on both Georgian conflicts and Moldova-Transnistria.
But the second of the two eagle head is the perception of Russia by its neighbours.
Minimally, Moscow is seen as vetoing their foreign policy choices – much as in
the nineteenth century smaller states not only served but existed at the mercy of
Great Powers. Smaller post-Soviet states interested in close relations with the EU,
foremost Georgia and Moldova, share a vision of twenty-first century postmodern
relations of ceding some state sovereignty for collective gain. Little does Moscow
appreciate how – despite its own sense of being threatened and abused – its
actions threaten, in name and now indeed, the sovereignty and even survivability
of adjacent states. For the neighbouring states, Russia is hardly an honest broker
but a dangerous, self-serving conflict party.
The four Russian eagle heads intertwine worst over the EU’s EaP. While the EU
and its earlier Eastern enlargement, in contradistinction to NATO’s, were accepted
by Moscow, the EaP was deemed too hostile. EU became, albeit mistakenly,
perceived as an aggressor.
What must be called Russia’s weaponisation of news and information – domestically,
regionally and internationally – is very real and generally well-recognised.(2)
It makes the EU rightly uneasy. It risks exposing EU vulnerability – ideas and values
may prevent military threats on-ground in the longer-term but cannot in the short-term against an interlocutor with a different values system. While early efforts to
counteract this dilemma of unequal attributed are to be applauded,(3) recognition
is mixed (as for example evidence by votes in the European Parliament) and
efforts should continue. Soft power projection of values remains possible and
necessary; in this the EU has the advantage in its history and in practical funding and dissemination. The uses of alternative media, think tanks (4) – plus tangible measures to draw EaP countries away need to be encouraged.(5)
Russia’s approach to conflict zones (noting that Moscow and the breakaway entities
in Georgia consider these to be post-conflict) provides a modicum of support
for people in unrecognised or partly recognised entities – but denies them and
those displaced from an existence in which to reach their individual and collective
potentials. The EU’s soft power remains a considerable attraction. Engagement
without Recognition already gave some access and mobility to the self-recognised
state’s populations and counteracts the hegemony of Russian perceptions of those
conflicts and indeed also of the EU itself.
These practices give the Russian leadership short-term benefits of activism
and even of seeming morality and heroism. They are, however, short-lived and
ultimately self-defeating. Ukraine is, by its size and location, an even greater
challenge. Although Russian actions towards Ukraine wrong-footed the EU (after
all, none of those measures were anticipated, and were executed with impressive
ingenuity, if eventually less deniability), time can be on Brussels’ side; Russia does
not want the costs of direct management of Donbas and, after brief nationalist
chest-thumping by the Russian leadership, Crimea is becoming an economic
• Recognise that we now have a security dilemma – statements and actions by
each side inflame the other and provoke further that measures the increase
• The EU therefore needs a combination of projection of its own values while
retaining strong measures against Russia, notably elite-targeted sanctions.
• Indeed, sanctions should be retained that target private interests of the elite.
US President Donald Trump indicated at the G7 that sanctions could ‘get
tougher on Russia’ is encouragement for continuity.
• At the same time, the EU should stress that Russia’s best interests rest still
with the EU and the West more broadly, and that these are not in competition
with other areas of Russian activism, such as with BRICS6.
• That done, signalling particular Russian actions are unacceptable, foremost
the annexation of Crimea.
• Greater energy diversification – Central European initiatives, despite reliance
of Russian energy, are good indicators. Some measures, such as reverse-flow
infrastructure, have provided assistance.
• Positive roles for Russia in the wider international arena, including on limiting
nuclear proliferation. In that, allow Russia a rightful place to grand-stand as a
• Discourage arms sales in the conflict zones.
• Continue efforts to monitor and counter Russian news promotion and outright
• Increase societal interactions generally and specifically prioritise education for
students – get youth to know that the EU is not a menace.
• Solidarity of the EU in all of the above is essential – and this should be
underscored by recognition of the substantial common interest of so doing.
1 – For commentary see: What Does the Russian-Armenian Joint Military Force Mean for Security in
the South Caucasus?, by Georgian Institute of Politics, December 2016,: available here
2 – Russia’s information war: Propaganda or counter-propaganda?, by Martin Russell, European
Parliamentary Research Service (October 2016), available here
3 – See EU EAST STRATCOM Task Force (November 2015), available here
4 – Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for the West, by Andrew Wilson, 2014.
5 – A timely short analysis, also reflecting post-communist European member state understanding,
was Russian Promises and Threats: Towards the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, by Piotr
Kościński and Ievgen Vorobiov, 15 November 2013, available here