Is There Still a Place for Russia in the European Security System?

Generation after generation, European politicians were accustomed to the false mantra 'that without Russia there will be no peace in Europe’

25 May 2022

Recently, voices such as Henry Kissinger in Davos have been advocating for Ukraine to cede territory to Russia and warned the West not to humiliate Russia as this would ‘destabilise’ the region. Such arguments fail to come to terms with the true nature of a Russia with imperialist ambitions.

Until very recently, many European politicians firmly believed that ‘without Russia there will be no peace in Europe.’ Now this conviction has been shaken. In order to see whether it is still viable, we need to take a step back and see how peace in Europe was preserved before, with and without Russia. 

For the last two centuries Europe had known two basic systems of European security: the system of ‘conflictual balance’ created in Vienna in 1815 with Russian participation, and the system of economic interdependence created in Paris in 1951 without Russian participation. During 1951-1991 these two systems coexisted — in 1990s the system of economic interdependence seemingly prevailed — however since 2000 Russia made a strategic choice to restore in Europe the old system of ‘conflictual balance.’ 

The Western politicians and analysts failed to see that this choice was deliberate as a necessary step in the preservation of Russian, still imperial, statehood. This Western myopia led to a number of bloody consequences, including the current war in Ukraine. The article reviews several strategic options for the West in dealing with today’s Russia and recommends one of them as the most secure one.

No Peace in Europe Without ‘Gendarme of Europe’

Generation after generation, European politicians were accustomed to ‘the mantra that without Russia there will be no peace in Europe’ — as Markus Ziener recently put it, describing ‘Ukraine’s president uncomfortable questions’ to the German government. 

Emmanuel Macron was repeating this very mantra in the middle of March 2022. However, Putin’s stubbornness in attacking Ukraine made reconsideration of this belief inevitable. In early April, Boris Johnson proclaimed that ‘the Europe we knew just six weeks ago no longer exists: Putin’s invasion strikes at the very foundations of the security of our continent.’ Lars Klingbeil, the leader of SDP, declared on 8 May 2022, that he no longer believes in his party’s programmatic thesis that security in Europe is attainable only with Russia.

Of course, the long-term conviction that Russia is and, indeed, should be an integral part of European security was not accidental. In fact, its origin is known precisely — it was born in 1815 in Vienna during the famous Congress, which actually created the new pan-European security foundations. The core idea of this security was that of the ‘Concert of Europe’ based on a ‘conflictual balance’ between the ‘Great European Powers.’

Russia was one of those Powers — indeed, one of the most significant ones. Soon after the Congress of Vienna it started to maintain ‘European security’ in its own political interests — that is, resist any liberalism it could reach and suppress any kinds of ‘nationalistic’ revolutionary movements. 

After the Polish-Russian War of 1830-31, when Russia crushed the ‘November Uprising’ with extreme cruelty (greeted, among others, by Alexander Pushkin), it earned the well-known title of ‘gendarme of Europe’, given sometimes to tsar Nicholas I (who reigned from 1825 to 1855) and sometimes to Russia itself. It is also important to remark, following Martin Malia (‘Russia under Western Eyes’, 1989), that this resolute involvement of Russia into European affairs in fact coincided with transformation of Russian political order from ‘enlightened despotism’ to ‘Oriental despotism’. Nevertheless, Russia’s place in the ‘Concert of Europe’ remained undisputed.

This vision of European security as a ‘conflictual balance of powers’ with indispensable Russian participation survived even the first world war and was not reconsidered until the end of the second world war. The seeds of an alternative and, indeed, much safer system of European security sprouted only in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community, created by the political genius of Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer. The ‘conflictual balance’ was replaced here by economic interdependence — so deep and pervasive that any war between the interdependent parties became unthinkable.

However, this second system of European security initially did not include Russia. Moreover, due to Russia’s hostility to the West (by this time Russia with all its remaining colonies was called ‘the Soviet Union’), this new system of European security was forced to coexist with the previous system of ‘conflictual balance,’ reduced to simple ‘balanced’ opposition of Russia and its rather involuntary satellites (forced into ‘The Warsaw Treaty Organisation’) against NATO and the Western European economic bloc that would eventually become the EU (falsely and provocatively portrayed by Russia and its Western ideological allies as ‘the US and its rather involuntary satellites’).

The ‘Concert of Europe’ Changed Its Tune — Why Russia Did Not Play Along

In 1991 this twin modus of European security seemingly came to an end. Of course, it was very natural, tempting and even generous of the European politicians to extend the new security system — the one based on economic interdependence — to Russia. 

Not fully, of course (after all, the Russian Federation was not a member of either the EU or NATO), but as much as possible. Thus, Europe after 1991, in fact, had more than one security system but less than two separate ones — there was the system of ‘strong’ economic interdependence inside the EU and the system of ‘weaker’ economic interdependence between the EU and its eastern neighbours, first and foremost Russia.

As a result of all these changes, Russia’s role in European security was reduced from a major ‘Power’ that always had a lever to influence the European affairs via ‘conflictual balance’ to a minority shareholder in a new system it did not create and could not seriously influence from the inside. 

Of course, Russia was warmly invited to approach and feel at home – and this gave the new impetus to the almost bicentenary mantra ‘without Russia there will be no peace in Europe.’ But could Russia indeed content itself with this new role?

We all know that it did not — the only remaining point is to see why it did not and could not.

Among the major reasons, I will mention just two:

  • Foremost, having lost direct political control over the Baltic countries, Ukraine and even Belarus — more importantly, having lost their populations as the most westernised part of its imperial subjects — Russia after 1991 remained with a less westernised population (with the partial exception of Moscow, St. Petersburg and a thin layer of intelligentsia elsewhere) than it ever had after its colonial expansion westward during 1676-1815 (respectively, the colonisation of Central Ukraine and creation of the Russian-controlled ‘Kingdom of Poland’). This alone greatly facilitated and fostered its transformation into renewed ‘Oriental despotism’ under Putin after the precedents of Nicholas I and Stalin.
  • The second reason being that during the rule of Yeltsin, the Russian elite soon discovered that the new mode of European security did not guarantee the security and territorial integrity of Russia itself. In fact, the very spread of Western liberalism in Russia was poison to the Russian state, because it still remained imperial, having subordinated and re-baptised as ‘Russians’ numerous people (Chechens, Tartars, etc.) that wanted state independence from Russia as soon as they saw even a flicker of such a liberal option. (And why would they not? They are no more ‘Russians’ than Ukrainians or Lithuanians were before 1991.)

This made the Russian ruling elites face an unpleasant geopolitical dilemma: 

  • Either sink with no resistance into the new European security of economic interdependence, accept Western liberalism and meekly tolerate further disintegration of Russian statehood (starting from Chechnya and on to the neighbouring North Caucasian regions)
  • Or change the mode of Russian statehood into internal and external aggressiveness, resist the corrupting influence of Western liberalism, restore in Europe the previous system of ‘conflictual balance,’ and thus regain its major role in European security (neglected and rejected by the West when dealing with the Balkan crises of 1990s).

Again, we all know that Putin was selected by the Russian ruling elite — and then formally elected by the Russian population — with the mandate for this second option. Following the mandate, Putin crushed all existing ‘separatisms’ inside Russia, and then, quite naturally, went on to recapture the ‘recently lost Russian territories.’

The major fault of all Western politicians from 1991 to 2022 was that they totally overlooked this dramatic dilemma of Russia’s ruling elite and kept blindly involving Russia in the system of economic interdependence (in its ‘weaker’ form)  without any understanding of what Putin is doing and why his aggressiveness cannot be tamed by ‘more contracts and more money.’ This Western myopia led to a number of bloody consequences, both in Europe and outside of Europe, which reached their climax in the current Russian-Ukrainian war.

The rest of the story is well known. Putin created a number of conflicts here and there in Europe and thus forced the West to return to the twin mode of security known from the period of 1951 till 1991 — whereas all Western politicians, with no visible exceptions, perceived Russian aggressiveness not as a systematic strategy, but as a strange temporary deviation from the system of economic interdependence they stubbornly wanted to see as the only available option. 

They did not want to accept the fact that since 2000 Russia was playing a totally different game (although well-known from the recent European history) — that the refusal of Russia to content itself with the post-WWII European security system based on economic interdependence was well-considered; that, in fact, it was a necessary step for preservation of Russian imperial statehood.

No Peace in Europe With Russia

For the West’s strategy of today and tomorrow, the most important lesson is this — the mentioned ‘unpleasant geopolitical dilemma’ of the Russian ruling elite will not disappear even after the death of Putin or his replacement by any other ruler. This choice will reappear again and again as long as Russia preserves its current imperial territory, with a number of peoples and regions kept forcefully inside only by a combination of petrodollars and brute force.

That is why ‘the mantra that without Russia there will be no peace in Europe’ should be replaced by a sober recognition of the opposite statement: there will be no peace in Europe with Russia, as long as Russia exists as a single state ruled from Moscow. The new Europe of economic interdependence does not need Russia as the ‘gendarme of Europe’ and one of the ‘Great Powers’ in the outdated and unstable system of ‘conflictual balance.’ On the other hand, Russia cannot content itself with peaceful ‘westernisation’ based on economic interdependence without compromising its own imperial statehood — as already happened in the 1990s.

The strategy the West is seemingly inclined to so far is to ‘punish’ Russia, but some such as Kissinger also advocate helping the Russian ruling elite survive the sanctions and preserve the Russian state as it stands now. However, if this will happen, the West will watch the gradual restoration of Russian aggressiveness as inevitably as it was in interwar Germany — for the reasons explained above.

Another possible option is to press Russia with sanctions until various centrifugal forces will prevail and cause its spontaneous, rather chaotic disintegration. Obviously, this option is about just as dangerous as the previous one.

Finally, the least dangerous option is to foster the true democratisation of Russia — that is, the planned and controlled transformation of the Russian imperial state now formally called ‘Russian Federation’ into a number of smaller political entities with a more homogeneous population and scope of interests, which would have a real chance to establish themselves as democratic nation-states (possibly cooperating under the umbrella of a certain ‘commonwealth’).

This last option seems to be the only one that can truly provide long-term peace to Europe.

Part of #DemocraCE project

Picture: “The President of Ukraine visits NATO” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by NATO

Oleksiy Panych

Oleksiy Panych is a professor of philosophy, columnist and member of the Ukrainian Center of PEN International.


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