ISSUE 3-2008
Lubos Vesely
Sergei Marchenko Ян Белакрывский Irina Vidanava
Jaroslav Basta
Olga Ros
Богдана Костюк
Petr Labut

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

By Jaroslav Basta | Czech Ambassador to Ukraine, the Czech Republic | Issue 3, 2008

     During discussion about Russia there is more attention devoted to historical experiences, concerns and interests than to the other side of the equation which seeks answer. All can be correct but the author of this material does not intend to take up the role of devil´s advocate -- but if so, then only little.
     What has caused Russia , convulsed recently as ten years ago by serious internal economic and political problems, to become over the last few years one of the largest unresolved problems of European politics? To answer this it is necessary to go back to the turn of the century when in March 2001 President Putin introduced representatives and senators to his plan for the renewal of the Russian Federation as a world power by 2013, that is, over three presidential terms of office. The most important role in this was to be played by an efficient Russian economy, which at the time was the main purpose of the reforms.
     One well-known Czech political scientist of note, an authority on Russian folklore, has found a nice analogy for Putin´s plan in the fairy tale Living and Dead Water. In this tale they first gather together the pieces of a dismembered knight and put him together again. This was the task for the first term of office, when the empire, originally held together more thanks to the electrical grid of the state-owned RAO JES and the pipe network of Gazprom than to authority of the Kremlin, was gradually screwed together using so-called vertical power, a dictatorship of the law and controlled democracy, which in Russian Newspeak are terms indicating a transition from the wild democracy of the Yeltsin era to the current authoritarian regime. This is the dousing in dead water which ensures that the parts of the corpse grow together once more and to which the Russian fairy tale refers. This is a relevant description of the second Putin term of office. Part of it was a fundamental change in ownership, which apparently had the appearance of renationalisation but was rather a transition to the Chinese model for the economy. It is a proven method to ensure for people, holding political power, considerable wealth.
     Continuing in application of Russian fairy tales we can say that Russian economy has undergone not only a resurrection, but enjoyed a period of miraculous enrichment, as the price of crude oil has gone through the roof over the last eight years. As for the price of gas sold to Central Europe , I blush to think of it, it is altogether too painful a subject. And it is precisely these petrodollars pouring into the Russian treasury over the last six years which are the living water which causes our hero to leap up and rejoin the fight, the wiser for his defeat, death and miraculous resurrection. The inhabitants of Georgia know that all too well.
     But now back from the lyricism of Russian folklore to reality. Without any doubt the present difficult and dangerous international situation has been strongly influenced by the unexpectedly rapid enrichment of Russia. Among other things, because Russia has not invested these resources so much into infrastructure modernisation, but to the economy and new technologies as it has into armaments and economic expansion in both neighbouring and more distant countries. And what is more, the economy itself has become one of the most effective instruments of Russian power politics. During last few years we have been witnesses of a quiet, but very persistent fight for territories which might best be called post-Soviet space. Without doubt up to 2005 it was the West that was winning. Then a distinct change took place in the balance of power and the West lost its influence in Central Asia . This fact was not accompanied by a visible strengthening of the Russian position in the region,  therefore it did not give rise to concerns and paradoxically even led to a deepening of cooperation between the West and the Russian Federation. It was an attempt to widen NATO to the south and west frontiers of the Russian Federation that was met by indignant Russian opposition and this culminated in the Russian attack on Georgia.
     This is a breakpoint in the history of Russian relation with the West, the first time since 1991, when Russia has entered into open confrontation with the West. It is necessary to acknowledge that Russia was been better prepared for this confrontation than the West. Among other reasons, it is caused by the fact that Russia used situation to heal its trauma  from the 1990s, when  the Soviet Union broke up and Moscow lost its importance and faced economic collapse.
     The dangerousness of the arising situation is also amplified by the fact that the elder of the tandem of Russian leaders is using this to reinforce his position, and the younger sees in it a way to achieve bigger influence.  On the day August 8, 2008 the old Soviet definition of nearby countries, as an area where Russian armed forces would intervene to defend interests which Moscow defined for itself as of vital importance, rose from an imaginary grave. Which to be honest can be almost anything.
     Concerning optimism about the future this is significantly reduced by the fact that the war in Georgia was the first “small victorious war” in modern Russian history. This has emboldened the new Russian president Medvěděv so much, that he has brought forth his principles of Russian foreign policy, which also include the Primakov doctrine of a multipolar world (Telling in the spirit of the Russian saying, “Many dogs mean the death of the hare” or, all against the US and the European Union). This principle of Soviet policy did not work for as long as Russia was weak, but it now has the resources and the self-confidence enough to put this doctrine into practice.
     And as far as the energy security of Central Europe is concerned, eventually the whole EU, one has once less optimism in future. If political relations between the West and Russia are further aggravated, it is to be expected that some countries in Central Europe will be confronted with what some specialists call Russian energy imperialism. One can interprete this like a process leading to certain routes for the transport of oil and gas no longer being used. Transit countries which the Russian Federation considers unreliable or unfriendly in behaviour will cease in the future to be transit countries. This is one of the purposes of projects such as South Stream and North Stream. If Russia is successful in this, the present-day allies and neighbours of these uncomfortable countries will help Moscow to achieve it. Russia is more than likely to be successful, because objectively speaking there is not going to be enough Russian oil to go round and that will give the Russian Federation all the more effective an instrument to wield its power politics. That is without mentioning that Russian exports of energy are now slowly being diverted towards the growing needs of Asian countries – China, Japan and India. It does not take a leap of imagination to see what this will mean for Europe . It is enough to look at the present position of the Ukraine. 
     Maybe someone could find this analysis too pessimistic and depressing. So let us talk about ways out of the current complicated situation. The Russian Federation is the EU’s largest neighbour, it is an important exporter of energy and plays a significant part in European and world security. It is a country with perhaps the largest reserves of strategic raw materials and is a former world superpower, into whose genes expansion is hard-wired. Currently it is a politically and economically stable country, which as the owner of several thousand nuclear warheads is a very positive thing from our point of view. The condition of Russian democracy is comparable with similar large states whose economies are based on raw materials extraction (for example, Brazil and Argentina ) and is more advanced than in Russia ’s southern and eastern neighbours (Central Asia, China ). Over recent decades we have become used to living with a weak Russia torn by internal problems but this history has now ended and we must accept the reality of the situation. The West should not; therefore, be surprised or indeed offended by the fact that the Russian Federation has its interests and ambitions and feels strong enough to begin to advance upon these openly and sometimes by force. Rather we should consider whether we, ourselves, are able to define our interests and our position, with respect to Russia.
     It is not an easy task of how we can see in the relation of West to the Ukraine (and then to Belorussia and Moldavia ) where our diversity of interests and our collective searching can most apparently be seen. We do not know whether these countries are to be part of an integrated Europe or a buffer zone between the EU and the Russian Federation . In the first case we will have to engage in a struggle with Russia not only on the field of power and economics, but above all in the area of politics. We will have a very difficult assignment to persuade the Ukrainian political elite of the necessity to change its conditions, to adapt European standards, and of the fact that they must set out on the long and difficult road already passed by the countries of Central Europe.
     In the second case we will simply rely on the fact that an alliance with Russia is not in the interests of the Ukrainian political elite. We will continue to express our support for the Ukraine and we must be satisfied with the fact that Ukraine does not become a Russian ally and that we avoid confrontation with the Russian Federation at the same time. However,   history has already shown us once that buffer zones simply cannot work in the long term. In part because an assertive, internally motivated policy of expansion cannot be met with a policy of appeasement but then that is another question - a question of courage, decisiveness and internal unity on the part of the EU and NATO.

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Irina Vidanava
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