Preserving the post-Cold War system in Europe should be the aim of Western strategy towards Russia.

During the two decades preceding the Russian annexation of Crimea, Western powers did not have a comprehensive strategy towards Russia because they perceived no need to devise one. The West did have a full-spectrum strategy for inclusion of the former members of the Warsaw Pact and the Baltic States into NATO and the European Union, to create a strategically and societally unified space in a ‘Europe whole and free’. This project led Russia to denounce NATO enlargement; attempt to thwart through diplomatic means Western intervention (notably in the Balkans); and actively block shifts in the strategic status quo in the ‘near-abroad’ states of Ukraine and Georgia. Russia was unable, however, to prevent the successful extension of the EU and NATO elsewhere. Furthermore, these frictions and others – such as the Kosovo War, the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the invasion of Iraq – did not prevent substantial economic, diplomatic and strategic intercourse. NATO–Russia cooperation was put in place, Russia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace and the West unilaterally undertook not to deploy nuclear weapons or substantial military forces on the territory of new NATO member states. Russian–Western relations remained particularly strong in the field of nuclear non-proliferation, whether in the G8 format to deal with the nuclear legacy of the USSR or in the negotiations concerning the Iranian atomic programme. 

Although Western assumptions about the eventual adoption by Russia of the full range of democratic norms at home, and of effective multilateralism abroad, increasingly appeared to be misguided, Russia stated its intention to abide by the set of formal rules and treaties which characterised the European system after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia was unhappy with the system, but continued to operate within its confines. Even the war in Georgia was presented as being compatible with post-Cold War arrangements. The independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was portrayed as the functional equivalent of Western policy vis-à-vis Kosovo. However jarring the analogy may be to Western ears, its use and abuse did not signal a Russian decision to become a revisionist state. Russia’s record of compliance vis-à-vis the treaties on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) was imperfect, but neither the West nor Russia chose to see this as cause for a broader crisis in relations; indeed, the unilateral American decision to withdraw in 2002 from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was of much greater diplomatic and strategic magnitude. Despite the narrative which had been building up in Russia within months of the dissolution of the USSR, revisionism was still only a rising temptation, not yet a policy. Notwithstanding warnings such as President Vladimir Putin’s speech in Munich, followed by the war in Georgia, the West could continue to consider Russia as a status quo power, albeit an irritable and assertive one – until the events of March 2014.

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François Heisbourg is Special Adviser to the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique and Chairman of the IISS. This article draws on remarks presented to the 2014 IISS Global Strategic Review on 19–21 September 2014 in Oslo, and incorporates thoughts expressed in ‘Marx und Bush lagen falsch’, Die Zeit, no. 44, 23 October 2014.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

February-March 2015

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