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Post-modern versus modern: The EU and Russia

After the Soviet collapse, Western leaders anticipated Russia’s incorporation into Post-Cold war European system would go smoothly. Nevertheless, failure of normative convergence between Russia and the EU coupled with Kremlin’s international assertiveness made this future unlikely. Furthermore, Putin has significantly threatened security in Europe with its recent audacious incursion into Ukraine that turned Russia into an ultimate peril for the intrinsic principles, on which the European Union was initially established. Feeble European response to crisis in Ukraine seems to suggest that the mainstream political mindset in Europe is reluctant to recognise Russia’s blatant assault on Ukraine as a tortuous attack on the EU and its post-cold war principles.

The existing debate revolves around the allegation that annexation of Crimea put an end to the Post-Cold war European order. It prompted certain authors to assert that just as the break-up of Yugoslavia ended the Cold War European order, the crisis in Crimea terminated the Post-Cold War European order.

The demise of the Soviet Union kicked off the emergence of the new European order. The key rudiments of this Post-Cold war (post-modern) European order were highly developed system of mutual interference in each other’s domestic affairs and security based on openness and transparency in the context of the EU. Prior to Ukrainian crisis, Russia has already took steps to sabotage institutional and intellectual basis of this order; namely, it withdrew from the Treaty of Conventional Forces in Europe and Moscow refused to ratify the reform of the European Court of Human Rights. Subsequently, by invading Ukraine and Georgia it violated Helsinki final act, which represented the sole assurance of invariability of borders in Europe. As such, the Kremlin used its military forces to expand its influence in the region, which made Russia’s belligerent attitude toward post cold war European order more palpable.

As well-known British diplomat Robert Cooper says, “what came to an end in 1989, was not just the Cold War, but the political systems of three centuries: the balance of power and the imperial urge”. The post-modern system renounced the use of force as a mean of conflicts resolution in Europe. Additionally, the Brussels-based institutions of modern Europe were built in order to prevent authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism from ever again taking root on the continent and leading it to war. Finally, the post-modern European order does not tolerate revision of borders in Europe or establishing new states, as it happened after the First World War.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Putin’s assault on the principles of Post-Cold war European order is many-fold.

Old styled power

Russia still acts as a 19th century great power, which perceives the world through the prism of balance of power. According to Russian understanding, upholding balance of power between great powers is the utmost stability promise of the multipolar system in international relations. The Kremlin is unable to exercise the balance of power without maintaining its own sovereignty, which, however, is “understood by Moscow as a right to control territories rather than as responsibility to the population”.[1]

The subsequent turn from Post-Cold war principles lies in Russia’s adherence to the notion of spheres of influence. Russo-Georgian war in 2008 along with the Ukrainian crisis exposed Russia’s reluctance to accept EaP space as common neighbourhood for the EU and Russia. In contrast, Moscow reckons this territory as “near abroad”, where it set up “red lines” for the West not to cross to impede incorporation of neighbouring countries into the Western institutions. It disclosed Moscow’s sphere-of-influence type of thinking, which undeniably embodies the neo-imperialistic mentality and relies on regional supremacy of hegemony. Nonetheless, Russia suffers from the deficiency of effective mechanisms and tools for dictate the countries, locating in its sphere of influence.

Autocratic federation and ethnic nationalism

Vindicating annexation of Crimea, Putin alleged that he had defended the interests of millions of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people. Evidently, his aggressive campaign encompasses ethnic nationalism. Interestingly, Hitler in 1938 justified his incursion into Austria with the need to guard fellow ethnics.

Furthermore, Mr. Putin resuscitates ferocious imperialism and abets secessionism with his affirmed yearning to control any lands, where Russian language is spoken. In spite of this, it would be an over-simplistic statement to claim that Russia is an empire. In contrast, empire constitutes definite type of discourse, which wrestles to other discourses in shaping Russia’s identity. According to the Kremlin’s understanding, being empire does not automatically alienate Russia from the West. Simultaneously, through the imperial identity, Russia seeks to accomplish its super power status and defines its position as fully fledged and equivalent interlocutor in its interactions with Europe. Similar to spheres of influence, countries in “near abroad” are scared of Moscow’s revived imperial impulses and there is no normative/value driven commitments between Russian and these countries.

Finally, after he succeeded in turning Russia into authoritarian state, Putin’s attack on Ukraine aimed at obstructing of implementation of Maidan’s democratic principles into real political life of Ukraine. Russia’s state authoritarianism coupled with orthodox conservatism and imperialist urge epitomizes an alternative model to western liberal values and principles.

Russia's "near abroad" and the areas to be potentially affected by  its ethnic nationalism
Russia’s “near abroad” and the areas that can be potentially affected by its ethnic nationalism. Credit: Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Russia and EU: Modern and post-modern approaches to foreign policy

Having regarded these clashes, where can the roots of conflict be found? Igor Krastev argues that at the heart of the current crisis is not the dispute between democracy and authoritarianism, but conflict is entrenched into the different types of actors they represent. Russia is “setting itself up as an ideological alternative to the EU, with a different approach to sovereignty, power and world order. In the Kremlin’s vocabulary, sovereign power is a synonym for great power”.

To interpret this supposition, while the EU sticks to postmodern path, Russian leadership embraces to Westphalian understanding of sovereignty. For the sake of better comprehension of postmodern-modern binary, we should reference two authors. As Klinke notes, “while Russia is seen as caught up in spatial framework of fixed territory, national identity and traditional geopolitics, the European Union embodies a postmodern spatial mindset that simultaneously reflects and drives the dissolution of sovereign territory, the formation of multi-layered identities and the disappearance of geopolitics”. He also suggests that beneath of the postmodern-modern binary are sub-binaries, which exemplify the difference of the EU approach to Russia’s: post-sovereignty versus sovereignty; free trade versus autarky; soft power versus hard power; normative foreign policy versus real-politics and decentralisation versus centralisation. Similarly, U.S. political scientist Robert Kagan suggests, “the modern is associated with the classical state system, sovereignty, the nation state and real-politics, while postmodern is linked to supranational institutions, the unraveling of sovereign territory and ethical foreign policy”.

Although Russia has never been the post-modern state, it certainly belonged to the post-modern European order. Europe sought to accommodate Russia into the post-modern system through the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, through Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe and OSCE, etc. However, Moscow failed to turn Russia into post-modern country and in the wake of new century, its leadership decided to build statehood based on 19th century European principles and ideas rather than the European mindset of the 21st century. As Krastev wisely mentions, “for Moscow, the EU’s post-modernism is what vegetarianism is for cannibals – an irritating irrelevance”.

Finally, why Russia is so ingrained into its modern-state psyche and preserves outdated principles for interaction with other countries? Boris Mezhuev suggests, “Russia generally considers postmodern European values to be unfit for its status as a superpower with huge natural resources and a substantial military potential”. Furthermore, with consolidation of these two assets, Russia tries to ensure its exceptional standing vis-à-vis Europe and the rest of the world. According to the logic of Russian political establishment, if Russia decides to integrate in European arrangements, it will have to give up a considerable portion of its superpower ambitions, as Germany did after the Second World War. Therefore, it would be irreconcilable with Russia’s constant search for self-determination in the international system as a great power. Against this backdrop, European elites express their irritation in respect of Russia’s disinclination to streamline its set of values through undergoing ultimate moral and political transformation.

References and further information

Cover photo credit: Pawel Kuczynski

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