The EU should start planning now for Russia after Putin
Twenty-seven years before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in what now seems a very distant past, the European Union considered sanctioning Russia.
In 1995, following Russia’s military intervention in Chechnya, EU leaders suspended the ratification of a planned partnership and cooperation agreement and threatened Moscow with even greater consequences if its war crimes, including the indiscriminate bombing of Chechen civilians, did not stop.
The Boris Yeltsin government dealt with the conflict in Chechnya by unleashing further brutal military force, but Europe eventually backed down and ratified the agreement anyway. In the years that followed, Russia’s leadership went on to dismantle democratic institutions, invade Georgia in 2008 and ignite a war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the prologue to the full-scale invasion of February 2022.
Looking back at the missed opportunities of the 1990s is a reminder of how immediate dilemmas can lead policymakers to overlook signs of the next crisis on the horizon. As it responds to the carnage caused by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, the EU cannot afford not to prepare for the next Russian crisis.
The war in Ukraine, much like the war in Chechnya in the 1990s, has put immense pressure on Russia’s stability as a state. It is critical that EU member states and institutions start to plan for a range of postwar and post-Putin scenarios in Russia, including a destabilisation of the Russian political system that could lead even to armed conflict within the country. To protect the collective interests of Europe, including Ukraine, from any future turmoil engulfing Russia, the EU needs a strategy that actively encourages its democratisation, no matter how small the chances of that now seem.
The Kremlin has long dismissed Brussels as a global player. After European condemnation of the brutalities committed during the Chechen wars, Moscow tried to divide and rule, breaking down the bloc’s values-based unity, engaging individual leaders, identifying the most influential member states and their national interests. In many cases, Russia received the amount of economic and political integration with western nations it wanted while sidestepping domestic democratic reform.
Moscow’s cynical fixation on the interests of individual EU member states both reflected and cast a long shadow over the Russian perception of the EU. Even opposition-minded members of Russian civil society viewed the EU as an imbalanced confederation with big powers dictating the bloc’s economic and foreign policies. Economic growth, travel freedoms and cooperation with individual EU member states left them blind to the gradual decline of freedom in Russia. Russian elites acquired foreign language skills and enough stolen or oil-driven wealth to holiday comfortably in western Europe without bothering to endorse democratic values at home.
For Russia’s middle and upper class, this bargain with Moscow and Brussels ended with the invasion of Ukraine. Having lost any influence over Putin, Russian elites chose either to lie low, escape the country, or start infighting by shifting the blame for the crisis on to one another. If Russia manages to avoid a full-scale slide into totalitarianism, what remains of its democratic opposition may finally be able to acknowledge the EU’s capacity to exert transformative progressive power.
Ukrainian frustration with any deeper EU engagement with Russia would be understandable, but fostering a shift away from Russian imperialism would be in the interests of all of Russia’s neighbours. Since Moscow’s current elite will accuse the EU of interfering anyway, the EU has nothing to lose by having a wider debate about democratic reform in post-Putin Russia.
A postwar Russia trying to overcome Putin’s toxic legacy would have much to learn much from an economically prosperous bloc that has brought together and transformed societies that had once fought each other in two world wars.
But EU institutions would have to set out the detailed steps that Russia’s state elite must take as strict conditions for the reopening of trade, travel and investment access to the rest of Europe. They would also provide incentives. A genuine process of reform that launched the rule of law and acknowledged Russia’s post-conflict obligations to Ukraine and other affected states could be rewarded with the promise of negotiations with Brussels.
European distrust of Russia runs deep so the EU should be resolute about verification at every stage of this process. Many Russians are familiar with the principle of “trust but verify”, which underpinned talks on nuclear disarmament in the Gorbachev-Reagan era. But only an unwavering commitment to verification can rebuild trust. As trust is gradually restored, Russia could over time gain integration into the EU’s single market, the basis for Europe’s successful economic and social order.
It might sound premature to discuss strategies for stimulating Russian reform. But there may be only a fragile window of opportunity to support genuine transformation in Russia. It will require Russians to abandon the imperialist delusions of the Putin regime. If they can do so, there may be a path towards a common European home for all. The west must not lose sight of the potential for positive change in Russia, even as it supports Ukraine in its struggle for survival.
Alexander Clarkson is a lecturer in German and European Studies in King’s College London. Kirill Shamiev is a Russian political scientist and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations
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