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Dr Kevork Oskanian

Research Fellow

Kevork Oskanian is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Birmingham having previously been a Lecturer in the Political Science and International Studies Department. He has previously taught at the University of Westminster and the London School of Economics, where he also received his PhD.

Array ( [0] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 5750 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2021-05-10 00:00:10 [post_date_gmt] => 2021-05-09 23:00:10 [post_content] => ‘What does Russia want?’: this perennial question of the post-Cold War era has remained left, right, and centre of policymaking and analysis towards Moscow since the end of the Cold War. At first, in the 1990s, the question depended largely on the drama of Russia’s collapse, and a tug-of-war between the various competing identities – liberal, pragmatic, red/brown - that marked both state and society during that unsettled decade.[1] The restoration of the power vertical by Vladimir Putin didn’t end the ambiguity and confusion on Russian intentions. Over time, however, one thing became abundantly clear: the Putin regime was willing to pay considerable costs to maintain a regional ‘sphere of special interest’, composed of states whose sovereign equality it had much difficulty in accepting. Western observers like to explain Putin’s apparent inability to ‘let go’ of his neighbours in various ways: it is, some say, a ruse designed to mobilise public opinion around the flag of an autocratic regime suspicious of Western-style democracy;[2] others present it as a product of an entrenched, specifically Russian neo-imperial political culture that demands obedience from hapless neighbours stuck in its ‘near abroad’;[3] and those of a more realist persuasion tend to point at NATO’s attempts to expand Eastwards – and into that ‘near abroad’ - as the primary driver of a Russian subversion born from insecurity.[4] In the process, more or less clear dividing lines are created: between those who see NATO’s open-door policy as representing the road to emancipation from Putin’s authoritarian reflexes or Russian neo-imperial meddling, and those who see it as the primary cause of Russian pushback. It is, more often than not, either one, or the other; hawks or doves, a hard or soft – the dividing lines appear clear. The binaries whereby Russian motives are reduced to either domestic or external factors, and the solution is presented as ‘NATO expansion or bust’ simplify both the causes of, and the solutions to the predicament confronting not just Ukraine, but all the states that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. The result has often consisted of reducing complexity to a false choice: between a continued attachment to a mechanism that was once seen as a solution to the ‘Russian problem’ by the luckier members of the former Soviet bloc – NATO membership; or the abandonment of the hapless countries on the other line of the current NATO boundary to the Russian sphere of interest. Indeed, the latter goes against the fundamental principles of the Liberal International Order (LIO), and the West’s default position has remained offering countries like Ukraine and Georgia a - highly theoretical - chance for membership, in the absence of a clear consensus on its feasibility, let alone a concrete timeline for its realisation. This has allowed Western policies towards the former Soviet space to become stale, predictable, formulaic, leaving Putin the continued ability to surprise, thwart, and sabotage at a price he is willing to pay. In both Georgia and Ukraine, the Kremlin knows where to poke and to provoke so as to foster division and complicate this supposed roadmap towards emancipation; beyond aspiring NATO candidates – in Syria, Armenia, Azerbaijan - his ability to pull rabbits out of his hat is also proven, time and again. But is NATO the only answer? As I shall argue here, NATO membership is neither a practically sufficient, nor, in fact, a morally necessary solution to the post-imperial predicaments of Russia’s immediate neighbours. There are, in fact, other ways of ensuring the security and emancipation of these states and societies, albeit ones that require strategic patience and adaptability away from long-held, ossified assumptions on Russian motives, and an attachment to solutions based more on policy inertia than a clear-eyed view of ever-changing geopolitical realities. If NATO has been relatively successful in Central and Eastern Europe, the conditions which made this success possible do not hold in the former Soviet Union, and the ‘NATO imperative’ now presents rigidities and complications that Eastward policies could very well do without – not least, in the longer-term interest of Russia’s neighbours themselves. This is not an argument in favour of appeasement or abandonment, far from it. Instead, it is one in favour of changing the cost/benefit environment within the former Soviet space from a logic based on unidimensional views of Russian motivations, and a short-term, outdated view of the wider strategic environment, to a finer-grained, longer-term, contextualised alternative. It is based on a cautious rejection of the idea that Russia could be coaxed to return to a golden age of the ‘Liberal International Order’ - which mainly exists in the minds of the selectively forgetful in any case – in a geopolitical great-power contest which reinforces, rather than weakens, Moscow’s association of territoriality with great-power status; and the embracing of a new world, where the West and the former Soviet states will have to dig in, adequately shield themselves, and patiently wait for more secular changes in Russia to manifest themselves, opening up possibilities for future arrangements not necessarily based on a return to an idealised, liberal past. What does Russia Want – and Why Does it Want it?To start with, it is simplistic to assume that Russian foreign policy is the product of the innate anti-democratic ideological propensities of one man, or group of (mostly) men. Quite apart from the fact that attributing a coherent ideology to Putin would be quite mistaken – beyond a general imperative for power – the reduction of Russia’s recent behaviour to an individual or distinct group would also only tell a very partial story. Individuals do not exist in social and institutional voids, they shape and are shaped by these environments. To ask ‘how do we solve a problem like Putin/the ‘Siloviki’ thus misses the wider structural contexts within which leaders like Putin emerge, and their imperious acts earn them popularity. It also creates the unrealistic expectation that once the ‘criminal’ Putin regime is removed, the elements for a ‘new Russia’ may somehow miraculously fall into place – based on the mistaken assumption that, in the Russian case, broader institutions and political culture would temper, rather than enhance, any moves towards more assertive, illiberal foreign policies.[5] Waltz’ warning against overstating the case for the ‘first image’ of international relations – individuals - stands;[6] so does his admonition on placing too much faith in the second image – the domestic political system – by assuming the arc of Russian history would gravitate towards democracy were it not for Putin. Chances are that, rather than some kind of liberal enlightenment, a fall of the regime would be followed by a tug-of-war between hawks and doves, hardliners and moderates, with history – and Russia’s present realities - considerably in favour of the former. Russia’s liberals and liberalism itself have been comprehensively sidelined over the past few decades, both within government, and in society at large.[7] And while conflict over Russia’s relationship with the West has been a recurring phenomenon throughout its history, it has never been able to change its worldview in a way that denied itself an exceptional role within a hierarchically conceived neighbourhood: even the 1990s liberals envisaged a ‘normal’ Russia as having a special role in ‘its near abroad’.[8] That is not so say that Russian society has some kind of unchangeable, self-contained imperial reflex. For, just as Putin is also a product of Russian domestic society, the Russian elite’s world-view is also a product of an International Society marked by the dominance of a Western modernity towards which it has strived, problematically, since the days of Peter the Great.[9] Against those who see Russian actions as inevitable by virtue of a circular non-argument – ‘Russia is Russia’ – the country’s state and society are inextricably entangled with the West. Russia’s centuries-old struggle with Western modernity as a model – often the goal, and always, frustratingly, out of reach – underlies many of its contradictions, including, paradoxically enough, its current challenge to the LIO. This goes further and deeper than the old realist argument that sees NATO eastward expansion as the only or even primary cause of Russian assertiveness. Focusing on territory, and NATO expansion, alone as an explanation for the current predicament in Western-Russian relations only tells a very partial story. Beyond the realist explanations based on hard power, security dilemmas and spheres of influence, Russia and the West would likely have ended up at loggerheads even in the absence of territorial intrusion. Not because of some self-contained, innate Russian propensity towards confrontation, but because it could not attain the markers of status that make the contemporary West ‘Western’, and undergird its global hegemony. In simple terms: elite status in the Liberal World Order required a number of attributes – a liberal-democratic system, a free market, and, crucially, subordination to US ‘leadership’ – which Russian elites were not prepared, able, or willing to adopt, with or without NATO expansion. Putin’s Failed, Feigned Quest for StatusThis quest for status manifested itself in two distinct ways: first, there was an element of imitation, an approach that was predominant during, roughly, the first half of the Putin regime’s period in power. At the time, Moscow at the very least feigned conformity to the LIO’s basic precepts – through the adoption of the language on the Global War on Terror, a superficial, ‘sovereign’ application of democracy and constitutional rule, and interference in its neighbours’ affairs carefully clad in liberal or technocratic language.[10] Even during the invasion of Georgia, in 2008, it still appropriated, distorted, and deployed the – very liberal – language of R2P. But sometime in the later 2000s – from about the period of Putin’s now-infamous Munich speech - Russia started giving up on being accepted in ‘the West’ as an equal, not merely because of NATO expansion, but also because it could no longer pretend to acquire the attributes associated with membership of the Western international ‘elite’. Liberal rationalisations had worn thin, any pretence of modernisation – carried most explicitly, and mainly rhetorically - by Dmitri Medvedev had failed. I’ll leave the specific question whether this ‘feigning’ was an instance of ‘faking it till you make it’, or simply a ruse meant to lull the West into complacency in the absence of power, and any genuine willingness to adopt liberal norms open to speculation; the fact is that, since about the beginning of Putin’s second stint as president, Russia has placed itself radically outside and against the Liberal West. The reasons for this are complex, but, again, likely go beyond any simple domestic, or geopolitical explanation. From the ‘grand sociological’ point of view suggested above, two developments could explain this transition. On the one hand, a dashed entitlement to membership of the global, liberal elite on (feigned) liberal terms, and, secondly, the crisis of liberalism itself, which made a rejection of its normative framework more feasible. Simply put, Russia would be recognised, either as a ‘respectable’ member of ‘really existing’, liberal international society, or as a challenger to it, and an accelerator of its decline. In the process, it also went from claiming a right to ordering a separate, subordinate sphere of interest in a (feigned) liberal manner, to just ordering it at will, outside its – now weakened - normative framework. The move away from ‘feigned liberalism’ or ‘liberal performance’ thus resulted in a much more crudely formulated, civilisational legitimising discourse in Moscow.[11] Having given up on – and thoroughly discredited itself in – formulating its hierarchical interventions in the former Soviet space in liberal terms, the Putin regime now makes much more recognisably civilisational claims, separating a regional sphere of influence for itself without the desired blessing of the LIO – whereas in earlier years it would still have tended to rhetorically couch its justifications according to that order’s terms of reference. The Crimean annexation was thus defended in Russian nationalist terms; but, more broadly, the interventions in Ukraine – and, more recently, Belarus – have been incongruously justified in terms of an attempt to safeguard an ‘authentic’ – i.e. pro-Russian/Soviet – from the adulteration of Western-inspired hyper-liberalism or ‘fascism’. But, not unlike ‘feigned liberalism’, this anti-cosmopolitan claim encompasses an element of imitation: Putin’s Russia imitates the West in determining the ‘exception’ within this claimed sphere of interest it has appropriated for itself. Just as the West – and the exceptionalist United States - functions as supreme adjudicator at a global level - determining exceptions for itself in all manner of legal regimes, and in more specific instances from Kosovo to Iraq - Russia does the same, ever so clumsily, in its own claimed sphere. Determining the exception and freely interpreting international law thus remain a marker of great power identity as performed by the United States itself; the difference is that Moscow has largely ceased to even pretend to be determining exceptions within its ‘near abroad’ within liberal terms of reference. In that sense, Russia’s civilisational discourse retains a crucial link to Western behaviour: as a marker of great power status, the West’s ability to determine exceptions to the liberal order has transmogrified into Putin’s claimed ability to determine exceptions within his own custom-made regional ‘order’, full stop. The Russians themselves, and the states and societies within that claimed sphere of interest, are the foremost victims of this exceptionalism: they are now swept up in an increasingly nihilistic power- and status-seeking project, where history and civilisationism are employed at the expense of the self-determination of both Russian and non-Russian societies. An Emancipatory PivotBut is the prospect of NATO membership for Russia’s beleaguered neighbours the only answer to this predicament in light of the above? It is, in fact, neither practically effective, nor morally necessary. From a practical perspective, it puts the NATO candidate states themselves in an eternal waiting room, exposed to Russian meddling and interference without the benefits of article V; it also reinforces rather than weakens Russia’s identification of status with a sphere of influence, based on the outdated logic of a bygone age. Neither do the moral arguments withstand closer scrutiny. The claim that NATO expansion would entail a return to a past ‘rules-based order’ thus idealises an arrangement that was always marked by exceptions – albeit ones determined by the West; and the insistence on alliance membership as the only pathway to post-imperial emancipation turns it into an end-in-itself rather than just one of a number of alternative means towards a broader, and more attainable emancipatory goal. Both practically and morally, NATO expansion thus comes to represent an unnecessary encumbrance, rather than a road towards a more manageable, freer future. It is often pointed out by the proponents of NATO membership for former Soviet states that countries like Ukraine and Georgia have already been lost to Russia: and, indeed, while Ukrainian society turned in favour of alliance membership after the 2014 Russian interventions, a consistent majority in Georgia has supported an Atlanticist course since well before the 2008 invasion.[12] Both within their elites, and in their societies, these two states now see membership of the Atlantic community as the ultimate way out from domination by an overbearing former imperial power. Both these NATO candidates have paid, and are paying, a price quite literally measured in blood and soil for their desire for self-determination. But if these people and their lands have been lost to Russia, neither have they been gained by NATO – membership of which is as far off as it ever was. The magic of article V has not rubbed off on candidate-members, which now have to contend with the worst of both worlds: seeing Russia enraged at what it defines as a potential civilisational retrenchment, without the benefit – as in, for instance, the Baltics – of full-scale deterrence. To make things worse, there is no prospect of emerging from this purgatory any time soon, not least because of the reasonable expectation, shared by many in the West, that the current Russian regime would go to extreme lengths to keep what it has never ceased viewing as its own sphere of interest outside the Alliance. NATO membership also remains out of reach because its clear requirements provide a power- and status-seeking Russia with a spoiling advantage: Moscow knows exactly which buttons to press in order to prevent the not-so-inevitable, without necessarily having to achieve a substantive, positive alternative in an ongoing rear-guard struggle. It knows the costs some in the Western alliance are quite unwilling to pay, the commitments they are unwilling to make. Additionally, tugs-of-war over spheres – which is exactly how the Kremlin sees the fight over NATO expansion – are a game the Kremlin is all too adept at playing. Indeed, it nurtures its obdurate search for status – after all, such contests are exactly what Great Powers are supposed to engage in – and allows it to displace any genuine calls for democratisation and self-determination into this territorialised great-power game. It is so much easier to deny the agency of Ukrainians, Georgians, Belarusians, and, indeed, the Russians themselves when it can be dismissed and subsumed into machinations of an expansionist alternative;[13] a conjoining of geopolitics and democratisation then makes any hint at revolutionary liberalisation – as most recently attempted in Belarus – doubly unacceptable to the Kremlin. In the process, Moscow is never confronted with the harsh truth that it has lost these lands and peoples not because of NATO intrigues and geopolitical circumstance, but because of a genuine will to independence of the non-Russian populations of its former empire. Apart from these practical considerations, the equations of NATO membership with the ‘restoration of a rules-based order’ or an emancipatory imperative aren’t as morally clear-cut as would appear.  Firstly, the insistence on NATO expansion – and, more broadly, of Russian compliance to the LIO - aims for the restoration of an idealised past that arguably never was, or, at least, a past whose conditions have by now withered away.[14] One might forgive Western states for subscribing to the idea of a return to a principled ‘rules-based order’ that never existed in the first place; after all, it is easy to rationalise exceptions to that order in the face of claims to ‘principle’ when one had the privilege of determining those exceptions, be it in Kosovo, or Iraq, or Libya. Moreover, the success of previous bouts of NATO eastward expansion was always based on the illusions created by a geopolitical vacuum rather than its status as an immutable element of sound, moral statecraft.[15] In achieving its stated goals – stabilising Europe’s Centre and East, and ensuring its security – it was, undoubtedly, a great success, which even Moscow had, however begrudgingly, accepted as a fait accompli; this illusion of expediency can no longer be maintained in the former Soviet space, where Moscow is both able and willing to object, and push back. With the road to disaster often paved with good intentions, its resulting impracticality, and its condemnation of candidate states to a form of never-ending purgatory makes the project morally questionable in itself. Secondly – and more importantly – an unquestioned and unquestionable fixation on NATO expansion appears to have made some lose track of the other ways in which the security and self-determination of post-Soviet societies can be effectively ensured. Provided, that is, that the pivot towards alternative policies is carried out in concert with the states concerned, and with a clearly stated, and enacted commitment to supporting their resilience and independence even without the prospect of membership. This more honest, realistic approach would not counter the overall aim of self-determination. After all, membership of the alliance has always remained subordinate to other aims much more immediately relevant to the populations concerned, including democratisation, the restoration of territorial integrity, the consolidation of statehood, (…). This opens to possibility of those states themselves taking the courageous decision to pivot away from aspired membership in concert with their Western allies, and move towards more realistic ways of ensuring their security, without being dependent on the unanimous good graces of others. It is, indeed, very difficult to envisage them doing this at present, but, over the longer term, independence and self-determination may come to be understood as dependent on a much broader repertoire of prudent, flexible, responsive statecraft than merely membership of an exclusive club of states, after a seemingly unending apprenticeship in a dangerous waiting room. The alternative – of a divided West throwing in the towel unilaterally would be a much worse alternative, and, while unlikely at this point, one that could not be excluded over the longer term. Taking NATO expansion off the table in this way would neither imply giving up on the states surrounding Russia, nor would it result in appeasement: instead, it would open up the space for more flexible, adaptable, and, if necessary, assertive policies that may put Moscow on the back foot by reversing its spoiling advantage and confronting it with the idea that, even in the absence of an expanding alliance, it has lost control over the states and societies of ‘its near abroad’. It would, moreover, likely lower the threshold at which Moscow would be able to accept that fact because a perceived ‘loss’ of Ukraine or Georgia would not equal an expanding rival alliance on its boundaries, or a return to a past perceived by the vast majority of Russians as humiliating – a fact eagerly exploited by the Putin regime. If combined with the prospect of a de-territorialised form of great power status, Russia accepting the independence of its neighbours without them entering NATO, may prove more realistic – and beneficial – aim over the longer term. ConclusionNot unlike Communism in earlier times, NATO membership risks becoming a goal set somewhere in a mythical, idealised future, eternally around the corner, and always out of reach. A much more attainable approach would include tempering one’s adherence to ideal-type outcomes, while building on the resilience and will to self-determination of the societies around Russia, redefined not in terms of membership of a certain alliance, but in terms of an ability to participate in realistic, measured, flexible statecraft as sovereign states. The prudent assertiveness of the major states of Central Asia, their gradual – and relatively successful – efforts at building distinct post-imperial identities and foreign policies indicates that such an approach is not as far-fetched as it would first appear, especially if the West continued to back the same process outside the confines of NATO membership, in the former Soviet parts of Eastern Europe.[16] Such a move would take strategic foresight, and a commitment to delayed gratification on the part of the Western policymaking community, and the states concerned themselves. It would also require coordination and consent, rather than being seen as a green light for deciding ‘over their heads’. In final analysis, taking NATO out of the equation while still remaining committed to the independence and resilience of all states would take policy from the 1990s into the 21st century. When it comes to Russia that will require correctly calibrated signalling in the beginning, and considerable patience afterwards – most probably until the replacement of the Putin regime with ‘something else’. If that ‘something else’ results from a liberal swing in Russia’s long-term ideological pendulum, this will make life easier for any government genuinely committed to reform;[17] but, even in the absence of such a Russian ‘liberal enlightenment’, without a NATO-branded sword of Damocles, it will put the threshold at which a new, post-imperial arrangement becomes acceptable to a Russian regime at a much lower level. At the very least, it should be considered as a third option, beyond the counterproductive, sterile binary confrontation between ‘Atlanticists’ and ‘Realists’, ‘Russia hawks’ and ‘Russia doves’ around the ‘NATO membership, or bust’ axis; these new times may be calling for a revision of these outdated dividing lines. Image by NATO under (CC). [1] Tolz, Vera. 1998. Forging the Nation: National Identity and Nation Building in Post‐Communist Russia. Europe-Asia Studies 50 (6): 993-1022,; Chafetz, Glenn. 1996. The Struggle for a National Identity in Post-Soviet Russia. Political Science Quarterly 111 (4): 661-688,[2] McFaul, Michael. 2020. Putin, Putinism and the Domestic Determinants of Russian Foreign Policy. International Security 45 (2): 95-139,[3] Edward Lucas, Imperial Abnormality, CEPA, December 2020,[4] John J. Mearsheimer, Getting Ukraine Wrong, The New York Times, March 2014,; John J. Mearsheimer,Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West's Fault: the Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014,[5] Anders Åslund and Leonid Gozman, Russia after Putin: How to Rebuild the State, Atlantic Council, February 2021,[6] Waltz, Kenneth Neal. 1959. Man, the State and War: a Theoretical Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press.[7] Laruelle, Marlène. 2020. Making Sense of Russia's Illiberalism. Journal of Democracy 31 (3): 115-129,[8] Andrei Kozyrev, The Lagging Partnership, Foreign Affairs, May/June 1994,[9] Zaraköl, Ayse. 2010. After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 201-239.[10] Oskanian, Kevork. 2018. A Very Ambiguous Empire: Russia's Hybrid Exceptionalism. Europe-Asia Studies 70 (1): 26-52 (pp. 39-41).[11] Bettiza, Gregorio, and David Lewis. 2020. Authoritarian Powers and Norm Contestation in the Liberal International Order: Theorizing the Power Politics of Ideas and Identity. Journal of Global Security Studies 5 (4): 559-577.[12] Oksana Grytsenko, Kyiv Post Cites New Ukraine Poll: NATO support grows in Ukraine, reaches 53 percent, IRI, July 2019,;, NDI poll: 82% of Georgians support EU, 74%- NATO membership, January 2020,[13] TASS, CIA Working with Navalny, Kremlin Spokesman Says, October 2020,; Tom Balmforth, Russia Accuses U.S. of Promoting Revolution in Belarus, Toughens Stance, September 2020,[14] Porter, Patrick. 2020. The False Promise of Liberal Order. Cambridge: Polity Press.[15] Oskanian, Kevork. 2019. Carr Goes East: Reconsidering Power and Inequality in a Post-Liberal Eurasia. European Politics and Society 20 (2): 172-189.[16] Nomerovchenko, Alina, Jaechun Kim, and William Kang. 2018. Foreign Policy Orientation of Independent Central Asian States: Looking Through the Prism of Ideas and Identities. The Korean Journal of International Studies 16 (3): 389-410.[17] Vladislav Inozemtsev, The Pendulum Effect, Riddle Russia, April 2018, [post_title] => On the way to emancipation, not all roads lead through NATO [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => on-the-way-to-emancipation-not-all-roads-lead-through-nato [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2021-05-10 09:35:37 [post_modified_gmt] => 2021-05-10 08:35:37 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[1] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 4803 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2020-07-24 09:00:16 [post_date_gmt] => 2020-07-24 08:00:16 [post_content] => Little more than a century ago, one of Russia’s most famous painters – an active participant in the imperial army’s conquest of Central Asia – caused a scandal in London’s artistic and political circles. Vasily Vereshchagin’s paintings had up to then been exhibited to great general acclaim in various European galleries, but one particular work caused an outcry when shown in the capital of the world’s then most powerful Empire in the 1880s. ‘Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English’ was particularly brutal in its portrayal of one of the more violent episodes in the British subjugation of India; uniformed soldiers were - anachronistically - depicted assassinating Indian insurgents by ‘blowing them from a gun’. The painting was reportedly purchased by the British government, and made to disappear into the mists of colonial artistic history.[1] Entangled in the ‘Great Game’, Britain and Russia had been engaged in a long-running power play in the Middle East and Central Asia; and both laid claim to the superior ability of handling, and bringing civilisation to the ‘Asiatic’. Instances of ‘uncivilised’ behaviour – like Vereshchagin’s painting – served to discredit that ability. Such propaganda worked two ways. In fact, in the run up to, and following the Crimean war, and Russia’s bloody forays into the North Caucasus, the British press was replete with accounts of Russia’s ‘oriental’ propensity towards a cruelty and corruption from which its brave noble savages deserved to be saved. A narrative driven in no small part by the rampant Russophobia of a section of British society exemplified by individuals like the 19th-century diplomat, publicist and politician, David Urquhart.[2] Russia’s confrontation with the British was complicated by a civilisational factor; the Russians’ claim to be part of Western civilisation had always been ambiguous, at best. Since the 18th century’s Petrine reforms, its rulers had craved recognition as a part of an incipient modernity dominated by the West. Their late entry into European International Society made that claim to equal standing suspect, even into the early 20th century. Except during brief periods where interests coincided – for instance, during and immediately after the Napoleonic wars - Russians were always ‘imperfectly civilised’, always part-oriental, a Western perception perhaps best captured in Rudyard Kipling’s 1903 assertion that… …the Russian is a delightful person until he tucks in his shirt. As an Oriental he is charming. It is only when he insists on being treated as the most easterly of western peoples instead of the most westerly of Easterns that he becomes a racial anomaly most difficult to handle.[3] The resulting ‘ressentiment’ resulted in the Russians doubling down on their, and their empire’s civilisational specificity;[4] always stuck in a never-ending debate on their identity, conscious of the vast structural impediments to their empire being accepted as a fully civilised equal to Britain’s, or France’s, its policymakers and intellectuals frequently spun this ambiguity into an asset. In fact, they turned this Western argument on their difference, and inferiority, on its head. From the late 19th century, its administrators and scientists claimed that Russia’s familiarity with the ‘Orient’ bolstered its claim to a superior ability to civilise his Eastern kin, a claim that would be voiced by none other than Fyodor Dostoevsky himself: In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves, whereas we shall go to Asia as masters. In Europe we were Tatars, whereas in Asia we, too, are Europeans.  Our mission, our civilising mission in Asia will bribe our spirit and drive us there.[5] The imagining of a distinct civilisational space over a vast, culturally diverse territory thus became an indelible part of Russia’s imperial practice. And, after various permutations – not least in 1917 and 1991 – it would reach the 21st century’s, ostensibly post-imperial world. If Tsarist Russia placed itself, and its empire between the West and the East, the Soviet Union adopted a distinctly Russian variation on a Western Enlightenment ideology, Marxism-Leninism. Meanwhile, Putin’s Russia defines its civilising mission in terms of an ‘authentic’ conservatism that sets it apart from a Europe that has descended into decadence, but entitles it to culturally, politically and economically dominate a claimed sphere of influence with a shared history, and common values, seen as lying in an elusive space between East and West. The Power of Imperial Myths The world has moved on. Or has it? If empires competed ideologically and geopolitically in their day, their heirs often engage in the whitewashing of their imperial pasts today. In that sense, Britain and Russia are not that different: apologists of Empire in both societies tell themselves myths about their imperial pasts, myths that minimise their own Empires’ exploitative nature by creating and upholding selective, self-servingly distorted versions of history. In British apologias, what matters is not the transatlantic triangular trade; the looting of India; the drugs trade in China; or the genocidal extermination of native populations in North America and Australia. Instead, when talking about Empire, the formerly conquered are told they should thankfully remember the abolition of slavery, ‘gifts’ like parliamentary democracy, railways, free trade, the rule of law, and the creation of English-speaking former colonies as beacons of civilisation.[6] It is also often heard that other Empires – the French, the Dutch, and, of course, the Russians – were more exploitative, corrupt, and cruel in the administration of their ‘charges’, a narrative partly reflected in the belief of 32 per cent of the British population that the imperial experience is ‘more something to be proud of’.[7] Russian apologists, for their part, frequently claim that they – unlike the British – had a greater affinity with ‘their’ subjects of empire, or that the USSR’s stated anti-colonial, emancipatory mission made it, and its leading ethnos – the Russians – fundamentally different from the Western overseas empires, which, following this logic, were more exploitative, more intrusive, more alien and therefore more malignant to their colonies. In fact, as some versions of the myth have it, Russia was a victim rather than perpetrator of empire, at once the driving force behind, and the main loser in the last manifestation of its imperial might: the Soviet Union. This myth of Russian imperial benevolence and self-sacrifice was repeated in no uncertain terms within a recent report by the Higher School of Economics in Moscow – on the future of Russian foreign policy – where it was confidently stated that: Support for cultural and civilizational diversity is also a deeply ingrained feature of Russian people who built their empire through integration, rather than conquest, by blending with the elites of component of Russian identity, namely the desire to make the world a better place, and to the best Soviet-era foreign policy tradition, that is, support for anti-colonialism.[8] The same myth can be heard when Putin states that former Soviet republics left the USSR with gifted Russian lands in their luggage;[9] or when the Russian embassy to Estonia tweets that the Baltic states ‘were privileged’ within a USSR they freely joined (rather than the reality of being annexed after the carve up of Eastern Europe with Nazi Germany under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact);[10] and also when Russian politicians present Chechnya as a success story, having pacified its population through brutal war and by subjecting it to the arbitrary rule of Ramzan Kadyrov.[11] Historic Myths and Realities These claims are just as much the stuff of mythmaking as the more exculpatory versions of British imperial historiography. For while it is true that Russia’s multi-ethnic pre-modern empire frequently co-opted the elites of conquered peoples – most notably those of the Tatars, Ukrainians, and Baltic Germans – and also maintained a complex system of ethnically specific privileges, including for Muslim ethnic groups, Russia’s Tsarist empire remained intensely hierarchical, with Jews and indigenous peoples designated ‘inorodtsy’ – literally, ‘aliens’ – at the lowest rung of a complex ethno-cultural ladder.[12] Tsarist Russia’s empire did display some measure of tolerance, and its territorial contiguity did provide for a more gradual transition from its metropole into its peripheries than in the case of Britain’s, or France’s overseas empires. However, as in any empire, this did not preclude sometimes violently enforced claims of hierarchical authority over often unwilling subalterns. If anything, the move away from purely monarchic legitimacy in the early 19th century, towards an environment increasingly marked by modern nationalism – including Russian nationalism – led to culturally more intrusive policies. The latter half of the 19th century, therefore, saw a severely repressed revolution in Poland; the banning of the written Ukrainian language; and the genocidal relocation of the Circassians – judged unsuitable for continued incorporation into the Russian empire, all ironically under the rule of a Tsar best known for his freeing of the serfs.[13] The later Romanov empire was thus one that enforced linguistic and cultural Russification in many of its non-Russian regions, and – in contrast to previous periods - inserted an element of what Lenin would refer to as ‘Great Russian Chauvinism’ into its policies.[14] The 1917 revolution did away with Tsarist Russia’s ‘official imperialism’, but kept Russia – now in its Soviet guise – in an ambiguous relationship to the West. On the one hand, its new ‘civilising mission’ – Marxism-Leninism – was based on a particular version of Western enlightenment thought, with its specific universal claims. On the other hand, it set the USSR apart – and, in fact, against – an imperialist, capitalist, fascist West. But when it comes to the Soviet Union, its characterisation as ‘anti-colonial’, and generous to its non-Russian minorities – eagerly taken over by some in contemporary Russia and beyond - also tells a half-truth. While its foundational ideology, Marxism-Leninism, indeed rejected and resisted both biological racism and imperialism, that did not preclude a hierarchical world-view from shaping its interactions with what even the early Bolsheviks freely referred to as ‘backward peoples’.[15] The problem was three-fold: (1) a vanguard view of political activity, which reserved judgment on the finer points of ideology to a small, in-the-know party elite; (2) a progressive view of human historical development – which implied that some peoples were more ‘advanced’ than others; and (3) a rigid, essentialist approach to the issue of ethnicity, not least due to the great influence on nationalities issues during the defining first decades of Soviet rule by one Joseph Stalin.[16] These three elements combined to pervert the Soviet national experiment into the very thing it had opposed at the outset: a hierarchical, at times coercive imposition on often unwilling subjects. Even at the very beginning, those minorities that did not behave according to the expectations of the Marxist-Leninist template were deemed to have been under the nefarious, distorting influence of their bourgeois or feudal overlords. Pliable ‘vanguard’ elites were installed in a manner not much different from what would have been seen in more traditional imperial practice, to legitimise a ‘gathering of the lands’ by the Bolsheviks from Ukraine to Central Asia. While it is true that during the first decade or so of the Soviet experiment, these co-opted elites did have a major say in the development of ‘their’ particular territories, their autonomy did remain within the strict boundaries of a Marxist-Leninist civilising mission; and, with the advent to power of Stalin, it was curtailed in favour of a move towards centralisation. Before and during World War II, this combined with hierarchy and essentialism, into the at times genocidal mistreatment of minorities deemed – just like their hapless Circassian predecessors in the 19th century – collectively unreliable, or unreceptive to this particular iteration of civilisational progress.[17] A return to Russo-centrism rehabilitated the Russians at the top of a civilisational pyramid,  as the Union’s, and the world’s ‘progressive’ nation, whose earlier imperialism paved the way for the 1917 revolution and the ‘emancipation’ of its charges, a paternalistic vision expanded globally during the Cold War – first towards Central and Eastern Europe, then towards the ‘Third World’. Russians therefore had a ‘special relationship’ with the USSR; in fact, by the final decades of the experiment, Russian and Soviet identities had largely amalgamated into one. In contrast to other ethnic groups – whose allegiance to the USSR was mediated through their identity as the titular ethnos of ‘their’ territorial sub-divisions – they identified most directly with the Union, and its precepts, as the most prototypical of homo sovieticus.[18] After the fall of the USSR, and the discrediting of liberalism during the tumultuous 1990s, for many Russians this identification, and the leading role in which they had exalted, turned into a resentment at having born a ‘white man’s burden’ in civilising and industrialising its neighbouring brethren, and defeating Nazism, while having nothing to show for it except a weak, corrupt state fraying at its seams. It is a combination of this resentment, this broken pride, and the connected ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth, with the notion that Russians were ‘born to lead’, that Putin ultimately taps into when writing rather fantastical version of second world-war history, grabbing Crimea from Ukraine, or taking insult at the removal of statues representing Soviet ‘liberators’ of CEE states.[19] From the start of his presidency, Putin understood the importance of restoring Russia’s great power status, the one goal around which there was a broad consensus in the years following the Soviet collapse. Having failed to achieve that great power status by joining the West, he harked back to the patterns exhibited in Tsarist and Soviet times – eking out a distinct civilisational sphere of influence over which Moscow would retain a leading, civilising role. Again, the smaller nations in that sphere would be shaped according to a template set by Russia, one that put them in a zone between Orient and Occident, within a regional hegemony distinct from the global order dominated by an elite of Western, liberal states. Myths of shared destiny, cultural affinity and Russian self-sacrifice turned any diversions from that template into a to-be-disciplined anomaly, an ungrateful or ignorant deviation. This ideological truth was loosely assembled in the Kremlin from disparate building blocks of Tsarist and Soviet history and identity: Christian Orthodoxy, Soviet Superpower status – but without the Marxist-Leninist aspect - with some old-fashioned nationalism increasingly mixed in as a consequence of a growing alienation between the regime and the West. From Mythmaking to Policymaking What makes Russia’s contemporary myths of empire fundamentally different in their contemporary salience from their British counterparts is not their moral inferiority, or relative inaccuracy; after all, imperial apologia is not a Russian monopoly. Instead, it is their full-throated embrace by an authoritarian government and geography that make Russia’s forms of imperial mythmaking and nostalgia more immediately challenging in the present, not least to Moscow’s former imperial subalterns, and, rather counter-intuitively, Russians themselves. One first crucial difference between the Russian and British post-imperial experiences lies in the possibilities for critique: British imperial myths have long been subject to an open, and increasingly frank, intellectual and broader public debate. The more sinister legacies of Empire can be, and are, actively questioned and challenged, as the latest Black Lives Matter protests clearly show. Such debates existed in Russia during the tumultuous 1990s, but the space for them has now narrowed considerably and perhaps even closed – and not just at the level of stated government policy. For not only does the Putin regime now engage in propaganda masquerading as historiography, it has inserted a ‘patriotic education’ into its recent constitutional changes as well, and made the upholding of a ‘correct’ view of history the business of the state.[20] That same constitution’s elevation of Russian into the ‘language of Russia’s state-forming people’ moreover uncomfortably harks back to the more ancient Russian imperialist claims as to the Russians’ superior political abilities, a claim repeated both during the Tsarist and Soviet eras, often in arguments against nations deemed incapable of independent statehood – like the Ukrainians.[21] In Russia, imperial apologia has thus been elevated to the level of constitutionally sanctioned orthodoxy. As an overseas empire, Britain moreover had the advantage of definitively withdrawing from its colonies and dominions, and the option of forgetting about them, at least in terms of existential geopolitics. With its territorial empire, Russia did not have this advantage: it could not simply pack up its archives, lower its flag, withdraw its navies and forget, stuck merely with a post-imperial hangover. In that sense, the claim that its empire, by gist of being territorial, was more ‘organically constituted’ is a double-edged sword. Alongside the dubious claim that a ‘civilisational affinity’ somehow made the mostly forced incorporation of peoples into its territory somehow more acceptable, the territorial nature of its empire also makes its imperial nostalgia much more geopolitically salient. Former Soviet republics thus cannot be as relaxed as Commonwealth members about memberships in Russian-dominated organisations like the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization; and Russia itself cannot be as aloof and distant from what happens in Tajikistan, or Georgia, as the UK could be about Sri Lanka, or Ghana. And this may very well be part of the reason for Russia clinging onto its imperial nostalgia in the way described above: Russia’s imperial nostalgia will likely maintain a direct, geopolitical relevance long after the formal dissolution of Soviet Empire. Conclusion How is this problem to be approached? Many would point to NATO membership, and gradual European integration, as one way out of this post-imperial conundrum for Russia’s neighbours. However, even if these propositions were realistic in the short- to medium-term – given Russia’s willingness to act as a spoiler – they would not change attitudes where they matter most: in Moscow. The problem is precisely that Russian elites are perfectly comfortable playing the geopolitical game; to talk in terms of spheres of influence – even in terms of their denial – arguably validates their status as participants in the business of great power statecraft. It does not question their fundamental precepts. After all, the push and pull of alliances and allegiances was part of the imperial condition to begin with. NATO and all that can easily be seen as its continuation, are not truly challenging the attitudes underlying claims to hierarchy. Its infringement on Russia’s claimed sphere of influence may actually have hardened attitudes in Moscow towards the maintenance of a great power status cast in distinctly imperious terms, as the maintenance of influence – however imperfect - over a distinct civilisational-geopolitical space. And the West’s current crisis has merely reinforced this belief in a coming ‘polycentric’ world order, however unreasonable that might seem to some Western observers. Instead, much will depend on measured, long-term pushback on the part of Russia’s former imperial possessions: a dogged insistence on their independent statehood, combined with a realistic assessment of both the possibilities inherent in Western assistance, and the genuine security concerns that keep Russia within its geopolitical mindset. Russia’s rose-tinted imperial narrative – where subalterns are implicitly denied an inherent right to independent political existence, and a myth of a distinct contemporary civilisation based on ‘shared historical experience’ is upheld – can only be fundamentally disrupted through its contradiction by those onto whom it is, first and foremost, projected: Russia’s former subalterns throughout the former Soviet Union. While myths tend to have a remarkable staying power even in the most open of societies, nothing should be seen as permanent. Russian history in particular has been full of the unexpected, of occasional openings that might have provided openings for such redefinitions in the past – notably in the 1990s – if not for hubris and impatience. At some point, they are bound to recur. In the meantime, such a long-term approach to tackling its ideological detritus of empire will necessitate commodities that have become as rare as they are desirable in the tumultuous early 21st century: prudence, and strategic patience. No known copyright restrictions on cover photo.[1] The Culture Trip, An Introduction to Vasily Vereshchagin in 10 Paintings, updated 20 April, 2018,; Natasha Medvedev, The Contradictions in Vereshchagin’s Turkestan Series: Visualising the Russian Empire and Its Others (University of California, 2009).[2] John Salt, Local Manifestations of the Urquhartite Movement, International Review of Social History 13, no. 3 (1968),,; Charles King, Imagining Circassia: David Urquhart and the Making of North Caucasus Nationalism, The Russian Review 66, no. 2 (2007),[3] As cited in Alexander Morrison, Russian Rule in Turkestan and the Example of British India, c. 1860-1917 The Slavonic and East European Review 84, no. 4 (2006): 666,,[4] Ayse Zaraköl, After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 201-39.[5] Fyodor Dostoevsky, A Writer’s Diary: Volume Two 1877 - 1881 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1994), 1374.[6] e.g. Stephen Glover, If the Left and its BBC cheerleaders have their way, Britain will be forced to renounce its past. So why is no one fighting back, not least our supposedly Tory government?, Daily Mail (London), 11 June 2020,; Imogen Braddick, David Starkey facing backlash over slavery comments as he's slammed as 'racist' by Sajid Javid, Evening Standard (London), 2 July 2020,[7] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 294-95.;Robert Booth, UK more nostalgic for empire than other ex-colonial powers, The Guardian, 11 March 2020,[8] Sergei Karaganov, Protecting Peace, Earth and Freedom of Choice for All Countries. New Ideas for Russia’s Foreign Policy: Report of the HSE University (Moscow: Higher School of Economics National Research University, 2020), 34-45.[9] Marko Mikhelson, Putin’s Plan Is A Threat To The Baltic States, UpNorth: the Northern European, 1 July 2020,[10] EU vs Disinfo, Being Occupied as a Privilege, updated 24 June, 2020,[11] AFP, Ramzan Kadyrov: Putin's feared Chechen strongman, Al Jazeera, 21 May 2020,[12] Eli Weinerman, Racism, Racial Prejudice and Jews in Late Imperial Russia, Ethnic and Racial Studies 17, no. 3 (1994).[13] Walter Richmond, The Circassian Genocide (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013).[14] Alexander Semyonov and Jeremy Smith, Nationalism and Empire Before and After 1917, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 17, no. 3 (2017).[15] E.g. Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions For The Second Congress Of The Communist International, 1920,; "Minutes of the Congress of the Peoples of the East,  Baku, September 1920," s.d., 2016,[16] Not least because of his highly influential definition of a nation as ‘a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture’; see Marxism and the National Question, 1913,[17] Terry Martin, The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing, The Journal of Modern History 70, no. 4 (1998).[18] L. D. Gudkov, "Soviet Man" in the Sociology of Iurii Levada, Sociological Research 47, no. 6 (2008).[19] Pavel Baev, Three Controversial Articles by Top Officials Distort Russia’s Past, Present and Future, Eurasia Daily Monitor 17, no. 89 (22 June 2020).[20] Polnyi Tekst Popravok v Konstitutsiyu: Za Chto Myi Golosuem?, updated 14 March 2020,[21] Katarzyna Kaczmarska, ‘But in Asia We Too Are Europeans’: Russia’s Multifaceted Engagement with the Standard of Civilisation, International Relations 30, no. 4 (2016). [post_title] => Russian Empire: between Historic Myth and Contemporary Reality [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => russian-empire-between-historic-myth-and-contemporary-reality [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2020-07-21 13:21:52 [post_modified_gmt] => 2020-07-21 12:21:52 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[2] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 4604 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2020-04-01 09:30:43 [post_date_gmt] => 2020-04-01 09:30:43 [post_content] => Spare a thought for my generation - Generation X, the generation born immediately following the Baby Boom, from the mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s. Mine was the generation that grew up during the final stages of the Cold War, and came of age just as the ‘End of History’ was supposedly beginning. Ours would be a brave new world, where liberal-democratic states, globalised markets, and International Law would generate unseen freedom, prosperity, and peace. The dangerous world of bi-polar superpower confrontation and ideological struggle had ended in the victory of liberalism which, now uncontested, would provide a framework for the final realisation of universal human progress.[1] Instead, the past thirty years have seen a litany of broken promises and catastrophes. Instead of providing freedom, free-market forces have hollowed out the agency of democratic states, while economically empowering and globally embedding autocratic models of governance in China, and elsewhere. The prosperity generated by globalisation has been distributed unevenly, squeezing the middle in the West, creating an underclass of the permanently excluded, and a tiny billionaire oligarchy, tearing at the openness and tolerance aspired to by liberal societies as a result. Far from providing peace, well-meaning innovations in International Law and efforts at externally imposed regime change – more often than not selectively applied – have resulted in forever-wars, open-ended, half-hearted commitments, and unintended consequences in places from Bosnia, over Afghanistan and Iraq, to Libya. These are but a few of the Liberal World Order’s broken promises; and, in many cases, they are based on a clinging to tried assumptions – the permanence of liberal-democratic legitimacy, the positive-sum outcomes of free-market globalisation, the universal attractiveness of liberal values – by policymakers, politicians and statesmen stuck in the intellectual certainties of policy inertia. Those assumptions may result in a gradual attrition of the system in the best of times; in times of crisis, they become dangerous blind spots. Beyond their material effects, the speed of ‘events’ combine with pent up tensions and contradictions to highlight, destabilise and de-legitimate counter-productive patterns of common sense, and sites of long-held authority. Contrary to the promises of the past, the post-Cold War Liberal World Order has indeed become one of perennial crises; these started in relatively minor form during its heyday – as the Savings & Loan debacle, the Southeast Asian crisis, the Dot Com bust – but have now escalated to unparalleled scale and frequency, partly because of the very interconnected nature of the global systems that it created. The world had barely moved beyond the 2008 Financial Crisis and its aftershocks – the Euro crisis in particular – when COVID-19 emerged. While arguably exogenous to the system itself, no-one should be under the illusion that it will leave the Liberal World Order unchallenged: somewhere between ideologically charged claims that ‘this will change everything’, and the unjustifiably relaxed assumptions that ‘all will return to the old normal’ lies the truth, that, while they rarely end in a complete, fundamental systemic transformation, global crises always leave their mark, exposing and exploding tensions and contradictions which had usually accumulated – and been pointed out – long before the critical inflection point. Beyond immediate considerations of public health and economic survival, the current pandemic is therefore likely to have lasting ideological and geopolitical effects. Some aspects of both are already on display in the heat of the crisis: the suddenly intensified relevance of nation-states – both as means of tackling the crisis, and as focal points of political identification - as opposed to a far less visible, and more abstract role for supra-national and international institutions, and appeals to ‘global/European solidarity’ and the ‘shared fate of humankind’; the abrupt transformation of normally beneficial interdependence into malicious dependence, and the consequent illustration of the fragilities – indeed, dangers - of global supply chains; and the apparently more effective responses shown by autocratic states – notably China – in the latter (although certainly not the earlier) stages of the crisis, and their demonstrative magnanimity towards later victims. All of these are likely to leave a yet-to-be specified, longer-term mark. These effects both emerge from, and feed into, the broader crisis of the post-Cold War Liberal World Order. Does this imply the current world order is doomed? And, if it is, can certain aspects of it – specifically the liberal values that underpin it – be adapted for the more demanding conditions of the 21st century? How should liberal-democratic states, and their underlying societies, react to the contradictions within a project with universalist aspirations that is now, clearly, at a crossroads? The answers to these questions depend, above all, on the separation of the spurious assumptions underlying the crisis from empirical facts, and fundamental values, something I shall attempt to do below, in the three themes laid out above: the ‘revenge’ of the nation-state, the pitfalls of free-market interdependence, and the challenges posed to liberal universalism by an increasingly complex world order. I shall conclude by arguing for a scaling back of boundless liberal ambition, in favour of a universalism realised within the state, pragmatic and prudent foreign and trade policies, and the reinvigoration of liberal societies as examples, rather than models of good governance and the ‘good life’.

Assumption One: the Nation-State is Dead

The idea that the 21st century would see the death – or, at least, the dramatically reduced relevance - of the modern nation-state was surprisingly widespread only a decade or so ago. The underlying assumption was that, with the advent of complex interdependence and transnational forms of communication, new, ‘post-modern’ forms of political organisation would eclipse this holdover of a less enlightened, more nationalist age. Some posited that the globalised world would be a neo-medieval one, with states but one component in a multi-level system of governance including transnational corporations and organisations, supra-national entities exemplified by the EU, regions, intergovernmental organisations, and private military companies;[2] others argued that democracy would be displaced from the national to the regional through the creation of a truly global ‘civil society’;[3] and those of a more critical bend looked at the state as a social and historical artifice, subject to deconstruction.[4] In much of scholarship and policymaking, the nationalist conflicts and failed states of the 1990s were seen as a temporary anomaly, the lingering after-effects of a lack of political civility born from decades of autocratic rule, or plain misrule; instead, the future was one of constant and ever-tighter integration, and growing universalist identification with standard – liberal, interconnected, universal – forms of governance. But the nation-state did not die or wither away; instead, especially following the 2008 financial crisis, it staged a dramatic comeback, a comeback that, especially in the West, engendered an existential crisis in the EU, and as-yet unresolved culture wars between national and universal forms of identification. Much has, and will be written about the underlying causes of this national resurgence, but one set of explanations does stand out: the inability of more technocratic forms of governance, and globalisation’s more diffuse forms of identification to displace the legitimacy of the state as the focus of democratic politics; a democratic deficit duly exploited by resurgent populist movements on the political left, and, especially, the right.[5] One might venture to think that the COVID-19 crisis, and the current revalidation of medical, and, to a lesser extent, economic expertise, may lead to a move away from democratic to technocratic legitimacy in coming years, thus tempering this resurgence of national populist politics and forms of identification.[6] But appearances can deceive. The ‘revenge of the nation-state’ remains of relevance, as demonstrated by the simple answer as to who populations have first turned to in these times of extreme insecurity. In the EU and elsewhere, national heads of states and government have been the first port of call in devising national responses and providing reassurance, and national emergency measures devised by technocrats have still required their democratic stamp of legitimacy. The most visible symbolic acts have occurred primarily at the national level, within national communities, and, even in Europe, ‘solidarity’ has been performed between distinctive nation-states, rather than within an over-arching ‘polis’. In the process, the much-vaunted ‘security communities’[7] of old – the EU, NATO, ‘the West’ – have been relegated into the background, in spite of playing essential, but often easily eclipsed supporting roles – especially in the economic realm, as in the case of the ECB and the European Commission.[8] The question remains to what extent these roles will be visible to, and appreciated by, anxious and insecure electorates in the affected states. Some reactions in Spain and Italy to the EU’s failure to enact fiscal in addition to symbolic solidarity are ominous in that regard, adding to the ability of right-wing populist narratives to discredit these alternative forms of identification and solidarity.[9] At a time when narratives cannot be centrally controlled or shaped – by gist of an information space distorted by malicious internal and external actors operating through conventional social media[10] - there is no reason to believe these appeals to national forms of legitimacy will be adequately tackled, and contained. The democratic deficit outside of the state, and the failure to construct strong forms of existential identification over and above the purely national will therefore likely continue to haunt transnational and supranational liberal projects like the EU for the foreseeable future.

Assumption Two: Interdependent, Free Markets are Always Good

The beneficial nature of free-market economic governance is the second of the long-standing elements of liberalism that may see a long-standing crisis of confidence intensified through COVID-19. One does not have to be a Marxist to recognise the crisis-prone nature of the post-Cold War economic system; but beyond the lingering, and largely unaddressed long-term effects of its preceding internal crises, two as yet unaddressed imbalances are relevant to the external shock that we are witnessing today. Firstly, the unequal distribution of the costs and benefits of the globalised, interdependent political economy; and, secondly, the re-emergence of economic governance as an object of contentious political choice, rather than, merely, of neutral technocratic management. The first aspect – of inequality – goes beyond the inequities directly perceived at the societal level as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such inequities – between the winners and losers, the billionaires and the ‘squeezed middle’ of globalisation - may only be partially tempered in societies where socialised medicine provides a buffer against the most blatant excesses of existential insecurity. Where such provisions do not exist, COVID-19 brings home the very real consequences of unequal access to care, a realisation amplified by the a-social behaviour of parts of the upper classes themselves: the wealthy firing employees en masse, or pleading for special treatment;[11] the super-rich purchasing pandemic survival packages, or hoarding life-saving respirators for exclusive personal use.[12] This is significant in light of the populist challenge to the Liberal World Order, which, regardless of whether it emanates from the right or the left, is built precisely on the Manichean idea of pitting ‘corrupt’ elites against an ‘authentic’ people.[13] Nothing clarifies its underlying theme of ‘loss of control’ like a period of intense existential angst, coupled with visible privilege and what may possibly be an economy weakened over the longer term; a reliance by some on a revalidation of expertise or gestures of solidarity as long-awaited solutions to deeper-seated economic disillusionment therefore appears premature. But globalisation’s long-engrained inequalities also operate at the inter-state level; and they have been exposed like never before. To those states and societies in the wrong positions within the global supply chain, interdependence has turned into dependence overnight; and while this is especially relevant today when it comes to issues related to biomedical and food security, it may conceivably crystallise into greater future sensitivity as to where, and by whom, other strategically significant products and commodities are manufactured. The themes of self-sufficiency and redundancy may gain in relevance in coming years, as will a careful consideration of the nature of the regimes controlling the flow of vital supplies, whose political openness was, contrary to another assumption of a more liberal age, not facilitated by their modernising integration into the globalised economy.[14] Instead, the entanglement of liberal and illiberal economies has become a clear and present danger to the former through strategic, and broader commercial dependence, corrupt capital flows, and market-driven cultural and political (self-)censorship, especially in the realms of higher education and popular culture. COVID-19 has simply underlined the extent to which, within this broader context, globalisation can become a threat, rather than an asset to open societies with liberal values: difficult choices will, once again, have to be made as a result. The second aspect – the revalidation of political control over market technocracy – relates directly to this recognition that the latter do not always work in favour of liberal polities, and that some political limits to free trade – in the name of safeguarding fundamental values from autocratic interference – are required. But it also taps into a broader understanding that entirely free markets are neither achievable, nor, in fact, desirable. Of course, the monetary and fiscal measures taken by central banks and governments in the heat of crisis are largely devised and executed by the very economists whose credibility took a (near) fatal hit in 2008-09; one might venture to think that success would lead to a revalidation of their ability to steer economic policy in the right direction. There are, nevertheless, several ways in which they risk chipping away (or, more dramatically, destabilising) some long-held liberal orthodoxies in economic management, orthodoxies which were already substantially damaged by the – quite illiberal - corporate welfare seen during the 2008-09 crisis. Firstly, the long-term success of the dramatic measures taken, and their ability to undo the economic cost of the pandemic, remains to be seen: it is all too easy for populations to agree with and support free-spending rescue packages; even if they don’t fail, the real test will come when their bill becomes due. Secondly, a large part of these populations – especially those marginalised and squeezed by the forces of globalisation – will have suddenly discovered that the imperatives of the free market can be counter-acted with state intervention, which may become a possible policy choice where it was previously unthinkable (as in the case of socialised healthcare in the United States), or lead to an intensified rejection of market-driven austerity (notably in the Eurozone’s south). In the latter case, this might actually become a reality that forces the EU, and Eurozone into making a final choice between between fiscal union and sound economic governance on the one hand, and continued inequality and eventual disintegration on the other.[15] Thirdly – and more broadly – the COVID-19 crisis has illustrated the extent to which, even in the most extreme of times, economic management is subject to moral and political choices, an important point in an age where ‘taking back control’ is a recurring theme in the West’s political processes. Nowhere is this better illustrated in the wrangling, within the United States and elsewhere, on the macabre trade-offs between the life-saving imperatives of preventative lockdowns, and the longer-term requirements of economic growth.[16] This competition between two logics – of the Coronavirus threat, and of the market – is one that will have to be ultimately resolved by a politics bolstered by democratic legitimacy, and where the economy, for once, does not lay claim to a taken-for-granted priority. Again, this is a precedent that may come to unseat liberalism’s adherence to market diktat in favour of more democratic, interventionist control in the post-COVID-19 age.

Assumption Three: Open Societies Are the Future, Always and Everywhere

This democratic choice highlights the importance of introspection and renewal in liberal societies’ attempts to tackle a third assumption that has come under increased pressure; namely that they will always and everywhere be able to lay claim to both practical and moral pre-eminence in the management of human affairs. This has, arguably, been the most dangerous assumption of all, its resulting overconfidence breeding both a lack of self-awareness and an overly messianic universalism, both of which have become more untenable in the 21st century – and both of which have been highlighted by the COVID-19 crisis. The first – lack of self-awareness – is based on the taken-for-granted assumption that that liberal models will always be superior to autocratic ones; in the second decade of the twenty-first century, this argument – based on the comparative advantage over the failed and long-stagnant Soviet experiment immediately following its collapse – is no longer as straightforwardly obvious as it once was. Instead, it is now overshadowed by the longer-term fact that the top-heavy, statist Chinese economic system has consistently outperformed the West’s, famously lifting more people out of poverty than ever in the history of mankind, and creating a fledgling superpower in the process. China’s present ability to push back globally at Western points about its system being to blame for the COVID-19 crisis (or, in fact, the ongoing situation in Xinjiang) is but one expression of this trend, amplified by the ‘curation’ of the global information space by the Chinese regime.[17] This problem goes beyond an ‘information war’ between the Chinese Communist Party, and the liberal West. It is also enabled by the structural socio-economic contradictions and systemic faults – many of them outlined above – which the Western policymaking elite has allowed to accumulate, unaddressed, for the past three decades. The crisis-prone nature of the Liberal World Order – with many of its crises emanating from lax regulation within its Western core – chips away at this comparative advantage from a practical perspective. The West’s moral comparative advantage is furthermore compromised by the hollowing out of democratic governance, and the inequalities and crises emerging from free-market orthodoxy. Both have resulted in the gradual transformation of Western democracies – especially the power at their core, the United States – from genuinely competitive liberal democracies rooted in vibrant, grass-roots civil societies, into increasingly unequal, socially fractured and polarised plutocracies dominated by a disproportionately influential millionaire and billionaire elite.[18] Coupled with permanent compromises on civil and human rights emanating from the ‘war on terror’, these have arguably also chiselled away at the comparative moral advantage long enjoyed by liberal, Western societies, creating vulnerabilities easily exploited by 21st-century information warriors. In no small part, this crisis of confidence also has to do with post-Cold War liberalism’s activist universal ambitions: liberal-democratic forms of governance were not only seen as superior, they were also defined as universally applicable, regardless of historical or other structural conditions, and, as the expected end-point of modernising processes – something dramatically contradicted by recent democratic backsliding in ‘mature’ democracies like Hungary’s.[19] The expectation was that globalisation would facilitate liberal forms of governance at home and abroad; dictatorship was thus seen as an anomaly, to be overcome as the West, led by the United States, performed its role and – in the words of the latter’s first post-Cold War National Security Strategy - created ‘open, democratic and representative political systems worldwide’.[20] Overlooked was the possibility that these assumptions were born from the after-effects of Western colonialism, the resulting global cultural and material dominance of the West, and the boost of ideological victory in the Cold War – all three of which are now slowly fading into the background. Failures in regime change and humanitarian intervention – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere – were one illustration of the dangers of universalist hubris and resulting overstretch; and COVID-19 now amplifies these dangers in two ways. Firstly, by assuming modernity moves in one – liberal – direction, the West let down its guard, in expectation that China – and others - would, at some point adopt the same kind of ‘openness’ everyone was deemed to aspire to and reach after attaining a certain level of development; and, secondly, in expecting China, and others, to specifically respond to crises in ways they themselves would have responded, i.e. in the transparent and accountable ways seen in their own, open, and – all appearances to the contrary - more highly developed, mature economies.[21] In both these misconceptions, the liberal West both over-estimates its own capability to impose change in an increasingly post-Western world, over societies that may not at all be receptive to solutions born from liberal perspectives and socio-economic contexts that are quite different from their own. In fact, Western liberals have all too often ended up reading the politics of non-Western societies that - like China’s, Russia’s, and Iran’s - diverge from the liberal-democratic norm, in ways that fit their ideological preferences: frustration at their repressive and opaque methods has led to one-size-fits-all liberal solutions being proposed, and longed for, often ignoring structural limitations, tortuous historical backstories and local political cultures that make these societies less than receptive to Western-style liberalism. As a result, unrepresentative dissidents have become preferred interlocutors; rumblings of localised discontent have been interpreted as heralding the imminent destabilisation of the regime; and attempts at revolution – however hopeless – have been prematurely embraced. This wishful thinking is dangerous, in that it hinders ideologically detached, pragmatic solutions to global problems that do not assume shaping societies according to Western preferences, or, alternatively, in that they base policies on expectations of change that are neither imminent, nor, indeed, probable. Both of these are perilous for liberal states, risking ineffectiveness, overstretch or aggravation through impositions that cannot be achieved, or internal change that won’t occur: the response to COVID-19 will, when the time comes, have to navigate between these two extremes, towards a pragmatism free from ideological imposition and expectation.


COVID-19 is thus an additional challenge to a Liberal World Order which was already under considerable strain from the multiple contradictions which have accumulated since the end of the Cold War. While it is too early to tell how the decisions taken during and after the crisis will shape the future, it is quite reasonable to assume that these tensions will not suddenly disappear, and that they will be, to an even greater extent, in want of solutions. The three ‘weak points’ highlighted above emerged during the high point of the Liberal World Order, in the first decade of the post-Cold War era; but the assumption that the state will just wither away, that markets will resolve everything, and that liberalism will always rule the roost may become even less tenable than before. Firstly, when it comes to the nation-state, policymakers may, of course, continue hoping for the best, and the sudden disappearance of populism and retrograde nationalism in light of, among others, the revalidation of expertise, international cooperation and solidarity; this would, nevertheless, represent a considerable leap of faith, considering the extent to which COVID-19 has illustrated the continued relevance of the state, and identification with national forms of community, in the responses taken at times of crisis. The challenge posed by its continued status as the principal ‘container’ of democratic politics, and the main provider of security will remain, as will the question of how to reconcile this reality with more universal forms of legitimacy and identification. Issues like the recent wrangling over ‘Coronavirus bonds’ in the EU suggest this will be a difficult task indeed, whose kicking into the long grass might very well lead to the collapse of a number of liberal projects, including the EU itself. Secondly, that markets are too important to be left to economists alone is another lesson that might – counter-intuitively – be drawn from the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, at first sight, the emergency measures taken under the guidance of experts appear to bolster the case for technocratic governance; but beyond the immediate requirements of the crisis itself, they also open up the possibility of political and moral choice: against the taken-for-granted inequalities generated by its diktats, and against the idea that markets and interdependence are the best recipe for security. In a world where some do not play by these rules, but, instead, consistently subordinate the market to politics, interdependence may very well turn into dependence: a key insight to be kept in mind in the post-Coronavirus era. Thirdly, and most importantly, comes the necessity for a redefined, more realistic universalism, one that does away with the expectation that other societies will automatically gravitate towards the tenets of an unreformed Liberal World Order that continues to find itself in crisis. The mistaken view that ‘there is no alternative’ to liberalism because it is the only ideology with universal appeal and applicability should be done away with in favour of the realisation that local, culturally specific solutions can, on aggregate, also form a challenge to its global ambitions, and become more relevant if the West’s long-held relative material dominance continues to fade. Shaping the world, and others, in liberalism’s image may very well become much more difficult in coming decades; instead, an effort at perfecting liberal democracy, and realising universalist value at home – within liberal democratic states and communities of liberal democratic states – should become the norm, as should safeguarding these states through flexible foreign policies, and the pragmatic management of global issues, including those related to public health – free from unrealistic expectation and ideological missionary ambition. Whether or not this turning of Western, liberal societies into examples to be aspired to, rather than models to be imposed, will occur following COVID-19 may become the crucial question of the 21st century. The jury is still out – not least because of the weakening of liberal democracy at its very core – the United States – under an administration neither interested in its domestic invigoration, nor capable of formulating a coherent – let alone pragmatic – foreign policy. Yet, such post-crisis introspection will be crucial if liberal values are to survive for future generations; and, as the current crisis has shown, it is entirely overdue. [1] Fukuyama, F. (1992) The End of History and the Last Man, New York: Free Press.[2] Holsinger, B. (2016) Neomedievalism and International Relations. In: D'Arcens L (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 165-179.[3] Held, D. (1995) Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitcan Governance, Stanford: Stanford University Press.[4] Tilly, C. (1990) Coercion, Capital and European States, AD990-1990, Cambridge: Basil Blackwell.[5] Bertsou, E and Caramani, D. (2020) The Technocratic Challenge to Democracy. Oxford: Routledge.[6] John Harris,The Experts are Back in Fashion as Covid-19’s Reality Bites, The Guardian, March 2020,[7] Adler, E and Barnett, M. (1998) Security Communities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.[8] New Atlanticist, Is China Winning the Coronavirus Response Narrative in the EU?,Atlantic Council, March 2020,[9] Larry Elliott, The Coronavirus Crisis Has Brought the EU’s Failings into Sharp Relief, The Guardian, March 2020,; Silvia Amaro, Italy’s Death Toll Surpasses 10,000 as Prime Minister Warns of Rising ‘Nationalist Instincts’, CNBC, March 2020,[10] Amil Khan, Coronavirus Response Shows Disinformation Is the New Normal, Foreign Policy Centre, March 2020,[11] Business Leader, You Know Change Is in the Air When the Likes of Ashley and Martin Back Down, The Guardian, March 2020,[12] Zdravko Ljubas, Fearing COVID-19, Russian Oligarchs Buy Their Own Ventilators, OCCRP, March 2020,; Robert Jackman, How the Super-Rich Self-Isolate, The Spectator, March 2020,[13] Mudde, C and Kaltwasser, CR. (2017) Populism : a Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.[14] Harding H, (1998) Will China Democratize? The Halting Advance of Pluralism. Journal of Democracy 9: 11-17; Pei M. (1995) " Creeping Democratization" in China. Ibid.6: 65-79.[15] Charlemagne, More Europe or Less? The EU Must Move Closer Together—or Let States Save Themselves, The Economist, March 2020,[16] Eric Levitz, No, Trump Can’t Revive the Economy Through Human Sacrifice, New York Magazine, March 2020,[17] Suzanne Nossel, China Is Fighting the Coronavirus Propaganda War to Win, Foreign Policy, March 2020,[18] Hasen, RL. (2016) Plutocrats United: Campaign Money, the Supreme Court, and the Distortion of American Elections, New Haven: Yale University Press.[19] Isabel Togoh, Death Of Democracy? Hungary Approves Orban’s Controversial Emergency Powers, Forbes, March 2020,[20] USA. (1993) National Security Strategy of the United States. In: Council NS (ed). Washington: The White House.[21] Jeffrey Wasserstrom, China’s Response to Coronavirus Exposes a Dangerous Obsession with Secrecy, The Guardian, February 2020,; Shadi Hamid, China Is Avoiding Blame by Trolling the World, The Atlantic March 2020, [post_title] => FPC Briefing: Liberalism and Geopolitics beyond COVID-19 [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => fpc-briefing-liberalism-and-geopolitics-beyond-covid-19 [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2020-04-14 10:49:56 [post_modified_gmt] => 2020-04-14 10:49:56 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[3] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 4070 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2019-09-24 10:03:34 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-09-24 10:03:34 [post_content] =>


During much of the preceding decade wider Europe’s strategic landscape, from the Atlantic-to-the-Urals, has been marked by two interrelated phenomena. On the one hand, the continent has seen a continuous deterioration in relations between Russia and the West. On the other, as elsewhere, it has witnessed an ebbing of the once unassailable confidence in liberal[1] institutions that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War. Both of these processes have now reached crisis point. Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, its ongoing involvements in Eastern Ukraine and Georgia, its subversion of political processes in liberal-democratic states have so far been only partially addressed. While Brexit and its complications have to some extent decreased the continental electorates’ Eurosceptic tendencies, the liberal regional order’s longer-term challenges remain, as witnessed in the populist-authoritarian rollback in member states like Hungary and Poland, and a continuing populist challenge in Europe’s core.

The responses to these crises have so far been marked by incoherence. On the one hand, Russia has been subjected to economic and personal sanctions; both Ukraine and Georgia have continued their integration into the European Union (EU)’s norms and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military frameworks; and comprehensive strategies have been worked out at both the national and international institutional levels against Russia’s hybrid forms of warfare.[2]  On the other hand, large-scale energy projects like Nord Stream 2 have been pushed ahead; the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty have been declared defunct;[3] defence spending by most European NATO allies has remained well under the two per cent target (much to the consternation of the current administration in Washington DC); neither Ukraine nor Georgia have been offered concrete timelines for full NATO membership; and only piecemeal measures have been taken in response to money-laundering by former Soviet elites, notably in the United Kingdom’s (UK) overseas territories.[4]

Neither have the weaknesses internal to ‘wider Europe’s’ institutional infrastructure been addressed. In spite of numerous earlier pledges, fundamental reforms to the EU institutions have been postponed. Ambitious proclamations notwithstanding, the EU and many of its constituent states have remained vulnerable to authoritarian backsliding and populist disruption. The other elements of ‘wider Europe’s’ organisational order don’t present a more coherent picture. Rivalry between Moscow and the West has turned the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – once touted as the core provider of ‘comprehensive security’ in post-Cold War Europe – largely irrelevant to high politics (although some of its components and programmes have retained their usefulness in monitoring the continent’s more problematic spaces).[5] The Council of Europe (CoE) – the central institutional plank of Europe’s Human Rights regime – has lost much of its effectiveness, and, in fact, legitimacy, through various corruption scandals in its Parliamentary Assembly – not to mention the ability of various, more illiberal members states, including Russia, to flagrantly violate its precepts without much consequence.[6] While the credibility of NATO’s core function – collective defence under Article V – has remained intact, earlier hopes that it would spread peace and security throughout the continent as it expanded have run up against the realities of an assertive Russia in Ukraine, and Georgia.

Russia’s unwillingness to abide by normative and institutional frameworks created in the 1990s has often been identified as a key problem in the charged strategic landscape of contemporary Europe. While, indeed, much of the weakening of these structures has to do with the disinclination of an increasingly alienated Moscow to recognise their legitimacy, there is another side to the story: in fact, the assumptions on which Europe’s current legal-institutional order was founded were specific to a particular era – the liberal 1990s – whose historically contingent conditions were projected far in to the future. Times have changed, and many of the assumptions that initially underlay these institutions have either been contradicted, or have become outdated; as a result, the institutions they engendered have been left vulnerable to attack, or become counter-productive to their original aims.

Much has to do with the internal crisis in which the liberal world order at large has found itself since the 2008 financial meltdown. As many prominent scholars of this world order have argued, it appears to be shifting from a once firmly established – some would say hegemonic - liberal system, to something less cosmopolitan, less dominant, with many of the precepts of liberal ideology – including the trinity of democracy, international law/institutions, and interdependent free markets – being subjected to, at the very least, reinterpretation and reconfiguration. Even stalwart supporters of liberal internationalism - like G. John Ikenberry - have acknowledged the role of internal contradictions in weakening liberal frameworks.[7] While few have predicted a wholesale collapse of liberal institutions, many have suggested modifications of varying aspects of that order, based on new, less liberal realities.[8]

What might such a reinterpretation of the liberal world order look like in the wider European context? As suggested above, the continent’s current institutional makeup was mainly a product of the liberal 1990s, when Central and Eastern Europe became the focus of what was probably the greatest transformational project since the Marshall Plan. Times have changed, and many of the assumptions made during that decade of transformation have ebbed away. In light of that reality, the next three sections will be asking the following three questions on the future of ‘wider Europe’s’ institutional order, concentrating on its implications for the four organisations central to it: the EU, NATO, the CoE, and the OSCE: firstly, as to the liberal assumptions driving the relevant organisations in the post-Cold War period; secondly, as to the effect of current realities on those assumptions; and, thirdly, as to the possibility of adapting these institutions to those new realities.

Liberal Assumptions and the Post-Cold War Wider European Order

Most of the institutions listed above – all, in fact, except the OSCE – can be traced back to the beginnings of the Cold War. Their unifying liberal logic combined efforts at pacifying the Western half of the continent through economic integration (EU) and a strengthening of civic and political rights (the CoE). These were supplemented through a transatlantic military alliance (NATO), aimed at ‘keeping the Americans in, the Germans down, and the Russians out’. The predecessor organisation to the OSCE was the child of a different age – of détente – when the Helsinki Process resulted in a quest for ‘comprehensive security’ through the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), including, importantly, the ‘human dimension’ as a prerequisite of security thus defined. As the Cold War came to an end, these institutions and their liberal normative foundations were deepened and expanded to include the ‘lost’ – Central and Eastern – portions of a reunited ‘European Family of Nations’.

The EU, NATO and the CoE were widened to include states in this regained part of Europe. Their and the OSCE’s scopes were also deepened to embrace the new possibilities that the ‘End of History’ was supposed to have opened up. Simultaneously with eastward expansion, EU integration continued apace, moving towards the abolition of internal borders through Schengen and the adoption of a common currency, in addition to Common Foreign and Security Policies. NATO also enlarged, after having proved its value as the upholder of the new international order on the post-Cold War continent in the former Yugoslavia. The CoE was expanded to bring most of the former Soviet bloc under the umbrella of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and the jurisdiction of the Strasbourg Courts. The OSCE emerged from the CSCE at the 1990 Paris Summit, finally able to realise the ‘human’ element within its central concept of ‘comprehensive security’, long stymied by very different interpretations on either side of the iron curtain during the Cold War.

The assumptions behind these institutional-normative expansions and reconfigurations were inherently liberal; they were late twentieth-century adaptations of the Kantian idea that democracy, free trade, and international institutions held the promise of an ever-more peaceful world. Institutions that had been a product of the Cold War were thus integrated into a higher idea, as components of a Kantian ‘pacific federation’ that would expand eastward, and bring the benefits of these three legs of the ‘tripod of the Liberal peace’ to the once shackled nations of the former Soviet bloc. All of this occurred within the broader context of globalisation: the idea that the nation-state had withered away – or was, at least, far less relevant in the global world order - was common currency up to the financial crisis of the previous decade.[9] Spurred on by ever-deeper and complex interdependence, the world was moving towards a global market in commodities and ideas, with unified – liberal - norms governing the behaviour of its actors.

Democratic conditionality was part and parcel of this deepening and widening of the liberal zone of peace. From the mid-1990s, policymakers in the ‘old’ West adopted the adage that the rewards of institutional membership - first and foremost, in the EU – would drive candidate members towards adopting the norms embodied in the Copenhagen Criteria, eventually cementing their status as mature democracies within a broader supra-national polity, their societies made part of an admittedly elusive and controversial demos of European citizens.[10] NATO also maintained an element of democratic conditionality in its promise of safety from – certainly in Eastern European eyes – a possibly resurgent Russia.[11] A similar democratising logic – but one that included rather than excluded Russia - underlay the OSCE and CoE: here, the narrative was one of established democracies helping their less fortunate counterparts in their progression towards political maturity through the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the CoE Venice Commission. Their inclusion into these organisations was as much a prerequisite for, as a result of, their ongoing transition to democracy.

The peace-making feature of this transition would be strengthened through institutionalised interaction and socialisation: all organisations mentioned above therefore offered a number of fora which allowed both political and technocratic elites to interact and integrate, apart from supervisory mechanisms gauging new or prospective members’ compliance with wider Europe’s emerging ‘thick’ normative regime. The numerous mechanisms and institutions established by the EU to that effect were seen as so successful that they came to be viewed as part of its status as a ‘normative power’; NATO’s Partnership for Peace and Parliamentary Assemblies (PAs), and the CoE’s PA and Venice Commission functioned according to that same logic, as did the OSCE’s own PA, along with its aforementioned ODIHR.[12] Of course, membership in these organisations and their ‘thick’ legal-normative environment was also seen as providing a crucial institutional barrier to conflict, as well as a further foundation for democracy and human rights, with the CoE’s Court of Human Rights one particularly important example for this line of thought.

Such peace would, finally, be assured by making European economies inextricable: what had started with the integration of Germany and France’s Coal and Steel industries ended in the creation and expansion of an increasingly integrated Common Market, where goods, capital and labour would be freed from the shackles of international borders – the logic behind Schengen - and the unpredictability of currency rates – the argument behind the Euro.[13] Expanding this integration Eastward – through EU membership, TACIS[14], and the European Neighbourhood Policy and Eastern Partnership – would allow neighbouring countries to be subjected to these pacifying effects.[15] These peace-making assumptions also drove broader global developments as well: the 90s were the heyday of globalisation, a time when it was assumed by many – not least in the policymaking community - that integrating ‘transitioning’ economies – including Russia and China – into win-win trade and financial flows would foster an interdependence that would encourage a self-interested submission to a peaceful, liberal global order.[16]

From Mistaken Assumptions to Institutional Mismatch

Considering the series of assumptions outlined above, it would be a mistake to trace the problems in the contemporary European liberal order solely to choices made in Moscow. While the Putin regime and its irredentism have undoubtedly played an efficient role in the weakening of this regime, questions must also be asked of the permissive context created by increasingly outdated expectations. Firstly, the assumptions on democratisation have made this order unprepared for the possibility of rollback and crisis with mature democracies, whose stability was largely assumed to be assured – based in no small part on the linear view of history posited by liberalism itself. Secondly, the inclusion of illiberal, authoritarian states in normative institutions like the CoE and the OSCE has proved highly subversive, in some cases resulting in ‘reverse socialisation’ of parts of the Western elite. The EU and NATO have, moreover, continued relying on the logic of deepening and expansion when the geopolitical context allowing for the pacifying effects of the nineties has disappeared. Thirdly, a blind faith in economic interdependence has become increasingly outdated at a time when economic interaction should – contrary to liberal assumptions – increasingly be seen as liable to the creation of unwelcome dependencies on illiberal states which persistently maintain a zero-sum view of geo-economics - like Russia.

Firstly, the assumed linear development of Europe’s various states towards democracy and less relevance – under the benign influence of these institutions – has not proceeded as projected. In fact, some young democracies previously classified as ‘mature’ – including Hungary and Poland – have experienced authoritarian rollback, while even long-established liberal democracies – including the UK – have entered a period of protracted polarisation and crisis, partly based on a revalidation of state sovereignty.[17] Far from a linear transition to democracy – played up at various points in the previous decades, following 1989, and the colour revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, for instance – most post-Soviet states have seen ups and downs, a mixture of progress and regress, often hampered by the heavy structural and social realities of their Soviet legacies.[18] Added to this comes the failure of the democratic project in an autocratic Russia that, however imperfectly, has been able to emerge from the economic chaos of the 1990s while at the same time moving away from liberal political reform, in an outcome unforeseen by much of Western thinking during the previous decades.

This is important in three ways, especially over the longer term. Firstly, the democratic peace is robustly confirmed only between mature democracies, and does not allow for rollback - since this would, over the longer term, obviate much of the confidence generated in the shared norms and expectations underlying the phenomenon.[19] In a ‘wider Europe’ of immature, or reversing democracies, the stabilising factor of democratisation therefore risks becoming less pronounced, putting a question mark on the logic of ‘pacification through democratisation’ underlying the democratic conditionalities of the past. Secondly, political models in prolonged crisis do not attract emulation as easily as their well-functioning counterparts. The crises of liberal democracy, if sustained, will affect the West’s much-vaunted normative power as they sap its ‘social capital’ both within its boundaries, and beyond.[20] Thirdly, democratic stagnation and reversal has led to normative institutions like the CoE and OSCE being weakened substantially by their inclusion of states that promote values diametrically opposed to the organisations’ own.

This brings me to my second point, on the mistaken assumptions behind the functioning of Wider Europe’s institutions. Their expected socialisation of the elites of prospective members and neighbours into a shared culture of political and civic rights has not quite fared as expected. In the case of the expressly normative CoE, for instance, instead of undergoing such socialisation, authoritarian member states like Russia and Azerbaijan have ended up subverting many of the fundamental tenets the organisation is ultimately supposed to uphold. For example, multiple corruption scandals have rocked the organisation’s parliamentary assembly, in what could be seen as instances of reverse socialisation.[21] Meanwhile, authoritarian states in the former Soviet space have become quite successful in tailoring their repressive policies around the long timelines required for the ECHR, or have, in some cases – notably in cases involving Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya – simply ignored their provisions altogether, bolstered by a controversial 2015 law stipulating the primacy of Russian constitutional over international law.[22] With the full restoration of the Russian Federation’s voting rights within the organisation, the CoE is now also confronted with a situation in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea that cannot possibly be reconciled with its most basic principles (leading to its further discrediting in places whose governments - contrary to Russia - do hold democratic aspirations). These moral inconsistencies ultimately hold the danger of hollowing out the credibility and effectiveness of an organisation defining itself primarily in normative rather than realpolitik terms.

The OSCE hasn’t fared any better. Once touted as the premier organisation providing the triple benefits of comprehensive – that is international, economic and human – security to its members, its role has been largely reduced to the monitoring of legacy conflicts. Part of the reason is its late recognition of the ways in which semi-authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet space had perfected their hollowing out of the effectiveness of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and its observer missions, either through innovative methods, or their exclusion from electoral processes in their ‘sovereign democracies’.[23] Beyond the ‘low politics’ observation missions in Ukraine and elsewhere, the organisation has therefore lost its relevance partly because it underestimated the determination and ability of these regimes to push back rather than follow a linear, teleological movement towards inclusion into a now-weakened liberal order.  Another reason was the West’s decision to rely mainly on an expanded NATO – rather than an organisation like the OSCE, encompassing a Europe ‘From the Atlantics-to –the-Urals’, and beyond - for the provision of security on the continent.

And indeed, when measured according to its core function – as an alliance providing collective defence for its member states – NATO has arguably been the most successful of the four elements Europe’s post-Cold War institutional regime. Mounting challenges notwithstanding, the credibility of Article V remains intact, as the Russian Federation continues to largely respect NATO’s current eastern boundary. In that sense, the previous bouts of NATO expansion can be termed a success, but the same cannot be unequivocally said about NATO’s proposed expansion into the former Soviet Union. While those under Article V protection have indeed benefited from strategic stability, the potential inclusion of former Soviet states beyond the Baltics has elicited pushback from Moscow, now resulting in the exact opposite of its initial intent.

The problem here is that NATO eastward expansion was based on a dual, potentially contradictory logic. On the one hand, Western policymakers saw it as the cementing of stability in Central and Eastern Europe through the cementing of democratic conditionality. On the other, there was the more realist logic – most strongly expressed by the Eastern European states themselves - of securing the region from a possibly resurgent Russia.[24] As long as an internally incoherent Russia was unable to push back and the alliance in effect expanded into a strategic vacuum, this logic functioned without much contradiction: it was possible to stabilise Eastern Europe while at the same time providing it with its desired protective shield against Moscow. This changed with the inclusion of former Soviet states in the list of potential members, and the stabilisation of the Russian economy under Vladimir Putin. Russian pushback meant that, far from providing the stability it had in previous waves of expansion, NATO expansion collided with Russian zero-sum thinking and restored power to produce instability, exposing aspiring members – still outside the protection of Article V – to Russian revanchism.

Finally, on the economic front, the integration and geographic expansion of the commercial ‘zone of peace’ has not worked as expected. Internally, the great integration projects of the 1990s – Schengen and the Euro – have created imbalances that, far from ensuring greater stability and security, have left the EU vulnerable to destabilisation, both internally and by outside players. The imbalances internal to the EU have led to crisis after crisis, and the unequal distribution of benefits and burdens to which responses have been only piecemeal, and partial.[25] The Schengen agreement was not conceived for a world where increased migration flows would combine with right-wing populism and Jihadist terrorism to ‘undermine the European project’ through an easily kindled culture of fear, and an unequal sharing of burdens.  The 2008 financial crisis, moreover, laid bare the very real structural distortions that emerged from integrating Europe’s northern and southern economies into a monetary union, without the added element of fiscal integration and institutional reform. Both these crises stressed the idea of pan-European solidarity to the brink, also revealing the extent to which ideas of a common European polis, with a commensurate European demos – once prevalent in the halls of power in Brussels[26] – were beyond reach: the perceived lack of control of national electorates over a supra-national institution further weakened the European project’s legitimacy in the eyes of many of its citizens, leaving it open to subversion by outside powers, including Russia.

Externally, the assumed stability that would emerge from the integration of the former Soviet space – Russia included – has not come to pass. Much ink has already been spilt on the failure of the European Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership in creating a ‘belt of stability’ around the EU; and in that sense, the problems with these initiatives run parallel to NATO expansion, stemming as they do from a tendency of a liberal West to view economic reform and modernisation in primarily positive-sum terms, as opposed to the zero-sum geo-economic thinking prevalent in Moscow. Moscow zero-sum thinking also subverted the assumptions made in giving Russia a stake in Europe’s economies, not least through Western energy and financial markets. Rather than moving Russia away from zero-sum thought through the mitigating effects of interdependence, they have created dangerous dependencies and sources of corruption, which powerful internal constituencies are invested in maintaining: witness German lobbying in favour of the Nordstream 2 pipeline, or the resistance in the City of London when it comes to tackling illicit financial flows from Russia and the former Soviet space, even in light of major scandals like Danske Bank and the ‘Russian laundromat’.[27]

Wider Europe Beyond the End of History: towards a Pragmatic Pluralism

What, then, is to be done in light of this disjuncture between an institutional setup founded on multiple outdated assumptions that survive by inertia, and the changed realities of an increasingly illiberal world? Many Western policymakers have been relatively slow in discarding or revising the above-mentioned assumptions governing the continent’s institutional structure; even when faced with dramatic demonstrations of their outdated and counterproductive effects in changed times, they have insistently held on to them, arguing that their abandonment would imply a capitulation, a relinquishment of the norms that had, to a great extent, become the centrepiece of the rules-based international (and regional) order established following the end of the Cold War. This reluctance is all the more understandable in view of the promises of regional peace offered by democracy, the rule of international law, and economic integration, a promise that has, to a significant extent, been spoiled by Russia.

But such a fundamental rethink is overdue: after all, the decay in the liberal order goes beyond malicious Russian agency, being also the result of fundamental structural changes in the regional and global contexts acting as the permissive causes of global and regional liberal decline. To cling to unchanging assumptions in the face of these very real structural changes that have transformed the world away from the ‘End of History’ would, in fact, leave many of the vulnerabilities that have opened up unaddressed. Over time, it would result in a superficial addressing of the symptoms of a deeper malaise and, continuing, potentially dangerous policy failures in an increasingly unpredictable strategic environment. The 1990s were called the ‘unipolar moment’ for a reason, and to pretend that moment has stretched into the current decade is untenable.

Firstly, there must be a recognition that liberal democracy – even in its mature form – is more fragile than thought in its 1990s heyday, and that, internally, it would have to be constantly guarded against inconsistency and decay. The goal should be to maintain the liberal Western European core as a ‘security community’: a group of states where relations based on trust are regulated through a dense network of rights and responsibilities, centred on the EU and NATO. This would, most probably, require a period of introspection and reconstruction aimed at addressing the tensions and vulnerabilities affecting the bodies politic of its member states, and its central supranational institution – the EU. Difficult choices would have to be made, not least regarding the adherence of democratically recalcitrant members states to commitments made when joining the security community’s ‘social contract’, or the nature of the EU’s source of democratic legitimacy, its demos (or its many demoi?). Considering the road already travelled – the depth of integration between the societies of the Western ‘security community’ – these challenges would not be insurmountable.

Such introspection would also require a re-examining of the limits and possibilities of the main military component of that community – NATO – as a defensive alliance of liberal-democratic states, rather than an ever-expanding Kantian project. On the one hand, as hinted at above, the organisation has been immensely successful in ensuring the security of its existing members. On the other hand, however, the extension of its post-Cold War expansionist logic to the former Soviet Union has manifestly not resulted in the promised peace that it was so successful in delivering in Central and Eastern Europe. A strong case could now be made for reinforcing the alliance in its quite effective original defensive role, by finally addressing long-delayed thornier issues, like the longer-term untenable nature of Western Europe’s free-riding on US defence expenditures for its security.[28] But this would also imply a reconsideration of the Alliance’s expansive ‘Kantian’ mission: added on because of the demands of Central and Eastern European states, and a crisis of purpose following the fall of the USSR[29], it has now arguably been made counterproductive by the resurgence of Putin’s Russia, and the unrealistic expectations of the long-dominant, more activist versions of the liberal world-view.

This brings be to my second point: the period of introspection would also require a reconsideration of the other outward-facing Kantian ‘grand projects’ of yesteryear, and the limiting effects of one-size-fits-all conditionality on the flexible and pragmatic foreign and security policies needed in a world where a liberal order no longer unequivocally rules the roost. If chosen, such a move away from normative and geopolitical expansion as the centrepiece of statecraft outside the liberal-democratic security community would simply be an acknowledgment of the limits of top-down democratisation in an increasingly illiberal outside world, or of military or commercial expansion into regions that are no longer a geopolitical quasi-vacuum. Engagement would depend on the demands and requirements of the relationships between the Western security community – EU, NATO – and its members on the one hand, and the states on the outside on the other, based on both  individual sovereign choices, and the limitations of a new, less favourable 21st-century geopolitics.

Arguably, the beginnings of such a flexible approach are already visible in EU and NATO policies towards former Soviet states;[30] more of the same would possibly be needed to tackle the challenges of this new age, combined with a measure of honesty towards those states aspiring liberal states left outside the Western security community – in the contested spaces ‘in between’. Such candour about the limitations of NATO and EU expansion and the values of strategic patience would, no doubt, be a difficult pill to swallow, but it would also be an open acknowledgment of realities that have, for too long, remained unspoken, leading to unfairly heightened expectations, and inevitably broken promises. Very few in the West see either Georgian or Ukrainian NATO or EU membership as realistic propositions in the short or medium term. Efforts should thus centre on using all instruments of statecraft in favour of stability as a collective interest, rather than expansion as an end in itself, pending a reopened window of opportunity at some indeterminate point in the future. 

Conversely, this emphasis on safeguarding rather than expansion may also require an end to the long-surviving fiction that expressly illiberal states and powers continue to be part of (or a prospective part of) a community of liberal-democratic values. From that perspective, the subversive, reverse-socialising membership of autocratic states like Russia and other ‘illiberals’ in expressly normative, values-centred institutions like the CoE would have to be queried. With the liberal order in crisis, the wisdom of maintaining the membership of clearly anti-liberal states in organisations with the specific aim of supporting and bolstering liberal values – in hope of a Damascene conversion of some sort – appears increasingly counterproductive. Instead of such normative institutions, illiberal states could be engaged with through a redefined OSCE, so-called ‘interstitial institutions’[31] between those of the security community and non-liberal alternatives. For example, the Eurasian Economic Union, or entirely new, ad-hoc frameworks for interaction, that would not require their adherence to democratic norms, but would be limited to a common interest in managing and reducing instability, and reconstructing a ‘thin’ rules-based order adapted to contemporary circumstances.

Thirdly, this institutional reimagining would also have to question the assumed advantages of economic interdependence. The same inside/outside divide between a to-be-safeguarded liberal security community, and the world beyond would have to be reinforced in the wider European political economy. Within the Western security community, again, introspection would likely have to focus on restoring the legitimacy and effectiveness of existing institutions: there would, for instance, have to be a clear re-examination of the unequal distribution of costs and benefits emanating from the grand projects of the previous decades (the Euro, Schengen), lest they reinvigorate populist opponents of a liberal, integrated Europe. Outside of the ‘democratic circle’, geopolitical considerations and demands for reciprocity would have to play a major role in shaping economic links. Again, policies would have to be flexible – but, especially in the case of illiberal powers like Russia, they would have to more explicitly include costs of dependence and corruption in addition to the hitherto assumed benefits of an often distorted ‘interdependence’ in their calculations. The assumption that unencumbered trade is the norm, and that any diversions from this are ‘sanctions’ would have to be discarded. Outside a narrow circle of trust afforded to fellow liberal states, a collective delineation of interest and security would have to govern, and, if required, limit, economic interaction. In what is no more than the adoption of a stance reciprocal to that seen in statist, illiberal entities like Russia.

I shall conclude with a few important caveats: the above should be seen as a highly speculative reimagining of wider Europe’s institutional makeup in light of a trend that will probably continue in the 21st century: a move away of international society’s centre of gravity from the liberal West. This will require a commensurate move away from assumptions made in the hegemonic 1990s, when much of the contemporary institutional infrastructure was shaped. In essence, it accepts the transition from the promise of a Kantian wider Europe – based on democracy, institutions, trade – to one that the great scholar of International Relations, Hedley Bull, referred to as ‘Grotian’; a wider Europe where norms and rules interact with power in often messy ways to nevertheless produce a modicum of ‘International Society’.

The specifics of such a move may turn out different from those touched upon above, but such a Grotian pan-regional order will still, by nature, be far from the heady ideals of ‘Perpetual Peace’ contained in liberal thought. And while many of the institutions that emerged and developed during its heyday will probably survive, they will have to adapt to the more realist logics of a less cosmopolitan age. While such a Kantian system has arguably been established in Western, Central and part of Eastern Europe, it remains elusive in the world beyond: acknowledging this by safeguarding Kantian accomplishments in the core, and toning down one’s ambitions on the outside may be the way forward if the liberal order is to survive, and perhaps revive, in reformed and reinvigorated form.

While this reinforcement of the Westphalian principle of ‘cuius rex, eius religio’ outside a well-defined liberal security community implies a ‘thinning’ of the institutions outside that core, it also makes the coherence more important: the call for introspection emerges from that concern. Challenges like the Trump presidency, Brexit, populism – all of which will probably reverberate far beyond 2019 – will have to be tackled with the strategic coherence of that core in mind; by addressing the underlying internal factors driving the current societal malaise in the West, including the de-legitimation of domestic political institutions; and a skewed political economy working for a small, privileged minority. Failing that, if the core falls, and centrifugal forces take over, all bets – including those formulated above - will be off.

Photo by Alexrk2, published under Creative Commons with no changes made.

[1] Within the context of this paper, ‘liberal’ and ‘liberalism’ refer to the ideologies underlying the global and regional orders established under US hegemony following 1945 and consolidated after 1991; these were defined by Ikenberry as being based on ‘open markets, international institutions, cooperative security, democratic community, progressive change, collective problem solving, shared sovereignty, the rule of law’ – principles also underlying ‘wider Europe’s’ post-Cold war regional order. See: Ikenberry GJ. (2012) Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order: Princeton University Press.

[2] NATO. 2019. Cyber Defence [Online]. Brussels: NATO. Available:, COUNCIL OF THE EUROPEAN UNION 2017. Council conclusions on the Implementation of the Joint Declaration by the President of the European Council, the President of the European Commission and the Secretary General of the NATO. Brussels: European Union,.

[3] TEBIN, P. 2018. No Peace – No War: the Future of the Russia-NATO Relationship, Brussels, European Leadership Network, SELIGMAN, L. & GRAMER, R. 2019. What Does the Demise of the INF Treaty Mean for Nuclear Arms Control? Foreign Policy.

[4] BULLOUGH, O. 2018. How Britain Let Russia Hide Its Dirty Money. The Guardian, 25 May, RYBACKI, P. 2019. Nord Stream 2: Russia’s Geopolitical Trap. Harvard Political Review.

[5] CSS - ETH ZÜRICH & GENEVA CENTRE FOR THE DEMOCRATIC CONTROL OF ARMED FORCES 2017. Empowering the OSCE in Challenging Times: Reflections and Recommendations. OSCE Focus 2017. Geneva: Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.

[6] DZEHTSIARIOU, K. 6 November 2018. Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Dilemma of Continuing or Ceasing Russian Membership in the Council of Europe. Verfassungsblog: On Matters Constitutional [Online]. Available from:

[7] IKENBERRY, G. J. 2018. The End of Liberal International Order? International Affairs, 94, 7-23.

[8] Buzan B and Schouenborg L. (2018) Global International Society: a New Framework for Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Cooley A and Nexon D. (2020, forthcoming) Exit from Hegemony: the Unraveling of the American Global Order, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Walt SM. (2018) The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[9] HABERMAS, J. 1998. The European Nation-State: On the Past and Future of Sovereignty and Citizenship. Public culture, 10, 397-416.

[10] NICOLAÏDIS, K. 2004. “We, the Peoples of Europe ...”. Foreign Affairs, 83, 97-110.

[11] SAROTTE, M. E. 2019. How to Enlarge NATO: the Debate Inside the Clinton Administration, 1993-95. International Security, 44, 7-41.

[12] FLOCKHART, T. 2004. ‘Masters and Novices’: Socialization and Social Learning through the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. International Relations, 18, 361-380, MANNERS, I. 2002. Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms? Journal of Common Market Studies, 40, 235-258, FLOCKHART, T. (ed.) 2005. Socializing Democratic Norms: the Role of International Organizations for the Construction of Europe, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

[13] JOVANOVIĆ, M. N. 2013. The Economics of European Integration, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

[14] Technical  Assistance to the Commonwealth of  Independent States and Georgia

[15] EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT. 2019. The Enlargement of the Union [Online]. Brussels: European Parliament. Available:, EUROPEAN COMMISSION 2007. Communication from the Commission: A Strong European Neighbourhood Policy. Brussels: European Union

[16] WEEDE, E. 2004. The Diffusion of Prosperity and Peace by Globalization. The Independent Review, 9, 165-186, PLATTNER, M. F. & SMOLAR, A. (eds.) 2000. Globalization, Power, and Democracy, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[17] BURAS, P. 2018. Poland, Hungary, and the Slipping Façade of Democracy [Online]. London: ECFR. Available:, MCCOY, J., RAHMAN, T. & SOMER, M. 2018. Polarization and the global crisis of democracy: Common patterns, dynamics, and pernicious consequences for democratic polities. American Behavioral Scientist, 62, 16-42.

[18] HUTCHESON, D. & KOROSTELEVA, E. A. (eds.) 2017. The Quality of Democracy in Post-Communist Europe, London: Routledge.

[19] The importance of these shared norms is pointed at by constructivist explanations of the ‘democratic peace’, including: RISSE-KAPPEN, T. 1995. Democratic Peace - Warlike Democracies: A Social Constructivist Interpretation of the Liberal Argument. European Journal of International Relations, 1, 491-517, OWEN, J. M. 1994. How Liberalism Produces Democratic Peace. International Security, 19, 87-125.

[20] SØRENSEN, G. 2016. Cultural Challenges to the Liberal World Order. In: BÖSS, M. (ed.) Bringing Culture Back In: Human Security and Social Trust. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.

[21] HUG, A. (ed.) 2016. Institutionally Blind? International Organisations and Human Rights Abuses in the Former Soviet Union, London: Foreign Policy Centre.

[22] ROBINSON, T. & SMITH, B. 2018. Russia and the Council fof Europe. London: House of Commons Library.

[23] GOWAN, R. 2018. Muddling Through to 2030: The Long Decline of International Security Cooperation [Online]. New York: United Nations University. Available:, FOROUGHI, P. & MUKHTOROVA, U. 2017. Helsinki’s Counterintuitive Effect? OSCE/ODIHR’s Election Observation Missions and Solidification of Virtual Democracy in Post-Communist Central Asia: the Case of Tajikistan, 2000–2013. Central Asian Survey, 36, 373-390.

[24] SAROTTE, M. E. 2019. How to Enlarge NATO: the Debate Inside the Clinton Administration, 1993-95. International Security, 44, 7-41, MARTEN, K. 2017. Reconsidering NATO Expansion: a Counterfactual Analysis of Russia and the West in the 1990s. European Journal of International Security, 3, 135-161.

[25] DE ANGELIS, G. 2017. Political Legitimacy and the European Crisis: Analysis of a Faltering Project. European Politics and Society, 18, 291-300.

[26] BARTHOLOMEUSZ, J. 2017. Juncker’s White Paper Has the Answers - and That is the Great Tragedy [Online]. Brussels: Heinrich Böll Stiftung. Available:

[27] POPŁAVSKI, K. 2016. German Energy Companies Lobby for Nord Stream 2 [Online]. Warsaw: OSW. Available:, S.N. 2018. The Government May Want Oligarchs Out but It Can’t Bank on City Sanctions. The Guardian, 15 April.

[28] DEMPSEY, J. 2018. NATO’s Relevance [Online]. Brussels: Carnegie Europe. Available:

[29] Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

[30] FURNESS, M. & SCHÄFER, I. 2015. The 2015 European Neighbourhood Policy Review: More Realism, Less Ambition. Bonn: German Development Institute.

[31] THE GB TEAM. 2019. Considerations on Global Governance [Online]. Global Brief. Available:

[post_title] => FPC Briefing: Rethinking 'Wider Europe' in Times of Liberal Crisis [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => rethinking-wider-europe-in-times-of-liberal-crisis [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-09-24 10:15:04 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-09-24 10:15:04 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[4] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 3087 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2018-11-30 13:23:18 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-11-30 13:23:18 [post_content] => One perennial question confronting students of the former Soviet Union has been to what extent democratisation and geopolitical orientation can be separated from each other in their region of interest. Conventional wisdom holds that Russia will be opposed to democratising movements within its claimed periphery: in states like Ukraine and Georgia, many pro-Western politicians have long assumed that a pro-Russian orientation would preclude the thorough-going democratisation aspired to by their electorates.  Numerous scholars have also pointed to Russian opposition to democratisation, particularly in light of the pro-Western colour revolutions of previous decades.[1]Several explanations can account for this. Firstly, the fact that (at least declaratory) adherence to democratic norms and geopolitical orientation have become intermingled for most of the past 25 years: the European Union and NATO have (however imperfectly) included democratic conditionalities in various policy instruments - including the ENP and EaP – and a state’s liberal-democratic aspirations have therefore become closely associated with a pro-European orientation, both for the participants in these programmes, and Moscow itself. Secondly, a truly democratic political culture would provide an awkward fit with the unaccountable clientelistic methods employed in Russian politics, domestic and foreign: with so much of its interaction in the region based on back-room diplomacy, Moscow would be at a loss how to deal with former Soviet republics if they somehow opened up to the scrutiny of an assertive electorate and dynamic civil society. Thirdly, democratisation in societies displaying a strong cultural affinity with Russia – Ukraine, for example – would discredit one of the central planks of the Kremlin’s argument in favour of ‘sovereign democracy’: namely, that Russia in particular, and Eurasia in general, has a different interpretation of ‘democracy’ than the West by virtue of its particular history and culture.These assumptions will soon be put to the test in Armenia, where, earlier this year, an entrenched pro-Russian old guard was swept away in a pro-democratic revolution that simultaneously avoided any challenges to the geopolitical status-quo. The ‘velvet revolution’, as it came to be known, was led by a new generation of politicians, whose ‘My Step’ alliance is widely predicted to win the upcoming parliamentary elections on 9 December by a landslide.  From the very beginning, its leadership – fronted by incumbent Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – made clear its intention to separate their democratising aspirations from Armenia’s geopolitical orientation: the emphasis was on revolutionary domestic change, combined with continuity in the country’s heavily (but not exclusively) pro-Russian foreign and security policies.[2] In the coming months and years, Armenia might provide observers with valuable insights as to how far such a separation is at all possible in the former Soviet Space, depending on whether or not the country is able to meet several considerable challenges that will likely flow from its democratising push.First and foremost, there is the question of whether Armenia’s recent revolution will indeed result in the kind of ‘deep democratisation’ aspired to by much of its population (something on which this whole thought exercise will remain contingent). Eurasia is littered with the broken promises of failed, or half-baked revolutions that, have, over time, resulted in disillusionment in a new, unsatisfactory status-quo. Both the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan failed to deliver on initially sky-high expectations in an increasingly disillusioned Ukraine[3]; Georgia’s recent – and quite acrimonious - elections also exhibited a worrying return to questionable methods before and during the poll.[4] Pashinyan’s alliance will not only have to surmount considerable internal resistance and potential disruption from the ‘darker’ side of Armenia’s political economy; it will also have to fight the multiple structural temptations that could come from the expected landslide, and the absence of a credible, constructive opposition to its rule – something not conducive to the emergence of a healthy political culture based on the effective management of contestation and debate. The ultimate test of Armenia’s nascent democracy will lie in the Pashinyan bloc’s ability to avoid a descent towards a typical, post-Soviet ‘party of power’, as evidenced by a peaceful transfer of authority at some point in the future.But even if Armenia’s internal dynamics were to allow for democracy to successfully take root in coming years, a clear separation between the international and the domestic might prove difficult to uphold. While the leaders of the revolutionary movement have taken great care to stress the absence of geopolitical motives in their push for accountable government, whether Russia will be able or willing to separate these two phenomena over the longer term very much remains to be seen.[5]Because, in spite of the ritual assurances of state sovereignty proclaimed by Lavrov, even if Armenia did not move towards ‘deep integration’ with the EU at the expense of Moscow’s own regional projects, accountable government would require Moscow to possibly accept a higher level of scrutiny than it would be used to in other allies. It may, for instance, have to accept an impartial and wide-ranging investigation into possible crimes committed by the closely allied ancien régime; its thinly veiled displeasure this summer’s post-revolutionary proceedings against former president Kocharyan looks ominous in that regard.[6] It might also have to swallow increased scrutiny of the activities of Russian multinationals in Armenia, as demonstrated, for instance, in recent investigations into possible tax evasion by Gazprom’s local subsidiary.[7] Moreover, would Moscow be willing to separate geopolitics from the economic sphere so as to allow for the transparent management of the economy, and, for instance, the outbidding of Russian companies on a level playing field in investment projects or procurements? Openness and transparency do not lend themselves to the back-room deals the Kremlin so often employs in the region.Even if the above challenges are met, one would have to take care not to generalise towards the other states of the former USSR: paradoxically, because of Armenia’s dependence, size and cultural specificity. In the still unlikely event that democratisation succeeds and is tolerated by Russia, the question still remains whether this is simply because the Kremlin feels confident enough in its strategic dominance over Armenia, both in the military and economic spheres: Armenia’s dependence might make Moscow sufficiently self-assured to put up with the emergence of democratic government, where it might be seen as a geopolitical threat in other, less reliably dependent neighbours. The fact that Armenia is a small state, and culturally distinct from Russia might also allow it to get away with rather more democratisation than, say, a more sizeable and culturally proximate Ukraine: it would not provide quite the liberal-democratic counter-example to Russia’s ‘sovereign democracy’, allegedly feared by the Kremlin.The dangers of Russia becoming a ‘spoiler’ in Armenia’s move towards democratisation without geopolitical reorientation remain. Moscow might simply be waiting for Armenia’s democratic experiment to go awry for purely internal reasons; failing that, it may find itself confronted with any number of situations that would prompt it to subvert accountable government in Yerevan. Only time will tell if democratisation and geopolitics can be separated in the former Soviet space, but a measure of a priori scepticism is definitely in order.  And even if Armenia could pull off the improbable and successfully disassociate the foreign and the domestic, it would not mean that its experiences can be applied elsewhere.  And that is regrettable, considering the potential advantages - for all involved - of such a separation.[1] See, for instance: Ambrosio, T. (2007) Insulating Russia from a Colour Revolution: How the Kremlin Resists Regional Democratic Trends, Democratization, 14:2, 232-252, DOI: 10.1080/13510340701245736; Delcour, L. & Wolczuk, K. (2015) Spoiler or facilitator of democratization?: Russia's role in Georgia and Ukraine, Democratization, 22:3, 459-478, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2014.996135; Risse, T. & Babayan, N. (2015) Democracy promotion and the challenges of illiberal regional powers: introduction to the special issue, Democratization, 22:3, 381-399, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2014.997716. For a dissenting view, see: Sontag, R. (2014, 8 May) Compromise With Russia, Compromise on Democracy?, The National Interest, available at[2] Thomas De Waal, Sometimes Armenian Protests Are Just Armenian Protests, Foreign Policy, April 2018,[3] Christopher Miller, Ukrainians Reflect Bitterly On 'Betrayed Hopes' Of Euromaidan, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, December 2016,[4] Civil Georgia, NDI: Georgia Risks “Squandering” Democratic Asset, November 2018,[5] Tert, No geopolitical context behind Armenia's 'velvet revolution', Prime Minister tells Russia Today, July 2018,[6] AFP, Moscow warns Armenia against 'political' crackdown on old elite, July 2018,[7] Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCPR), Armenia’s Gazprom Operator Accused of Tax Evasion, November 2018, [post_title] => Come December, Could Armenia Get Away with Democracy? [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => come-december-could-armenia-get-away-with-democracy [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-06-13 15:10:40 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-06-13 15:10:40 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[5] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 664 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2014-02-27 16:55:20 [post_date_gmt] => 2014-02-27 16:55:20 [post_content] => And yet, Kremlin policymakers should have known better; everyone in Moscow would have been well aware of the manifold splits and contradictions within Ukrainian society. In much simplified language: much of the East looks East, much of the West looks West, and much of the Crimea – which only became part of the country in the 1950s as, quite literally, a Soviet-era ‘present’ from Russia> – sees its current position an unfortunate quirk of history. While realities on the ground are much more complicated than what such neat geographic line-drawing would suggest – the East-West division is actually more of a gradual transition - the basic point on a deeply conflicted society remains acutely valid: Ukraine could not move towards Eurasia without first tearing itself apart.Ever since it emerged from the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been an incoherent state. And incoherent states have a peculiar problem: they are unable to generate the security practices or, in  Joel Migdal's terms, the collective “survival strategies” required for the state to function as a coherent institutional and social corpus. If the state is to enjoy a monopoly of legitimate force over a given territory and population, such a monopoly would require some measure of agreement on the values and identities it is meant to safeguard, as well as the means through which such safeguarding should occur. That minimal amount of consensus on state identity has been woefully absent since 1991.As a result, Ukrainians remain in fundamental disagreement over which values and identities their state should secure; and this, in turn, shapes their diverging threat perceptions to a considerable degree. If you define Ukraine as Western, and see Moscow as the West’s other, you will tend to see Russia – especially Putin’s Russia – as an autocratic neo-imperial threat; if, on the other hand, you place Ukraine in the Russian/Eurasian cultural sphere, you will see the liberally decadent West – as it has widely come to be portrayed in Putin’s Russia and beyond - as a fundamental menace to that identity. Needless to say, such selective and contradictory world-views present benign policymakers with complications, and, conversely, those of a more malicious bent with fertile opportunities for meddling and provocation.What has been remarkable over the past few weeks has been the way both sides in this conflict – including their Western and Russian supporters – have generated the sort of selective narratives that, in the context of an incoherent state, are pregnant with danger, regardless of the relative merits of closer European ties or membership in the Eurasian Union. The pro-Russian press has latched onto the (admittedly highly disturbing) presence of right-wing extremists among the Euromaidan demonstrators < to dehumanise the Euromaidan opponents of Yanukovych’s volte-face as ‘Nazis’ and ‘fascists’>. The Kremlin’s policymakers had clearly over-estimated their point man’s ability to repress the large part of the Ukrainian population that had adopted values and identities fundamentally at odds with Putin’s plans for his ‘Near Abroad’. Resistance to a perceived existential threat to those values – membership of the Eurasian Union - had to be conveniently explained away, delegitimised and marginalised, so as to allow for its repression without affecting the narrative of  shared economic interests and ‘shared Soviet/Russian values’ on which the Eurasian project is supposedly based.The danger now is of events swinging to the other extreme. Just as Yanukovych provoked his Western-leaning countrymen onto the streets by ignoring their sensitivities, Ukraine’s parliament – or Verkhovna Rada – risks inflaming similar ‘securitisations’ in the Russian-speaking parts of the country. Russian has already been demoted as a regional language, and deputies from the virulently right-wing Svoboda party have proposed an end to the retransmission of Russian Television channels. Presenting a government consisting entirely of pro-European elements as one of “national unity” when it is clearly not further complicates matters. Such selective perception should not remain unchallenged; it risks repeating those mistakes that were made earlier in places like Georgia and Moldova, where nationalist post-Soviet governments needlessly excluded and provoked their minorities in avoidable blunders that then led Ossetians, Abkhazians and Trasniestrians to break away in response to perceived existential threats to their divergent values and identities – with, as is now widely accepted, the help of elements in Moscow.Could these elements do it again – on a much larger scale – in Ukraine? Russia is emphatically not interested in a violent, uncontrolled breakup of its large neighbour; but the key words here are violent and uncontrolled. The stakes for Russia being what they are, some in Moscow’s corridors of power could see the Crimea in particular as a place where Georgian- or Moldovan-style meddling could be feasible. It is the most clearly pro-Russian corner of Ukraine. As a peninsula, it is geographically separated from the rest of the country, and, therefore, relatively more self-contained than the Eastern regions. With the Black Sea port of Sevastopol acting as the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since Tsarist times, it is seen as absolutely crucial to the Kremlin’s military capabilities (not to mention its prestige).The Kremlin is interested in keeping ‘Little Russia’ within its orbit. Ukraine is not just an essential part of Russia’s creation myth. More significantly, it is a westward transit corridor for Russian and Central Asian gas, still central to the hydrocarbon-powered strategy that Moscow has been pursuing under Putin, targeted at stemming (and partially reversing) the effects of the ‘geopolitical disaster’ that the fall of the Soviet Union is still seen as by large parts of the Siloviki elite. The Kremlin could simply not allow Ukraine to follow Poland, Hungary and Romania - in a continuation of 1989-1991 – without putting up a spirited fight. In terms of Russia’s territorial sensitivities, the Western frontier would otherwise move far too close to Moscow for comfort.This does not necessarily mean playing the separatist card: there are several other punitive levers of influence at Moscow’s disposal – Ukraine’s energy dependence, its weak financial position, its largely Russian export market. Moscow is not interested in a violent breakup of Ukraine, and the ethnic variant remains unlikely because of the enormous risks involved. However in the Crimea at least, some could come to think these risks manageable and proportionate in light of the enormous stakes involved. The new authorities in Kiev should therefore aim to maximise their inclusiveness in the weeks and months to come, and prudently avoid any moves that would present the ethnic card on a silver platter. Marginalising the extreme right and its provocative nationalist bravura would be a good place to start.February 2014 [post_title] => Balancing Ukraine [post_excerpt] => A mere three months ago, Vladimir Putin probably thought he had scored one of his presidency’s greatest coups, when he coerced or persuaded – depending on your perspective - Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych into abandoning the long-expected initialling of his country’s Association Agreement with the EU. Yanukovich’s U-turn had, to some extent, been presaged by an earlier about-face – under very similar circumstances – of far smaller Armenia’s Sargsyan. And for a while, it appeared that Kiev would sooner or later follow several other former Soviet Republics into the Russian president’s latest geopolitical project of choice: the Eurasian Economic Union. The Kremlin probably did expect such a move to invite trouble for someone who, despite an occasionally fraught relationship, had long been seen as “Moscow’s man in Kiev”. But it probably did not anticipate the ferocity of the wave of indignation that followed, much less foresee Yanukovych’s fall, a few months later, as a result. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => balancing-ukraine [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-06-21 15:43:11 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-06-21 15:43:11 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[6] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 662 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2013-12-03 18:16:51 [post_date_gmt] => 2013-12-03 18:16:51 [post_content] => These events have largely confirmed previously stated suspicions on Russia’s intentions within the former Soviet Union: Moscow continues to view Europe’s Association Agreements within ‘its near abroad’ almost exclusively in hard-realist geo-strategic terms. Accordingly, while the Eurasian Union may not be an effort the reconstruct the Soviet Union per se, it does fit into a broader attempt by Putin and his Siloviki entourage to limit, and, where possible, reverse the effects of the ‘geo-political catastrophe’ that was the collapse of their former empire: Russia must rise again, and, in the zero-sum realist logic of its leaders, this means regaining control over its historical ‘sphere of exclusive interest’, albeit in novel form.Russia’s project is, of course, mostly presented through the economistic language of neo-liberal rationality, combined with references to a common history and shared culture. No twenty-first century state could openly use geo-political argumentations to foist top-down integration projects onto its neighbours. In the post-colonial, post-Cold War political vocabulary, the concepts of ‘empire’ and ‘hierarchy’ remain anathema. Disciplinary measures are therefore cloaked in, and neutralised through the language of technocratic instrumentality or the rule of law. Implausible allegations of ‘genocide’ thus accompanied the Kremlin’s humanitarian justifications for its 2008 intervention in Georgia; Moldovan wines similarly tend to lose their fitness for human consumption as easily as Georgian mandarins regain them, depending on the political requirements of the day.This instrumentalisation of technocratic and legalistic language goes further than mere wine and confectionary. It underlies a broader attempt, by the Kremlin, to present the Eurasian Union as something it is not: the European Union’s equivalent (or, in some cases, its superior), a functionalist integration project driven by the wishes of its members and potential members, rather than a top-down imposition by a fallen superpower whose elite clearly still frames Europe in terms of out-dated ‘spheres of influence’ and geostrategic gamesmanship. This is, ultimately, the reason for Brussels’ inability to counter Moscow’s sticks-and-carrots approach in its former dominions. Europe’s project is driven by a soft-power logic, led by a cumbersome civilian bureaucracy, and co-ordinated among 28 member states with at times diverging interests. Moscow’s, on the other hand, is very much based on hard-power rationality, driven by an elite many of whose members were formerly associated with those institutions of a single power best versed in the arts of coercion, of deterrence and compellence (coercive diplomacy).As a result, the interaction between Brussels and Moscow surrounding the Eastern Partnership has become something of a dialogue of the deaf and the blind; put differently, Europe speaks Kant, while Russia speaks Machiavelli, and both these languages seem mutually incomprehensible. Stuck in between this cacophony are the former Soviet states, attracted Westward but very much aware of the power and motivation of their Eastern/Northern neighbour, and the inability of ‘Europe’ to counter this particular type of power with an effective riposte. In a confrontation between Kant and Machiavelli, the former does not stand a chance, especially when the latter has the advantage in both capabilities and motivation, and is moreover ruled by a Siloviki elite that emerged from some of the most ruthless power structures of the modern era.In terms of capabilities, the various former Soviet states’ vulnerabilities to Russian pressure were pointed out extensively in a previous post. But capabilities and interests are always fundamentally intertwined, and in terms of their motivations, the EU and Russia present dramatically different pictures. For the European Union, the Eastern Partnership is clearly more about creating a zone of stability in its immediate environs rather than providing a direct stepping-stone to membership; while desirable, the process remains optional, and certainly not central to its purpose or identity. The European Union is currently confronting multiple internal crises; but save for some embarrassment, an end to the Easter Partnership would not be seen as presenting it with a direct existential threat.This is not the case for Russia, and ‘its’ Eurasian Union. ‘Offensive realist’ theorists of International Relations – like Mearsheimer – have already argued that the country has a greater sensitivity to territoriality because of its status as a ‘continental’ great power; except for a small, and now-marginalised ultra-liberal fringe, Russia’s post-Cold War elites have themselves always seen their state in a dominant leadership role within the former Soviet Union. To the Kremlin, the Ukraine is not just another Eastern European Association candidate with a remote, long-term chance of membership – as it is for Brussels; it is the place where the very idea of Russia was born, as the Kievan Rus, in the 10th century CE. The Caucasus and Central Asia are not merely geographic concepts; they are regions that have been part of a Russian-led state since the early 19th century. Perhaps more to the point, they are also sources and conduits of Russia’s most important contemporary source of hard power: hydrocarbons.Moscow holds the advantage in hard-power terms, while the European Union has very little leverage as it stands. It can’t really ‘boycott’ Russian exports – oil, natural gas - without hurting itself. Moscow’s motivation to bring the former Soviet Union under its control also exceeds that of the EU’s. As it stands, the odds are thus stacked massively against the EaP, partly because Brussels has yet to learn the language of power-politics spoken in the Kremlin, partly because of a lack of political will emerging from a relatively lower level of prioritisation against the centrality of Russia’s re-integration drive.Fortunately, it is reasonable to assume Russia’s interests do not go beyond the ‘Near abroad’. In any case, the current EU boundary coincides with NATO’s, presenting a solid red line which Moscow would not want to cross. But in combination with the imbalances in both power and motivation, this must make the remaining Association Agreement candidates anxious of their possible abandonment by the EU in the face of unrelenting Russian pressure, and not without reason.Europe stands before a choice: learn to counter realist geo-politics with realist geo-politics, or continue its fatalistic reliance on soft power alone. Considering its institutional character, and its continuing energy dependence on Russia, a shift towards the former would seem unlikely in the short term. The alternative is to rely on the European idea’s powers of attraction, which have, incidentally, driven hundreds of thousands to rally on the streets of cities throughout the Ukraine, and beyond, during the past week. There is, however, a reason why ‘soft power’ is called ‘soft’, and attraction alone may very well not suffice to save the Europe’s floundering Eastern strategy. [post_title] => Kant versus Machiavelli in Russia’s Near Abroad. [post_excerpt] => And so, the much-awaited has ended in a whimper. Of the four states that were initially scheduled to initial their Association Agreements with the European Union last week, only two – Moldova and Georgia - have actually taken their crucial step towards the West. Both Armenia, and, more significantly, Eastern economic heavyweight Ukraine had, over the past few months, fallen by the wayside in , each of which had followed a familiar pattern: both countries’ Heads of State headed to Moscow for unscheduled talks, during which they underwent sudden conversions to Putin’s rival project, the Eurasian Union. Despite of strenuous denials, most observers reasonably assume these abrupt changes in the long-standing foreign policy objectives of both states to be the result of pressures exerted by the Kremlin. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => kant-versus-machiavelli-in-russias-near-abroad [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-06-21 16:17:57 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-06-21 16:17:57 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[7] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 657 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2013-09-11 09:00:06 [post_date_gmt] => 2013-09-11 09:00:06 [post_content] => This reality may now be under acute threat. Moscow has already managed to ‘turn’ the weakest link in Europe’s Eastern ‘chain’, Armenia: considering its extreme strategic-military dependence on Russia, forcing, coaxing or, depending on who you believe, persuading its president into an unexpected about-turn during last week’s ‘working visit’ to Moscow was relatively uncomplicated. But indications are that this nasty surprise – for both observers in Brussels and analysts farther afield - was just the beginning of a broader Russian movement to reclaim exclusive authority over ‘its’ sphere of influence through its integration into a ‘Eurasian Union’, with implications for both the countries involved, and the European Union’s future relations with Russia.For Armenia, the consequences of his 179-degree turn – the government insists this isn’t the end of its hopes for European integration – could be dramatic, not least in terms of its fragile democratisation. With the mitigating influence of Europe removed, and constitutional reforms on the political agenda, repression and democratic rollback could very well become more brazen and complete. The fact that two prominent civil-society activists were viciously assaulted only days after Sargsyan’s about-face could be an indicator of worse to come in terms of the harassment of more liberally-minded independent groups and individuals. Unencumbered by EU conditionalities, Yerevan might also use upcoming constitutional reform – ostensibly aimed at transforming the country from a presidential into a parliamentary republic – to unilaterally push through legislative amendments weakening the protection of fundamental rights and checks and balances. Those concerned with Armenia’s democratic development would have to be alert to these possible scenarios: for Armenia as for other post-Soviet states, a move towards the Eurasian Union may very well entail a move towards the Russian, Belorussian and Kazakh political models, as the pressure to democratise disappears.From broader regional perspective, Armenia’s plight might be a premonition of worse to come in the Ukraine and Moldova, two countries that have already been targets for various pressures on the part of Russia. Till now, these pressures have been cloaked in the language of market mechanisms and public health; but the remarks of one high-ranking Kremlin official – as to how unfortunate it would be for Moldovans to 'freeze' in the winter – leave little to one’s imagination. Both the Ukraine and Moldova remain highly dependent on Moscow for their energy supplies, and Moscow could decide to cut off their flow as a punitive measure for their European aspirations, quite literally, at the turn of a few valves. As a last resort, ‘unfortunate incidents’ could even lead to unrest in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking East, and the Crimea, as well as in Moldova’s separatist Trans-Dniestria region. While such a course of events would still seem highly unlikely, much depends on the level of Moscow’s determination to prevent the continuation of its Western neighbours’ European adventures; considering recent developments, it would, however, be prudent to closely monitor these pressure-points, which Russia has used in the not-so-distant past.With Armenia now safely in Moscow’s orbit, the Kremlin may also turn its attention to its two rather more recalcitrant Caucasus neighbours, Georgia and Azerbaijan. While Georgia is certainly the most openly pro-Western of all post-Soviet states, and public opinion would most likely not countenance membership of a Russian-led entity, the country also offers Moscow a raft of potentially useful vulnerabilities. Especially after the upcoming presidential elections, any maintenance of the recent thaw in trade relations with Russia might come to depend on a more pliant attitude on the part of the Georgian administration; the stability of the situation in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti would also have to be closely monitored for unexpected, ‘coincidental’ complications. Baku’s initial Schadenfreude at Sargsyan’s public humiliation may prove short-lived indeed, as Russia could come to use the Karabakh issue, and the Armenian-Azeri rivalry around it, to now focus pressures on Baku by throwing its weight behind Yerevan; a revival of ethnic Lezgin activism in the north, or of possible anti-regime activities by wealthy members of Russia’s ethnic Azeri diaspora would also be potential pressure points to look out for, in a continuation of Russia’s long-standing carrots-and-sticks/divide-and-rule approach.Much of the above depends on Moscow’s – and Putin’s – determination to bring the states of the former Soviet Union back into a ‘Eurasian’ fold; but Russia’s president has already demonstrated his considerable skills as a master of a new form of regional realpolitik, based on adroitly using dependencies and complications inherited from Soviet times to Moscow’s advantage, putting other players before consecutive faits accomplis. Armenia could be only the first in a longer list of targets; every fallen domino would, no doubt, increase momentum towards Putin’s Eurasian Union. The EU would therefore either have to learn to play this game, desist, or prepare for being put in front of rather uncomfortable faits accomplis in the not-so-distant future. In view of its presently dubious ability to provide relief from many of the potential pressures enumerated above, some hard-nosed strategic deliberation and hypothetical scenario building would appear to be called for. [post_title] => Putin’s Caucasus Surprise: A Portent of Worse to Come? [post_excerpt] => The European Union’s eastward expansion and its soft-power influence on the states of the former Soviet Union has been a major feature of the continent’s political environment since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The conditionalities of the Copenhagen criteria have arguably led to the accelerated democratisation of new members from the Baltics to Bulgaria; further to the East, the ’s regional incarnation, the , has also provided the more ‘problematic’ states of the former Soviet Union with incentives to modernize and democratise. The promise of Association Agreements including membership of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with by far the world’s largest economic bloc seemed to open the way towards diversification and greater prosperity, in what was - and still is - seen as a positive-sum game in both Brussels and the relevant former Soviet capitals. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => putins-caucasus-surprise-a-portent-of-worse-to-come [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-06-25 11:03:37 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-06-25 11:03:37 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[8] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 920 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2013-07-09 13:10:35 [post_date_gmt] => 2013-07-09 13:10:35 [post_content] => In this FPC Briefing Dr Kevork Oskanian examines President Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union, looking both at Russia’s objectives and how the project is viewed in the countries across the former Soviet Union. It looks at how such a proposal competes with the EU’s Eastern Partnership and creates potential problems for WTO membership. [post_title] => FPC Briefing: Putin’s Eurasian Union- from pre-electoral sideshow to quest for empire? [post_excerpt] => In this FPC Briefing Dr Kevork Oskanian examines President Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union, looking both at Russia’s objectives and how the project is viewed in the countries across the former Soviet Union. It looks at how such a proposal competes with the EU’s Eastern Partnership and creates potential problems for WTO membership. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => fpc-briefing-putins-eurasian-union-from-pre-electoral-sideshow-to-quest-for-empire [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-06-25 14:45:53 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-06-25 14:45:53 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ))

Balancing Ukraine

And yet, Kremlin policymakers should have known better; everyone in Moscow would have been well aware of the manifold splits and contradictions within Ukrainian society. In much simplified language: much…

Article by Dr Kevork Oskanian

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