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Kant versus Machiavelli in Russia’s Near Abroad.

Article by Dr Kevork Oskanian

December 3, 2013

Kant versus Machiavelli in Russia’s Near Abroad.

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.

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