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New Ostpolitik, new soft power

Since the beginning of the current conflict in eastern Ukraine it has become quite clear that western countries are divided in their reactions to Russia’s aggressive behaviour. On the one hand, there are countries like Hungary, Cyprus, Slovakia and Greece that since the onset of the conflict have claimed that economic sanctions against Russia harm the European economy, which is still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, more than they harm Russia. On the other hand, the policy of the supporters of the sanctions remains incoherent.

May 9, 2016 - Bartosz Rydliński and Iwona Reichardt - Articles and Commentary

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Photo by: hanohiki / Shutterstock.com

The United States and Germany have taken up the role of “good cop, bad cop” towards Russia: the US, playing the bad cop, is more open for taking further steps against Russia, while Germany, playing the good cop, has been trying to find a diplomatic solution to the Ukrainian crisis, also through dialogue. These divisions have not only been well understood by the Kremlin, but also often aptly exploited by its policies. To counteract, the West truly needs to be more united and focused on finding common guidelines. In other words, it needs to create a new Ostpolitik.

The term Ostpolitik is primarily associated with Willy Brandt, a former German foreign minister who initiated a new policy towards the Eastern bloc in the 1960s. The term was also used in other contexts, yet always to describe western policies towards the East. Today, when the conflict in Ukraine has been waged for over two years, the term can be used again, this time redefined to include a long-term perspective and a well-thought-out vision of “change through rapprochement”. Moreover, anticipating the upcoming NATO Summit in Poland, a country that has a border with four countries that were once a part of the Soviet Union, it is clear that a new foreign policy should not solely focus on Russia.  

A new Ostpolitik should have various layers, dimensions and goals. Naturally, as the context has been changing rapidly, European states should learn from their mistakes, especially in regards to the implementation of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) programme. Evidently, it was erroneous to apply a “one common policy” towards all of the EaP partner states. Instead a “peer-to-peer” policy would be better suited for states such as Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova as the path to the EU and NATO is rocky and specific for each state. Other EaP states, such as Belarus and Armenia, have, in turn, shown more enthusiasm towards the Eurasian Union. Meanwhile, Russia has also been showing that it has global ambitions, no matter whether we like it or not. Thus, “united in diversity” should be the foundation of the new Ostpolitik.

While accepting differences in state choices we cannot forget about the main goal of the EaP, namely a safer Eastern neighbourhood, which a priori should be open to countries that independently have chosen to be a part of the democratic West. This justifies maintaining an “open door” policy which requires internal reforms both in the EU and NATO. In this context all efforts aimed at liberalising visa regimes for those countries that choose the western path should be praised and encouraged. Further, the ongoing discussions on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) should also include economic opportunities for EaP states.

It is clear that like the Cold War, the current conflict cannot be solved by military power alone. Unlike the Soviet Union, today’s Russia has also learned a thing or two about soft power. It has also learned a bit about liberal democracy and freedom of information. Also unlike the Soviet leaders who in the West saw only enemies (friends were usually limited to leftist intellectuals), today’s Kremlin has learned how to win friends and influence different groups worldwide, be it on the left or the right side of the political spectrum. And indeed where the Soviets once used concepts such as “democracy,” “human rights” and “sovereignty” to mask their opposites, the Putinists use them playfully to suggest that not even the West really believes in their meaning. Most importantly, the Kremlin has changed its propaganda spending. It has invested significant sums into its English language television RT (formerly known as Russia Today), but also supports other media outlets and an army of trolls, interferes, and official script writers.

During the Cold War the US spent extra efforts on soft power, supporting such media outlets as Radio Free Europe, Radio Svoboda, Voice of America, but also academic exchanges like the Fulbright Scholarship programme. The support of these programmes have brought positive long-term effects and led to the system change in what was then called Eastern Europe. Today, in the post 9/11 world the focus of the US is on other regions of the world and Washington has seemingly lost focused on the significance of soft power. Overall, since the late 1990s, the US has closed down (or reduced) many of the old, deemed less useful, programmes and re-oriented its focus towards the Middle East. With regards to Russia, on the other hand, the “reset policy”, which was introduced by the Obama Administration’s first term, assumed a credible partner in Russia. Some other countries, Poland included, followed suit. Also, with the 2004 enlargement of the European Union, which allowed Central European countries to join the European community, US policy has focused on transferring responsibility for Eastern Europe to the EU. In this regards, Poland has played a special role as a country which not long ago experienced a successful system transformation. Consequently the EU, and also Poland, became involved in promoting western values among societies in Eastern Europe, mainly through efforts organised under a wider umbrella of public diplomacy, at the same time attempting partnership-building with Russia.

This new approach to diplomacy, although most welcomed and desired, has nonetheless, when faced with Russia’s aggressive disinformation policy, shown its limitations. By applying less sophisticated methods, Russia has managed to attract many young people in the post-Soviet countries to its culture (specifically Russkiy Mir) and found even more recipients of its media messages worldwide.

We are not in a Cold War today. We are not even in a new Cold War. But we are in a conflict period and the other side (Russia) is at an advantageous position when it comes to information. The West has good experience from the past, which can be used as a reference point for developing new tools that would be better tailored to today’s needs. The West also has to learn to understand the Kremlin’s activities in the area of information and why they have been proved effective, at least in the short-term. Some good analyses that focus on these issues have already been published.

Now is the time for policy-makers to refocus attention on knowing what works. By adding soft power elements into a new, united Ostpolitik embodied in a revitalised Eastern Partnership programme,the West has the ability to change the tide back in its favour. To win in the long-term, it is important to understand that military might is only a deterrence. The West cannot forget that it also has a narrative and a lifestyle that is more attractive than what the Kremlin has to offer. Yet, for western soft power to become dominant again, not only financial resources need to be assigned, but new programmes also need to be developed that would show the attractiveness of western culture and ideals to the societies in the East.

Bartosz M. Rydliński is an EASI-Hurford Next Generation Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Iwona Reichardt is the deputy editor in chief of New Eastern Europe


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