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Soft power vs hard power: the diplomatic struggle of the Western world in the East

The combination of EU soft power and US hard power towards the East seems to be wearing off. While the transatlantic relationship is being remodeled, Russia tries to regain its footing.

October 11, 2018 - Michael Eric Lambert - Articles and Commentary

Vladimir Putin at the European Commission in 2011 Photo: Archive of the official site of Prime Minister of the Russian Federation. (cc)

Although representing just over 28 per cent of the population of the European Union, 1/9 of its GDP and 35 per cent of the combined military budget of all member states, Moscow still stands out as a key player in the part of Eastern Europe outside the EU – the “Eastern Neighbourhood” or “Eastern Partnership” in EU terminology – going as far as competing with Brussels and Washington for influence in Ukraine. Since the failure of negotiations for the launch of the European Defence Community in 1954, the EU has still not managed to create a united European army. Add to that non-NATO countries such as Finland, Sweden or Austria, EU members who lack any serious international military ambition, and the EU is incapable of posing a credible hard-power threat to Russia in it’s self-proclaimed neighbourhood. This is why the Kremlin can feel relatively confident in applying intimidation and aggression to members of the Eastern Partnership. Russia’s strength in the region, both military and diplomatic, is evident through a series of coercive measures adopted in recent years: embargoes on Moldavian wines in 2013, indirect military support in Eastern Ukraine in 2015, and a specific foreign policy regarding de facto states like Transnistria or partially recognised entities like Abkhazia.

The Russian President’s famous statement that “the collapse of the USSR was the greatest catastrophe of the century,” nonetheless, reflects a reality not just for Russia but also many post-Soviet countries in eastern Europe and Central Asia who have struggled since the fall of the Soviet Union to recover economic prosperity. Thus contemporary Russia’s attitude towards Chinese economic power in Central Asia and the growing influence of Western values in post-Soviet states is both ambiguous and fearful. Moscow is facing challenges on two fronts: it is gradually seeing its economic influence diminish and and usurped by China, while its relations with the West continue to deteriorate, with whom it is locked in an ideological as well as economic and geopolitical struggle.

The increasing use of coercive economic and military measures by Moscow in the region should therefore be seen as a last-ditch attempt to maintain regional hegemony. The state faces serious structural difficulties, perceives itself as threatened on many fronts, and has become quite isolated from the West both economically and diplomatically since US and EU-led sanctions took effect in 2014.

The coercive attitude of the Kremlin in Eastern Europe is a temporary solution and can’t be sustained indefinitely. Yet it is effectively staving off Western influence, the hope being that a rise of nationalism inside the EU or the next politico-economic crisis in the US will give a new opportunity to reverse the situation and opinions in Ukraine, Moldova, and the Southern Caucasus.

The EU is trying to find a way to respond to Russia’s hard power. Currently only two EU members, the UK and France, could present a credible military challenge to Russia. But the UK remains skeptical regarding the future of the EU’s foreign policy toward the East, and is currently on track to leave the bloc altogether. And France lacks military and diplomatic expertise when it comes to breakaway territories at present.

The European Union and Russia are both trying to find ways to develop their smart power. Russia is trying to increase its soft power, while the EU attempts to create a new kind of hard power by strengthening military cooperation between its member states. This quest for smart power seems to be at the very heart of the difficulties faced by both the EU and Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.

A discrepancy between the Old Europe and the New (Eastern) Europe

To Russian eyes, the Eastern Partnership policy (EaP) launched by the EU during the Prague Summit in 2009 is at root an effort by the West to extend its reach further into Russia’s neighbourhood, to those non-EU east European countries with diplomatic, economic and military ties to Russia. Moscow considers the Eastern Partnership to be the tool for the EU, backed up by the United States, to weaken Russia’s diplomatic influence and increase US/NATO military influence in order to exert more pressure with a step by step long run strategy.

The reality is not quite so black and white. The significance of the EaP is understood quite differently by different EU members.  For some, such as Poland, Estonia and Romania, the hope is that it will indeed decrease Russian influence in the region, perhaps even eliminate the threat that Russia represents. Others, such as France, Germany, and Denmark, see it more as a means to increase economic prosperity and renew dialogue with Russia without committing to a long-term strategy of fully integrating EaP countries into EU or NATO command structures.

Evidence of the more moderate stance can be found in a statement of former Bundestag member and Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr. Guido Westerwelle:

“As a strategic partner of the EU, Russia is of particular importance. Germany has always supported the intensive involvement of Russia in the EU’s Eastern Partnership. What is at stake, after all, is our common neighbourhood.

Here too, both sides only stand to profit from a cooperative agenda. In many areas in which Russia, by its own admission as well, needs modernisation, Europe can supply – and export – the necessary expertise. This makes Russia and Europe natural partners in modernisation.

Next week in Moscow, within the framework of this modernisation partnership, I will present an initiative aimed at strengthening the rule of law”

 His views are clearly framed in the language of economic strategy, pragmatism and mutual benefit.

More radical and far reaching are the positions expressed by eastern EU states that joined after 2004. A concrete example appears in a speech by Radosław Sikorski, elaborating on the goals of Polish foreign policy in 2013:

“Rome was not just limited to the Western Roman Empire, but also included the Orthodox Byzantine Empire with its constant procession of emperors until 1453. Our great countryman, John Paul II, said that Europe can only fully be itself when it breathes with both lungs – the East and the West.

And so, should the Eastern Slavic, Orthodox world one day be willing and able to adopt the legal and institutional acquis of our Union, the European horizon would extend not just to the Dnieper river, but far beyond, all the way to the Chinese and Korean borders. Poland would overcome its “periphery syndrome” once and for all and sit safely in the centre.

The West expanded as such – complete with Russian resources, the EU’s economic strength and American military might – would stand a chance of retaining influence in a world dominated by rising powers from outside Europe”

Here is an extensive vision that emphasises identity, history and civilisation. But it is hardly a concrete, practical vision of how to move forward with Russia.

 The discrepancy between statements from the Old Europe and the New (Eastern) Europe are part of the difficulty in establishing cooperation and understanding between Russia and the West.

Russia’s comeback in Eastern Europe

Moscow has been concerned about the gradual westward drift of former Soviet countries since 1994. The concern is rooted in the vision that Russian leaders have of their country. For the president and members of the government, Russia is (or should be) a great power, on equal footing with the United States, the European Union, and China. They see Russia as a viable alternative to China in Central Asia and to the EU in Eastern Europe. In his speech of May 9, 2015, the Russian President did not hesitate to criticize the unipolar world and suggest an alternative to western hegemony in order to preserve global stability.

It should be noted that the Russian response to European initiatives is similar to an action-reaction mechanism or “dipmomatico-military ping-pong” as the elites like to call it in Brussels, which is reminiscent of the prisoner’s dilemma and the Nash equilibrium. Russia generally responds to each diplomatic rapprochement between Brussels and EaP countries with an embargo, cuts in gas supplies, or laws that limit the mobility of workers to find a job in the Russian federation. The aim of this strategy is to temporarily dissuade rapprochement with Europe, but it can only be a short-term solution. Russia is far weaker than Europe as an economic power. The EaP countries will be hindered, yet turn eventually and inevitably towards Brussels.

The Eastern Partnership is also divided between states and de facto/partially recognized territories. All EaP member states but Belarus have to deal with autonomous movements – Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and more recently Eastern Ukraine.

The Russian leaders are investing hopes in these ethnic minorities, as Stalin did after the Second World War, as a means of preventing their western integration and ensuring more Russian control over the rest of the EaP countries. This is not an exclusively Russian strategy. The EU used diplomatic pressure in Catalonia and during the Scottish referendum in 2014; the French pressured Germany about an independent Bavaria during the First World War. Minorities have long been a valuable tool for parties wishing to disrupt the political landscape on the European continent, and not only in the East.

This coercive approach has been accompanied since 2015 by the proposal of incorporating EaP member countries into the Eurasian (Economic) Union format. It is intended, like the EU, to integrate its members’ markets. Russia hopes it can become more attractive than the EU for these countries as it will be rooted in conservative values, shared geography and a shared Soviet past. It attests to Moscow’s desire to build a more effective soft power, to create a more unified Eurasian economic and cultural space that will be held together by something deeper than Russia’s revisionist fantasies.

It will escape nobody’s attention that Russia, in an effort to limit the EU’s soft power, is trying to copy it. The name Eurasian Union naturally recalls the European Union, and the Eurasian Commission resembles the European Commission, and its initiatives are in many respects modeled on Brussels. The strategy has already attracted two new members, Belarus and Armenia, and is drawing increasing support from Moldova and Azerbaijan.

The crucial difference lies in the balance of power within the union – Russia has complete cultural, economic and military hegemony, and Russian is the sole official language. In the final analysis, it is hard to be convinced that this is anything fundamentally different from the centuries-old Russian policy in Eurasia – total Russian dominance.

This attitude could also be a clue about how Russia sees the EU – a tool for the projection of power from one country onto the others. It seems that Russian leaders are not convinced by the image of the EU as a cooperative endeavor, rather seeing it as a German or US-run project. Russian views about the Eurasian Union clearly recall the Soviet era, where the USSR was an instrument of projection of Russian power, not of cooperation and equality between the soviet peoples.

The quest for European smart power and Washington’s military relevance in Europe

Russia seems to have found a way to create a form of soft power with the launch of the Eurasian Union and it is succeeding in attracting a growing number of countries. Though it has only existed since January 2015, the new Union has succeeded in diverting Belarus and Armenia from their EU ambitions, and is beginning to oppose China’s influence in Central Asia, although Beijing have not so far expressed any concern about it.

Moscow has managed to generate a form of smart power – an imperfect yet relevant combination of hard and soft power, of Russian military strength and the Eurasian Union’s promise of economic integration. It gives Russia a palpable advantage against the EU in Eurasia. The EU, lacking the ability to project hard power, will not produce a rival smart power base any time in the foreseeable future.

The one potential solution to this would be a concerted combination of EU soft power and American military power, via NATO command structures. Washington, like Brussels, wants to defend Western values and interests and has no economic or strategic interest in letting Moscow encroach on countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Since the United States cannot offer the EaP countries much economically, Washington’s policy is focused on strengthening European power by providing the hard power the EU is currently lacking.

If the US should so desire, it could indeed thwart Moscow’s hegemonic ambitions in Eastern Europe. But it will remain difficult for the US and EU to find an effective approach to the problem of ethnic minorities in post-Soviet space. NATO is poorly equipped for this. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty hardly takes into account issues of separatism.

The involvement of Washington in EU foreign and military policy compels us to recall some of the biggest issues the EU is facing. One is the glaring absence of a single army and high-scale military projects in the EU; another the rise of populism and return of nationalism; and finally, the problems of regional autonomy and growing regional identity, as the recent referendums in Scotland and Catalonia made painfully clear. The fact that speeches on military intervention against Russia in Ukraine find a welcome audience in Poland and Estonia, and a more cautious reception in Great Britain and France, attests to the significant fractures between countries which cooperate within the same alliances. NATO might be able to temporarily fill the gaps in European smart power, but the rising power of China in the pacific will most probably soon dwarf American concerns in Europe.

Michael Eric Lambert is a (Geo)political scientist specialised in cyber security, Eastern neighbourhood & Sino-European/Russian relations (Ph.D. at Sorbonne University in partnership with the INSEAD, 2016). His articles on Europe and the Soviet Union, which combine an atypical mind with a whimsical approach, allow him to tackle issues from a provocative and original angle.

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