The title of this book, On Russia, reminds one of Soviet Communist party resolutions which dealt with individuals, institutions or even whole countries and sometimes meant the difference between being or not being for the subject concerned. More seriously, however, why should so many eminent people, not only Russia specialists, engage in an in-depth discussion of one particular country? It is scarcely feasible, any longer, to change Russia by direct action: that window has closed. Nor is there even real scope to help the Russians change their country: they are now basically on their own. Rather, the right thing to do would be to make sense of what is happening there; to adjust to those changes, and to influence them on the margins; and to begin to think strategically about the European Union's own long-term strategy toward its near neighbour. To engage with Russia on a permanent basis, and benefit from that engagement, one needs to be smart.


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been at least two serious attempts to configure a new relationship between Russia and the West. The first was undertaken immediately after the emergence of the new Russian Federation in 1991. It aimed at Russia's integration into the West, and was based on the "transition paradigm," which basically saw post-communist Russia reforming itself, while conforming to Western economic, political and social models and accepting the Western foreign policy agenda. Within two years, these efforts were already flagging and faltering, and were pronounced a failure in the wake of the Russian default of 1998.

A second attempt came exactly a decade after the first one. In 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, the idea was to integrate Russia with the West, by aligning it with America and Europe geopolitically, strategically, and economically - in particular, in the energy sector. There was also a hope that Russia's domestic modernisation would result in a more democratic polity. Again, the relationship, now dubbed strategic partnership, stared to unravel within a couple of years, and was given a coup de grace in Vladimir Putin's 2007 Wehrkunde speech. Western hopes of a more democratic Russia had died even before that.

While in 1998 Russia was "lost," though according to the conventional wisdom of the day, it hardly mattered anymore, ten years later it is seen as assertive, aggressive and authoritarian. Historical experience and past patterns of behaviour suggest a very traditional response to this unexpected but familiar situation: close one's own ranks and contain the outsider. This view has a number of vocal advocates. Yet, to follow their advice and engage in a new confrontation along the lines of democracy vs authoritarianism would be not so much returning to history as risking to repeat it, not only at a huge cost, but quite unnecessarily. Europe should do better than that.

A better approach would be based on checking the conventional wisdom against Russia's realities. A dispassionate and non-ideological analysis would probably lead to the following set of broad findings.

Russia's current trajectory is better described in terms of transformation rather than transition. The latter is usually taken to be a pretty straightforward passage from communism to EU-style liberal democracy and the social market economy, embedded for good measure within a Nato framework. Russia's evolution is certainly away from communism and towards capitalism, but its "final" shape and form are less clear. With EU/Nato conditionally absent, and Moscow's independent foreign-policy posture, starkly demonstrated in the Georgian war and Russia's unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, imposing its costs, the pace of domestic change in Russia can be helped as much as hampered by the international environment.

Ironically, today's Russia could be compared to itself roughly a hundred years ago, during the period immediately preceding the Bolshevik takeover. Capitalism is real, but rough. Authoritarianism is equally real, and stifling. The bureaucracy is all-powerful. The Duma is a representation, but not a parliament: "not a place fit for discussion," in the words of its current speaker. The media are semi-free: one can say nearly everything one wants, but not everywhere one wants to say it. Then, as now, the issue is modernisation. Tsarist Russia's failure to modernise quickly enough made it vulnerable at a time of world crisis, which led to the wholesale breakdown of the system. Should Russia fail to modernise again, now for a post-industrial world, its fate would be bleak.

Within the last two decades, capitalism has made big strides in Russia. The gradual entrenchment of the notion of private property and an ever-wider opening to the outside world arc making Russia more Western in economic and societal terms. The world financial crisis, touched off by the sub-prime mortgage problems in the US, has hit Russia as much as anyone. A Polish visitor has recently had to admit, privately, that Moscow these days looks very much like a Western metropolis, while Warsaw is again a provincial backwater. Ironically, at the same time Russia has stopped seeking a place for itself in the traditional West, and has gone off on a foreign policy trajectory of its own.

Russia has ceased to be an empire, its habitual form of existence for almost half a millennium, and has redefined itself as a multi-ethnic nation state domestically, and a great power internationally. This has manifested itself in the palpable rise of nationalism, including its inevitable excesses: chauvinism, racism, xenophobia, and in the practice of heavy-handed great-power policies, especially toward the near neighbours. From Georgia in 2008, Russia also sought to send a message to Ukraine and others in the neighborhood: don't mess with us.

The coinage of the phrase "sovereign democracy" by a Russian presidential aide, while not amounting to any "doctrine,"' let alone a "political philosophy," provides a useful insight into Kremlin thinking. It suggests a vision of Russia which is economically viable, socially mature, politically stable and strategically independent to the extent of occasionally being arrogant - similar in these respects to the only true sovereign democracy that, in the Kremlinites' view, exists in the world, namely the United States of America.

Russia's contemporary foreign policy might be summarised as follows. Russia's business is Russia (and not any longer the empire). Russia's business is business (what is good for Gazprom, Rosneft etc, is good for Russia). And Russia is nobody else's business (democracy-promoters and orange revolutionaries need not bother to come calling). In practical terms, Russia's foreign policy is a kind of realpolitik fought largely by economic means in a business environment. There are no sworn enemies, and no bosom friends either, with everyone being a "partner," in the sense of a counterpart: no special warmth involved. As to allies, they change according to the circumstances. In the past, the only two reliable ones were the Russian army and the navy; today, it is oil and gas.

While seeking to integrate itself into the world, to the extent that is possible, on its own terms - which explains the long and still incomplete saga of Russia's WTO accession - Russia has repositioned itself on the world's socio-economic and political map. Having been European (in terms of civilisation) but non-Western (in terms of its institutions), it is becoming Western (private property, basic freedoms, middle classes, elections-based regime legitimacy) but non-European (ie. outside of the EU credible expansion reach).

As Russia has been buoyed by a massive influx of oil money, and recentralised internally, albeit in a very traditionalist bureaucratic way, a measure of hubris has reappeared in its elites' attitudes toward the outside world. The hubris, coupled with bureaucratic insensitivity and secretiveness, has made Russia a difficult character on the international stage.

As an underdog, Russia will try to compete with the West, but, no matter how intense and asymmetrical, this will essentially be a competition for the terms of interaction, not confrontation. Engaging Russia as a passive and receptive object of benevolent Western policies is largely passe; engaging with Russia in pursuit of common objectives is not going to be easy. Moscow will demand an equal say, which many in the United States and Europe will find unwarranted. Where those objectives are far apart, laying down the rules of mutual behavior can be the best hoped-for outcome. However, the essential imbalance in the relationship is pushing Russia toward asymmetrical strategies, which by definition defies playing by the book.


Conventional wisdom about the unfathomable Russian soul and the pragmatism of the West has got it wrong. Compared to the Russian thinking outlined above, Westerners have grown more emotional than practical in their dealings with Russia. The American and European media have been loudly mourning the loss of Russian democracy, and roundly condemning the Kremlin's authoritarian practices. Yet, they have made considerably less effort to understand what is going on in Russia as a whole. When one listens to Western politicians and Western businessmen discussing Russia, one gets the impression that theirs is a tale of two cities. An integrated vision is hard to come by.

When they look at Russia, a number of Western analysts arc still stuck in the old paradigm of liberals vs conservatives. They believe that the former are the West's natural allies, and the latter are hostile to the West. This view almost invites outsiders to join the fray and get involved into a Russian domestic brawl, without fully knowing the sometimes hidden connections or the rules of engagement. Impatient with the apparently slow pace of Russia's transformation, many foreign well-wishers place huge premium on enlightened leadership from above. To put it very crudely, they still hope for a good (ie. liberal and pro-Western) tsar to emerge at the Kremlin. However, waiting for a democratic Godot to deliver Russia into the Western fold could last forever. It would help somewhat if European and American leaders gave some time to the critical analysis of the West's own policies toward Russia, and of their implications and consequences. What have we done wrong, and how we can put our policies right, are questions one hears very seldom in the Western debate on Russia.

A seemingly opposite, but equally unproductive approach has been waiting for disasters to make things right. If the Russian regime does not evolve in a positive direction, the worse things are in the country, the brighter the prospects are for a better future. In the early 2000s, one anticipated the infrastructure collapse and the credit crunch. When the former failed to happen when expected, and the latter was dealt with by a sudden and steep rise in the oil price, hopes were pinned on the inevitable plunge in the oil price. The oil curse would finally undermine the Muscovite petro-state and bring Russia back to its senses. There is no doubt that, however incremental the development of capitalism, crises are unavoidable along the way. Moreover, these crises would have the potential at least to push things forward. However, this too falls far short of a practical policy.

The much-belaboured issue of the value gap between Russia and the West needs to become less theological and more practical. More than anyone, the European Union can indeed help Russia modernise faster, and in a more profound way. Russia's capitalism as such, and its expansion both within and beyond Russia's borders, similarly to foreign investment in Russia itself, raise the demand for the rule of law, secure property rights, independent courts, corporate governance, and functioning government institutions. Reforming the Russian economic, legal and political system will be the responsibility of the Russian people themselves, but Europe can help more than any other external player by opening up further and offering its expertise in a wide range of fields. Criticism of Russian practices should by no means be muted or muffled, but it needs to become more readily usable.


Europeans often complain about Russia's divisive tactics vis-a-vis their neighbours to the West. These are valid and generally well-founded concerns. However, instead of demonstrating their despair, which precisely encourages Moscow's objectionable behavior, the EU needs to accept that, since in international politics all agents seek to maximise their advantage, the only way of dealing constructively with their predicament is finally to get one's own act together.

Agreeing on a common European approach toward Russia will not be easy. When it comes to Russia, individual EU member states have very different experiences and expectations. Moscow has acknowledged this, repeatedly pointing out that its relations with the Union have taker heavy toll as a result of the EU's 2004 "big bang" enlargement which added ten new countries, most of them from Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

Ever since, the politics of history has played a prominent role in EU Russia relations. Not that the legacy of Russia's relations with Western European states has been overwhelmingly positive. Napoleon's invasion of 1812 and the Crimean War; the century of the Russo-British Great Game in Central Asia and the Middle East; the First World War and finally, Hitler's surprise attack in 1941 have all marred relations for years. Yet, that history is hardly a political issue today.

There are many reasons for this. Major power relations, precise because of the alternations of ups and downs, are essentially of a level nature. Even then, however, the Russo-German rapprochement is truly remarkable. In terms of the losses, no other war in Russian history has come close to the 28 million who died following the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union. What mattered was that eventually Nazism was defeated and the Red Army hoisted its Banner of Victory over the Reichstag building in Berlin; that during the Soviet occupation/military presence in Germany which lasted nearly 50 years, Germany was reborn as a democratic and peaceful country; that at the end of that half-century Moscow finally turned the key on Germany's reunification and withdrew its forces. As a result, not only has the Russo-German relationship been demilitarized - and this was achieved outside of a formal alliance integration framework - but the Russian people have developed genuinely positive attitudes toward the Germans.

In contrast to that, relations between Russia and the former Soviet satellite countries and Soviet borderlands in Central and Eastern Europe are laden with much unresolved historical baggage, and strong emotions.

Ever since Gorbachev's glasnost, Russians have been working on their very difficult and, with respect to the 20th century, highly tragic history. This is not as simple as consigning the entire three-quarters-of-a-century-long Soviet period to the annals of crimes against humanity. For a country which regards itself as a continuation state of the Soviet Union, parallels between Hitler and Stalin, Nazism and Communism, the Third Reich and the USSR go only so far. Putin's phrase about the Soviet Union's collapse being a major geopolitical catastrophe need not be interpreted as nostalgia for the empire, communism, or superpower status. Rather, this was an acknowledgment of the enormity of the political earthquake that shook central Eurasia at the close of the 20th century, and of its powerful effect on its 280 million inhabitants. "He who does not regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart; he who wants it back, has no brains," said Putin another occasion, quoting a popular saying. Ironically, having gone through the end of the Soviet Union and emerged again re-invigorated, the Russians feel steeled by the experience.

Every nation believes itself to be a force for good in this world. Some have contributed decisively toward creating a modern democracy, others were the first to build the institutions of civil society, still others particularly excel in all things beautiful. For the Russians, victory in World War II and the defeat of Nazism, to which they contributed massively, is definitively their most important feat ever. It is telling that in Soviet as well as in post-Soviet times, Victory Day (marked on 9th May) has been the true popular national day, overshadowing both the communist Revolution Day (8th November) and the newly installed Russia Day (12th June).

The Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia, is widely regarded as the most important event of the 20th century. It was in 1941-1945 that Russians and other peoples in the Soviet Union were welded into a closely knit community. It was the victory and the price paid for it that was the justification of Moscow's claim to an exclusive position, both material and moral, in world affairs.

True, the Soviet people's victory was appropriated by Stalin and the Communist Party to cement totalitarian control over the country. Yet, anyone who suggests that the Soviet Union was as bad as Nazi Germany, or that the Soviet occupation was of the same kind as the German one, provokes immediate angry reaction from most Russians, whether old or young, officials or ordinary people. With all of them, the issue touches a raw nerve very deep inside.

It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the Russians had to go through an agonising reappraisal of history. They learned the truth about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and its secret protocol; about an effort to subdue Finland by force and the annexation of the Baltic States, complete with the deportation of many of their citizens; of the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn. The process is far from over, but the mood has radically changed.

There is no denial of the Stalinist crimes, which were of the same brutal, even bestial nature as those committed by the regime inside the country, against its own people. There is a concern, however, lest those crimes lead to legal claims of compensation, should Russia be saddled with responsibility for the Soviet Union's killings, deportations, and occupation. There is also a worry that Russia as a result is turned into a perennial repenter, continuously having to beg for forgiveness from Stalin's victims, a la post-Second World War West Germany. Although the Russians today do not dismiss Stalin as a Georgian, or claim the Soviet past as being the history of some other nation, they do not want to be hamstrung by it.

This makes discussion of the Second World War and its aftermath so crucial. As was evidenced by the rows over the Soviet war memorial and military graves in Tallinn, the Soviet government provoked famine in Ukraine (Holodomor), the handover of the documents about the Katyn, the rehabilitation of anti-Soviet fighters who sided with the Nazi forces in the Baltic States and Ukraine, the treatment of Soviet veterans in the same countries, and the ban on both Nazi and Communist symbols, the need for broad dialogue on common history has never been greater.

Opening of the archives, historians' conferences, and jointly produced textbooks would do much to deal with the issues from the past, but some issues, such as those of Hitler's helpers, or Stalin's torturers, are unlikely to be fudged. The European Union needs to pay attention to history-related sensitivities. It has to extend solidarity to its member states when those are subjected to outside pressure. But solidarity cannot be divorced from the reciprocal responsibility of the individual members toward the Union. Estonia, for example, had to be supported in its row with Russia; yet, in a quid pro quo, the Estonian government's actions which had provoked the crisis had to be discussed beforehand within the EU.

Historically, the Russians have found it easier to deal with former enemies than with those who were wedged between them and Germany. They also are afflicted by a particular kind of blindness which prevents them from seeing their neighbours clearly. For some of those sitting in Moscow, Europe only starts on the Oder River. This is a major handicap for Russia's Europe policy, which prevents it from achieving a healthy relationship with the Union as a whole.

In general terms, the Russians more or less know what they need from the EU. Europe has become their principal client, especially in the energy trade. Europe is also a principal target for Russian investments, from gas distribution networks to tourism. European banks are the preferred place for safe money-keeping, and European cities could work as safe havens for rich and famous Russians, should the going get hard for them at home. For millions of Russians, Europe is a recreation area of choice, where they feel even more comfortable and relaxed then at home. Most important, the EU countries are Russia's major external resource for modernisation. The partnership for modernisation, promoted by Germany's foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is an excellent conceptual approach.

Russia is attached to its sovereign status; in fact, "great power" in the 21st century has but one real meaning: a country which enjoys strategic independence on the international arena. Russia hopes to become one of the poles of the coming multi-polar world order. However, its resources may not suffice for it to play the role of a first-rate pole, and it will have to look for semi-permanent partners. In this respect, the European Union is the only credible candidate. A new Euro-Russian compact could be based on Russia's successful transformation and the EU's acquisition of strategic thinking.

Before the Europeans decide on a common policy vis-a-vis Russia, they need to decide what they need from Russia. Not what the EU wants Russia to become: one needs to be realistic - direct European government influence on Russia stands at its minimal mark today, down from its high of the Cold War days. Yet, the EU's indirect - societal - influence is enormous.

As the European Union develops its strategy toward Russia, it needs to focus on its needs, and on the mission and role it wants to claim in the 21st century. While Russia's central interest in Europe is modernisation assistance (what it wants to be), Europe's key question is what the EU wants to become in the world: a trading bloc? a strategic player? Over the next couple of decades, developments in the world at large and, not least of all, in Asia, can bring the Euro-Atlantic community and the Euro-Pacific power closer together.

While dealing with a myriad of practical issues, Europe and Russia should develop longer-term strategies with respect to each other. In a 20-30-year perspective both, as they evolve, may become most precious resources for each other, leading to an ever closer and rewarding engagement. Finally somewhere down that road, a third time may be lucky.

A book chapter in "On Russia. Perspectives from the Engelsberg seminar 2008." Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation. 2009.