This was one of the largest conferences in recent years, in terms of number of participants, but also one of the most intense and perhaps best. Tragic events playing out in eastern Ukraine during our discussions, and the cold-blooded murder of Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, gave an extra edge to our debates, and a particular urgency to the search for ways forward. We had limited participation from Russia and Ukraine themselves, but a lot of expertise and experience around the table, and plenty of geographical diversity. Wise chairmanship helped keep emotion in check and promote the search for agreement wherever possible. What follows inevitably reflects the views of the majority round the table more than Russian views, but we were particularly grateful to our Russian colleagues for their patient explanations of perceptions in Moscow.
The desperate situation in eastern Ukraine was on everyone’s mind. Russian and western narratives about what had happened were in parallel universes, but we hoped the Minsk II ceasefire agreement would hold. Many were sceptical that it could, or could offer a real political path towards a solution. But it was all we had for now, and we should try to make it work. We also needed to understand the specific situation in the Donbass better, and foster genuine dialogue there, as well as more widely in Ukraine. Was Russia aiming at another frozen conflict, or did it have greater ambitions there? The former seemed more likely, but it was not clear that tensions in such a sensitive area, geopolitically and otherwise, could be frozen. Solutions were needed. Meanwhile, the role of the OSCE was particularly important.
The rest of Ukraine had chosen a western/European orientation, and it was important for the west that this succeeded. But it was not clear either that Russia was ready to allow this, or that the west had the will and resources to make it happen. More reform in Ukraine was urgently needed, as well as more financial assistance. Western ‘shoes on the ground’ could be an important part of this. In the longer run, a good relationship between Moscow and Kiev was in everyone’s interests. But the annexation of Crimea could not be accepted, like that of the Baltic states during the Cold War.
We spent a lot of time on the state of Russia and Russian policy. Non-Russian participants were gloomy about the dark forces operating in Moscow, leading to greater repression and corruption at home, and adventurism abroad. This was fed by a strong narrative about encirclement and lack of respect for Russia, and encouragement of Russian nationalism based on rejection of western values. How far had the west contributed to all this, through NATO eastward expansion and thoughtless EU behaviour? Views differed, but, in any event, we now had to deal with the result, which would be a long and difficult haul at best. From a western point of view, unacceptable behaviour had to have consequences, or the risks of repetition would be too high. Sanctions of some kind had been inevitable, despite their shortcomings, and the broader risks posed by them to globalisation.
Nevertheless, we did not want to isolate Russia or go in for some kind of neo-containment. We did not think we faced a new Cold War, or believe that Russia had a revanchist master plan. The channels for dialogue and contact should remain open. But Russia could still take further opportunities for disruption in Ukraine or elsewhere. The west had to be ready for that, and ready to respond toughly as necessary, making clear for example that NATO’s Article V meant exactly what it said. The Russian military build-up was obviously worrying. In the longer term, Russia faced severe economic problems from lack of modernisation, low oil prices, and the impact of sanctions. This might lead in a few years to a policy reappraisal and more readiness for cooperation over confrontation. Meanwhile, better links between militaries were vital to avoid accidents. Arms control discussions might be another valuable way of keeping links going.
The problems in Russia’s neighbourhood were a source of real concern. The risks of Russia seeking to exploit Russian minorities in some countries, or otherwise destabilise one or more of her neighbours, seemed significant. How should the west try to deal with these ‘in-between’ states, nearly all beyond NATO and EU enlargement for the foreseeable future? The EU needed a revamped and more sophisticated eastern neighbourhood policy, and the west as a whole had to understand these countries better, and make a bigger effort to tackle the frozen conflicts. They would otherwise explode at some stage. Moldova was the biggest current concern. One possible economic way forward was a dialogue between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), but prospects for success between two such different groupings were not seen as high.
On the broader question of European security, we thought that the Helsinki values and rules should not be seen as broken or invalid just because one country had decided to disregard them. On the contrary, other European countries should cling hard to them. Was there scope for new security architecture in Europe, as Russia had proposed from time to time, not least to cover the problematic post-Soviet space? Possibly, but it was hard to imagine a negotiation while the Ukraine crisis remained so hot, though a longer term prospect could be held out. In any case, this needed to be a Euro-Atlantic architecture, not just European. Western participants regarded transatlantic unity as crucial, faced with current Russian behaviour. For the moment, unity was there, but there were fears of greater divisions if immediate tensions subsided, for example over sanctions, and if Russia played cleverly on different European and US perceptions.
Globally, we recognised that the security order was creaking as multilateralism struggled, and US ability and will to manage an increasingly polycentric world declined. But we were not convinced that there was any kind of valid replacement on the horizon, or that China wanted to blow up the present system from which it benefitted so much, and was therefore likely to form a meaningful strategic partnership with Russia, one of the main losers of globalisation. In any case, the west and the US should stick to their principles and values, and avoid grand bargains about spheres of influence over the heads of smaller countries. In the longer term, one of the keys to different Russian behaviour could be a different relationship with the US, but there was little prospect of that for now.
Our starting point was the situation in eastern Ukraine, particularly the Donbass region, in the wake of the Minsk II ceasefire agreed a few days previously. Views on the likelihood of success of Minsk II varied widely. Some believed it to be highly favourable to Russia, and in practice not capable of being implemented by the Ukrainian government, since they were being asked to do things such as reconstruction and constitutional reform which were not achievable in the timescales set. These participants were correspondingly gloomy about its prospects of lasting, or providing any kind of solution. Kiev was negotiating from a position of extreme weakness, and time was not necessarily on their side, given their economic problems. Others believed that, whatever its imperfections, Minsk II did offer a way forward and could bring a valuable de-escalation of tension, not least in the short term. An effective and lasting ceasefire was desperately needed on the ground. If more time were needed to implement some of its provisions, that should not be impossible to agree through a genuine national dialogue. It was in any case vital that the agreement contained commitment by all sides to the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
It was important in this context to recognise the complexity of the Donbass, which should perhaps be seen as a sort of left-over from the communist past, with the extra complication of a strong presence of organised crime. Many of the population were hostile to Kiev, but not necessarily interested in joining Russia – what they wanted was to go back 25 years in time to their previous, Soviet-style privileges. This was not going to happen, however the situation developed from now on. Meanwhile, we needed to understand much better what the rebels really wanted, and think about how to take into account the views of the people of the region more widely, including the IDPs who had fled in both directions. A genuine dialogue within the region would be very helpful for the future.
The Russian and Ukrainian/Western narratives about what had happened in eastern Ukraine were incompatible, and effectively irreconcilable – ‘parallel universes’. A common analysis was unlikely any time soon. Russian participants set out their points of view, but most around the table found Russian accounts, for example of fascist dominance in Kiev, and denials of involvement on the ground implausible, to say the least. This did not mean it was impossible to find agreed ways forward, but it certainly made it much more difficult. There was much discussion of Russia’s motives. We did not think the Russians wanted to fight an open war on Ukrainian territory, or take over eastern Ukraine. Was the aim therefore to maintain the area as yet another frozen conflict, in order to continue to destabilise Ukraine and ensure that Russia had a kind of droit de regard over what happened in the rest of Ukraine? Many thought so, and that Russia had little or no interest in a real political solution for now.
Others suggested that it was not really possible to freeze the situation. Some kind of solution had to be found, given the sensitivity and volatility of the current position, the size and geopolitical importance of Ukraine, and the broader Russia/West confrontation. Russia was inevitably in a strong position to influence the terms of this, given the geography, and the west’s position that it would not fight a war for Ukraine. Some even wondered whether Kiev should not simply let the Donbass go, and focus on making a success of the rest of the country. But this could not be acceptable to the Ukrainian government, and should not be to the West either, given the importance of the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity. In any case, it was far from clear either that the majority of the people wanted this, or that Russia wanted the Donbass at all – much better for them to let the Ukrainians bear the burden of reconstruction, and face the problem of dealing with a rebellious region.
One area of universal agreement round the table seemed to be the importance of the OSCE role in defusing tension and monitoring the ceasefire. It could also play a larger role in the search for new political ways forward.
All this raised the broader question of what was likely to happen to Ukraine as a whole. It was not only facing political crisis in the East, and confrontation with Russia, but also the prospect of economic collapse. Ukraine as a whole had made a choice for a western European orientation, but had a very long way to go to make a success of that choice. From a western point of view, this success was vital. Two basic questions would condition this. First, was Russia prepared to see Ukraine succeed, or would it do all in its power to make sure it could not, both to keep Ukraine weak and vulnerable, and to give a lesson to other neighbours that they could not make a similar western-oriented choice and hope to succeed? Second, did the West, particularly the EU, have the will and the resources to help Ukraine succeed? We had grave doubts about both.
In the longer term, and whatever the current level of enmity between Kiev and Moscow, Ukraine and Russia needed a positive relationship, both politically and economically. Two countries with such deep historical ties, such huge common interests, and such a long land border could not afford to be estranged from each other. The west (and Ukraine) needed to recognise this fully.
Meanwhile, progress towards Ukrainian reform was disappointingly slow. The current government had not done much in the past year, even to reform the central government, let alone to tackle deeper-rooted issues of corruption and incompetence at local levels. While Ukraine could not make progress without major injections of financial help from the EU, the IMF and elsewhere, it was not reasonable to expect these institutions and counties to be ready to pump good money after bad if the necessary changes were not being made. Energy was an area which needed urgent attention. For example, greater energy efficiency could largely eliminate dependency on supplies of energy from Russia.
If the west was not ready to put military boots on the ground in Ukraine (and no-one round the table argued that it should), it should nevertheless be ready to put lots of ‘shoes’ on the ground, in the shape of civilian advisers and assistance of all kinds.
Much of our discussion was inevitably about the state of Russia and the nature and aims of Russian foreign policy. The majority perception was that there was something pathological in the present Russian leadership, which was increasingly repressive and corrupt at home, and aggressive abroad. The murder of Nemtsov seemed to fit this pattern, whoever had actually pulled the trigger. Russia was playing up the threat from outside to stoke domestic nationalism and increase support for policies in Ukraine and elsewhere aimed at building a Russian sphere of control and rolling back Western influence. The basic narrative was that Russia was under threat from NATO and EU encirclement, pushed by the US in particular, and had to fight to survive. An important strand of this narrative was that Russia had not been, and was not being, treated with the respect due to a major power, particularly by the US, after the humiliations of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but was now standing on its own two feet and pushing back hard. This was accompanied by rejection of western values in areas such as democracy and human rights, largely seen as hypocritical cover for the advancement of Western interests in any case, and the promotion of supposedly unique Russian values, deeply rooted in the country’s history.
There were differing views as to the degree of Western responsibility for these Russian attitudes. Some participants suggested that NATO expansion had been pushed too far, when it was bound to be seen in Moscow as threatening, as had moves eastward by the EU. The West had also been the ones to break the rules first, for example in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya. But most were sceptical about this overall version of events, even if the West had no doubt made mistakes, and the seam of western hypocrisy was always a rich one for the Russians to mine. They pointed to the importance of countries being able to choose their own destinies, including the freedom to apply to join institutions open to them, and to the continuing Russia-created reasons driving Russia’s neighbours to seek protection. Over Kosovo, there had been a very long attempt to find agreed ways forward before any unilateral steps. Meanwhile, there were fewer US troops in Europe now than at any stage since World War II – the encirclement narrative was just another myth.
There was more sympathy for the perception that talking about NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia had been a mistake, particularly when there had been little if any Western intention of allowing this to happen; and that the potential political and economic consequences of a far-reaching EU agreement with Ukraine had been poorly thought through by senior western politicians.
In any case, we were where we were, and the West was now faced with a hostile Russian leadership, imbued with a deep sense of grievance, ready to take any opportunity to get one over on the West, and advance its own interests as it saw them, with a classic zero-sum game approach, and apparently believing that great power force should trump international law. The absence of trust on both sides was now deep and wide, perhaps even more so than during the Cold War, and there was little prospect of this changing any time soon. The usual tools such as high-level dialogue did not seem to be working. This could easily get worse, particularly if tensions in eastern Ukraine were not rapidly reduced. Meanwhile, Russia was spending heavily on the revamping of its armed forces, testing Western defences in ways not seen since the end of the Cold War, and talking ominously about its nuclear weapons. For now, NATO could still outmatch Russian conventional military strength, but this was changing, and could become seriously alarming if Western countries continued to be unwilling to step up their own defence spending and preparedness.
We did not think the Russian leadership had a master plan for the wholesale revision of borders in its neighbourhood. In some ways, they were still more on the defensive, worried about the advance of western ideas. Nor did we think that we were heading for a new Cold War on the model of the last one. There was no international ideological crusade such as that pursued by Soviet communism, and ‘Cold War’ did not make sense in a polycentric world. The current Russian model had few if any takers. But we did think Russia could be tempted by further targets of opportunity, in Moldova or elsewhere, especially given its doctrine that it had an obligation to support Russian-speaking minorities. The West could also still face a mini-Cold War or Cold Peace, as some had termed it, and should be ready for the long haul.
Beyond the immediate term, and despite the fears of military build-up and further aggression, many around the table argued that Russia was not a strong country. It faced severe economic decline from a combination of a failure to modernise and diversify the existing economic structure, poor demography, low oil prices (which could persist for some time), and the impact of Western economic sanctions. The crunch might come in two or three years’ time when the financial reserves started to run out, and the population as a whole began to feel the pinch more acutely than now. There was no reason to suppose that this prospect could change Russian policy in the short term – for President Putin and his colleagues, politics would always tend to trump economics, and they could in any case blame the West and sanctions for what was happening. But, in the longer term, the impact would become much more difficult to ignore, and could begin to have its political effect. It was not a question of “regime change”, which was unlikely and not the object of Western policy, whatever President Putin might believe – and could even result in a worse, more nationalist regime – but of recognition in Russia that confrontation with the West was not in Russia’s interest, and that cooperation and a renewed European orientation were the ways forward.
In these circumstances, how should Western policy towards Russia be shaped? Clearly, in the immediate weeks and months to come, a lot would depend on what happened in eastern Ukraine. If Minsk II held and began to be implemented seriously by both sides, a reduction in tension could follow and the current sanctions related to eastern Ukraine could over time be reviewed. (The sanctions specifically related to Crimea, for example over entry for goods originating there, would however be maintained in any event to make it clear that recognition of the annexation of Crimea could not be on the table – a possible way forward here was to treat Crimea in some ways like the Baltic States, whose annexation by the Soviet Union had never been recognised by the West). However, if Russia were perceived as continuing to foment trouble in eastern Ukraine, and in particular if there were any moves towards attacking Mariupol and creating a land bridge between the Donbass and Crimea, or if Russia were seen as starting to use hybrid warfare methods in other places, further sanctions were bound to follow, and relations would inevitably deteriorate further.
We were nevertheless clear that it was in all sides’ interests to keep open the channels of dialogue, both between governments and at the level of civil society. A policy of isolating Russia would be ultimately self-defeating, even if Russia seemed for the moment keen to isolate herself. The West had nothing against Russia as such or against the Russian people. There were common interests to pursue in other parts of the world, e.g. over Iran or Syria, and every reason to keep talking about these, even if much of the dialogue often seemed unproductive. The Security Council was still working reasonably well over parts of Africa. It was also desirable to avoid a new arms race, and essential to avoid any unnecessary escalations of tension and violence, and to reduce the possibility of accidents. Keeping the rhetoric under control would be an important part of this.
One particular way to help in this area would be to increase contacts between militaries, which were now less than during the Cold War, and ensure that hot-line arrangements were in good repair. Approaches from western capitals had already been made in this sense, though Russia did not seem very interested for the moment. A related way forward would be to increase the dialogue in the area of arms control, on both nuclear and non-nuclear sides, perhaps even including the sensitive point of missile defence – this last could become easier if there were a successful nuclear/missile deal with Iran. Could or should there be a renewed dialogue about energy? This seemed off the table for the moment, while EU countries were continuing to pursue greater energy security.
Russia was still interested in progress on easier visa access. In principle, this could be of interest to the EU too, to help maintain links with Russian civil society, but the current circumstances were hardly conducive to progress, and fears about immigration were high (asylum applications from Russia were already increasing).
The overall aim should be to leave the door open for a time when Russia was once more ready to play by the same rules as everyone else, and re-join the European mainstream. In this context, most participants were unconvinced that Russia had a real strategic alternative in its turn towards China. China was certainly interested in Russian natural resources, particularly if these could be obtained on favourable commercial terms, and could see tactical advantage in making common cause with Russia on some issues, for example opposing international interventions aimed at regime change. But China was in a very different geopolitical position from Russia, as a winner from globalisation rather than a loser; was not interested in global confrontation with the West or the US, despite rivalry with the latter in Asia; and did not want to overturn the current world order, from which it benefitted so much, though it did want a bigger say in the present system, e.g. in the IMF. So China was not interested in any kind of genuine strategic partnership with Russia. Russia also had powerful long term reasons to worry about Chinese influence and investment in its large, mostly empty eastern areas.
One issue on which we spent some time was the effectiveness of western sanctions. On the one hand, it was argued that these were deeply resented by the Russian authorities, were likely over time to impact a lot on ordinary Russians who were not part of the Russian policy-making process, seemed unlikely in the short term to move Russian policy in the desired direction, and had provoked reverse sanctions which were damaging a lot of western business and trade interests. They were a substitute for policy rather than a policy. Moreover, there was a more strategic risk that what was labelled “the weaponisation of finance” could be counter-productive from a western point of view, encouraging states like Russia to devise alternative financial systems to the western ones on which they currently relied, and more broadly damaging globalisation, the success of which was in everyone’s interests. When we talked so much about a rules-based world, where was the international legitimacy of western sanctions?
On the other hand, it was argued that Russian behaviour towards Crimea and eastern Ukraine could not have been allowed to pass without consequences. For better or worse, the West had made clear it was not prepared to intervene militarily in Ukraine (although arms supplies to the Ukrainian government remained an option), and had therefore had to look in other directions to make its point. The sanctions were having a damaging effect on the Russian economy, and this impact would get worse if there were no change of course by Russia.
The majority view was that some form of sanctions against Russia had been inevitable, and that they would be maintained and indeed increased if tensions did not ease. But there was also a need to make sure that the eventual cost to the West was not greater than the impact on Russia. In this context, stopping Russia from using the SWIFT payments system was seen by most participants as a step too far.
Russia and her neighbours
To what extent was Russian policy towards Ukraine representative of a wider desire to destabilise and exploit its neighbours, and return closer to the old Soviet Union borders? Some participants thought that Russian policy in Ukraine had been mostly opportunistic and driven by humiliation, for example after the flight of former President Yanukovic – there had not necessarily been an original strategic intention to seize Crimea, although the plans had been ready to execute in case the chance ever came. Similarly the support for the rebels in the Donbass was not aimed at retaking more territory but at protecting Russia from being encircled by pro-Western states and from the contagion of successful colour revolutions. There was therefore a reasonable chance that the problem could be confined to eastern Ukraine, particularly as other Russian-speaking minorities, elsewhere in Ukraine or in the Baltic States, were not susceptible to manipulation in the same way as those in the Donbass – they were reasonably content with their overall lot, although they were also keen to maintain their language and culture.
Others regarded this as naïve. We were forgetting about what had happened to Georgia in 2008. The “little green men” tactics used in Crimea and eastern Ukraine could easily be applied elsewhere, and cause a lot of trouble, even in countries protected by the NATO Article 5 guarantee of collective defence. The Russian doctrine of help for Russian-speaking minorities could be invoked whenever it suited Russia, and President Putin’s intention seemed to be to extend Russia’s sphere of influence wherever he could, ignoring existing borders whenever it suited him. Recent developments in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which now seemed well on the way to being absorbed by Russia, were seen as illustrative of the future.
Time would tell which of these views was closer to the truth, but we also needed to look more closely at individual countries, rather than generalising too much. What had happened in Ukraine had come as an alarming shock to most of them. Moldova was seen as the most vulnerable of the neighbours, particularly because of the ability of Russia to manipulate the “rotten” region of Transdnistria. Russian desire to prevent further Moldovan moves towards the EU was clear. Belarus was an interesting case – in some ways close to Russia but also anxious to retain its independence. President Lukashenko had been clever at playing the game, but Belarus’s ultimate ability to resist Russian pressure, exerted for example through the Eurasian Economic Union), was limited. Armenia had effectively been prevented from going further towards the EU, despite her obvious wish to do so. Kazakhstan, like Belarus, was anxious about Russian domination but now stuck inside the EEU, and therefore less able to play her traditional game of playing off China and Russia against each other, though China was steadily gaining influence in central Asia in general. There were divided views about whether the Russian minority in northern Kazakhstan could be a threat, or a fifth column to be exploited by Russia. The biggest unknown was the succession to Nazarbayev. Azerbaijan had so far been skilful in escaping the Russian embrace, but again President Aliyev could not last for ever. Georgia was likely to continue overall to be strongly anti-Russian, but politics were different now from the time of former President Saakashvili, and there could be opportunities for the Russians in the future.
Whatever the reality of the individual circumstances of these in-between countries, collectively they posed a real challenge to Western policy. How could they be helped to reform and develop, and move towards Western values if they so desired, when there was no real prospect of EU membership to act as an incentive, and when moves towards meaningful agreements could in some cases be blocked by incompatibility with Russian or EEU requirements, e.g. the customs union? We had no ready answer to these questions, but thought that the EU needed to elaborate a much smarter, more differentiated, policy towards the eastern neighbourhood (this process was already under way). Armenia could for example be used as a test case to see how far new kinds of agreements could be elaborated, despite the complications of EEU membership. One issue was how to avoid double standards about human rights in dealings with e.g. Belarus. Overall, the West needed to make an effort to understand these countries much better than currently, and also understand that the attraction of the European model remained very great as these countries and peoples strove to escape kleptocracy. Development of an alternative way of exploiting this attraction, now that traditional accession processes were effectively off the table, was an urgent necessity.
Meanwhile the area was still littered with “unexploded ordnance” in the shape of the frozen conflicts, where there was still little prospect of progress. These could prove the cause of further tensions between Russia and the West at any time. They needed to be actively managed, not ignored, to stop them exploding. The swamps around Russia’s borders needed to be drained.
We were forcibly reminded at the same time that the EU had southern and western neighbours as well as eastern ones, and that the emotions of Ukraine and the concerns of major east-facing countries like Germany should not override the need to deal with those other neighbours, who also needed help and posed considerable threats, in security, economic and immigration terms. Should there not still be a single neighbourhood policy rather than two separate ones?
Overall, the problem in the east was not so much the states already reached by NATO and EU enlargement as those beyond what could be seen as this ‘red line’. There was little prospect for now of a new agreement or new architecture which would enable the problems to be solved. They would just have to be managed for the time being – but they did need to be actively managed, not just neglected.
One possible avenue for progress was talks between the EU and the EEU. This was certainly worth trying, but most round the table had little hope that it could lead to any kind of breakthrough. Were there any norms and values in common? While the EEU had held out some promise in its early stages, with a reasonably professional Commission, more recently it seemed to have reverted to a body almost completely dominated by Russia, politically and economically, with no counter-balancing rules-based system or dispute resolution mechanism in operation. It was a hollow edifice, especially without Ukraine as a member, where real integration was unlikely, and where the members other than Russia were likely to go on delaying implementation of aspects they did not like. So while in theory the EU and the EEU could have a constructive relationship (the only fundamental incompatibility was that a country could not be a member of two customs unions simultaneously), in practice they were still very different and the prospects of real progress were poor. It would be unwise to attempt any kind of grand bargain with the EEU, particularly if this just locked in its members.
Western participants were unanimous in stressing the importance of unity of view and purpose between the US (and Canada) and the EU (this was not yet another ‘hour of Europe’), but more divided on how easy this would be to maintain over time. For the moment, the perception of Russian aggression against Ukraine had driven a renewed sense of purpose for NATO, and a strong sense of transatlantic unity, with a tacitly agreed division of labour between the US and EU – the latter, mainly in the shape of Germany, leading on the diplomatic side, and the US playing a mixture of supporter and hard cop in the background. The EU had held together much better than many had expected over sanctions, and Chancellor Merkel, who had clearly lost all trust in President Putin, despite (or perhaps because of) all their many long conversations, had kept up a robust line. If Russia continued to be as aggressive and intransigent as in recent months, both internal EU and transatlantic solidarity should hold up.
However, if there were a drop in tensions and Minsk II seemed to be being implemented, voices within the EU for the lifting of sanctions would be quickly heard, led by those whom Russia was working hard to influence most (Greece, Cyprus, Hungary), and a division between a softer EU and a harder US line could begin to widen. More skilful Russian diplomacy than hitherto could aggravate this process.
We did not discuss in depth the possibility of arms supplies to the Ukrainian government but recognised the strength of view of some in Washington that this should happen, and the fears of many Europeans that this would escalate the situation in ways which would suit the Russians, who could always out-escalate the West in their own backyard. We also discussed the hard line shown by the majority in Congress, and the likelihood that whoever succeeded President Obama in 2016, Republican or Democrat, was likely to take a tougher stance towards Russia. All sides were bound to be factoring this into their calculations.
We discussed at length whether the “Helsinki system” was broken, and the Helsinki rules a thing of the past. Some argued that Europeans had been living under the illusion that Russia would sooner or later become like them, and indeed that the whole world would ultimately follow their model in one way or another. Recent Russian behaviour had come as a rude shock to such European views. Moreover, the world order hitherto had depended essentially on US power to maintain it. US retrenchment and the rise of other powers meant that this was no longer possible. This, combined with large nation states asserting their sovereignty seemed to be leading us into a more brutal, neo-Westphalian world.
Others believed that this view was too simplistic. Just because one country had flouted the rules in Europe did not mean that these rules suddenly had no value. Russia continued to accept them in theory. In any case, the notion of a Helsinki golden age, when all had been sweetness and light, was a myth. The circumstances in which Helsinki had been agreed were completely different from now – the Russians were the ones who had insisted at that time on the sanctity of borders for their own Soviet reasons. In any case all other European countries could and should stick to Helsinki. Western countries and their values remained attractive wherever people had a choice. Defending the right of self-determination, the right of countries to choose their own systems, even if they had a big powerful neighbour, should remain fundamental for the West. It would be a huge mistake to abandon a rules-based and values-based approach now, in favour of some Kissingerian grand bargain with Russia over the heads of the smaller countries profoundly affected.
Was there nevertheless scope at some stage for a negotiation with Russia to find a new security architecture in Europe, as had been proposed by the Russians from time to time? We did not rule this out. It would certainly be worth holding out the long-term prospect of such a deal. Russia too had legitimate security interests. However, we saw little or no prospect of such a negotiation in present circumstances. Indeed, we were now in a tricky ‘chicken and egg’ situation, where a new dispensation was too difficult to talk about while the situation in eastern Ukraine continued in its present form, but it was at the same time difficult to see how current tensions could be resolved without moves towards a new security system. We also queried how much Russia really wanted a new system, when disorder might suit it better.
In any case, when such ideas had been put forward by Russia, for example by then President Medvedev a few years ago, there had been a striking lack of content/detail, and too many Russian veto provisions to be serious. Renewed Russian talk of a new Yalta seemed particularly ill-judged. We were also sceptical in current circumstances of ideas such as a European Security Council, or the so-called Metzeberg EU-Russia committee proposal to look at the frozen conflicts. It was important that the Europeans did not allow the US to be excluded from such bodies and dialogues. Any new system needed to be Euro-Atlantic and inclusive in nature. Nevertheless, we wanted to see opportunities for dialogue kept alive, e.g. through contact groups of various kinds.
What were the implications of the wider international order of what had been happening in Ukraine? Was it a cause of the old order breaking up, or a symptom of it? We reached broadly similar conclusions as over Europe. The old order was certainly under strain, and multilateralism at a strikingly low ebb. But the system was not necessarily broken. A polycentric world was much harder to manage, but Russia could not break it up by itself, and China was not prepared to blow it up either, at least at this stage. We were all aware that power, both political and economic, was shifting to the east. This was bound to be reflected in the way crises were managed. Power was also shifting towards non-state actors of various kinds, and no-one knew how to involve them effectively. However, this was no time to abandon the process of universalising norms, or globalisation (while recognising that globalisation inevitably created winners and losers, and did not make all countries automatically friends). Russia would recognise eventually that they too needed a world with rules, not just one based on power, because they were not in fact that powerful.
Was it good enough, in Europe or the world more widely, just to try to manage the mess? We thought not. The West should continue to defend and promote its principles and values actively and collectively, and face down backsliders such as Hungary. Ultimately we had to continue to want to transform Russia too, however long it took. That was what its people wanted, no matter how popular President Putin and his policies seemed for now. The west wanted to engage Russia, rightly, but should not compromise its values in the rush to do so.
So what should the west now do overall? It was vital to keep up the western military guard, and understand that deterrence, conventional and nuclear, should once more be at the heart of policy. The costs to Russia of escalating in Ukraine or elsewhere needed to be clear and steep. The Mario Draghi approach of making clear that the West was ready to do whatever it took to protect its vital interests had a lot to be said for it. We were reluctant to use the word “containment”, because of all its negative connotations and also because it implied that Russia had global ambitions like those of the Soviet Union. Constraining and deterring were better concepts. But it was vital for NATO to make it clear that Article V meant what it said, and that any aggression, direct or indirect, for example against the Baltic States, would be met by a firm, perhaps even disproportionate, response. The West also needed to maintain strategic patience, wait for Russian policy to change, and meanwhile keep channels of communication open. This would be difficult, and there would be many stresses and strains in an unstable and unpredictable period. But firmness and resolution would be rewarded.
The fundamental questions brought out above also had to be addressed. Did the West have a consistent and coherent vision for the post-Soviet space and the in-between countries? Did it have the political will and willingness to spend scarce resources on these issues, including helping fund Ukraine for the long term, and increasing defence spending? Who was out there telling western publics the facts of life about the world they now faced, and that the so-called peace dividend was over? We were not confident about the answers to any of these questions.
One issue we discussed relatively little was US policy and the US role. But we were aware that relations with the US were ultimately crucial for President Putin, because of the psychological importance of acceptance of Russia as still a great power which deserved respect and treatment on an equal basis. This could conceivably offer opportunities in the longer run. The key to a new understanding would ultimately lie in Washington.
Conclusion and recommendations
I have not tried to list recommendations separately in any kind of neat way, partly because that would be too simplistic, and partly because that would imply all participants, including those from Russia, agreed with them, which was obviously far from the case. Nevertheless, I hope that some clear directions of travel for western policy emerge from the rich discussion described above. The major uncertainty we face is whether the current confrontation between Russia and the West will remain essentially confined to Ukraine, or spread further. If it is the latter, all bets are off, and the consequences could be fraught with extreme danger. If the former, there is hope that the tensions can be contained and eventually reduced, and a meaningful dialogue restored, although we may face a long haul.
This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.
CHAIR: Sir Nigel Sheinwald GCMG
Visiting Professor, King's College London; Director, Royal Dutch Shell; UK Special Envoy on intelligence and law enforcement data sharing. Formerly: Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service (1976-2012): Ambassador to the United States of America, Washington, DC (2007-12); Foreign Policy and Defence Adviser to the Prime Minister (2003-07); Ambassador and UK Representative to the European Union, Brussels (2000-03).
Dr Bobo Lo
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House; Associate Fellow, Russia and New Independent States Programme, French Institute of International Relations. Formerly: Senior Fellow and Director, China and Russia Programmes, Centre for European Reform (2008-10); Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House (2005-08); Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Moscow Center (2001-05).
Mr Daniel Bilak
Managing Partner, Ukraine office, CMS Cameron McKenna LLC; Senator, Ukrainian Catholic University (2014-). Formerly: UNDP Governance Advisor to Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Lithuanian governments (1995-2006); Advisor to the Governor of Donetsk Oblast (2014).
Mr Gilles Breton
Chairman, Montreal and Ottawa Bureau, Canada-Eurasia-Russia Business Association. Formerly: Canadian Diplomatic Service: Minister-Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission, Canadian Embassy, Moscow (2008-12); Deputy Director, Russia, Eastern Europe Division (1998-2008).
Ms Kerry Buck
Assistant Deputy Minister, International Security and Political Director, Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada.
Ms Chrystia Freeland MP
Member of Parliament (Liberal) for Toronto Centre, Canadian Parliament (2013-). Formerly: Managing Director and Editor of Consumer News; and Global Editor-at-Large, Thomson Reuters, US Managing
Editor, Deputy Editor, London . Moscow Bureau Chief, Financial Times; Deputy Editor, The Globe and Mail (1999-2001).
Professor Michael Ignatieff
Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice, Harvard Kennedy School. Formerly: Director, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Alastair Horne Fellow, St Antony's College, University of Oxford; Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada; Columnist, The Observer (1990-93); Member, Independent International Commission, Kosovo.
Professor Kong Tianping
Project Coordinator, Central and East European program, Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Formerly: Director, Division of Central and Eastern European Studies, Institute of European Studies, CASS (2011-14); Director, Eastern European Studies, Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies, CASS (2003-11).
Ambassador Petr Mares
Czech Diplomatic Service: Special Envoy for the Eastern Partnership, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic (2000-). Formerly: Ambassador to the Netherlands (2006-10). Deputy Prime Minister (2002-04); Member of the Czech Parliament (1998-2002).
Ambassador Jaromír Novotný
Advisor for Foreign Policy, Office of the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic. Formerly: First Deputy Minister of Defense; Ambassador to India; to Japan.
Ambassador Jirí Schneider
Senior Fellow and Director of Special Projects, Prague Security Studies Institute (2014-). Formerly: Czech Diplomatic Service: First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and State Secretary for European Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic (MFA) (2010-14); Ambassador to Israel (1995-98); Member, Czechoslovak Federal Assembly (1990-92).
Ambassador Michael Zilmer-Johns
Permanent Representative of Denmark to NATO (2014-). Formerly: European External Action Service, Brussels (2013-14); Danish State Secretary for EU, Foreign and Security Policy (2005-13); Foreign and Security Advisor to the Prime Minister (2003-05).
Mr Simon Mordue
Director for Strategy, Policy and Turkey, Directorate General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, European Commission. Formerly: Head of Cabinet of Commissioner Stefan Füle; Deputy Head of Cabinet for Vice-President Verheugen.
Dr Arkady Moshes
Programme Director, Research Programme on EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Helsinki.
Dr Thomas Bagger
Head of Policy Planning, German Federal Foreign Office, Berlin (2011-). Formerly: Head of Foreign Minister's Office, (2009-11).
Dr Ulrike Guérot
Director, The European Democracy Lab, Berlin. Formerly: Senior Associate for Germany, Open Society Initiative for Europe; Head, European Council on Foreign Office Relations, Berlin; Senior Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund.
Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger
Chairman, Munich Security Conference (2008-). Formerly: Global Head, Group Public and Economic Research, Allianz SE, Munich (2008-14); German Diplomatic Service (1975-2008): Ambassador of Germany to the UK (2006-08);Ambassador to the United States (2001-06); Deputy Foreign Minister, Federal Foreign Office, Berlin (1998-2001).
Dr Norbert Röttgen MdB
Member (CDU) of the German Bundestag (1994-); Chair, Committee on Foreign Affairs (2014-). Formerly: Federal Minister for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (2009-12).
Dr Constanze Stelzenmüller
Robert Bosch Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC (2014-). Formerly: Senior Transatlantic Fellow (2009-14), Director, Berlin Office (2005-09), German Marshall Fund of the United States; Die Zeit: International Security Editor (1998-2005); Foreign and Security Policy Writer (1994-98). A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Ivars Liepnieks
Head, NATO and European Security Policy Division, Security Policy Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia. Formerly: Latvian Delegation to NATO.
Dr Radoslava Stefanova
Head, Russia and Ukraine Relations Section, Political Affairs and Security Policy Division, NATO (2004-).
Dr Jamie Shea
NATO: Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges. Formerly: Director of Policy Planning, Private Office of the Secretary General (2005-10); Deputy Assistant Secretary General for External Relations, Public Diplomacy Division (2003-05).
Dr Jakub Korejba
Lecturer, Department of International Relations and Foreign Policy of Russia, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) (2010-); Analyst, Center for International Journalism and Research, International News Agency 'Rossiya Segodnya' (2014-). Formerly: Editor, Russia, CIS and Baltic States Section, Russia Today Television (2013-14).
Dr Kataryna Wolczuk
Reader in Politics and International Studies, Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies, University of Birmingham. Formerly: Jean Monnet Fellow, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, Florence (2002-03).
Dr Alexey Gromyko
Director, Institute of Europe, Russian Academy of Sciences; Member, Global Security and International Relations Section, Security Council of the Russian Federation; Head, European Programmes Division, Russkiy Mir Foundation; Member, Academic Council, Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation; Senior Associate Member, St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. Formerly:, Centre for British Studies (2000-14).
Mr Stefan Gullgren
Swedish Diplomatic Service: Deputy Director-General and Head, Department for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sweden, Stockholm (2013-). Formerly: Ambassador to Ukraine (2009-13).
Mr Alexander Kramarenko
Russian Diplomatic Service (1974-): Deputy Head of Mission, Minister-Counsellor, Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom (2011-). Formerly: Deputy Director, then Director, Policy Planning Department (2004-11).
Mr Jorge Vázquez Costa
Spanish Diplomatic Service (2011-): Advisor, Cabinet of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of Spain (2014-). Formerly; Assistant Deputy Director for Foreign Policy, Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation.
Mr Hasan Özertem
Energy Security and Eurasia Expert, Center for Energy Security Studies, International Strategic Research Organization, Ankara; Co-Editor of Review of International Law and Politics.
Sir Tony Brenton KCMG
Fellow, Wolfson College (2009-). Formerly: HM Diplomatic Service (1975-08): HM Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Moscow (2004-08); Deputy Head of Mission, British Embassy, Washington (2001-04); Director (Global Issues), 1998-2000, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Mr Robert Brinkley CMG
Chairman, The BEARR Trust (2012-); Senator, Ukrainian Catholic University (2013-); Trustee, Keston Institute (2014-). Formerly: Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service (1977-2011): British High Commissioner to Pakistan (2006-09); Ambassador to Ukraine (2002-06).
Dr Jonathan Eyal
International Director, International Studies Director (1990-) and Editor, RUSI Newsbrief, Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies.
Mr Charles Grant CMG
Co-Founder and Director, Centre for European Reform (1996-); Vice Chairman, Business for New Europe; Member, Campaign Council, British Influence. Formerly: Board Member and Trustee, British Council (2002-08); Defence Editor and Brussels Correspondent, The Economist. Chairman of the Programme Committee, a Member of the Council of Management and a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Ms Bridget Kendall MBE
BBC (1983-); BBC Diplomatic Correspondent (1998-); Host, The Forum, BBC World Service. Formerly: Washington Correspondent (1994-98), Moscow Correspondent (1989-94).
Mr Mark Leonard
Co-Founder and Director, The European Council on Foreign Relations, London (2007-). Formerly: Director of Foreign Policy, Centre for European Reform, London (2005-06); Director, Foreign Policy Centre (1999-2005); Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund, Washington, DC (2004).
The Rt Hon. Sir Roderic Lyne KBE CMG
Deputy Chairman, Chatham House; Non-Executive Director, JP Morgan Bank International (Russia) and Petropavlovsk plc; Member, Iraq Inquiry Committee. Formerly: Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service (1970-2004): British Ambassador to Russia (2000-04); UK Permanent Representative to the international organisations in Geneva (1997-2000); Private Secretary (External Affairs, Defence and Northern Ireland) to the Prime Minister (1993-96).
Mr Edward Mortimer CMG
Distinguished Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford; Senior Programme Adviser (and former Chief Programme Officer, 2007-11), Salzburg Global Seminar. Formerly: Chief Speechwriter (1998-2006) and Director of Communications (2001-06) to the Secretary-General, United Nations. A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Dr Vijay Rangarajan
HM Diplomatic Service: Director Europe, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) (2013-). Formerly: Director for UN and Multilateral Policy; Director, Constitution Group, Cabinet Office; Head of European Defence, FCO; Deputy Head of Mission, British Embassy to Mexico.
Ambassador Simon Smith
Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service (1986-): Ambassador to Ukraine (2012-); Ambassador to Austria and British Permanent Representative to International Organisations in Vienna (2007-12); Director, Russia, South Caucasus and Central Asia, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Mr Peter Watkins CBE
Ministry of Defence (MOD) (1980-): Director General Security Policy (2014-). Formerly: Director General, Defence Academy (2011-14); Director Operational Policy (2008-11).
Mr Oleksandr Aleksandrovych
Director General, First European Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine. Formerly: Director General, Department for International Security and Disarmament.
Ms Svitlana Zalishchuk
Member of the Ukrainian Parliament (2014-). Formerly: Founding Director, Centre UA; Co-Founder, CHESNO movement, New Citizen civic platform, and Stop Censorship!; Anchor, 'From the Other Side'; International Reporter, Channel 5.
Dr Fiona Hill
Senior Fellow and Director, Center on the US and Europe, Brookings Institution. Formerly: National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia, National Intelligence Council, Washington, DC; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institution; Director of Strategic Planning, Eurasia Foundation (1999-2000).
Ambassador Daniel Baer
US Department of State: US Representative, United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Vienna (2013-).
Dr Samuel Charap
Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia, International Institute for Strategic Studies, IISS-US, Washington, DC. Formerly: Senior Advisor to Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security and Member of the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff, US Department of State (2011-12); Director for Russia and Eurasia (2009-11) and Fellow, National Security and International Policy Program, Center for American Progress, Washington, DC.
Ms Melissa Guinan
Fulbright Scholar, Fulbright-Schuman Program; Visiting Researcher, Institute for European Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussels. Formerly: Program Officer, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Ambassador Steven Pifer
Director, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, and Senior Fellow, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and the Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution. Formerly: US Diplomatic Service: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs (2001-04); US Ambassador to Ukraine (1998-2000); Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, National Security Council (1996-97).