Freudenstein: The EU Has Knowledge about Russia, but Doesn’t Use It Enough

As the West eyed warily the lining-up of Russians to cast a vote in favor of the constitutional changes that would see President Putin in power until he gets bored with it, GEORGIA TODAY spoke with Roland Freudenstein, Head of Research and Deputy Director of the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies, on just what the West has to do to solve the Russia Conundrum.

What are the questions that would shape the West-Russia conundrum for the foreseeable future, questions the West will have to answer?

The questions would be: is the West still able to define what is the West? What I mean is: in Europe, between Europe and North America, and with other democracies around the globe, are we able to clearly define what liberal democracy stands for, and defend it against all authoritarian systems, of which Russia is one and China is quickly catching up? Do we still have a common base? Do we have a definition of what “the West” is? Further, are we ready to make real sacrifices in terms of violent conflict and military defense? Is the West still capable of credibly deterring a threat from the outside? This has been a very acute question ever since 2014 when Russia was rattling its saber and making threats.

One thing is whether the West is capable, and another whether it is willing to do what needs to be done.

Deterrence rests on three things: the capacity to defend yourself, the willingness to defend yourself, and the willingness to communicate number one and number two to a potential aggressor. The West has been doing the third to a certain extent at different NATO summits and so on, but as for number one and number two, I’d say there are very strong doubts. Deterrence requires all three, and I think we have to critically ask ourselves whether we have done enough in these two areas, willingness and capacity-wise, to defend ourselves.

And if the answer were “maybe we haven't”, what will it take for the West to be prompted to do enough?

It takes collective effort, it takes leadership, it takes politicians who will tell people, “guys, we are looking at tough times, but times will get much tougher than this in the long run if we don't get our act together on deterring potential aggressors.” That takes leadership, and politicians are not doing this sufficiently, especially in Europe.

Has the West finally come to enough of an understanding of Russia that will lead to effective deterrence policies?

No, and that’s the fourth big critical question the West has to ask itself: have we done enough to get to know Russia, and especially to listen to those countries in the West which have some experience with Russia? I'm referring to the Baltic countries, the whole eastern flank of the European Union and NATO, but also including Georgia and Ukraine, and you know these countries were very often in the last 20 years belittled; considered as traumatized by their historical experience with Russia; biased by their painful history. It was extremely unfair. So, I think we do have knowledge about Russia inside the European Union and NATO, but we're not using it often enough because we don’t take the people who warn us about Russia seriously.

Does this knowledge shape-shift the further you go from West to East?

We do have a paradox in this knowledge, and a robust attitude to Russia, because it is not anymore a clean east/west split. Countries like Hungary, a former communist country, are only too willing to cooperate with Russia these days: when it comes to jointly bashing the democratically elected government of Ukraine, Hungary is only too happy to cooperate with the Kremlin. The old rule was that the further east you go inside the European Union, the more countries reject Russia and want to have a robust attitude towards the Kremlin. This rule no longer always applies, and countries even further east, such as Georgia…well, not every Georgian politician over here is equally aware of the dangers of Russia and of Russian imperialism I would say.

Or equally eager to confront it?

Exactly. It’s not clear calculus that the further east you go, the more critical and knowledgeable of Russia a country is.

You write that the “renaissance of the West” might yet be a realistic scenario. Would it not be more realistic to assume that something will happen in Russia that gives the West hopes that this “renaissance” happened, and yet history will continue to repeat itself?

Possible, but with mutual improvement in transatlantic relations, for example after a change in the White House in 2021, we’ll also have the chance to become more resilient, and that would be decisive for a more robust attitude vis-à-vis aggressors.

Regarding the C-19 pandemic and its implications for major geopolitical powers: who is coming out as a winner so far, in political terms?

It’s really too early to say. The crisis has lasted three months so far, and it will take years to assess who came out better. At the moment, in terms of patients and also in terms of the economy, it looks like North America and Europe were hit worse than China; but then Russia has also been hit very badly and you have no idea of what the economic consequences are going to be. The only thing I can say is it's wrong to be defeatist and it's wrong to be complacent: defeatist would mean saying the Chinese are winning, and complacent that the West has triumphed. Neither is true. The truth is somewhere in the middle, and it would be dangerous to be complacent, which is why we must keep on trying to beat this.

By Vazha Tavberidze

02 July 2020 19:04