EU ponders the Russian riddle

Ten years on, Moscow is still an intractable problem for the West, writes Andrew Marshall in Brussels
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The Independent Online
The Cold War is over, the Berlin Wall is gone, the missiles have been re-targeted and the Red Army has gone from Eastern Europe. But still there is Russia - huge, heavily armed, economically troubled, unstable, confusing, complex and potentially dangerous.

This weekend foreign ministers from the European Union will start to try to put together a more coherent policy on Russia. Next week Warren Christopher and Andrei Kozyrev, the US Secretary of State and the Russian Foreign Minister, will meet in Geneva to iron out problems in their relationship.

An exchange of letters is planned between the United States and Russia over security questions, and later this year President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin are expected to meet.

It is 10 years since relations between Russia and the West began a decisive shift. The direction of reform, the prospects for democracy and the future of foreign policy in Russia are at best opaque. But the policy of the West towards Russia is just as confused.

At the beginning of last year the US was putting forward a policy that gave a high consideration to Russian sensibilities, particularly over Nato enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe. The key to it was Partnership for Peace, designed to build bridges to all former Communist countries, while opening the prospect of eventual membership for some. But then policy seemed to go into reverse, with Washington pushing early Nato membership for Central Europe, apparently regardless of Russian concerns. At the same time, Russia was becoming embroiled in its Chechnya adventure and relations started to take a turn for the worse.

They hit a nadir last December, when Mr Kozyrev came to Brussels to sign two Nato documents, one setting out Russia's participation in Partnership for Peace, the other to establish a new dialogue with Nato. He shocked ministers and officials by saying he would not sign, that Russia was worried about Nato expansion and that a new division of Europe was being created. Boris Yeltsin warned of a new Cold War.

This seems to have been a salutary experience for the US in particular. Since then, it has been painstakingly rebuilding relations through private meetings all over the world, in particular between Mr Christopher and Mr Kozyrev. Now, the ``Russia First'' policy is taking centre- stage again. There are three big obstacles to formulating a coherent Western policy towards Russia at the moment.

The first is Chechnya: the EU would like to get a trade deal with Russia in operation, but that is still being blocked by concerns about its human- rights provisions. Russia has accepted the idea of a permanent monitoring mission from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation for Chechnya, and some EU member-states and Russia hoped that would be enough to get both sides off the hook but it has not. Parliamentary opinion in many Western states is violently opposed to doing deals with Russia, as was seen in condemnations of Moscow last week by members of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe.

The second problem is also Chechnya, but in a different way. Some Western governments see this as mainly an internal matter; others fear it is part of a more general Russian policy of securing its borders and extending its influence. The issue that this raises is how to define what constitutes legitimate Russian defence of its interests, and what is interference or expansionism.

The third problem is internal divisions within the West. There is a long- established relationship between the US and Europe over policy towards Russia. When Washington swings towards good relations with Moscow, Europe becomes concerned. When the US is inclined to be hard-line, Europe looks to build bridges.

Something of the same dynamic has been at work over the past year, and it has not made for an easy ride.

There is another skein in European policy that is not purely reactive, going back to the German Ostpolitik of the Seventies and the attempts to build a separate, secure track of relations with Moscow - Chancellor Helmut Kohl is trying to push this forward. France, too, has long harboured the idea of a relationship with Russia that was independent of the US, something that Britain dropped in the Fifties. The same idea is present in a French paper to be presented this weekend.

The problem has always been the primacy of the superpower dialogue. Though that is fading, there is still division between France (which sees relations with Russia through the prism of creating a a new European presence on the world stage), Germany (which wants better ties to stabilise Central Europe, but alongside Nato) and Britain (which wants practical steps and the maintenance of the primacy of Nato as a forum for East-West security ties).

The meetings over the next few days are attempts to find a set of bearings, to try to put in place the bedrock of a new policy. Yet the main problems are well-established features of East-West relations. What is perhaps surprising about the debates of the next week is how much is familiar, after so much has changed.