The independent resource on global security

Returning to a basic level of trust in relations between Russia and the West

At the height of the cold war, during summits between the Soviet Union and the United States, US President Ronald Reagan frequently made reference to the Russian proverb Доверяй, но проверяй or 'Trust but verify'. Now, some 30 years later, few would expect Western leaders to use the same expression in negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. While the threat of nuclear war during the cold war era was all too real, in one sense the world is worse off now: even the notion of rebuilding trust on the basis of international commitments is seen as idealistic and unrealistic, or as a liberal fantasy.


The deterioration of trust between Russia and the West

The basis for a constructive discourse between Russia and the West has been fundamentally undermined in recent years. The five-day conflict in 2008 over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia was a major setback in this regard. The attempt by the Obama administration to reset relations in the following year proved to be unsuccessful. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine in early 2014, in violation of the principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act —according to which borders can only be changed through peaceful agreement—further aggravated the situation.

Efforts over many years to build a new foundation for a Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian security community have therefore, once again, been frustrated. Commitments made by Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) participating states have not been faithfully implemented, despite being reaffirmed at a 2010 summit in Kazakhstan. In fact, leaders at that summit, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, supported the notion that democracy, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms must be respected throughout the OSCE space.

Freedom of the media forms an indispensable part of the commitments made by OSCE member states since the cold war. Despite these commitments, there is a perception that individuals with independent opinions in Russia and other states are being seriously harassed. Equally troubling is the impression that opinion leaders and media organizations in Russia are seeking to promote the perception of a Europe that is more and more hostile to Russia. This idea of a hostile Europe is being promoted in at least five policy contexts.


The right to pursue economic integration and interact freely

First, the so-called second economic and environmental basket of the OSCE foresees more trade and interaction between states, and greater globalization. Today, this trade liberalization is under threat, notably in relation to the right of states (e.g. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia) to enter into trade and association agreements with other states. This right needs to be respected and should also apply to states that wish to join the Eurasian Union. Every effort must be deployed to avoid zero-sum thinking in this domain.

Second, globalization through a number of vital formats for industrial and scientific progress is being threatened. This is particularly true when leaders in Russia and elsewhere start to describe the Internet as a threat.


The freedom to choose security policy orientation on the basis of jointly agreed principles

Third, it is obvious that the military and defence structures in many European countries have been seriously neglected since the end of the cold war. One sign of this is the insufficient contribution of European states to United Nations peacekeeping forces. International military contributions to peace and security have increasingly been seen as competing with territorial defence objectives. Serious efforts are under way to put the house in order. In the European Union (EU), taxpayers now expect greater efficiency in terms of national defence, albeit on a level far below that of the cold war. This is not an arms race, but many will no doubt try to portray it as such.

Fourth, the recognized right of every country in the OSCE to decide whether it wishes to be part of a military alliance or to stay outside is being questioned. This is a fundamental principle both for those countries that wish to join an alliance and for those wishing to stay outside. Many analysts in Russia argue that promises have been given not to enlarge the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Even if individual Western leaders have made such promises, they cannot override the sovereign right of nations to decide for themselves.

The idea of Europe is being questioned

Fifth, the fundamental basis for the ‘European idea’ is being questioned. After World War II, the creation of the EU meant that a community with considerable supranational elements was intended to help even large countries (e.g. France and Germany) protect their interests through intensive integration and increased interdependence between former enemies.

The validity of this notion must extend to Russia. Enormous efforts have been deployed since the cold war to increase interdependence. The idea that Russia should be isolated in the long term must be counteracted. In this context, the current sanctions against Russia are necessary in order to deal with an intolerable situation but must thereafter be abolished.

It is true that Europe is seeking to diversify its energy dependence on Russia. This is, however, rectifying an unhealthy dependence, alien to fundamental principles of international economic relations. It is nothing new that customers should have several competing choices in order to keep prices down and the market free. This must not be seen as an effort to reduce interdependence at large in the international system.

Returning to a basis of trust

Powerful forces in both Russia and the West are currently seeking to undo the progress achieved since the cold war in terms of international cooperation and development.

Globally, fragility still threatens development in more than 60 countries. Child mortality has decreased drastically. At the same time, demographic and health statistics in countries such as Russia as well as in a number of other OSCE countries are worrying. The life expectancy of men is more than 10 years less than for women in Russia. There is a vital need to join together to combat transnational threats, the spread of drugs, pandemics and HIV/AIDS, environmental threats, corruption and organized crime.

In 2015 the international community will be presented with the opportunity to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act. At the same time, in a symbol of the progress achieved since the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s, Serbia will chair the OSCE. It is high time to honour the efforts deployed since the end of the cold war, and to seek faithful implementation of all OSCE commitments on the basis of ‘trust but verify’.



Dr Lars-Erik Lundin is a Distinguished Associate Fellow within the European Security Programme.