With Russia and the EU still trading barbs over the Ukraine crisis, European Leadership Network (ELN), the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) and International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) are going to discuss the challenges for Cooperative Greater Europe at the meeting in London on Dec. 12. RIAC's Program Director Ivan Timofeev sheds light on three major obstacles in the creation of a Greater Europe and the options to solve them.

Is the “From Lisbon to Vladivostok” concept just a fantasy? Photo: AFP

The idea of “Greater Europe” has been on the agenda for more than twenty years. It harks back to the days of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who set the tone in the late 1980s. After the Cold War, the cliché “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” took hold in the public speeches of politicians and diplomats. The idea involved the integration of Russia and the post-Soviet and post-Communist countries into a single community with Western Europe.

“No more dividing lines!” was a key slogan of Greater Europe. At its core were shared values, political interests, economic interdependence and humanitarian cooperation. Ideally, sovereignty and national interests were to coexist with common regimes of security, trade, economics and many other fields.

For the current generation of politicians in Russia and the West, these ideas seem utopian. Today, rational pragmatism and a reliance on real interests and capabilities are in vogue, dictated by common sense. “No more masquerading. It’s time to look truth in the eye and admit there is no such thing as Greater Europe with Russian participation” – the new generation would claim.

The crisis in Ukraine seems to have put an end to the discussion, although many politicians and experts will assert that the die was cast long before Maidan. The only difference between now and the Cold War is that the dividing lines have moved closer to Moscow, to eastern Ukraine.

The tragedy of the moment lies in the transient and irreversible loss of even the theoretical possibility of resolving many problematic issues between Russia and the West. Relations are becoming rapidly radicalized, tainting even those areas in which cooperation has been successful. Just a year ago, the window of opportunity was narrow but still open. Now it is slammed shut indefinitely.

The triumph of realism is a natural, law-governed consequence, but devoid of an axiological and ideological reference point, it will simply hang in the air. The pragmatism displayed by Europe and Russia evokes a rational, but myopic, hand-to-mouth existence with no reference to the future. In the end, everyone stands to lose: Russia, the EU and the post-Soviet space. Torn apart by contradictions, they will lose global competitiveness and pay a high price for mutual containment.

Rejecting the idea of Greater Europe serves only to widen the chasm between Russia and the West. Conversely, given the almost irrevocably severed ties, it can be clung to as a marker for future rapprochement and the resolution of both old and new problems. A pragmatism focused on the integrative idea of Greater Europe is preferable to the pragmatism of short-term, situational and emotional decision-making of both sides at present.

There are three major impediments to the Greater Europe project.

The first is the security dilemma in relations between Russia and the West. Both sides view each other as a potential adversary. The expansion of NATO has ignored Moscow’s concerns. Initiatives in the field of conventional arms control have ground to a virtual standstill. Local conflicts have not been resolved jointly and are frozen at best.

The system of strategic stability has degenerated (suffice it to mention the debate over missile defense). Nuclear deterrence remains a key guarantor of security - at least for Russia. In the area of security, the sides are edging towards outright rivalry. Rather than using each other as “safe backyards” and resolving common problems, they seem intent on launching another costly arms race.

The second problem is the coupling of economic potential and humanitarian cooperation. This area looked more promising, but here, too, progress has largely run its course. The issues of energy cooperation have been politicized (especially in reference to the Third Energy Package and transit routes). Economic and humanitarian integration achieved certain results, but then spluttered. The limits of EU enlargement, the problems of multi-speed European integration, and the asymmetry of economic cooperation all came to the fore.

Today we are witnessing the rapid erosion of economic interdependence between Russia and the EU. Sanctions have curtailed interaction or increased transaction costs. The EU’s energy security has suffered. Russia is losing access to technologies and investment. The liberalization of the visa regime has been put on ice. All of the above means that the living tissue of the “human” component of Greater Europe is being peeled away. Cooperation in the fields of education and science is under attack. In terms of Europe’s identity, Russia is very much the “significant other,” and the same is true of Russia’s attitude to the EU and the collective West in general.

The third problem lies in the contradictions of integrating the post-Soviet countries. The post-Soviet space is being split along new dividing lines. In most cases, the choice was between notional Western and notional Russian projects. But institutions and formats that would have harmonized these processes failed to materialize.

The correct (from a formal point of view) principle of the newly independent states’ sovereignty de facto ignored the huge number of obvious and not-so-obvious problems related to economic development, good governance, ethnic divisions, and open and latent conflicts. Formal sovereignty found itself under heavy pressure from internal problems and growing competition from the major players: Russia, the EU and the U.S.

All these problems had been evident up until the start of 2014. But they were sorely aggravated — for the first time in 25 years — by the situation in Ukraine. This essentially local crisis in one country shook the entire system of relations between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community to its foundations.

What to do? The following could at least be proposed.

In the area of security, the idea of the Treaty on European Security should be revisited, as well as the reform of the OSCE on the principles of common and indivisible security. The Ukrainian crisis is perceived by many as an obstacle to any such discussions, but in fact it is a weighty reason for it to be placed on the agenda.

From a tactical standpoint, all available diplomatic means must be brought into play to achieve a ceasefire in Ukraine, facilitate negotiations between the conflicting parties, and kick start multilateral consultations on crisis matters in Europe.

Another important aspect is the mutual scale down of military activity, namely the dangerous approaches of military aircraft and naval vessels, exercises and maneuvers. Demonstrations of power will at best exacerbate the contradictions. At worst, they will lead to unintended consequences and an escalation of the conflict.

In the economic sphere and the humanitarian field, there needs to be a mechanism of joint humanitarian aid for the Ukrainian regions and combined economic assistance for Ukraine as a whole. Mutual visa discrimination and political antagonisms must not be allowed to interfere in education, science and other areas of humanitarian cooperation. Despite the political animosities, a new basic agreement between Russia and the EU should be drafted at the expert level that assumes joint projects in the medium and long term.

Regarding the post-Soviet space, a dialogue should be initiated on multilateral security guarantees for the countries of the former Soviet Union. The issue of a multilateral rapid response mechanism to deal with crises in the post-Soviet space should be on the agenda. The political, economic and humanitarian projects of the EU, Russia and post-Soviet countries should be catalogued and, having determined and synchronized the points of contact, implemented multilaterally, wherever possible.

It is a huge and painstaking task that must involve the leading research centers. If carried through, “smart power” and public diplomacy will prove more effective than traditional power politics and mutual containment.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

Read a related story by Ivan Timofeev, "Cooperative Greater Europe at risk: What do we lose and what could be done?" at the Russian International Affairs Council's website.