RD Interview: Hans Köchler, a prominent political scientist and philosopher at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, shares his views on the current geopolitical tensions between Russia and Europe.
European Council President Donald Tusk listens to questions during a media conference at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, March 19, 2015. Ukraine is urging the European Union to stay united on keeping up sanctions pressure on Russia over the conflict in eastern Ukraine as EU leaders gather for a two-day summit. Photo: AP
The relationship between Russia and Europe, as well as the ability of the United States to apply pressure on that relationship indirectly via NATO and the EU, continues to provoke discussion across Europe.
Russia Direct recently sat down with Hans Köchler, a prominent Austrian political scientist and philosopher at the University of Innsbruck and the president of the International Progress Organization, to discuss the long-simmering causes of the current confrontation on the European continent that eventually transformed into the Ukraine crisis in 2014.
Köchler also analyzes how the geopolitical issues at the heart of the confrontation between Russia and Europe continues to reverberate globally.
Russia Direct: What do you see as the main reason for the current tensions between the EU and Russia? Is this a difference in values along civilizational lines or it is just pure geopolitics?
Hans Köchler: I think it is mainly geopolitics, and civilizational issues are just used as a pretext. The crisis that we have now is the worst since the 1990s when the Cold War ended, and when one of the power centers of that era – the Soviet Union – disappeared. It led to the situation of imbalance worldwide and in Europe.
This situation would have required that the Western collective organizations, particularly NATO, should not have begun to expand towards the area of the former socialist bloc. It has meant that this imbalance was extremely exploited and it has made it impossible that a new balance of power in Europe would emerge, because we have to be aware that when the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved.
For different takes on this issue, read "The Ukraine conflict: Easy to get into, but impossible to get out of," "Russia's new 'Trojan horse' strategy for breaking European unity."
But on the other side, NATO, its opponent, still exists. And what we have to consider is that after 1991 the countries that were in the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union and were a part of the Soviet bloc gradually were integrated into the European Union.
And at the same time we have seen an overlapping of this process with American-centered structures, particularly in the field of security, as most of those countries also aspired to join NATO and together with the EU enlargement the whole process took on very different undertones. For many countries that defined their policies after the end of the U.S.S.R. and they started to seek double ambitions to join the EU and at the same time to become a NATO member.
In such an imbalanced situation, when there is a new policy of containment of Russia - we might even say an encroachment of Russia - if events happen like those in Ukraine last year, that will mean a major crisis on the continent with global cleavages. So, what has happened is that Ukraine more or less became a part of this zone of influence and a territory for a wider conflict: not just a civil conflict between the East and West of Ukraine but also a part of a larger regional confrontation with global impact.
Therefore, I think that as far as culture and civilization are concerned, it is only a pretext for people to speak that they have concerns. Anyway, culturally we are one Europe with the Christian tradition, which unites Russia with all Europe. And it does not matter whether it is Roman Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant.
RD: How can you define sovereignty nowadays and do you think that it has been changing and evolving for the last 25 years?
H.K.: First of all, it is a legal - a strictly legal - term of international law that is part of the terminology of the United Nations. In this context, “sovereignty” means sovereign equality of states. It applies to the legal status of a state whether it is a small state like Lichtenstein or a big one like Russia. Each state is equal in terms of the independence of its domestic legal order.
And as a system of laws under a constitution, the state is the supreme authority to an act of legal norms on its territory. There is no right of other states to interfere into that legal system and, at the same time, each state in the UN is equal. That is, so to speak, an official legal meaning. The problem is that this legal doctrine is being more and more eroded over the last decades.
One reason for that is globalization. For instance, what does it mean if I say that I am from Austria? Austria is a small country of eight million people. What does it mean for my government if we say we are the sovereign Republic of Austria when about 70-80 percent of all decisions on economic policy are made and dictated by Brussels and also from the outside because of the international economic pressures, some of those global corporations. Therefore, sovereignty in this sense is eroded because of the international economic conditions on one hand and, in the case of Europe, because of the membership in the regional organization.
Of course in Europe we are witnessing erosion of national sovereignty in favor of the supranational structures of the EU. In these circumstances, I am asking myself a question for the last ten years: In a situation we are in now, how can one organize cooperation among regional states so that they together can better represent their interests vis-à-vis the global pressure? In this sense, regional cooperation makes sense and in this sense it would be bolstering national sovereignty. Also, I think it is a rationale behind the Russian decision to create the Eurasian Economic Union. And that was also the rationale initially in the 1950s behind the creation of the European Economic Community.
RD: Does Europe have a strategy towards Russia? And does the U.S. have one as well?
H.K.: As far as I can see, we must differentiate - and I speak here as a European - between the people and the elites, the decision-makers. And as far as European countries are concerned, I think the majority opinion, the majority sentiment is that, for us - for Europe - it is of vital, even strategic, importance to have a partnership with Russia because we share the same continent and Russia is an immediate neighbor. And it is also important in the sense of bilateral relations, especially trade, if you take Austria, for example.
As for the U.S., I think their policy is just the law of power politics: The U.S. still considers itself as the power that emerged victorious after the Cold War. So, now they want to seize that opportunity and want to expand and to bolster their position of dominance and their unilateral “truth.”
And this is, by the way, in the nature of power: One always wants more power and there is no modesty. And as soon you are already on that level, there is almost no way back and this is exactly the strategy of the U.S. in Europe: All the countries of Europe plus those of the former Soviet bloc should be integrated into the West and should become members of NATO.
But in Europe there is a different position. There is one big general difference between the U.S. and Europe politically: Europeans know that it would be shortsighted to engage in permanent confrontation with Russia because it is not sustainable and it would damage European interests. For the U.S., it is totally different because they are far away and also economically there is not so much at stake. It is easy to impose sanctions when one who does so is not damaged. But others do suffer. This is now the situation in Europe.
In my view, the big problem is whether the U.S. will mentally be prepared at some stage to accept that it has to share power with other centers of power. Will the U.S. be ready to accept that structures of power, for instance in Europe, will develop independently of its influence?