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2021.11.04 08:00

Baltics and EU need rapprochement with Russia, but on their terms – interview

Ieva Žvinakytė, LRT.lt2021.11.04 08:00

There was once hope that Russia could evolve into a democracy and become a close ally of Lithuania and the West. But in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Georgia and Ukraine, Lithuania was right to assume a tough stance towards its big neighbour, says Dominique Moïsi, a French expert of international affairs.

You’re attending a conference on the 30th anniversary of Lithuanian-Russian diplomatic relations. The conference asks whether good neighbourly relations between Lithuania and Russia are possible today. But if we take a step back, did you, as an international affairs expert, believe that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly independent Lithuania could have good diplomatic relations with its big neighbour and former aggressor Russia?

The answer is definitely yes. But, of course, it presupposed a condition that has never materialised, ie that Russia would become a democratic country, that it would evolve in the direction of liberal democracy.

Thirty years ago, I was involved in education in Russia. I was one of the founders of the Moscow School for Political Studies that was a school for the Russian elites, members of the Duma. Unfortunately, today, the main founder of the school lives in one of the Baltic states because she can't stay in Russia anymore.

But 30 years ago, I felt – maybe it was a pure illusion – that Russia could evolve in a positive direction. I thought this direction would fit Russia’s own strategic needs. Back then, Russia’s only threat was coming from the East. It was China. And Russia, in my mind, had to find support in the West.

Of course, it didn't work that way and responsibilities are manyfold. I think the West also has some responsibility for this negative evolution of Russia. I think we were arrogant, negligent, and were not doing all we could to welcome Russia into our democratic club.

And the good Russia that could have had good neighbourly relations with the Baltic Republics never materialised because Russia, far from becoming a democracy, returned to a very authoritarian kind of regime that Karl Wittfogel called “oriental despotism”.

Interestingly, you mentioned the responsibility of the West in Russia evolving into an authoritarian state. Do you think that the expansion of the European Union, especially in 2004 when Lithuania and the other former Warsaw Pact countries joined in, was a turning point that angered Russia?

No. The turning point was the enlargement of NATO. It took place much earlier. I think the Russians resented much more the enlargement of NATO than the enlargement of the European Union. So if you want to find the date, it's nearly 10 years earlier, in the mid-90s.

Over the last decade, we've seen Lithuania taking an increasingly tough stance towards Russia. Our former president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, was a vocal critic of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, she advocated for imposing European sanctions on Russia and its authorities. The current Lithuanian government is also continuing this policy. Do you think this is a smart policy direction to follow for a small Baltic country?

You became tougher vis-à-vis Russia because it has become more aggressive. And I think the turning point was around 2008 when the war in Georgia took place and the financial crisis started.

There was a feeling in Russia back then that the West was not doing well. And, of course, what Barack Obama did not do in Syria after the Syrian regime crossed the red line by using chemical weapons against the Syrian population, was crucial in convincing Putin that if America was betraying its word in the Middle East, Russia had a free hand in Eastern Europe. The annexation of Crimea directly followed the inaction of America in Syria.

So I'm not sure that the attitude towards Russia of any Lithuanian government could have been different. Now, you have a more confident, more aggressive Russia that, along with China, believes that the time has come for authoritarian regimes to prevail over liberal democracy.

And so, in the minds of the Russians, the Baltic Republics are not only very small, but they also have chosen the wrong political model by aligning with the weak and decaying West. It is for us together – the European Union and the Americans – to demonstrate to Russia or Xi Jinping’s China that they are wrong.

In fact, I'm convinced that the Russians and the Chinese today are making the same mistake that the West made after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. We thought – from Washington to Brussels – that we had won the war. It was not the case. It was the Soviet Union that had lost the Cold War and collapsed because of its own contradictions.

And today, it's not Russia and China who are winning the new Cold War. It's the West and, in particular, the US that is confronted with their own contradictions. Yes, it would be absurd to deny the fact that there is a major crisis in the American system, but it does not mean that the Baltic Republics have to shift alliances.

We have to stick together and demonstrate to the Russians that [the Baltic states] are as important to us in 2021 as they were at the beginning of the post-Soviet era.

Around 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron started putting forward the idea that the EU needed a rapprochement with Russia. Unsurprisingly, it angered Eastern European countries, including Lithuania. So if you say that we need to stick together and prove that our alliances are now stronger than ever, why did Macron choose to propose closer EU relations with Russia?

I think President Macron is a very conceptual, intellectual leader. He has his own vision of Europe and Europe's role in the world. And I think his attempt to reset relations with Moscow might have been a good idea. But it was also a naïve idea in terms of its timing.

There is, on the part of President Macron, a tendency to believe that he, because he's an exceptional person, can make a difference, that he could seduce Donald Trump, former president of the United States, into a different policy vis-à-vis Iran or that he could seduce Vladimir Putin into a different policy vis-à-vis Europe. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

Putin may play along with France to divide the Europeans, and Putin feels that he is in a stronger position today than yesterday because of the rise of the price of oil and gas and the European dependency on Russian gas.

So Macron is right intellectually in trying to say to the Russians: “You need the West to face the East.” But being right intellectually does not mean that you are right tactically, diplomatically. And from that standpoint, I think President Macron overstated his power and his capability to influence Putin’s Russia.

Do you think that the EU could one day have a rapprochement with Russia? Since Macron’s statements, the human rights situation in Russia has deteriorated even further. If now is not a good moment to start the dialogue, what needs to happen for this dialogue to take place?

My position is that the ball is in the Russian court. We want a better relationship with Russia because we need it for the sake of Europe. And we deeply believe that Russians need better relationships with the West. Because right now, Russia is the junior partner of China. China uses Russia, does not necessarily respect Russia, or treat it as equal.

But for that new relationship to start, there are a lot of things that Russians must do. Yes, we want a reset. But that reset presupposes conditions that not only are not met, but are moving further away from becoming reality. So this is the dilemma. Can we convince Russians that they are playing against their interests by overplaying their cards?

Let's take French politics. Here, Russians have played the card of the extreme right. They supported Marine Le Pen in the presidential election in 2017. And today, we see the regime of Orban in Hungary extending its hand to the extreme right in France.

But the extreme right in France is now deeply divided. And its chances of coming to power in six months are very slim. So why should the Russians and populist regimes in Eastern Europe extend their hands to future losers? The French citizens in their majority will choose Macron’s party of rationality over the party of anger – Marine Le Pen or the new “French Trump” Éric Zemmour.

So we need a firmness of conviction. We want to continue a dialogue with Russia, but a dialogue under different conditions.

There's also a lot of talk about how there cannot be a common EU foreign policy, because the block is too fragmented, eastern and western member states have different priorities. Do you think that there could be a unified European policy towards Russia, given the different strategic interests?

It goes beyond the issue of Russia. Can there be European diplomacy? President Macron is right to speak of the need for the strategic autonomy of Europe. It is a badly needed idea. But can it become reality? I'm not sure.

In Eastern Europe and the Baltic Republics, you may be aware that America is not what it used to be, but the idea that you could substitute European protection for American protection never crosses your mind.

In Europe, there are only two countries that see themselves as powers in the traditional sense of the term. One of those two countries – Great Britain – has left the European Union. The other one is France, and it feels quite lonely.

The new Germany with the upcoming coalition around the SPD is even more distant from strategic considerations than Angela Merkel’s Germany. There are important segments of the SPD that are in fact anti-military, and they are against any policy of rearmament of Germany to face the growing Russian aggression.

So there are plenty of contradictions inside the EU and they are not easy to resolve.

As you mentioned, Angela Merkel is leaving. Next year, there will also be a presidential election in France and although you said that rationality will prevail, there is still a chance that Macron may lose to one of the far-right candidates. Bearing these changes and uncertainties in European politics in mind, can we expect Russia to be even more emboldened in its foreign policy?

You mentioned the upcoming French election. And you are perfectly right... Harold Wilson, a former prime minister of Great Britain, used to say that a week is a very long time in politics. And we are nearly six months away from the next presidential election in France.

So many things can happen, a single event could destabilise Macron and lead to his defeat. But for the moment, if you look at the polls, they clearly indicate that Macron is leading.

I was very struck by the fact that five years ago, when I was travelling between Washington, Berlin, and London, there was one common concern. I remember a debate in Berlin, with the then finance minister, Mr Schäuble, who kept asking me “Are you sure that Marine Le Pen is not going to become the next president of France?”

There was a feeling after Brexit and Donald Trump’s election that France was going to be the third pillar of democracy to fall. I don't encounter such preoccupations anymore. My friends in Berlin, London, or Washington are much more reassured today than they were five years ago.

Of course, if a leader of the extreme right was to become the next president of France, that would consolidate and accelerate Russian ambitions. But what I'm trying to say to you is that this scenario is unlikely. Very unlikely.

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