“We must simultaneously contain, confront and engage Russia” – LINKS Director.

“There are no simple solutions to the current stand-off with Russia. The European Union and other western countries need to find a way of containing Russian attempts to put pressure on Eastern Partnership countries and confront Russia’s massive and misleading propaganda targeted at its own population, the populations of the former Soviet States, and the global community. However at the same time Russia needs to be engaged with diplomatically, including on the core issue of the future of European security.” This was stated by LINKS Director Dennis Sammut, speaking at three events held in Brussels and London in December 2014, at the end of a year that has been considered the most difficult and challenging for European security since the end of the cold war.

The first event was the conference, Security Challenges and Conflict Resolution in Eastern Europe, organised by CMI (Crisis Management Initiative) and EPC (European Policy Centre) in Brussels on 9 December. The event was held under the auspices of the Swiss Chairmanship of the OSCE and hosted at the Swiss Mission to the European Union. The second event was a Chatham House event organised by the Russia and Eurasia programme on 10 December with the theme Security Challenges in the North and South Caucasus, whilst the third event was an expert round-table organised by the European Policy Centre in Brussels with the theme “European Security in a time of uncertainty” held on 16 December.

Speaking at the first event on 9 December, Dennis Sammut said:

The lessons of 2014 are many, but a key one is that the tools we have used in the past twenty-five years to deal with conflict resolution in the former Soviet Union, to manage Russia and Russian fears, aspirations and ambitions, and to help the process of transition for the post-Soviet Republics have not worked. Up to know we have deluded ourselves that we have at least capped the problem. There have been warning signs in the past which were conveniently ignored because they were not perhaps important enough, or close enough. But Ukraine has finally exposed the reality. Not only have we not solved the problems, we are not even now able to manage them to avoid them escalating. Russia has thorn up the rule-book of European security, has completely disregarded agreements of which it was itself a signatory and has trampled on the values that were meant to bond Europe together.

Whilst I am a great believer in soft power, a  grey area has developed between soft power and weak power and we are very often confusing the two. Less than one year ago, during the visit of President Putin to Brussels in January 2014, we were told that the lunch had been cancelled as a sign of the EU displeasure at Russian action in Eastern Europe. This was how the EU thought it was projecting soft power. Eight weeks later Russia occupied and annexed Crimea. It has taken a full year for the European Union to get its act together on Ukraine, and in terms of the South Caucasus the situation is not much better. Let us be clear, the responsibility for this lays in the national capitals, as much as it lays here in Brussels and both need to be subjected to a reality test.  Europe’s soft power needs to be reflected:

  • Through a more robust political engagement with the issues and the stakeholders on the ground;
  • Through a better communication strategy that will be overarching when necessary and targeted and nuanced when possible;
  • Through a complimentary process of multilateral diplomacy pursued through existing institutions, but also through new initiatives.

Speaking on the situation in the South Caucasus Dennis Sammut said:

The next challenge and the next tests are going to be in the South Caucasus. The fragmentation of the region is now complete. The three South Caucasus countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are now on completely different political trajectories. We must now accept this reality and we must work within it.  This will require a strategic and holistic approach. The piecemeal tactics of the last two decades are no longer acceptable, even if they are packaged in great visions, such as the Eastern Partnership.

For the European Union, and for the west in general Georgia is now of huge importance. Its success will be our success and its failure will be our failure. Engagement with Georgia therefore needs to be intensified. Before somebody reminds me of the Association agreement, the financial instruments and all the other technical assistance that the EU is now giving to Georgia let me hasten to add that important as these things are they are incomplete. Georgia remains a politically immature country, and I say this with no sense of glee or of contempt. The transition from the Saakashvili government to the current leadership was awkward but better than could be expected but problems related to the culture of government persist. The European Union, the member states, European politicians and European civil society are going to have to invest much more in terms of time and resources in Georgian politics for this relationship between Georgia and Europe, which the Georgian people and political elite want, and which we in Europe claim we want too, to develop. I do not agree with those who say that nothing is worth doing if we do not at the same time offer Georgia a membership perspective. Indeed I suggest it is the other way round, a membership perspective without the kind of engagement I am talking about will only lead to frustrations of the sort we have seen in Turkey in the last decade.

We need to stand by Georgia particularly in the face of the latest Russian provocations. The new arrangements that Russia is pushing for its relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia are yet another Russian unilateral attempt to change the European order. The presence of the European Union as a full partner in the Geneva Process is both an opportunity and a responsibility. The European Union, and indeed Georgia itself, have not yet found a way of engaging properly with the Abkhaz and Ossetian people beyond the debate on status. Where is our communication strategy towards the people of these territories? What indeed are the tools with which we are communicating?

In different ways over the last two years both Armenia and Azerbaijan have refused the European Union’s hand of partnership. There is nothing either wrong, or tragic in such a development, but this does create a different dynamic in our relationship with these two countries. The situation even creates some opportunities. It is time for the European Union to articulate more comprehensively our position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and its resolution. If either Armenia or Azerbaijan had signed an association agreement such a task would have been more difficult, although in some ways it would have been more easy if both had done so. As Mr Putin is already finding out, having one of these countries inside the tent, and one outside, limits your room for manoeuvre somehow. But now since neither have, nor are likely to sign this Association Agreement, we need to revisit the issues from this new perspective. The European Union’s position in this regard therefore needs to be based both on a principled and on a pragmatic approach – principled in terms of respect for universal values and norms and international law; pragmatic in terms of recognising European interests in an important and strategic part of our neighbourhood. The European Union needs to be ready to challenge some of the false narratives that seem to have taken ground simply on the basis that they are nauseatingly repeated by the sides. In doing so we will inevitably upset either or both of the sides. It needs to be done.

In both Armenia and Azerbaijan the message of the European Union is not reaching the mass of the population and is often distorted. We need mechanisms that will address these shortcomings. Russia has decided that the situation in the South Caucasus is a zero sum game. It is not only challenging the European Union as an institution but more seriously it is challenging European values. We need to take up these challenges.

Speaking at Chatham House a day later, Dennis Sammut criticised those who were putting the current stand-off with Russia in a cold-war framework and said this was distorting both the problem and the solution to it. There was a Russian master plan but this was not global domination but to restore Russian hegemony over the territory that was before the USSR. But Russian leaders understood that they could not tamper with the newly acquired statehood of the former Soviet Republics and so the approach had to be more nuanced. Perhaps a template can be seen in the way that Russia was consolidating its hold in Abkhazia and South Ossetia through new treaties that still paid lip service to their independence, but in fact turned them into protectorates more reminiscent of the 19th century than the 21st. LINKS Director said Russia needs to be confronted in the court of world public opinion; contained on the ground on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains and the banks of the Dniestr and elsewhere with all the tools that soft power can provide, but it also needs to be engaged with politically and diplomatically intensively and imaginatively. He praised the work done by the Swiss Chairmanship of the OSCE in 2014 in their effort to keep the lines of communication open and to keep alive the process of Helsinki +40. He said this process needs to be developed into a proper discussion on the next chapter of European Security. Dennis Sammut criticised those who said that Putin was unreliable and could not be trusted as a negotiating partner. He said that if the west could do business with Brezhnev in the 1970s and bring about the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, doing business with Putin could not possibly be more difficult. It was a challenge that needs to be addressed not avoided.