“Let us not accept Russia’s turning to Asia”

by Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, France

In the run-up to the EU Council’s important meeting on 28 and 29 June, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, historian and “secretary for life” of the “Académie française”, explained that Russia is now being tempted to think of itself primarily as an Asian power. This scenario would be a disaster for Europe, she says, and that it was now up to the 29 states to extend their hands to the head of the Kremlin to avoid this.

It is “a pressing issue to […] look for ways of starting a genuine dialogue, which would ultimately lead to reconciliation? Reconciliation would not mean to let ourselves in for just about everything light-heartedly, but to no longer stubbornly refuse to think further and, more importantly, that we involve the emerging world, and also the well-understood interests of Europe in this world, in our deliberations.”

The Singapore Summit, where Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un came face to face on 12 June, was a significant event even in itself, reconciling the most powerful state in the world with a pariah state that had been discredited and feared by all. But its meaning goes far beyond this political moment. On this day, the international order of 1945 dissolved and gave way to a new world.

On 12 June 2018, the international order of 1945 dissolved

Since 1945, international life has focused on the so-called West, the US and Europe, with the US being an ally and protector of Europe. As long as communism lasted, the world was bipolar, with the West passing itself off as the true representative of freedom, as opposed to what President Reagan called the “evil empire”. With the dissolution of the USSR and of its domination of a part of Europe, a unipolar world emerged in 1991. The West presented itself as an unsurpassable model and point of attraction for any country that wanted to take the path to freedom. Western values were considered the criteria for the political and moral progress of societies.

Asia becomes the centre of international life

It is true that the unipolar world has been showing signs of weakness for some time. In November 2016, President Trump was elected, who had placed the American national interest, the motto “America first”, at the top of his election programme, and this worried Europe, since it was beginning to divide over the same question of national interest. These changes coincided with the spectacular rise of the Chinese and other Asian powers. A multilateral world took shape. The Singapore Summit confirmed this, just as it confirms that American policymakers are well aware of the great geopolitical change that will be placing Asia at the centre of international life from now on. After seven decades of coexistence with the United States – under the protection of NATO – a disoriented Europe has to acknowledge that it must find a way to ensure its own security – alone or almost alone. Europe must also understand that in a multipolar world where Asia is so important, Europe, as a continent and as an institution, is no longer at the centre of the world order, but instead at risk of being marginalised. How to remain a major player in this changed world?
This question arises also for Russia, and Russia did not have to wait for the shock of Singapore to become aware of it. Even though in 1991, at the fall of communism, the Russian leaders still thought that their state would be welcomed by the triumphant West, like the prodigal son in the Holy Scriptures who returned to his Father’s house, they did not need long to realise they were mistaken.

2004 – Return to the Cold War

In the early 2000s, when the era of Yeltsin chaos was over, Vladimir Putin tried to put the beliefs of 1991 into practice and soon realised that these were an illusion. First, he passionately affirmed his country’s European identity, using its history and culture as an argument, and tried to integrate Russia into the European project. In 2003, he linked Russia with Europe in four joint areas of cooperation. Likewise, he wanted to facilitate cooperation with the NATO, a seemingly logical project, since there was no longer a Cold War. But from 2004 onwards, his hopes were disappointed. The NATO, which had been joined by Poland and the Baltic states, became for its new members an organisation of protection against Russia, in order to curb the possible rebirth of the latter’s imperial ambitions. Russia discerned this new NATO view and interpreted the Alliance’s decision to build a missile defense shield as a return to the spirit of the Cold War.

Gap between Europe/USA and Russia is widened

In addition, in 2004, the colour revolutions broke out in Georgia and the Ukraine and were presented as a model for a true post-communist transformation. It would be to Russia’s advantage to follow in their steps, in order to be accepted by the democratic world. For the Russians, who had voluntarily proclaimed the end of their empire and of communism, this call for a new revolution – which no one in Russia wanted – was perceived as a terrible insult and denial of the political course begun by Gorbachev. From that time, the gap between Europe/USA and Russia has steadily grown wider. From then on, Vladimir Putin – and for a while his successor Medvedev – has tried to equip Russia with new elements of power to strengthen it against the Euro-Americans.

Russia turns back to Asia

Russia’s geography offered him these counterweights. The huge Russian state is located as well in Asia; it is geographically and to a lesser extent sociodemographically Eurasian as well as European. After a few years, Russia – which in 1991 and 2000 believed itself to be able to become entrenched in Europe, and to be recognised there as an important European state – turned back to Asia, developed new agreements there, settled disputes, joined most of the existing multilateral bodies, and even co-sponsored the Shanghai Group with China – a powerful alliance system whose role and importance we still do not properly assess. With its founding of the Eurasian Economic Union, Russia also developed an Asian project on its borders that might – perhaps in the future – become a political project called Greater Asia. This Asian option was initially mainly a way for Moscow to show the US and Europe that Russia does not depend on their recognition, that it has an alternative geopolitical option, that it can definitely find its place and thrive in the fast-growing part of the world. Today, however, with the huge international shift towards Asia becoming reality, it may no longer be about just a banal demonstration of its strength for Russia, or even about an attempt at extortion; but it may instead be a genuine choice.

To ignore Russia means to urge it towards Asia

On the eve of the Singapore Summit, President Trump suggested to his colleagues in Canada that they welcome Russia back into the G8, which had become G7. The silence with which this suggestion was received is quite surprising. It testifies to the indifference of the world’s most powerful heads of state, their carelessness of the landslide that was to take place in Singapore two days later. Because ignoring Russia in this way – may it not be imagined that Vladimir Putin followed this episode very carefully and has drawn some conclusions from it? – means consciously urging the Russian President further and further towards Asia, and perhaps finally deciding that Russia’s national interest lies in Eurasia. In Russia, demands to go this way are starting to get louder. And these voices aur coming not only from convinced “nationalists”, but also from liberal and balanced political personalities. For example, how can we ignore the words of Fyodor Lukyanov, President of the Russian Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, who is already promoting the idea of cooperation between the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union, or even the creation of a large Eurasian Free Trade Area, in which China would be involved?

Europe as an outpost of Asia?

These different combinations (a Eurasian Russia, a Eurasian-Chinese area) would not only result in Europe being ignored, but, even more so, in designing a future in which the European continent would to some extent become an outpost of Asia. Moreover they design a China with growing power, whose new Silk Roads – a grandiose idea in the making – presage Chinese presence in the outside world, especially in Europe.

Look for ways to start a genuine dialogue

Is it wise to encourage Russia to follow this path? Would it not be a pressing issue on the eve of an EU Council meeting which also has to decide on the lifting or continuation of the sanctions against Russia after 2014, to look for ways of starting a genuine dialogue, which would ultimately lead to reconciliation? Reconciliation would not mean to let ourselves in for just about everything light-heartedly, but to no longer stubbornly refuse to think further and, more importantly, that we involve the emerging world, and also the well-understood interests of Europe in this world, in our deliberations. Is not that the lesson the American President is teaching us? Is there any doubt that Vladimir Putin, the recently re-elected leader of his country, with his genuine legitimacy and support from the Russians for a policy that restores Russia’s dignity to them, would not be open to any gesture, to any project, that would save Russia’s European character? Vladimir Putin is passionately attached to his country, its image, its identity and the Russian history – so can he indeed allow himself to go down in history as a president who denied Russia’s European character in order to turn it into an Asian country? Russia was swept away from Europe for three centuries by the Mongol invasion, and for three-quarters of a century by communism; after each of these breaks, it has found its way back to Europe. It is time for Europe to help Russia definitely establish itself here.     •

Source: © Le Figaro of 22 June 2018

(Translation Current Concerns)

Hélène Carrère d‘Encausse, born on 6 July 1929, is a French historian specialising in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. She was appointed to be a member of the “Académie française“ in 1990 and has headed it as “Secrétaire perpétuel“ since 1999. In the history of this prestigious institution, founded in 1634, Hélène Carrère d‘Encausse is the first woman in this leading position. From 1994 to 1999, she was a member of the EU Parliament and Vice-President of the Commission on Foreign, Security and Defense Policy. In 2011, she received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour in addition to many other honours. Over the course of the last 40 years she has written a large number of studies and biographies on Russian history. Her latest publication is titled “Le Général de Gaulle et la Russie“ (Fayard, 2017).