Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Eastern Ukraine demonstrated not only its unpredictability but also its willingness to violate agreements and use force to alter borders and destabilize countries in its neighborhood. These events not only shocked the West; they also shook Russia’s allies to the core, not least Belarus. Long branded as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” this Eastern European state is considered Russia’s staunchest ally. And indeed, no country is culturally closer or politically, militarily, and economically more integrated with Russia than Belarus.
In January 2018, the elegant Bozar theatre in Brussels was the backdrop to a People’s Republic of China video montage of key historic events on the occasion of the Chinese New Year Gala. While a Chinese singer on stage belted out a patriotic song, a large screen behind her displayed an enormous Chinese flag flying in the wind followed by film footage of key milestones including China’s first nuclear detonation, admission into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the launching of its first aircraft carrier. Members of the audience, which included diplomats, European officials, and military representatives, collectively caught their breath while watching. It’s not that they were impressed, although they might have been. They were aghast. China’s military might, growing economic power and technological advances, have served as a wake-up call to many policymakers in Europe. Brussels’ rather outdated “missionary” narrative of helping to shape and influence China according to their policy preferences was clearly not how the future was going to unfold.
While speculation about whether Russia may repeat the Crimean scenario in Belarus should not be totally dismissed, exaggerated alarmism would not be appropriate either. Rather, Moscow’s policy is aimed at making sure that Belarus and its leadership remain critically dependent on Russia.
Much like Europeans do not fully grasp the angst generated by prospects of Western-incited regime change in Russia, Russians dismiss far too easily how toxic in the EU is Moscow’s political and financial backing of European extreme right-wing movements. Both are viewed as direct threats to existential interests. So long as that deep-seated mistrust regarding each other’s destructive intent toward one another prevails, channels for cooperation will remain limited, and cooperation at the global level will be ad hoc and transactional.
While defending the EU’s interests and values, we should continue to retain bridges with the Russian people.
I arrived in Moscow as the EU’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation exactly four years ago. At the time, relations with Russia were strained but still functioning. Our efforts to engage Moscow had not yielded much but still allowed open channels of communication. But only a few months later, our relations with Russia plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine. » More