Conference Report “Rethinking Russia” — Containment, Deterrence, Regime Change?
Russia’s vicious war against Ukraine has prompted even long-term critics of Vladimir Putin’s regime to reconsider their view of Russian society and politics. The war has upended not just relations between Russia and the West but is testing the international system as a whole. The urgent need for new thinking has prompted the Center of Liberal Modernity (LibMod) to set up its Expert Network Russia, which met in Vilnius under the headline “Rethinking Russia” for the first time on 31 October.
The network will be a platform for analysis and policy debate, LibMod founding director Ralf Fücks said. At the heart of the first meeting, which was held in cooperation with the Lithuanian Seimas, was the question about the nature of the current Russian regime: “You cannot talk about proper Russia policy without understanding Russia,” Fücks stated.
“Discussing the future of Russia has become like discussing life after death”, was one of the opening sentences in the panel which discussed future scenarios and consequences for Western policies. Should we continue to reach out to those Russians who oppose Putin’s regime and want to be part of the West? Or should we focus on deterrence and containment and treat Russia not as a normal country but as an empire or even a prison state? Or should we do both?
The engagement versus containment debate was dominant in the discussion, albeit nobody convincingly claimed that they are incompatible, because they are aimed at different target groups: containment is for the regime, dialogue and cooperation for the democratic opposition.
Call for support for “the other Russia”
While the “Russia-skeptics” argued that Russian liberals are often fake liberals, who happily trade democracy for consumption (jeans in the 1990s, iPhones in the 2020s), the “Russia-optimists” maintained that economic and cultural modernization over the past two decades had lasting effects on Russian society. While a quick return to democracy is unlikely, Russia is not destined for autocracy, because there is another, pro-western Russia, which is currently under attack from the Kremlin regime, which deserves all our support, they argued.
What is needed to enable Russia to make the transition from imperial nostalgia to democratic values? For democracy is not a Western privilege – and Russians have a right to dream of democracy, just like Lithuanians and Ukrainians. However, believers in Russian democracy are currently a minority in Europe — a win for Putin, who did everything to convince the West that Russians are a “wild” nation of non-democratic easterners. But not believing in democracy in Russia would be a strategic mistake: “Democracy is the only medicine for the tragedy of Russia and for security on the European continent!”, another representative of the engagement camp exclaimed.
Such idealism is easy to challenge. Ho can the West assist, let alone achieve such changes inside Russia, when so many of the liberal elites have left the country? Here, again, there are optimists and pessimists: The former say that while many have emigrated, much of liberal Russia is still active inside the country, but does not get noticed much because of suppression and censorship. The latter see an overaged and de-intellectualized society, that cannot achieve political change itself. “What tools does the West have to bring down Putin”, asked one participant and drew parallels to Germany 1945: “How can we change Russia from abroad when we cannot occupy it?”
There were practical propositions, first and foremost regarding sanctions. “Smart sanctions” means allowing to lift them for individuals who credibly criticize the regime. The current, system treats Russia as a monolithic country and results in “good people remaining locked in with Putin”, the argument goes.
All participants agreed that a Russian military defeat in Ukraine is an essential precondition for any democratic change. A successful democratic Ukraine can help to bring Russia back to a democratic path. “This is a historic moment that reminds me of late 1980s”, said one of them, calling for a “Berlin Wall momentum” to destroy the “Kremlin wall of autocracy, kleptocracy and aggression”.
Wanted: A total overhaul of European security
However, the outcome will be defining not only for Russia but also for Europe. And just as for Russia, there are also different scenarios for how the future security architecture should look like, which were discussed in the third panel, where participants called for a “total overhaul of European security” in the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
To deter Russia from regrouping and attacking again, Ukraine should be granted NATO membership, was one central recommendation. The argument “do not provoke Russia” should be discarded, because it amounts to a recognition of Moscow’s imperialism. If history is of any lesson, then it is that Russia is provoked more by non-action than by action.
But for a lasting security architecture, Ukraine essentially also needs to become a successful EU member like the Baltic states and Poland: “If Ukraine succeeds in its democratic free-market transformation, that would put the light off (from) Putin’s argument that Russia must have a special path of kleptocracy and foreign aggression”, went one strong argument.
Ukraine was given EU candidate status in June – and participants stressed, that the Euromaidan protesters of 2013/14 were waiving European and not NATO flags. But the hard work ahead to bring Ukraine fully into EU and NATO needs to be done jointly and not by individual countries: “National policies do not matter because we are in a war … it is about life and death,” one of the panelists stated.
“Putin is losing in areas you least expect”
The fourth and last panel brought some little-expected positive news about the traditionally pro-Putin populist parties in Europe. Facing dramatic declines in support, some of them, like Marine Le Pen of France, have swung to support Ukraine in the war. “Putin is losing power in EU in areas you least expect,” was one of the panel’s conclusions.
However, everybody agreed that more should and can be done. One strong warning was that apart from Russia, Turkey and China are also encroaching on European security. The recent spat about a Chinese investor in the port of Hamburg prompted a call for joint efforts to avoid any “future Nord Stream 2s” all over Europe.
But in the end, all eyes returned to Ukraine. The outcome of the war will be defining for Europe and Russia, Fücks said. The challenges faced by our societies ahead are huge: “We have to renew and rebuild democracy at home. Make democracy great again,” he concluded.
Videos of the Conference
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