Russian evolution

Russia has lost an empire and not yet found a role. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we should pay tribute again to the fact that a nuclear-armed superpower surrendered its vast continental empire with scarcely a shot fired. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, many Russians have been regretting that act of historic magnanimity ever since.

What Russia’s new role will be is something that Russians have to work out for themselves. That will take time. In Britain, the country about which the “lost an empire and not yet found a role” quip was originally made, the process of post-imperial national redefinition has taken half a century -- and the British still haven’t got there.

It would be ridiculously shortsighted to assume that the mixture of authoritarian capitalism and assertive, 19th century-style great-power politics that we have seen under Vladimir Putin is the end point of Russian history. The Putin I saw at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week was both defiant and defensive: gloating in public over the decline of American hegemony, begging in private for more foreign investment in Russia. With his people protesting in the streets, a stock market that has lost more than 70% of its value and foreign currency reserves draining away fast, he has reason to be worried. Great-power authoritarian capitalism doesn’t look so dandy now. But there will be many more twists and turns before Russia arrives at even a semi-stable state.

There’s only a limited amount that can or should be done to affect the internal evolution of Russia. Sovereignty is not unlimited in the 21st century, either in law or in fact, but it remains an important principle and an important reality. Which way Russia goes is up to the Russians. But while that post-imperial drama is played out, over decades rather than months, we in the rest of Europe do have every right and reason to protect our vital interests. These include not just secure energy supplies to European Union member states but secure international frontiers, respect for the sovereignty of even the smallest states and a commitment to the nonviolent resolution of disputes.

Putin’s Russia has not respected those principles and interests. Indeed, much of the Russian foreign policy elite treats the EU as a kind of transient, postmodern, late-20th century anachronism: flawed in principle and feeble in practice. What matters, they say -- in the 21st century as in the 19th -- is the muscle and determination of great powers.

And so Russia has been trying to restore the country’s dominance over its neighbors, whether by sending in troops (last August, in the former Soviet republic of Georgia) or by turning off the gas (this January, in its dispute with the former Soviet republic of Ukraine).

In this matter of sovereignty, what’s sauce for the Russian goose must also be sauce for the Georgian or Ukrainian gander. A state cannot consistently say: We insist on full respect for our own sovereignty but will violate the sovereignty of others whenever we decide that is necessary.

You may object: Isn’t that what George W. Bush’s America did? To which I reply: Exactly so. It was wrong of Bush’s America and wrong of Putin’s Russia. Now President Obama is changing America’s approach, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev should do the same.

But Russia is unlikely to adjust its external behavior unless the rest of Europe sets clear limits and changes the incentive structure. What reason has Moscow to alter course as long as the EU remains as weak, divided and hypocritical as it has been in relation to Russia over the last decade?

And let’s be clear: This is Europe’s business. Obama has too much else on his plate. He needs Russia for the nuclear diplomacy around Iran.

The Bush administration’s missile defense plan in Poland and the Czech Republic is an irrelevant distraction that should be abandoned forthwith. And for now, the Obama administration will rightly put expanding NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia on the back burner.

There will be no European foreign policy unless there is a European Russia policy, a European energy policy and a European strategy for Ukraine. Essential steps on the energy front would have to include a joined-up European natural gas and electricity grid, a single natural gas market and an alternative route to Europe for Caspian gas.

Ukraine’s divided, ineffective and corrupt political elite is its own worst enemy, but the EU has not demonstrated any serious political will to offer Ukraine a prospect of membership in the long term.

I can’t emphasize too strongly that this is not an anti-Russian recipe. Anti-Putin, yes; but Putin is not Russia. There are those in Moscow, admittedly a small minority, who recognize that a clear, stable, law-bound international environment would be good for the long-term evolution of Russia as a prosperous democratic nation state. That minority will grow if the environment develops.

Now, the emergence of such a European policy depends above all on Europe’s central power: Germany. The country’s Social Democrat foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has continued the “realist” special relationship with Russia developed under former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Their “Moscow first” approach has been underpinned by the corporate intertwining of the German and Russian energy giants, E.ON Ruhrgas and Gazprom.

The country’s Christian Democrat chancellor, Angela Merkel, a Russian speaker who grew up in East Germany, favors a more skeptical, nuanced approach, balancing short-term German national interests with European values and solidarity. German policy may now be shifting slightly her way, under the double impacts of the Georgian and gas crises.

Not for the first time, the future of a larger Europe depends on the direction of German Ostpolitik. I spent more years than I care to remember in the scholarly dissection of Ostpolitik, and looking back over that history, I see a curious reversal. Forty years ago, when Willy Brandt launched a version of Ostpolitik that contributed significantly to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Russian communist empire, he and his colleagues worked on the assumption that the key to a benign long-term evolution in a divided Berlin lay in a change of policy in Moscow. Today, the key to a benign long-term evolution in a divided Moscow lies in a change of policy in Berlin.

Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to the Opinion pages, is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University, and the author, most recently, of “Free World.”