The Russian war against Ukraine has shocked, not only because of its viciousness with flagrant violations of accepted norms, but also because it has refuted many assumptions of how the West ought to deal with Russians and Russia. Numerous attempts at including Russia in the international order have failed. President Putin has not only invaded Ukraine, he has nullified a myth that inclusion and dialogue will prevent wars.
During and after the Cold War, think tanks were established in Moscow to foster dialogue and exchanges between the West and Russians. Prominent among them would be the Institute for US and Canadian Studies founded in 1967 by the Russian academician Georgi Arbatov, adviser to several Russian presidents, or the Institute for Europe headed by Dr. Alexey Gromyko of the famous Soviet diplomatic family. An elite group of Russian international relations specialists was included and integrated into western academic and policy circles.
In more than just think tanks, numerous student and faculty exchange programs were established between western universities and prestigious Russian institutions of higher learning such as the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and the National Research University Higher School of Economics.
It was not just academics and advisers who were integrated into the western world. Policy makers had their own venues for sharing. Beyond the direct 1963 hotline linking the Pentagon with the Kremlin, a NATO-Russia dialogue functioned for over two decades. For years, the Swiss had an annual informal powwow with high level policy makers including Russians and Americans at an upscale Zurich hotel.
Most recently, the June 2021 Biden-Putin meeting gave hope for a new venue for high-level bilateral discussions. The concluding summit statement was optimistic about establishing a new type of regular meetings, announcing “Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. Consistent with these goals, the United States and Russia will embark together on an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future that will be deliberate and robust.”
“Deliberate and robust”? This was far more optimistic than the failure of the 2009 Geneva meeting when then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented a red “reset” button to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to symbolize improved ties. The Strategic Stability Dialogue, like the NATO-Russia dialogue, was another attempt to “reset” the U.S. Russian relationship in a formal setting. And that was just eight months ago.
So, avenues have been opened to include Russia. The hope being that the greater number of exchanges, the more familiar we all became, the less chance there would be of hostilities. If in 2001 President George W. Bush looked Russian President Vladimir Putin in the eye and peered positively into his soul, he was following an optimistic trend toward including and integrating Russia into the post-World War II international order.
Another example; the Swiss were instrumental in helping Russia join the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2012.The hope here was that economic integration, shared interests, would lead to greater understanding and cooperation. Closer links, it was argued, would cement ties that would prevent misunderstandings leading to war. In spite of the contested borders of Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in spite of the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 when Russian troops were only 12 kilometers outside Tbilisi, Russia was able to enter the WTO without Georgia’s objection. (Georgia had been on a crucial panel.) Russia’s entry was taken as evidence that the rules and norms of international trade gave Moscow and Tbilisi a focal point for cooperation despite the conflict over the sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
We should all be in favor of inclusion. We should all agree that having everyone at the table, including adversaries, is the right thing to do. That’s why the Taliban discussions in Geneva were welcomed; that’s why diplomats continually “reach out” to all parties.
But the failure of all the above attempts must now be part of lessons learned. The NATO-Russia dialogue was suspended after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. The Strategic Stability Dialogue post the June 2021summit was dead on arrival.
And if further proof is needed of how far we have come from inclusion and reaching out, roughly 100 diplomats from around the world walked out of a pre-recorded video message by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting on disarmament on March 1. (Although neutral Switzerland had surprisingly agreed to join European sanctions on Russia, its representative stayed in the room when the diplomats walked out.)
A mantra of successful negotiators is that “If you are part of the problem, you are also part of the solution.” Russia has become a pariah. Vladimir Putin has become an outcast. Even though negotiations are taking place, including those promoted by the Israeli Prime Minister, it is difficult to see how Putin can be seen from the same perspective he was eight months ago in Geneva. He has shattered a myth about inclusion and integration. Some will compare the West’s inaction after the Russian-Georgian War of 2008 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 to Neville Chamberlain’s foreign policy of appeasement to Hitler and the signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938. Maybe so.
But, certainly, Putin’s attack on Ukraine has called into question theories of integration and inclusion. Not only has he shattered the post-World War II order and its rule of law, he has made us reconsider including and integrating adversaries. For if you are the problem, you may not be part of the solution.