Language Games for Export: Russia’s Narratives on Europe and in Europe

09 Jul 2018

Many in Europe continue to think that certain people or groups within the Russian ruling regime are eager to cooperate and have an understanding of the dangers of the current escalated tensions. Logically, this belief creates a demand for Russian interlocutors who represent the Russian elites (or at least Russian opinion makers) who are potentially open to dialogue with Europeans despite the crisis in relations. In turn, this demand creates supply, and thus many Russian experts and foreign policy professionals willingly come to European institutions to incarnate the voice of a “reasonable Russia” allegedly capable of speaking with Western peers in a common, pragmatic language. The problem starts when one attentively listens to the messages that Russian guest speakers inscribe into their speeches.

Based on my recent, first-hand experience of participating in a number of expert forums that brought together Western and Russian experts (in Riga, Tallinn, and Vienna from May to July 2018), I offer here a brief summary of the arguments that Russian participants have been conveying to their European hosts and peers. Of course, most of them tried to avoid direct attribution of their messages to themselves and usually formulated their arguments with references to the opinion of Russian officialdom. Ultimately, they have acted as translators of messages rather than as (more or less) independent and open-minded thinkers.

In a very general sense, to divert attention from its policies on the ground (above all in Ukraine), Moscow prefers to place a strong emphasis on the structural factors of global significance. In particular, Russian scholars can—quite correctly—claim that the whole fabric of international relations faces deep challenges rooted in the changing nature of nation states and their sovereignties.[1] This attractive, post-modernist argument, however, is used to relegate responsibility for what provoked the Russia-West crisis in 2014—Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Russia-instigated war in Donbas—from the Kremlin to “global trends.” From some angles, this looks like an attempt to divest responsibility for a specific offense (as a perpetrator) to “unfavorable societal circumstances.”  

A strategy of normalizing Russia’s Ukraine policy has different shades. One of them is an appeal directed toward the United States along the lines of, “all major powers do, or used to do, something like that.” It is the White House that serves as a reference point to the gradual transformation of Russian claims from equality to a privileged position in institutional communication with other members of international society, something akin to a veto power over decisions that Moscow may dislike for whatever reason.   

When it comes to Moscow’s vision of European security—as presented by those who are considered Europe’s discursive partners—the picture is a far cry from the most modest Western hopes. The most unexpected point is a presumption, from the outset, of the “illegitimacy” of the long-time Helsinki process, since, as one of the Russian representatives said, “the Final Act was signed by leaders of Communist ruling parties and not heads of states.”

Concomitantly, Moscow sees the OSCE as part of the “Western hegemonic order.” Moreover, one Russian think-tanker assumed that it is the principle of European solidarity—a cornerstone of the EU—that undermined the OSCE. His colleague made clear that Russia is disinterested in anything reminiscent of a Helsinki-2 process, and would like to discuss European security only in direct conjunction with the Moscow-patronized Eurasian integration project. Moreover, he articulated another idea: since China is a serious financial and military actor with interests in Europe, why don’t we invite Beijing to partake in negotiating the future of European security?

Another twist in discourse comes from those in Moscow who (perhaps sincerely) think that in spite of deep political gaps, Russia and the EU can keep afloat negotiations on what Moscow considers technical issues and make small steps forward in this domain. For example, some say that visa-free negotiations should be resumed, even though this was never purely a technical issue for Brussels or for other leading European policymakers. Apparently, this type of proposal—one detached from solving big political issues such as the war in Donbas—would mean de-facto legitimation of Russia’s Ukraine policy, including its annexation of Crimea. This is one of President Vladimir Putin’s strategic goals, and one that is eagerly promoted by the so-called “liberal” part of Russia’s foreign policy community, not from afar but within Europe itself.

When it comes to specific European countries, views from Russia look simplistic at best. For example, the head of one of Moscow’s think tanks mentioned that the Baltic states have no reason whatsoever to fear Russia, and that Russophobia was artificially instigated there in order to increase their weight and visibility within the EU and NATO. Of course, he referred to this theory as “an opinion existing in Moscow,” but he did not distance himself from it.

The Ukraine case is still the most illuminating when it comes to Russian expert roundtable and panel narratives. It was a bit strange to observe that at a policy conference in which each second speaker reiterated the central importance of Ukraine for European security, the number of participants from Ukraine was zero. The explanation for this from the Russian side (which, by the way, was supported by some of the European hosts) was along the lines of, “we want to look at the situation from a broader perspective.” To parse this logic, they are saying that either Ukraine is, in principle, unable to look at things broadly, or, in order to have a genuinely broad agenda, we need to exclude Ukraine. Neither seems convincing.

The picture is fairly clear: envoys from Moscow transmit clear signals that the Kremlin is unwilling to speak with the EU on issues of substance and might be ready to discuss and negotiate only technical measures (that serve to avoid deadly incidents). That’s it. Reading, quite easily, between the lines of the Moscow messengers is the notion that it is up to Europe to convince Russia that it should behave properly, that Russia is happy to play the role of a reluctant object of constant persuasion, and that ultimately it is the European themselves who have reiterated many times that there will be no European security without Russia.

Yet how universal is this argument? There are many governments—for example in Poland, the Baltics, Ukraine—whose diplomats would rather say that they do not see how European security can include today’s Russia. Of course, hypothetically, security in Europe with a cooperative Russia would be preferable, but does this wishful thinking mean that without Russia security is completely unthinkable? Perhaps, at a certain point, we need to take this question seriously and start discussing how, in principle, security might be achieved with Russia as a non-cooperative neighbor and non-committed participant. Keeping in mind the longer perspective is important, particularly looking beyond Trump’s presidency with all of its complexities for Euro-Atlantic relations. Perhaps a more robust European dialogue with China, Kazakhstan, and/or Belarus—countries that Moscow considers its allies—would be a better investment in European security than courting Russia?

The real problem for Europe is not how to engage or convince Russia, but how to professionally study Russia without engaging in contacts and exchanges that would ultimately compromise Europe’s normative integrity and legitimize the Kremlin’s discourses, which are formulated elegantly and aimed at European consumption. In this vein, centers of Russia studies need to learn something from a phenomenon known as a “materialist turn” in political theory.

Russia has to be perceived as part of the “material reality,” with all the of its energy resources and war-making capabilities, but not as an object of ideational and normative investments. Studies of Russia should be divorced from any rosy or naïve expectations—much the same way as anthropologists and researchers of world religions do not anticipate that the objects of their inquiries should change their behaviors. It would be unusual for academic conferences on religion, for example, to invite priests or bishops as keynote speakers, or include on a panel at an ethnographic conference a representative from a tribe or ethnic group, even for the sake of dialogue. Academic criteria usually envision the separation of field research from giving the floor to the actual objects of study. Yet, in the political think tank industry, this distinction is not duly observed (and it is often even rebuffed), which creates multiple opportunities for the “objects of study” to influence research and conclusions both implicitly or explicitly.

Russia’s incursions into European intellectual spaces do matter. They contaminate Western discourses with naïve statements about Russia’s commitments to “pragmatism and national interest”[2] (without explaining what the latter is about) and with direct apologetics of pro-Kremlin policies.[3] Facilitating these endeavors does not look like a good idea.

[1] See, in particular: Ivan Timofeev, “Unbalanced Europe and the New Order in the OSCE Space," May 3, 2018.

[2] Matthias Dembinski and Hans-Joachim Spanger, “Plural Peace”–Principles of a New Russia Policy,” Peace Research Institute (Frankfurt), PRIF Report No. 145, 2017, p.4.