Europe must find a new way of dealing with Russia - opinion

I am not writing this to give a pass to Russia, but rather, the contrary.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (photo credit: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV)
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Europe must consider a new dynamic with Russia, otherwise, I fear that we will continue to repeat the same mistakes and face the same difficulties, jeopardizing our national security. The question is which strategies to employ. So far, no one has offered a convincing solution.
Punitive measures, such as sanctions, have had a tangibly negative impact on Russia’s economy. But they have also fostered anti-Western sentiment among the people, strengthening the popularity of the regime and sparking not-altogether unsuccessful attempts at economic diversification. Remember, Russia is a country that survived more than 70 years in isolation. It might not be able to do so again, but the government and a large part of the population, particularly those who are middle-aged and older, would prefer us to believe otherwise.
Diplomatic and political spats have also done little more than serve as fodder for Russia’s domestic propaganda machine, which portrays the West as an unfair partner. In countries like Russia, where state-controlled media reign, it is tough to compete with this messaging system. The result is, therefore, unfortunately, that we often merely entertain ourselves.
I am not writing this to give a pass to Russia, but rather, the contrary.
My point is to demonstrate that our current relationship is not working. Europe and Russia’s strategic interests seem to me more conflicting with each and every passing year. Russian influence in European affairs is both aggressive and detrimental. This is evidenced not only through Russia’s well-documented efforts to fan the fire of nationalism in the European Union, but also by its support for pro-Russian forces in our partner nations.
Examples span the breadth of the European continent – from Brexit in the UK to the recent referendum and elections in North Macedonia, to the crisis in Ukraine to the presidential elections in Belarus. Meanwhile, Europe’s efforts to defend against this influence continue to fail to meet the mark. This is largely the result of Russia placing a high value on sculpting European policy in its image, while the EU has misjudged the actual damage incurred from its interventionist activities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a TV interview this week, “There are no friends in big politics.” In this context, our current state of relations, then, makes sense and will continue. We are geographies with our own distinct worldviews. We are not friends.
But can we be partners?
While prime minister, I always preferred pragmatism and realpolitik. In politics, I feel that it is often best to do without the formalities. So, my honest answer to this question is, I do not know, and I believe that finding a new framework for our relations in the 21st century will present a huge challenge. Despite the best intentions, I find it hard to see the practical way forward.
Few would ever have expected me to take this line on Russia. Although never a believer in any friendship between Europe and our eastern neighbor, I always envisioned a partnership marked by mutual interest. I was able to do so because I lived through Communism, and I know that much of Romania’s aging ruling class does not share the same values, but the same mentality, the same way of processing information as many in the former Eastern Bloc.
RUSSIA IS also not new to Romania or Romanians. Our relations span centuries and historical complications. We have been, at times, friends and at other times, foes. In the 18th century, Russia helped free Wallachia and Moldavia from the Ottomans, which later joined to create Romania. Only a century later, Russia retook them by force, subjugating the local people.
In the early 20th century, Russia helped secure our independence, only to later strangle us for 50 years in the Communist yoke. We have been at polar geopolitical odds since regaining independence in 1989. While Romania pursued Euro-Atlantic integration, joining NATO and the EU, Russia forged its own path and has destabilized the European order.
Our countries have also fought incessantly over the former Romanian principality of Moldova. If anything, I hope this brief history shows that living with Russia is not easy but possible, that trust is limited, and that Europe’s future dynamic with Russia must ensure that we endure minimal sacrifice.
My aim in writing this today is to call on Europe to think strategically about how to structure its future with Russia in order to best secure its interests. It must allocate the necessary resources to identify a new blueprint for moving forward so as to ensure no more crucial mistakes are made. While we must surely collaborate with Russia on broader global issues like nuclear arms control, we must not sacrifice our integrity or well-being to this end.
With Russia, Europe must also learn to strike a better balance between “carrot” and “stick,” and most importantly, remember that in a world where propaganda drives politics and where narratives define reality, what might appear a stick to some proves a delightful carrot to others.
Let me tell you a personal story.
My twenty-sixth birthday fell on December 16, 1989, the start of the Romanian Revolution. In those turbulent days, I watched the news on TV with my elderly neighbors. I remember I was so hopeful then that I shed tears of joy, excited for what life had in store and for our European future. My neighbors, though, were only mildly optimistic. Like many Romanians, they were heartbroken by a historical disillusion now made very real.
And it was like this for many. For others, the next two decades of oligarchy and misrule made the revolution seem a false dawn. Romanians therefore understand well President Putin’s often-misinterpreted phrase that the fall of the Soviet Union was a human catastrophe, while many in the West do not. I write this to make clear that my words are not rooted in a poor understanding of Russia, but perhaps in understanding it all too well.
The task I set here for us Europeans is in no way easy, but it is critical. Because of our shared history, and based on a career that has taught me that politics are more often gray than they are black-and-white, I have always believed in the possibility that Europe can have a vibrant, mutually beneficial relationship with Russia.
I still do. But the trajectory we must take to safeguard our interests is increasingly unclear.
The writer is the former prime minister of Romania.