Dialogue with Russia: a checklist of 10 dos and don’ts
Talking to those who wield power today in Russia is tricky but necessary if one wishes to reduce the risks of even accidental confrontation. However, undertaking such efforts without a clear understanding of both one’s own priorities, as well as of the Kremlin’s intentions and modus operandi, risks at best a failure. At worst, it risks achieving results opposite from those intended. Former head of the NATO Information Office in Russia Robert Pszczel offers a personal checklist of ten essential dos and don’ts.
Dealing with Russia is not an easy job. In the statement issued by thirty NATO Allies on 15 April 2021, Russia’s actions are described as “a threat to Euro-Atlantic security” and yet “NATO remains open to periodic, focused, and meaningful dialogue”1 – a stance mirrored by the European Union to a large extent.2
Russia can act both as a bully and a spoiler, yet it is a major trade partner
United States president Joe Biden signs an executive order introducing sanctions against Russia3, but at the same time proposes a summit with the Russian president. French and German leaders denounce Russian military threats against Ukraine, but continue to conduct conversations with Moscow.
There is no contradiction in this, despite what it may seem like. Russia is important and it can act both as a bully and a spoiler, yet it is a major trade partner and could potentially help to resolve international challenges. Therefore, efforts aimed at conducting a dialogue with the Russian authorities, but especially with representatives of the Russian civil society, are a rational goal for international institutions such as the EU or NATO as well as for individual countries.
Today, dialogue is essential to keep channels of communication open and thereby reducing the risks of even accidental confrontation. Additionally, many avenues should be explored to show an interest in those who care about democracy in Russia. This should include public support to groups and individuals persecuted for their views, promotion of civil society initiatives (whenever feasible and if not endangering specific individuals), as well as the production of more content in Russian language on multiple platforms (for example social media). One also has to recognise the simple fact that each country may want to further its national interests, especially in trade or cultural domains, via some form of dialogue with Moscow.
However, I am equally convinced that undertaking such efforts without a clear understanding of both one’s own priorities, as well as of the Kremlin’s intentions and modus operandi, risks at best a failure – and at worst achieving results opposite from those intended.
Let me therefore offer a personal checklist of ten essential dos and don’ts when engaging in dialogue with Russia.
1. Do not attempt to engage in a dialogue for dialogue’s sake
Be very clear about your objectives. This principle sounds obvious but is often not fully observed. As a result, a variety of unrealistic assumptions is used to justify dialogue and cooperation with Russia.
For example, the formula Wandeln durch Handeln (change through trade) is based on a belief that a web of commercial deals and investments is bound to modernise autocratic countries. The problem is that there is no credible data to back up this claim, as closer human, commercial, technological and cultural links have not led to emergence of a more democratic and law-abiding Russia.4
More than ten years ago, Russia and NATO declared they wanted to strive towards a strategic partnership
If anything, business projects implemented without sufficient political foresight often create moral dilemmas, such as turning a blind eye to corruption, and sacrifice long-term benefits at the altar of short-termism. Moreover, in the case of Russia, they can produce substantial political and personal gains for the Putin regime – of which the Nord Stream 2 project is a flagship example – with all the negative consequences within and outside Russia.5
2. Adapt your policy as soon as circumstances change
This is what NATO has done after the Russian annexation of Crimea. More than ten years ago, at the NATO-Russia Council summit in Lisbon in 2010, Russia and NATO declared they wanted to strive towards a strategic partnership.6
This was based on the experience of a decade-long dialogue and cooperation, not devoid of tensions and disagreements, but still registering collaboration on key challenges such as fighting terrorism, combating piracy, stabilising Afghanistan or increasing transparency of military activities.
However, once Moscow crossed all the red lines by violating international law and specific agreements (including those enshrined in the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997), business as usual was no longer possible. The NATO alliance froze all cooperation and agreed on a new, dual-track approach: strong defence and deterrence, combined with calibrated dialogue on military transparency and outreach to the Russian civil society.7 Similar adaptation has been undertaken by the EU institutions.
3. Do not equate your official interlocutors with Russia as a whole
Russia today is ruled in an autocratic and centralised manner by a small group of people loyal to President Vladimir Putin, who has just secured a constitutional amendment that de facto allows him to remain president for life. There are very few channels for any meaningful discussion in Russia about its foreign and defence policy, rather decisions are taken in a secretive and personalised way.
However, one can be pretty certain that the majority of ordinary Russians are not irrational. Yes, thanks to internal propaganda and a residue of Soviet nostalgia, many of them will express satisfaction with the image of a strong and feared Russia.
But they are not happy about military adventures and constant crises involving their country, particularly when the bodies of their young soldiers or volunteers are transported back home. They would prefer their taxes to be spent on improving the standard of living and social infrastructure rather than on corrupt business deals, invariably benefiting only Kremlin cronies. They genuinely want to live better.8
In short, Russian foreign policy goals – such as dividing the West and its institutions, undermining sovereignty of neighbouring countries, while enjoying free access to foreign capital and freedom to engage in disinformation and other malign activities – would not automatically be the policy of the Russian society, if it had a voice in designing and managing that policy.
4. Keep an eye on the big picture
For the Kremlin, all aspects of relations with the outside world are interconnected and a win-win approach is not the first choice. Energy interdependence is not seen as a positive objective in itself, but a way to secure quick gains of foreign currency and to pressure countries through Russian supplies of oil or gas.
EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell found out the hard way during his last visit to Moscow
Engaging in diplomatic consultations frequently does not serve to develop a common agenda, but to find weak spots in the unified positions of Russian partners. This is exactly what the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell found out the hard way during his last visit to Moscow in February.9
5. Concentrate more on what Russia does and not on what she says
Verbal signals can be useful pointers towards Moscow’s own fears and preoccupations. For example, repeated claims that Western sanctions do not and will not work against Russia are made to cover significant financial costs incurred by the Russian government forced to subsidise its loyal oligarchs. This, in turn, diminishes the availability of resources that could be spent on hybrid activities abroad or on economic development projects at home.
Nonetheless, when the international community is rightly alarmed by the massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, it is not prudent to take at face value the Kremlin spokesman’s glib assurances that all this is routine activity and that it does not threaten anyone. One cannot forget that the aggressive intervention in Georgia in 2008 began under a guise of a military exercise.
Moscow’s credibility in other domains is low too. In spite of loud denials, Russia’s government was incriminated in the doping scandal which led to a partial disqualification of Russian athletes from international competitions. Moreover, Russian pledges of non-interference in American and other elections have been refuted by facts, and only Russia Today viewers believe that Russia has not used Novichok to poison people abroad.
6. Trust but verify
To continue with the very current Ukrainian case: before engaging in any serious talks with Moscow on how to ensure that it stops intimidating its neighbour under made-up pretexts, it was wise to call a meeting. As initiated by Sweden, this meeting took place on 10 April 2021 at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), invoking one of the provisions of the OSCE document on confidence and security building measurers.
Divide et impera is not a Russian invention, but it is practiced by Moscow with gusto.
The fact that Moscow refused even to attend this meeting, clearly indicated that it has something to hide. Unlike other members of the OSCE, since the end of the Cold War Russia has never opened an exercise to mandatory Vienna Document (VD) observation, it deployed missile systems in breach of the INF Treaty and left the CFE Treaty – thus, doing everything to make its military posture non-transparent.
7. Always keep in mind the unique value of unity of collective institutions
Divide et impera (divide and rule) is not a Russian invention, but it is practiced by Moscow with gusto. Picking off individual NATO Allies or EU member states is a favourite modus operandi of the Kremlin.
One should therefore carefully consider the pros and cons of engaging in consultations with Russia. This surely is even more valid for small and middle-sized countries, which need collective institutions to amplify their bargaining position and soften the repercussions of, for example, agreed sanctions.
And, as an imperative, our executive and parliamentary institutions should avoid the public undermining of partners who are the primary targets of Russian political pressure by claiming that the majority of Allies or members of the EU are not really concerned by activities of the Russian Federation.10
8. Do not underestimate the negative effects of propaganda and disinformation
It is not sensible to apply the same rationale and benchmarks when evaluating the effectiveness to Russian public narratives designed to sow mistrust, and when evaluating our efforts focused on positive strategic communications, even if they are not always ideal.11
For the Kremlin, a measure of success in engaging in blatant obfuscation or propaganda is not necessarily the ability to convince intended audiences abroad or to improve Russia’s soft-power image. It is enough to score internal points through the brainwashing of its society and muddying the waters of international discourse.
There is a well-documented body of evidence directly linking Russia to disinformation, collected and published by international organisations and individual countries.12 While one should avoid exhausting tit-for-tat responses to each and every case of disinformation coming from Russia, it does pay dividends to talk back, set the record straight and be decisive in publicising Moscow’s cobweb of deceit. Hence, the importance of the Dutch NOS report on audio recordings related to the MH17 tragedy, published in April 2021.13
9. It is always a good idea to listen more carefully to those who really know Russia and its activities
In this context, showing greater respect to evaluations of Russia’s neighbours (and often victims) is a good start. There is also an impressive capital of insightful research and analysis offered by independent Russian analysts – one of the reasons why they suffer such heavy harassment in Russia.
There should be no apologies for standing up to principles and defending those who are victims of autocratic regimes, the way Alexei Navalny and his supporters are
Moreover, there is a trove of actionable recommendations provided by numerous think-tanks and academics outside Russia. Decision-makers should make much better use of them.
10. Engaging in dialogue with Moscow should not only be performed with the eyes wide open but with confidence and self-belief
This is essential not only because the people in the Kremlin despise weakness. It is crucial for the strength of one’s negotiating position. There should be no apologies for standing up to principles and defending those who are victims of autocratic regimes, the way Alexei Navalny and his supporters are, suffering persecution on a massive scale.
The ‘other Russia’ does exist and may, one day, become the official Russia. We justifiably take pride in basing our own democratic systems on values and liberties. These cannot be traded off for commercial profits, particularly as Russia is not in a position to practise autarchy. We have to play to our strengths. For all the arrogant talk of Russia willing to ignore the EU, it is still Russia’s biggest trading partner, with a volume twice as large as that of China.
And with every small disinformation victory claimed by the Kremlin, for example in the propaganda effort at the heart of publicity surrounding the Sputnik V vaccine, Moscow’s persuasive impact is rather poor. The latest Digital Diplomacy Index shows Russia occupying a rather low eighth place in the ranking of digital influence among members of the G-20 club, in spite of huge resources devoted to disinformation outlets, troll farms and such like.14
Talking to those who wield power today in Russia is tricky but necessary. However, it will only bring tangible and durable results when politically astute conditions are met. This includes the final requirement: the need to avoid a situation in which those who want to engage with Russia are seen as the only party interested in it.
On many occasions, Russia simply refuses to take part in constructive dialogue. It is a preferred option for democracies to present arguments in favour of dialogue, on a positive appeal to mutual benefits of both parties. But if this appeal is rejected, we should not consider it a defeat but rather design a way forward which suits our interests. Paradoxically, such a strategy will be seen as more credible in the Kremlin and, in due course, actually may provide an inducement for Moscow to come to the table.
- 1. NATO specifically mentioned “violations of Ukraine’s and Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and continued violation, non-implementation, and circumvention of numerous international obligations and commitments, including the Budapest Memorandum. Examples include attempted interference in Allied elections, including the U.S. presidential election; widespread disinformation campaigns; and malicious cyber activities.” For full text, see: ‘North Atlantic Council Statement following the announcement by the United States of actions with regard to Russia’, NATO, 15 April 2015.
- 2. ‘Declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the European Union expressing solidarity with the United States on the impact of the SolarWinds cyber operation’, Council of the EU, 15 April 2021; ‘The European Union and the Russian Federation’, European External Action Service , consulted in April 2021.
- 3. ‘Fact Sheet: Imposing Costs for Harmful Foreign Activities by the Russia Government’, The White House, 15 April 2021.
- 4. This point is made, for instance, by Markus N. Beeko, the General Secretary of the German Amnesty Section, in an interviewpublished by Amnesty Journal on 26 February, 2021.
- 5. The bulk of big investment projects with Russia are channelled through companies controlled by an elite group of oligarchs close to the Kremlin. They, in turn, are able to subcontract their work to their own partners, chosen in a very opaque way, in many cases through corrupt or personal patronage activities. The potential modernization goal is thus not achieved, as good standards or practices are not imported into the system. NS2 meets all the criteria of such a case, with primacy of political rationale over economic profits that would benefit ordinary Russians. For a truly insightful analysis of this problem, see: Bobo Lo and Lilia Shevstova, ‘A 21st Century Myth – Authoritarian Modernization in Russia and China’, The Carnegie Moscow Centre, July 2012.
- 6. ‘NATO-Russia Council Joint Statement’, Lisbon, opening paragraph, NATO, 20 November 2010.
- 7. ‘Warsaw Summit Communique’, paragraph 11, NATO, 9 July 2016.
- 8. Examples: ‘The Levada Centre poll on military power', Moscow, 7 August 2019; ‘Statista Research poll’, No 1100849 in 2021. The latest data from April 2021 shows that only 12% of Russians would prefer state efforts to focus on increased military capacity at expense of higher living standards – in 1999 21% were in favour of this option. See (in Russian only): ‘Ta eshhe militarizatsia’, Levada Centre, 13 April 2021.
- 9. During his press conference in Moscow, the EU’s High Representative learnt about an unfriendly diplomatic move by Russian authorities against diplomats from a number of the EU member states, while his host, Minister Sergei Lavrov, lectured him publicly on the bad policies of the European Union, calling it the “unreliable partner”. See for example: Andrew Rettman, ‘Russia humiliates Borrell in Moscow’, EU Observer, 5 February 2021.
- 10. One French parliamentary report divided the EU countries into different groups: “Europeans concerned about the threat from the east of Europe (Russia), those who are more concerned about instability originating in the south (Africa and the Middle East), and lastly - and this is probably the case for a significant part of public opinion - those who do not feel concerned by any threat at all.” ‘European Defence: the Challenge of Strategic Autonomy’, French Senate, 3 July 2019.
- 11. For one of the best texts on the key motivations of Moscow, see: Keir Giles, ‘Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia to Confront the West’, The Chatham House Insight Series, 2019.
- 12. See regular reports produced by the European Union; or ‘NATO’s approach to countering disinformation: a focus on COVID-19’, NATO, updated on 17 July 2020.
- 13. Gert Jan Dennekamp, ‘Audio tapes of thousands of overheard conversations, a reconstruction of the MH17 disaster’, NOS Nieuwsuur, 11 April 2021.
- 14. Data from Digital Diplomacy Index, consulted on 12 April 2021.