international analysis and commentary

Our balanced response to Moscow: international norms and long-term partnership

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My first month and a half in office has been mainly devoted to managing the needed response by Italy and its partners to the Russia-Ukraine problem. Our main concern has been to avoid an uncontrolled escalation. And the issue is being tackled in a variety of multilateral meetings, at the level of the EU, NATO, the G7, the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE. I believe that this commitment by a wide array of international organizations and fora is in itself an answer to the crisis: what we see is close coordination and unity in the international community in reaction to a breach of core international principles. This is the first time since the end of the Second World War that borders have been changed in Europe by force. Perhaps even more worrisome, whenever borders are changed along ethnic or linguistic lines this sets a pattern that may have extremely dangerous consequences for peace and stability not only in Europe but in other continents as well.

Has the international reaction been effective? It is too early to say. But the coordinated action of the European Union and NATO, in particular, has been balanced in the necessity to clearly condemn the breach of international norms while also searching for a reasonable and acceptable “way out” of the immediate crisis. Such a solution can only be diplomatic and political, but we also had to strike a balance between the various tools at our disposal: NATO as a political-military alliance must be prepared for the worst, while diplomacy is fully at work to avoid the worst. These are indeed the two tracks we are pursuing, as evidenced by the specific reassurances offered to the Baltics and other countries bordering Ukraine and Russia. There are several additional steps we can take in the future, if and when needed, but the short-term goal of sending a firm message to Moscow has been achieved. In the meantime, it will be very helpful to deploy international OSCE observers on the ground in the hot spots where incidents might occur, as a step that can contribute to de-escalation.

In any case, I wish to stress that Italy and its allies view Russia as a strategic partner in the medium term, and here is why we are keeping the window open to fully restored cooperation – certainly with no intention of reverting to a Cold War climate and attitude.

Also, in a medium- and long-term perspective, we are well aware that Ukraine is a very complex country facing various challenges. It is really in no one’s interest to split the country or deepen the historical cleavages that run through it. The best reaction to the crisis in Crimea is thus constructive: it is to turn Ukraine into a success story, economically, democratically and in terms of relations with all of its neighbors. First and foremost, Kiev will ultimately have to maintain and cultivate good working relations with the Russian Federation, but we have to make sure that Ukraine is never confronted with a choice between the European Union and Russia.

Obviously, part of the game is now in the hands of Moscow, which must behave as a responsible member of the international community, building on the cooperative approach we have developed over more than two decades. A good basis for steering President Putin away from a confrontational approach is the significant level of interdependence that characterizes Russia’s international relations today: there are important commercial and energy ties with several European countries, but of course Ukraine also has close links to Russia. Without any government’s intervention, the stock markets have reminded everybody of this reality in a tangible way, just hours after the annexation of Crimea. We are all inter-connected, which is the essence of globalization – interdependence as a tangible fact of life rather than a choice.

Beside global realities, there are crucial internal factors that sometimes shape events. We should not forget that Russia itself is not President Putin alone, nor the current leadership. Elites can evolve, and events can press individual leaders to adapt their behavior to changing circumstances. In other words, we must not repeat with Moscow the mistake we made with Kiev. After all, the EU was – correctly – ready to sign the Association Agreement with President Yanukovich just weeks before he was forced by a popular revolt to leave his post and even the country. I think it is wise to consider relations between and among countries in light of internal dynamics, and this is certainly true of any modern society, including of course Russian society. From this perspective, and looking at contacts between civil societies, everybody may be underestimating a key factor of Europe’s indirect and long-term influence over Russia’s political future. It is often called soft power, and it is a vital form of power. We know it, and so does the leadership in Moscow.