Europe Needs a Hearts and Minds Campaign for Russia
Forget about dealing with Trump or Putin. Europe’s Russia strategy should focus on winning over the Russian people.
If there were ever a time for Europe to develop a Russia strategy independent of Washington, it is now.
For most of the period since Russia annexed Crimea, Russian propagandists and foreign-policy mouthpieces have been harping on Europe to break ranks with Washington, pursue its natural material interests, and do a deal. With the election of Donald Trump, the Kremlin may finally have gotten the wedge it wanted in the trans-Atlantic bloc — just not quite in the way Moscow may have expected.
An American-Russian rapprochement that abandons any effort to check the Kremlin’s worst behavior would mean trouble for Europe. The continent does not have the luxury of distance that the United States enjoys. Europe’s economy and politics have for centuries been inextricably intertwined with Russia, not always comfortably. Russia seems committed to undermining faith in European democracy through partnerships with the EU’s own internal spoilers like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and more covert interventions in the continent’s elections. Meanwhile, the escalating conflict in Ukraine — directly on the EU’s doorstep — suggests that Russia’s military poses a threat not just to European values but to the most basic idea of European security.
The options for Europe are, to be sure, limited. For the foreseeable future, hard security will remain a NATO domain, where it will be difficult to part ways with the Americans. And military confrontation with Russia would, in any case, be too ruinous to countenance. But offering diplomatic carrots in the form of “strategic patience” is also not an option — Europe spent 20 years since the end of the Cold War trying to build institutional and economic partnerships with Russia, to no clear end. The EU already trades more than 330 billion euros in goods annually with Russia and has invested upwards of $7 trillion. None of that prevented Russia from going to war over the prospect of an EU trade treaty with Ukraine.
If Europe is to feel secure, there will need to be change. If Europe is to prosper, Europe itself will have to create that change.
To be clear, Europe should not be pursuing regime change in Russia; no one outside of Russia should be in the business of deciding when it’s time for President Vladimir Putin to go or who should replace him. Europe can and should, however, invest in the transformation of Russian society, by building a more direct relationship with Russia’s citizens, who would like to see their country governed differently, and by using Europe’s power to set economic incentives to help increase those constituencies’ leverage over the Kremlin.
There’s a looming gap between Russian citizens — who understand the corruption and dysfunction that plagues their country but despair of ever seeing improvement — and their leaders, who work hard to convince them that this is as good as it gets. Building a different relationship with Russia will require Europe to insert itself into that gap, to build alliances, and to mobilize to create change.
Putin’s vaunted approval ratings — currently around 85 percent and the numbers are genuine enough — hide an important reality: Russians may like their president, but they don’t like the way their country is run. Only 14 percent of Russians believe that Putin represents the interests of the common man, while 69 percent believe that the gap between rich and poor in Russia has increased while Putin has been in power, according to the independent Levada Center polling agency. Some 55 percent of Russians say they rely on themselves and avoid any and all contact with the state, while only 10 percent say they reliably get what they need from government officials.
Nor do Russians necessarily believe everything they hear on television. Despite the rosy pictures, some 70 percent of Russians told the Levada Center in a January survey that the country’s toughest times are either happening right now or will happen in the future. And some 64 percent believe that the road to prosperity lies through integration with the West — an increase from the 56 percent who believed that before Crimea. It’s no small wonder: By the Russian government’s own figures, real incomes in 2016 declined by 5.9 percent, after having fallen by 3.2 percent in 2015. Russians might be happy to have Crimea back, but they understand that these are the real spoils of war.
Living in a country that fails to provide stable pathways to prosperity and security, Russians have learned over the decades to turn both inward — to their hyper-local networks of friends, colleagues, and relatives — and outward, to countries and cultures abroad. Russians have long pursued what you might call “individual modernization,” integrating one-on-one with the world’s most dynamic economic, cultural, and technological spaces. For many Russians, that means Europe. It is in Europe where Russians who can afford it seek to get their education and their health care. It is European culture and media most Russians consume and emulate, and it is on European models that Russians have begun to reimagine their cities and public spaces — even as the Russian government itself openly rejects “European values,” tries to contain Western expansion, and declares a pivot to China.
Europe’s approach to changing Russian behavior has typically taken the form of traditional “conditionality” — that is, Europe has offered carrots to ordinary Russians, such as the prospect of visa-free travel or reduced trade barriers, conditional on the good behavior of the Russian government. But this approach has it backward: It asks Russian citizens to affect the decisions of a government over which they have no control, in exchange for freer movement of people, capital, and ideas.
Consider what would happen if this logic were reversed. What if Europe were to give non-elite Russians visa-free travel right now, with no strings attached? Increase spending on mobility for students and academics by orders of magnitude, allowing Russians of ordinary means but extraordinary talents to study in Europe at European tuition rates? Allow access to European financial services and eased customs procedures for small- and medium-sized enterprises?
If ordinary Russians are permitted to learn firsthand how Europe really functions and to leverage European educational, legal, and financial institutions to build their own stability and prosperity, the balance of power in Russia itself will begin to shift. Overnight, it would become much harder for the Kremlin to argue that Europe is the enemy or to portray it as unwelcoming — something that it has done quite effectively to date. But it’s about more than just familiarity and warm feelings. Giving ordinary Russians unfettered access to Europe allows them to build Europe into their own life plans in ways only the country’s ruling elite can (and do) today.
Citizens whose career prospects, financial outlook, entrepreneurial business plans, and even retirement plans involve Europe, who see European universities, markets, and even bureaucracies as their own — these are citizens who will demand even closer integration and resist any new attempts by the Kremlin to manipulate the relationship for political purposes. To be sure, there are people like this in Russia today, but Europe can and should create more.
The irony of such a step is unmistakable: Europe would, under Trump-inspired duress, be giving the Kremlin something it has been seeking for years. Doing so would certainly be politically challenging. But it would also begin the process of trying to integrate Russia with Europe on the West’s terms.
None of this is a substitute for continuing to maintain pressure on Russia in Ukraine or for reinforcing the European security architecture. Nor does this change Russian policy in the near term. But there are no near-term solutions to a deeply ingrained, profound conflict that has been decades in the making. The European project, if it is of value, requires a struggle, and the battleground is Russia itself. If Europe is serious about creating stability and prosperity on the continent, it must become serious about creating change in Russia.
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