14/10/11

Relations between Russia and Europe and the role of Greece

  
Παρασκευή, 14 Οκτωβρίου 2011 12:49
 
Ever since the Russians appeared on the world stage, their relationship to Europe, both culturally and geopolitically, has been marked by ambiguity. Just as the Russian landmass is both European and Asian, the Russian state and Russian culture have been perceived by Europeans and Russians alike as partaking of Europe but not as altogether European, or at least not as exclusively European. Nonetheless, Russia’s influence on European affairs has been – and remains – crucial.[i]

 
From the time it first became part of the state system of Europe under Peter the Great, Russia has had a major and at times a decisive impact on the European balance of power. In particular, it has twice thwarted the domination of the continent by a single power: first by destroying Napoleon’s Grande Armee and one hundred and thirty years later by defeating Hitler’s invading armies. On the other hand, as a superpower after the Second World War it cast a long shadow over the rest of the continent; making it necessary – to recall Churchill’s famous imagery – for the New World to step forth, once more, to the rescue of the Old.
 
Compared to the USSR, the Russian Federation that emerged from its ruins is much reduced, in terms both of territory and of population. It nevertheless remains the largest country on earth, rich in natural and – despite its acute demographic problems – human resources; and a nuclear superpower. Whilst contrary to its Soviet predecessor, it has sought closer ties to the Euro-Atlantic world. This rapprochement however is proving to be a tortuous one.
 
Despite some initial illusions, especially on the Russian side, it is becoming obvious that Russia is too big and too different in political culture and geopolitical aims to fit in as a member, either of the European Union or of NATO – although it has established useful institutional ties with both. For the rest, there important areas where Russian and Western interests tend to coincide and others where they diverge or even collide.
 
In view of Russia’s immense hydrocarbon reserves, as well as of its need of Western capital and industrial expertise, economic cooperation is clearly in the interest of both sides. Just as they have a common stake in avoiding a nuclear arms race between them and in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world at large; as well as in combating Islamic extremism in the wider Middle East – given, on the one hand, the West’s campaign against al-Qaeda and its offshoots, and, on the other hand, Islamist terrorist activities on Russian soil. And furthermore the two sides seem to hold converging views as to the need to restrain the destabilizing actions of North Korea’s maverick regime; and above all to carefully contain China’s rise – disquieting to Washington and perceived by many Russians as an existential threat.
 
Yet at the same time, the new Russia, just as its Soviet predecessor, is wary of American power and of the U.S. military presence and political influence –above all on the European continent. Moscow resents in particular NATO’s intrusion in its periphery and the constraints this entails for its ambition to establish a “sphere of influence” in its “Near Abroad” – a strategic objective that may smack of neo-imperialism to outsiders, but which many Russians see as a means to safeguard legitimate security and economic interests of their country. And this frustration with Western policies partly explains why Moscow is not giving up on its longstanding aim to pry Europe away from America.
 
It remains to be seen which of the two, conflicting to a certain extent, sets of interests will gain the upper hand in the charting of Russia’s future course. In the event Moscow continues to vacillate between the two – an outcome not to be excluded, indeed a probable one – we will be seeing a replay, in a different setting, of the age-old opposition between Russia’s European-Western orientation and its “Third Rome” aspirations; which hark back to the Slavophiles of the Czarist era and to the internationalist imperialism of the Bolsheviks.
 
Meanwhile, Europeans have a compelling interest to make the necessary policy adjustments – to the extent compatible, of course, with their other collective and national concerns – in order to keep Russia, as much as possible, tethered to the West. But they must also resist Moscow’s persistent attempts to divide the West.
 
Does Greece have a role to play in this Russo-European relationship? And if so, which?
 
Admittedly, Greco-Russian relations over the years have not been free of serious disagreements and even crises. For example: Russian support for Slav brethren in the Balkans has repeatedly in the past run counter to major Greek national interests; Cold War Soviet expansionism posed a deadly threat to the independence and territorial integrity of the Greek state; post-communist Moscow was among the first capitals to recognize Skopje as “Republic of Macedonia”, thus undercutting the official Greek position in the name controversy; and, although Russia has by and large been supportive of the policies of the Republic of Cyprus, its position on Greek rights in the Aegean is anything but clear.
 
On the other hand, during the last several centuries Greeks and Russians have often found themselves on the same side of the divide in momentous historical conflicts. And due to their common byzantine heritage the two nations have a cultural affinity that greatly facilitates communication at the political level as well.
 
On balance, therefore, Athens is better positioned than most EU capitals to contribute to a closer rapport between Brussels and Moscow. But it can only do so if, in shaping its bilateral relations with Russia, it takes full account of the wider geopolitical, economic, and ideological concerns of the Western World – of which Greece is an integral part.

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