As the OSCE Chairman in 2017, Austria should revive its role during the Cold War as a mediator between Russia and the West and help both sides develop a new flexible security architecture for the European continent.

Russian State Duma Chairman Sergei Naryshkin (C) seen after addressing a winter meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Photo: Alexander Shalgin/Russian State Duma Press Office/TASS

The Ukrainian conflict, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Syria have left lasting marks in the relationship between the EU and Russia. In fact, numerous voices compare today’s alarming political rhetoric with that of the Cold War era.

Neither Russia nor the EU seemed to expect this quick transition from bad to worse and such a deep crisis in their relations emerging. The sanctions against Russia as well as the counter-sanctions from the Russian side undoubtedly marked a turning point, a profound break in the relationship between Russia and the EU.

The relationship between EU and Russia was initially built on an idealized notion of a slow and non-negotiable rapprochement of Russia with the EU through the adoption of European values​​, norms and principles. Even in the first half of the 1990s, though, this relationship model existed more in theory than in practice. This fact has been studiously overlooked for two decades.

While the "strategic partnership" between the EU and Russia had been proclaimed at the official level, there were also small substantial steps towards a deepening of the relationship. The long-term plans of building a free trade area and a deepening integration with high institutional networking, which were laid out in the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), remained on paper. In the end, the EU-Russia relationship de facto remained an illusory privileged partnership without tangible substance.

The Ukrainian crisis was neither the result of miscalculations nor misunderstandings in the first place, but the direct consequence of a flawed establishment of a pan-European security architecture after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s failed integration into Western economic and security structures. The different understanding of Europe’s political structure formed a major source of conflict potential as the EU expected an automatic, quasi-mechanical enlargement process.

Russia, however, expected give-and-take negotiations, which would render Russia more European and the EU more open for Russian interests and proposals. Other potential conflicts were related to the energy issue, a visa-free regime, the lack of strategic thinking and uncertainty about the prospects for development of the common relationship, and last but not least, the blatant willingness of both sides to accept a deterioration in relations.

From a historical perspective, the Ukrainian crisis was in Thucydidean terms not the root cause, but only a trigger for the outbreak of a mutual hostility and mistrust that subcutaneously always existed, and the logical consequence of misguided politics since the fall of the Iron Curtain. In short, the problems and the potential for deterioration of the relationship had already existed even before this crisis began.

The Ukrainian crisis exposed the ineffectiveness of existing institutions and security mechanisms in Europe, based on the decision-making of a limited number of countries. Even more, the Ukrainian crisis highlighted the fact that the political elites in Russia and the EU were apparently not willing to meet each other halfway to craft their common destiny in a complex 21st century world.

There is a fear that the contradictions between Russia and the EU could intensify. Such a dynamic would create a geopolitical confrontation and would divide Europe again. The entrance into a new cycle of geopolitical and geocultural confrontation with a demarcation line that is shifted to the eastern edge of Europe appears increasingly likely.

The different ways of assessing the original nature of the Ukrainian conflict are often mutually exclusive and the localization of a starting point for dialogue is severely hampered. Currently, there are no common narratives and no common understandings about the rules as to what is permitted or forbidden in the EU-Russia relationship. In addition, mutual disappointment and lack of confidence predominate.

Merely for this reason, a quick return to a "business as usual" is unthinkable and even more – it’s useless. Today, especially against the background of crisis over Syria, diplomatically the most important task should be to prevent further deterioration of the overall situation, to reduce single conflicts and to prevent new ones from expanding.

It is difficult to imagine mastering major current conflicts from Maghreb to the Middle East, the migration crisis and the imminent threat of transnational terrorism without the constructive involvement of Russia in international crisis management. Especially in dealing with the case of transnational terrorism, which is transforming into a fully-fledged player in the field of international relations.

The entire post-Soviet space is part of a fluid process with uncertain perspectives. In light of the Ukrainian crisis, the resumption of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, the frozen conflicts in Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the latent potential for conflicts in Central Asia, the “post-Soviet space” seems to be entering a delayed period of political realignment, a re-evaluation of the Soviet legacy and the shaping of new post-Soviet political identities.

Already in the next decade, there will be a further intensification of conflicts spreading out over the whole post-Soviet territory. A sustainable solution to the conflicts will not be possible without close cooperation with Russia as predominant stakeholder in the post-Soviet sphere.

Against this background, the EU should proceed with well-understood self-interest towards Russia. In the face of common threats, a pragmatic approach towards Russia would very likely lead to a "win-win situation" for all parties involved. After the annexation of Crimea and the events in Eastern Ukraine, this process will require particular stamina, and yet it remains indispensable.

Currently, the most important goal is to determine issues where parallel interests exist in order to achieve cooperation based on interests. Small steps in terms of political incrementalism and a broader discussion about a Common European future could help to overcome the crisis.

Also read: "Will the misunderstanding between the EU and Russia continue?" 

First of all, EU and Russia should define the basis or, rather, a starting point where interests are overlapping and coincide, compromises are possible and where they are not. The objective is to link these “islands of cooperation” into a longer process and to create the amount of trust that is necessary for intense discussion about broader perspectives.

During the EU Summit on Oct. 20, a number of European leaders tried to push ahead with new sanctions over Syria against Moscow. Austria was one of the countries that opposed the possibility of new restrictive measures against Russia. While large parts of the EU are strongly focusing on the Atlantic or Mediterranean regions, Austria can empathize relatively well with the challenges and sensitivities of Eastern Europe, and especially Ukraine and Russia, because of cultural ties and common history.

In light of the OSCE Chairmanship next year, Austria has the responsibility to start a negotiating initiative to ease tensions in the Ukrainian conflict, to put forward crisis-relief and trust-building measures, and to advocate for a solution that would be acceptable for Ukraine and the separatists as well as for the EU and Russia, despite the extremely improbable implementation of Minsk agreements. Furthermore, there is a great need for a dialogue to develop a post-conflict vision for the Donbas area, which should also take place on an expert and civil society level.

Austria is both an integral part of the European value community, and an indispensable member of the EU. At the same time, Austria is neither a part of NATO nor entirely a part of the transatlantic community and can use its neutral status in an efficient and fruitful way for all parties involved, inter alia to establish new communication channels. By strengthening the bilateral links between Austria and Russia, deficits in the relations between EU and Russia – caused by Germany’s withdrawal from its traditional Ostpolitik – can be compensated for and new confidence can be built.

The establishment of bilateral links between Austria and Russia cannot be equated with a unilateral action against EU decisions. On the contrary, it is precisely a lack of forward-looking strategic discussion in the EU regarding Russia that makes bilateral cooperation concepts indispensable. By doing so, Austria could renew its once important function and role during the Cold War era, to mediate or at least to provide a forum for an open debate.

The long-term objective should be the development of a new security architecture for all of Europe regardless of today’s challenges and mutual provocations. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as the largest security organisation in the Northern Hemisphere and a true pan-European one, could provide opportunities for finding consensus and adapting it to new challenges.

In order to create an enhanced and sustainable security structure for Europe, cooperation on key issues must be strengthened and decision-making must involve all countries in the region. In light of the Austrian presidency at the OSCE in 2017, the first steps could be taken to turn the OSCE into a forum to discuss the security challenges and to focus on suitable and sustainable concepts for establishing a more peaceful Common European (or even Common Eurasian) security order in the future.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.