Speech by Prime Minister Alexander Stubb: European policy towards Russia
Körber-Stiftung, Berlin
29 September 2014

Tiivistelmä suomeksi: http://vnk.fi/ajankohtaista

Meine Damen und Herren,
Liebe Kollegen und Freunde,

It is always great to be back in Berlin. People here in Germany have their jokes about the “friendliness” and “hospitality” of Berliners – but personally I truly feel very welcome every time I come here. This was also the case yesterday when I ran through the streets of Berlin with thousands of others sports enthusiasts. The atmosphere was absolutely wonderful. Seas of people were cheering us runners; bands were playing along the route.

I would also like to thank the Körber-Stiftung for the warm welcome and the opportunity to share with you all a few thoughts on Europe and Russia from the Finnish perspective. This is a topic on everyone’s lips throughout our continent.

In the past few months, many of us must have asked: How on earth did we get where we are now? Russia has annexed one part of Ukraine, and is actively contributing to destabilising another. The EU and Russia have imposed economic sanctions on each other. EU leaders and Russian leaders – well, a leader – mostly communicate over the phone. Is this really 2014 or has someone put us in a time machine?

I would like to approach my topic through the following three windows and chapters.

1. What happened to Russia? In the 1990s many hoped Russia could become a European country like others. Is all hope lost?
2. Russia and the EU: How the events in Georgia were followed by those in Ukraine, and how we must remain true to our values.
3. Finland and Russia: The challenge of intellectual maturity, and the road ahead.

1. What happened to Russia?

European history of the past 25 years does not need to be narrated in detail, not here in Berlin. You have lived through it. And yet, let me look back to the early days of the current relationship between the EU and Russia, the 1990s. Let me look, for instance, at the year 1995, for it bears certain significance for us Finns. I hope you still remember why.

Back then, the EU was as upbeat and energetic as an approximately 45-year old can be. A new enlargement had just happened, the Cold War was over – there was space to breathe. Democracy and the market economy was the winning recipe for the whole of Europe.

Russia, then, was going through very difficult times. The self-confidence of the newly born Russia and the whole nation was weak – had they lived and worked through the past 70 years in vain? The country’s economy was in ruins. Their politics was a mess.

In this situation, the EU reached out to Russia: open your hearts and minds, democracy and market economy will help you rebuild a strong Russia, and it will help us all build a strong and secure Europe. We hoped Russia could become a European country like others, abiding by our set of rules and principles. Maybe it was – and is – the geographic proximity that made us think Russia could be more similar to us than it actually was – and is.

But we forgot one thing: these things cannot be planted top-down. They can only grow bottom-up. And they need time, lots of time, as they had done also in the course of our own history. Russia was not yet ready or willing to embrace this road. We must not forget that Russian democracy did take some positive steps in the 1990s, and back then Russia did repeatedly commit itself to European principles. Russia did manage to dismantle the Soviet command economy, and it did leap forward economically in the 2000s. The mental proximity between Europe and Russia did increase. But recently, we have seen the clock turn back in so many ways.

What I am saying is: looking at Russia since the early 90s, our hopes and expectations have gone through several ups and downs. But, even so, let’s not give up all hope. Let’s put this into a longer perspective. In 25 years, a human being becomes a somewhat mature young adult. But for a country and a society it is a very short time.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Many of us must also have asked – were we blind? Why did we really try and believe in a democratic, European Russia? Yes, first of all, there was unfounded idealism in the spirit of the 90s. “The end of history”, remember?

But secondly, we perhaps did not work hard enough to understand what Russia was truly like. We wanted Russia to become a rule-taker, while it has always seen itself as a rule-setter. How many of us really know Russia from within?

And thirdly, and very importantly, Russia has taken turns that even the best of experts could not entirely foresee.

Today, it would be fair to admit that Russia’s political system will not turn into a European democracy like ours. I say this, even though I know there are also many people in Russia who would want this to happen. We can and must support them in the process, but we cannot impose anything on them.

Unfortunately the time is not yet ripe, and the future also looks a little gloomy. For instance, until recently, many people laid their faith in the so-called new generation, those born after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. They would be free from Soviet memories and experiences and grow up as global citizens. But even this story has another side: since these youngsters did not experience the Soviet Union, they can now be charmed by the patriotic glory and the sheer propaganda of the past. And, therefore, we have seen the revival of things as shocking as glorifying Stalin’s rule.

So – are we back to square one? Back to being suspicious neighbours? Wondering if we can still call ourselves strategic partners, or even partners?

I believe we can co-exist. We need not be alike to be good neighbours, or even strategic partners again. We should aim at that. But setting this goal does not mean we should accept the things that are happening in Russian society today.

Let me also examine our respective home turfs a bit. What attributes do we attach to today’s Russia? The Russians underline their great history and national pride. They nurture nostalgia for things lost. They are suspicious of the foreign. They seek refuge in a strong leader. They defend traditional family values, and reject liberal thought. They play down the importance of the European Union.

Have we not heard this populist discourse also elsewhere in Europe? Also at home, perhaps?

We might need to widen our scope. This might not be a rift between “Europe” and “Russia”. This might be a rift within Europe.

2. Russia and the EU

I became the Finnish Foreign Minister in April 2008. This was a time when Finland chaired the work of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. That is how I also got to see the Georgian war from an even closer distance than I otherwise would have.

In my address to the Finnish ambassadors’ meeting at the end of August 2008, I gave a speech that came to be known as the 08-08-08 speech. In it, I had three main points. One: the Russian aggression – which had started on 8th August 2008 – against Georgia was a turning point in international politics. Two: it posed a new challenge to the international system. Three: it also affected the long-term agenda of Finnish foreign and security policy.

Back then, many people told me I had overreacted to the events in Georgia. They no longer think so.

Russia has continued along the same lines in Ukraine. And we do not know whether Ukraine will remain the last chapter in this story. Russia may have new plans, either short-term or longer-term. As I said, even 25 years is a short time in a country’s history.

That is why we need to counter this aggression. We need to do it firmly, and we need to do it now.

We need to understand that our fundamental values – including liberal democracy and international law – have been challenged not only in faraway lands but also in our own continent. We must stand up and defend those values. We still do not live in an era of “Perpetual Peace”.

Russia has turned inwards. Many think it is now turning also east and therefore drifting away from Europe. The extent of this turn remains to be seen and, frankly, I do not think such a turn is only a negative thing. In fact, I think it would be wise for Russia to finally make better use of being geographically so Asian. It would profit their economy – and therefore indirectly, also ours. It certainly would not exclude co-operation with Europe.

Why am I so confident about this? Let us look at some simple figures. 75 per cent of Russian territory is east of the Ural Mountains. But only one quarter of their population – that means 35 million people, slightly less than the population of Poland – lives in that very vast territory that stretches over so many time zones. The entire Russian Far East has some six million inhabitants, slightly more than Finland. For Russia, being a European power remains a much more realistic option than becoming an Asian power.

And, by turning to China, Russia certainly has not chosen the easiest path. With us, “soft” Europeans, they can try and act a little tough, refusing to conform to our set of rules. But with China, they are dealing with a partner who can play equally tough – and who is actually stronger.

Dear Friends,

Our policy vis-à-vis Russia must be true to our values, also and especially in difficult times. We defend principles, in a principled manner. We do not flex muscles. We do not do tit-for-tat. That’s why we have made it very clear to Russia: there can only be a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis. That’s why several European leaders have spent endless hours working on the issue. I would personally like to commend the efforts of Chancellor Merkel and Minister Steinmeier in this respect.

Now, more than ever, we must remember why European integration came about: for peace. We are made of steel – and coal.

Peace in Europe was to be built by economic means. It is therefore only logical that we also defend peace by economic means. That is the power we have, and the power we can rely on.

Once again: we must have a long-term perspective. Negotiations are not a shortcut to a solution, but they are the only sustainable way to get there. Similarly, economic sanctions are not a gunshot. They need time to show their true strength. Patience is one of the greatest virtues in international politics.

Since negotiations have not yet succeeded in opening the tightest knots of the crisis, we have had to look for other means. With sanctions, we have done exactly the right thing.

It is very important to remember that this is not a trade war. Russia has violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. We have countered this with well-planned, well-timed, well-targeted economic sanctions. Any further sanctions – or repealing the existing ones – will only be based on Russia’s actions on the ground, not on any economic counter-measures they might impose on us.

In the past few months, we have heard criticism towards the Eastern Partnership initiative of the European Union. Some have wanted to label it as the reason for Russia’s actions in Ukraine. I strongly disagree.

It is true that we, perhaps, could have kept Russia even better informed, we could have communicated more. We maybe should not have left so much of the work only in the corridors of Brussels. We also should have understood that Russia’s foreign policy today is not driven by trust but by suspicion; we were illiterate in the language of the Russian zero-sum-driven foreign policy.

But let us be honest: the Russians could also have shown some interest in the matter already several years ago when we first started talking about it.

And now, we must not give Russia the right to veto our relations with the countries of the Eastern Partnership. I most certainly would not have liked to see Russia oversee or veto our negotiations for the EU membership in the 1990s.

The Eastern Partnership has not been the reason for what we have seen. The true reason is somewhere much deeper. And that reason is Russia’s concern for its diminishing influence in Europe, and the rest of the world.

3. Finland and Russia

I referred earlier to the year 1995, the most important year in our recent history. Becoming an EU member was long overdue and most natural thing to happen. We are where we belong.

This is also where we firmly place ourselves in the current situation. We are in the EU family, fully committed to our common cause. In fact, Finland and Germany have a very similar approach to the crisis.

But let me make one point very clear. I think we all need to be intellectually mature enough to differentiate between three things in our approach to Russia and things Russian. Firstly, Moscow-level, very hawkish decision-making and its implications. Secondly, mutually beneficial, still functioning business relations and people-to-people contacts; at the end of the day they can be our best guarantee for peace. And thirdly, Russian-speaking minorities living in our own countries.

Finland has a longer common border with Russia, 1300 kilometres, than the rest of the EU countries put together. This means that we have a very pragmatic and common-sense approach in all of our Russia policies, knowing we will be in this relationship “in sickness and in health”.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

There are some things we have managed to build in the past 25 years that we must not break in this crisis. One of them is the human-level interaction with Russians – through increased travel and mobility, and within our societies.

Russian-speakers are the largest immigrant group in Finland. In sheer numbers – some 66,000 – they are, of course, nothing compared with the immigrant population in Germany, and yet, they constitute an important part of our society. I met some of my Russian-origin compatriots just last week, and had a great discussion about our common concerns.

These times do not make the differentiation between the Kremlin and the grassroots always easy, but we as decision-makers must lead the way. We cannot draw this picture with one big brush only.

Neighbours are actually a bit like relatives – you cannot choose them. You could also call them arranged marriages – there is no option of divorce. You stay together in sickness and in health, no matter how rocky the road. Unfortunately, this is no guarantee of a happy marriage. For that end, both parties would actually have to want to work in the same direction. With our relationship to Russia, this is unfortunately not the case at the moment.

Russia is right there. And will be. And we, the EU, need to know what we want from Russia.

We need common denominators, both within the EU, and vis-à-vis Russia. Some people may claim we in the EU are too different to have common goals towards Russia. I disagree. This is about political will, and political maturity.

We also need to revise our own language. “Integrating Russia into Western structures” sounds, frankly, a little 1990s. Firstly, because it has the motherly approach of taking Russia by the hand and taking it along to greener pastures. Secondly, because Russia already is in most “Western” structures it can realistically be a part of.

I think we all – both Europeans and Russians – want a stable and prosperous Russia. The big divide, then, comes from the definition of what constitutes stability: top-down control or an open society.

We must stand firm with our own values and principles. We must oppose the “divide and rule” games that Russia is constantly playing with the EU.

And yet, even when times are difficult, even when we fundamentally disagree, there has to be a basic respect towards the other. We need to listen, and we need dialogue, including in many international issues where Russian participation is essential for achieving results.

At the end of the day, diplomacy works along the same lines as human relations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

What would I like you to take home from this speech? Three things.

First, we must not give up all hope on Russia. At the same time, we should give a serious thought to the rift within Europe.

Second, we have to take Russian aggression very seriously. But in countering that, we must remain true to our values.

Third, we need to retain our intellectual maturity when analysing our relationship with Russia. And at the same time, we need to know what we want from that relationship.

Meine Damen und Herren,

Thank you again for this opportunity to speak to you today.

  1. Vilho Partanen
    30.09.2014 10.07

    A good speech indeed !

    Our European sphere, Russia – EU – Finland, was elaborated profoundly.

    Anyway, there is one point that has to be put into this Russian ‘time machine’ to complete the topical picture of geopolitics.

    The capital of the East has definitely moved from Moscow to Peking to be there for the time to come.

    An undeniable chance that anyone, including Russia, must take into considerations, whatever done at home or near-by.

  2. Jouni Pulli
    30.09.2014 14.22

    A great and very sound speech by our PM. Thank you Alex!

    I found most valuable that our PM is considering the dangers of a possible rift within Europe. We should all understand this as a real and growing threat to the peace and prosperity of Europe. And we should take care of the reasons of this rift.

    Regarding EU-Russian relations as well as the relations between Russia and Finland Alex touches well the problematic means and ways of the behaviour of the EU by telling about the EU’s ”motherly approach of taking Russia by the hand and taking it along to greener pastures”. This kind of approach by the EU is not happening regarding the matters concerning Russia only, but looks to have been almost a trademark of the EU’s teacherlike attitude towards other partners in the international system. Hopefully we’ll get mature enough to get rid of this kind of ”politics”.

    And last but not least Alex points out how important it is for us to understand what WE want from the relationship with Russia, I´d like to add: ”How much are we prepared to pay to achieve the goals we will set together in the EU?”