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“Engagement or Mistrust?” Review of the book, “Riga Dialogue: Towards a Shared Security Environment"

On September 4, 2015, the Latvian Institute of International Affairs hosted a panel discussion on European security to mark the release of the institute’s latest publication, “Riga Dialogue: Towards a Shared Security Environment.”  

The panelists mostly expanded upon the sole topic of the book — the chief security question being asked of Europe today: to what extent can and should Europe engage Russia as a trusted equal?  

Or does the current level of mistrust between Russia and Europe preclude the possibility of productive engagement?  

The panel discussion was more confrontational than the book, with representatives from the Russian International Affairs Committee and Latvia’s own Ambassador Imants Liegis (Ambassador to Hungary, Fmr. Defense Minister) among the panelists who fielded tough questions like “did Latvia make any mistakes that may have precipitated the current security crisis in Europe?”  

One Latvian MP in the audience rose and responded, “the only mistake Latvia made was letting Russian officers stay in Latvia until 1994.”  However, the room, packed with diplomats, students, and journalists, summarily avoided the bait.  

The panel, like the book that the panelists were introducing, stayed cool and practical.

The book, “Riga Dialogue: Towards a Shared Security Environment,” is shorter and more accessible than many other strategy publications that come out of think tanks.  

The book is a compendium of essays from European security experts, and it’s refreshingly devoid of technocratic acronyms, theoretical jargon, or industry name-dropping.  

It seems as if the Latvian Institute of International Affairs and the contributors to the book genuinely want European policymakers to read and act upon some of the recommendations and ideas that have been taking shape in Europe since the Riga Security Seminar in April of 2015.  

Most of the recommendations in the book range from “the establishment of an effective and functional air and missile defense shield, providing security to the host nation infrastructure” (pg 50, LTC (ret.) Ugis Romanovs) to “the establishment of a sufficient set of trade regimes between the Eurasian Economic Union, Ukraine and the European Union” (Pg 24, Igor Yurgens, ARIA).  

Whether a contributor’s proposal argues for ensuring European security by further isolating Russia or bringing Russia into the European fold, the common denominator amongst all proposals in the book is that the proposals can be acted upon tomorrow, if necessary.  

Most contributors also criticize the Euro-Atlantic security approach of the last 25 years that “has been piecemeal, and has fallen behind political, economic, and technological developments” (pg 81, Steven Andreasen, IISS).  

    So what’s stopping European policymakers from implementing the much-needed security forms recommended in this book?  The fact that there is no real unified “European” consensus on what constitutes security or how to achieve it poses the greatest boundary to reforming European security doctrine.  

Russia has been exploiting this disunity and mistrust within Europe, “dividing [European countries] by offering preferential bilateral economic relations and political support for some” (pg 40, Margarita Seslgyte, Vilnius University).  Advancing pan-European policy must be difficult when the Baltic nations and Germany, for example, do not see Russia the same way.  “Russia is a rational, acting country,” claimed an adamant Dr. Reinhard Krumm, Friedrich Ebert representative, from his seat at the Sept. 4 panel.  

But a contributor in the very book Dr. Krumm was introducing claims that trusting Russia in the same way we trust other rational nations would allow “Russia to engage in rogue behavior.  

[This] is not just undesirable, but dangerous, and confirms the lingering suspicions that European leaders are neither strategic nor sagacious in their approach to contemporary Russia” (pg 72, Anke Schmidt-Felzmann, LIIA visiting researcher in 2015).

Though the book and the panelists focused almost exclusively on Russia as the chief security threat to Europe, there was a moment in Dr. Andris Spruds’s opening remarks at the Sept. 4 panel that touched on the turmoil within Europe caused by the refugee crisis.

Dr. Spruds, editor of “Riga Dialogue: Towards a Shared Security Environment,” writes in his introduction to the book, “the question of whether we are experiencing an emerging new world (dis)order has not been solely driven by the conflict in Ukraine” (pg 7).  

Indeed, both the immigration crisis and Russia’s actions in Ukraine caught Euro-Atlantic security organizations flat-footed — without an actionable plan for resolution to the crises.  

The challenges to European security are a thinly veiled challenge to European unity, and the “Riga Dialogue” book’s solutions to European security are similarly solutions to disunity within Europe.

This is not to say that Europe has always failed to act in unison when it comes to continental security.  Panelists at the Sept. 4 book release rightly praised the European sanctions against Russia as proof that Europe can find common interests around which to rally.

But “without a basis of common norms, rules and values we will always be far away from a truly stable Europe,” writes contributor Karsten Voigt (p 76).  Of course, in writing this, he means to disabuse his readers of the idea that Russia could one day be wholly and unconditionally trusted in the European security arrangement. But his words also reveal why Europe currently struggles with reacting to new and unforeseen security threats.

In order to engage Russia or handle the immigration crisis, Europe must address its own internal trust issues.  

Otherwise, the current European security arrangement leaves trust gaps between EU members that Russia “strikes by raising doubts about the functionality and adequacy of the current order” (pg 35, Margarita Seselgyte).  

European policymakers may benefit from executing any one of the strategy recommendations in the “Riga Dialogue” book.

But if Europe wants its new, comprehensive security strategy to be flexible enough to meet both current and unpredictable challenges, it must fix its internal trust issues by reaffirming commitments to shared values.  

Perhaps the current threats to European security are an opportunity for Europe to take stock of its own internal affairs, reaffirm the shared values and interests that once unified it, and present a unified and flexible front to current or future security threats.

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