"War is the ultimate failure of diplomacy", quipped Tony Benn, the enthusiastic tea-loving, pipe-smoking former Labour MP who passed away in March 2014. It seems appropriate that before his death this year, which coincided with the escalation of the Ukraine crisis, Benn would have taken pride in witnessing his wise words taken seriously in the following months. Today, with the Ukraine-Russia ceasefire barely holding because of repeated violations, it is high time that the EU and Russia put their differences aside and engage in dialogue to move past old dividing lines.
While no country wants a war with Russia, all sides must tread carefully in these volatile times. Europe and Russia should cooperate together with Ukraine to achieve the best possible outcome, in which Ukraine will be financially supported by the European Union and allowed access to the Russian market. Europe and Russia should also aim for greater integration and discussion, no matter how damaged the relationship between the two blocs looks.
While the EU has already adopted a softer policy than the United States with regards to sanctions and asset freezes, more should be done for dialogue to take priority over the increasing dependence on sanctions. German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has increasingly prioritized this plan of action, claiming that "diplomacy is not a sign of weakness. It is needed more than ever". Angela Merkel has also been at the heart of behind the scenes negotiations with Vladimir Putin throughout the crisis, with the Kremlin confirming that Putin has had 35 telephone conversations with Merkel this year, three times more than with President Barack Obama, and six times more than with David Cameron.
While one might argue that Merkel is racking up her phone bill with the goal of protecting the commercial interests that Germany has with Russia (trade between the two countries amounted to 76.5 billion euros in 2013), it would be narrow minded to accuse the German Chancellor of taking a diplomatic route "merely to sell lots of Mercedes to oligarchs". Much like during the Cold war, when Germany favored diplomatic engagement over US military tactics and diplomatic firmness, today it continues to pursue dialogue while stressing the need for cooperation, standing by the belief that peace in Europe can only be secured by having Russia onboard.
France too has taken a similar course of action, in the framework of the "Dialogue Franco-Russe" Association, which aims to bring together key figures, officials, business elites and civil society to enhance the strategic relationship between the two countries. The Association, created in 2004, is supported by both the Russian President and the former French President Jacques Chirac and aims to encourage new development projects, cultural exchanges, political decision-making and societal exchanges for the general public and youth.
Vladimir Yakunin, President of Russian Railways and the co-chair of the Association, has consistently promoted the need for a "greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok" and the idea that Europe needs to move past dividing lines in its search for identity. Yakunin also spoke at the annual Rhodes Youth Forum (RYF) held this year from 25-29 September on the Greek island of Rhodes, during which he discussed the recent deterioration of relations between Russia and the West.
The Rhodes Youth Forum, organized by Youth Time and funded by the World Public Forum "Dialogue for Citizens", is in itself a prime example of the grassroots efforts needed to bridge the gap between all European countries. The main theme of this year's forum, "Preventing World War through Global Solidarity - 100 years on", brought together activists, intellectuals, public figures, and young active citizens from 65 countries around the world to discuss the current state of international affairs and the challenges and solutions we face in our move towards a peaceful world order.
It is within the framework of forums and organizations such as these that Europe and Russia can engage in constructive dialogue about their future relations, at a time when friendly diplomatic efforts between the two forces are needed more than ever. A war in Ukraine would be a catastrophic end point to the crisis. One can hope that diplomacy in this day and age will prevail, much to the satisfaction of the late Tony Benn.