Russia and the European Union Beyond the Comfort Zone


The interests of Russia and Europe coincide on issues of development. Not just economic development, but also social, cultural and humanitarian development. Today’s rapidly changing world presents new challenges to all countries and regions, and the threat of being pushed onto the sidelines of global development objectively brings Eastern and Western Europe closer together.

On March 14, 2016, after a meeting of the European Union (EU) Foreign Affairs Council, High Representative Federica Mogherini held a press conference where she outlined five principles of the new Union’s policy toward Russia. She specifically noted that the discussion within the Council regarding Russia had not been a difficult one since all the EU member states had demonstrated their unity and had expressed common views on this important matter.

The first principle linked any substantial change in the EU-Russia relations to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements on Ukraine. The EU position of non-recognition of the annexation of Crimea was also confirmed by Mogherini.

The second principle emphasised the intention to strengthen relations with the EU Eastern partners and other neighbours, particularly in Central Asia – a clear and unambiguous denial to Russia of any ‘sphere of influence’ on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Third, the EU committed itself to strengthening its internal resilience, especially in the view of strategic communication, hybrid threats and energy security. This implies full commitment to reduce the Russian presence in the EU energy market, and to engage in a ‘propaganda war’ against Moscow, if the Union has to.

Fourth, the Foreign Affairs Council agreed on the need to engage with Russia on a selective basis – both on foreign policy issues (such as Iran, Middle East Peace Process, Syria, North Korea, migration, counter-terrorism and climate change) and in other unspecified areas where there was a clear European Union interest.

Finally, the fifth principle was about the need to support the Russian civil society and to invest into people-to-people contacts and exchanges with a special emphasis on the younger generation of Russians and Europeans.

The ‘five principles’ predictably generated a lot of criticism from the Russian side. Arguing that the bottomline of the EU position was the strategy of a political and economic containment of Russia, the critics felt that the principles offered a very imbalanced mixture of ‘sticks’ and ‘carrots’, and that the position of the EU Foreign Affairs Council appeared to be the lowest common denominator reflecting the views of the most anti-Russia minded member states. On their part, many EU diplomats were privately hinting that under the circumstances, the language of the principles was relatively mild and that a lot would depend on the future interpretation and practical implementation of these rather general guidelines.

In any case, the announcement of the ‘five principles’ was positive - at least as an attempt to bring some clarity and predictability into a very emotional, murky and ambitious dialogue between Moscow and Brussels since the eruption of Ukrainian crisis in the fall of 2013. The principles, no matter how trivial and/or general they might look, could provide both sides with a certain frame of reference, defining what is likely or unlikely to happen in these uneasy relations in years to come.

It is a political platitude to state the Russian-European relations are in a deep crisis and that there will be no business as usual for a long, long time. We cannot even be sure that the bottom of the crisis has been reached and that the two sides may count on a degree of stability, albeit at a very low level. The summer of 2016 might be another challenging time for the crippled relationships. The NATO Summit meeting in Warsaw is likely to make a couple of decisions, which will cause uproar in the Kremlin. If by that time the European Union does not make any positive – at least very initial – changes in the sanctions regime, the political gap between Moscow and Brussels will further widen. Unpredictable, potentially highly disruptive and politically divisive events in the Middle East as well as the continuation of the migration crisis in Europe also feed instability and prevent both sides to look for a new normal in the Greater Europe. The approaching Presidential election in the US brings yet another independent variable to this complex equation.

The most evident limitation of the future relations that can read between the lines of the ‘five principles’ is a very deep and profound mistrust of Russia by the European Union. Russia is looked upon as an unfriendly and dangerous power willing to challenge EU interests and values wherever it possibly can. Cooperation with Moscow is feasible only in very specific fields or geographical areas, where common interests are clearly underlined.

This approach is not much different from the Russian attitude to the EU. For the political mainstream in Moscow, Brussels appears to be an unreliable partner, messing around in the Russian backyard, constantly interfering into Russia’s domestic affairs and trying to get unilateral advantages out of its relations with Russia. Furthermore, the Union is often regarded as a weak and an indecisive power, which avoids playing a truly independent role in international affairs and instead prefers to take orders from Washington DC.

Is there anything really new in this mutual distrust? One can argue that there has never been real trust between Moscow and Brussels - it is unlikely that the Ukrainian crisis would have escalated the way it did if mutual trust and confidence in each other had existed. However, whereas previously distrust between Russia and Europe was generally regarded as an unfortunate throwback to the Cold War period (and one that was gradually disappearing), now it is a long-term feature of the new reality. This, newly acquired distrust and even hostility is unfortunately characteristic not only for the die-hard Cold War veterans, but also for the younger generations of Russians and Europeans, who see the Cold War as something from the distant past.

Optimists on both sides often argue that the crisis we have now between Moscow and Brussels is a result of an unfortunate mutual misunderstanding. Russia and the European Union have different narratives about the history of their relations over the last 25 years and, most importantly, about the origins, dynamics and repercussions of the Ukrainian crisis. Furthermore, once we manage to reconcile these narratives, we can start rebuilding the relationship.

I tend to believe that the roots of distrust go much deeper than this. In my opinion, we should address fundamental differences in Russian and Western conceptions of the modern world, of the dominant trends in global politics and of what the criteria for the future world order could and should be. The reality is that Russia today flatly denies the centrality of the West in the international system to come. This denial colours Russia’s attitudes to not only the major Western countries such as UK or US, but also to Western-built institutions (from NATO and the EU to G7 and IMF), and Western ‘rules of the game’, which the West, as it is seen from the eyes of Moscow, uses selectively to its own advantage and to the detriment of other international players’ interests.

The recent history of the EU–Russia relations is now often presented in Moscow as a case illustrating the assumed Western hypocrisy. It is well known that in the early 2000s, Russia chose not to participate in the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), as it aspired to be an ‘equal partner’ of the EU as opposed to the ‘junior partnership’ that Russia saw itself in the ENP. Consequently, Russia and the European Union agreed to create four Common Spaces for cooperation in different spheres.

Both sides declared this arrangement to be an agreement of ‘equal partners’. The Russian interpretation of ‘equality’ implied that both Moscow and Brussels were ready to make reciprocal concessions and compromises in the most important areas of their cooperation – energy, agriculture or transportation. Russia had to modify its standards, procedures and rules to get closer to Europe, but the same approach was expected from the European side as well. These expectations may have been naïve and unrealistic, but they were at least partially based on the rhetoric coming out of Brussels.

However, it later turned out that the notion of ‘equality’ contained nothing, but just that – plain rhetoric. In practice, from the EU standpoint, there should have been no substantial differences between its relations with Russia and the ENP Action Plans with other external partners. In both cases, the final agreement was to be based upon provisions from the EU acquis communautaire and implied unilateral adjustments to EU regulations by the external partner in question. This approach did not match the Moscow’s perception of ‘equality’; it was in particular disappointing in the energy field: Russia - as the main energy supplier of Europe had expected the EU Third Energy Package to be more Russia-friendly.

Given this profound difference in approaches to the future of the relationship, it is hard to imagine how large-scale plans to build a Greater Europe – to construct comprehensive systems of European security and cooperation and new structures and institutions – can be successful. From the very beginning, Russia was forever doomed to remain a peripheral power in the NATO/EU dominated Europe as well as in the NATO/EU dominated world. As they used to say in Moscow, “we were invited to pre-dinner drinks, but not to the dinner itself”.

It seems quite clear that it would be unproductive in the current circumstances to build relations between Russia and the European Union based on shared values. Not because Russia has ceased to be a European country or because common values between the two sides do not exist. The modern Russian society remains predominantly European sharing most of values of its Western neighbours. However, the notion of ‘values’ is both very general and very contradictory to use it as the basis for developing a foreign policy strategy – and the current crisis between Russia and the EU has shown this very clearly. The debate about what true Russian and true European values actually are has been going on forever; it is unlikely to come to a ‘final’ conclusion any time soon. Today, when both Russia and Europe are facing common and individual challenges of an unprecedented scale, this debate becomes even more intense and emotional; its outcome less certain.

The vulnerability of the ‘value approach’ to international relations has been exposed on a number of occasions in regions other than Europe. The US Middle East strategy from the beginning of the 21st century was based upon the conviction that the countries in the region should willingly embrace and enjoy the fundamental values of Western democracy. However, what did this strategy produce in the region? There is no doubt whatsoever that the Middle East is no closer to Western values now than it was 15 or 20 years ago.

The fundamental values of people and societies are extremely inertial and change-resistant – they evolve and converge over the course of generations, not in a scant few years. At the same time, neither Russia nor EU can afford to wait a generation before trying to get back to cooperation. Therefore, the most practical and productive thing right now would be to build cooperation around concrete issues where interests of the two sides coincide or significantly overlap. Instead of focusing on building new and cumbersome structures, such cooperation could focus on promoting flexible and democratic pan-European regimes in individual sectors.

One of the very few advantages of the current situation is that we are now left with very little to lose and we can afford not to care about political correctness. Both sides should try to avoid doublespeak, usual hypocrisy and misleading labels that are possible to some extent; they should be very specific about their interests, their basic concerns and their red lines. This exchange at various levels will not restore mutual trust, but it can distinguish real conflicts of interest from the imaginary ones.

Let me get back to the first principle of Federica Mogherini. The European Union stated very clear its vision as concerns and the implementation of the Minsk agreement: only full implementation would qualify as a condition for removal of the sanctions. This statement implies at least three assumptions. First, the Minsk agreement is a clear, specific and unambiguous document with no room for diverging interpretations. Second, the Agreement can and should be implemented in full despite all the obstacles, impediments and hurdles that manifested since the Agreement was signed in early 2015. Third, Russia is the one and the only party that has the sole responsibility for the implementation of the Minsk Agreement. It seems clear that each of these assumptions would be contested in Moscow and, therefore, should be a subject of a very specific, detailed and blunt discussion.

The same discussion in needed on the second principle from the Mogherini list. The European Union underscores that nobody should or even could grant Moscow a privilege of having an exclusive ‘sphere of influence’ in the 21st century world. However, what does a ‘sphere of influence’ mean in practice? Can we call Kazakhstan a Russian satellite without stretching the meaning of this term very far? Does Moscow fully control the foreign policy and foreign trade, not to mention the domestic politics of Astana? Does the Kremlin have any means to manage a political transition after Nursultan Nazarbaev in Kazakhstan? Could Alexander Lukashenko, ‘the last dictator of Europe’, qualify as a model Kremlin’s client within the Russian ‘sphere of influence’? Hardly so! He never recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has cordial relations with rebellious Petro Poroshenko, schmoozes with European Union officials and arbitrarily restricts access of Russian investors to his country’s economy. His loyalty to the Kremlin is as questionable as the Kremlin’s ability to manipulate him.

In short, the passionately disputed ‘Russian sphere of influence’ appears to be ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. If the definition of this so-called sphere of influence is that countries within this sphere should not join NATO or EU in the mid-term future, then we can safely include into this sphere the whole world with an exception of a bunch of small countries in the western Balkans.

Instead of engaging ourselves into another cycle of emotional debates about generalities, the two sides should dig into areas where the interests of Russia and the European Union coincide or overlap, and where the promotion of common modes of operation could be especially productive. Above all, there are numerous security-related issues. Russia and the West appear to have entered a new phase of the arms race, in which Europe has become the centrestage. It would not be a giant leap, for example, to assume that once the US deploys its missile defence system in Poland, Russia would respond by deploying its own Iskander missile defence system in the Kaliningrad region. Events are playing out in a similar way to that of the missile crisis of the mid-1980s, but at least back then channels of communication and reasonable mechanisms for dialogue existed. Russia and the West do not have those now, and that is why many people see the current situation as more dangerous than the crisis 30 years ago.

This is why the first task is to prevent the escalation of military tensions, restore dialogue on security issues, expand military contacts, exchange information on defence plans, compare military doctrines, among other things. However, the two sides should not forget about the new security challenges that are equally serious for Russia and the EU – international terrorism, political extremism, cyber crime and the threat of technogenic disasters. One can respond to these challenges by establishing an appropriate international regime that includes Russia and its Western partners.

The interests of Russia and Europe also coincide on issues of development. Not just economic development, but also social, cultural and humanitarian development. Today’s rapidly changing world presents new challenges to all countries and regions, and the threat of being pushed onto the sidelines of global development objectively brings Eastern and Western Europe closer together.

Of course, the priorities of socio-economic development in Russia and Europe differ in many ways. Countries of the European Union face chronic stagnation, new financial and monetary crises, the inability to reform the social sector, and are falling behind North America and East Asia in terms of technology. For Russia, the most obvious threats are the persistence of the commodity economy, the weakness of small and medium-sized business, corruption and the general ineffectiveness of public administration. Within the context of these somewhat different priorities, however, it seems appropriate to discuss common policies in specific areas. For example, in removing barriers and bureaucratic obstacles to economic cooperation; in standardising and unifying the transport and logistics infrastructure in Eastern and Western Europe; and in the preservation and expansion of the pan-European educational, scientific and innovation space. The problem of the ‘war of sanctions’ between the EU and Russia is, of course, one of the most important issues to address. Even if the sides cannot stop the war right away, they could at least try to abstain from escalating it further.

Finally, the third area of common interests between Russia and Europe includes many complicated issues of global governance. In spite of all the differences, mutual grievances and deep distrust of one another, Russia and the European Union are nevertheless united by the desire to avoid further destabilisation of global politics, and prevent the current trend towards chaos and anarchy in the international system from growing stronger. Three of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are located in Europe, and that pan-European structures for security and cooperation have for decades been looked up to as a model for other regions and continents.

Moscow and Brussels could have started here with the creation of international regimes that cover Europe and then Eurasia, and then spread to other regions around the world. Managing migration flows and solving the refugee issue is perhaps the most obvious area for joint efforts. However, tackling environmental issues in our region and coordinating our positions on climate change are equally important. A serious dialogue between the Russian and European parties on a number of fundamental issues in contemporary international law is taking shape. This is all the more significant as historically it was here, on the European continent, that the foundations for the international legal system used by the whole world today were laid.

Federica Mogherini concludes her list with a reference to civil society interaction. Who would oppose this great idea? However, quite often the Western approach to the Russian civil society is similar to the Brussels acquis communautaire approach in dealing with the EU partners. The West decides who can and who cannot represent the Russian civil society as well as how to grade Russian NGOs according to the focus of their activities, methods of their operations or sources of their funding. This approach has never been productive in the past, and there are serious doubts that it would be productive in the future.

One could also name a couple of other target audiences that deserve more attention and have to play a more active role in the relations between Russia and the European Union. These include civil servants at the regional and municipal levels; students, faculty and University managers; entrepreneurs and innovators, professional associations and Russian diaspora in the West. It is definitely more difficult to engage these potential stakeholders now than it was 3-5 years ago; both sides are likely to suspect each other of using particular professional or social groups as instruments of ‘soft power’. Nonetheless, in my view, the pitch is worth making.

These tasks may seem excessively mundane to some, but solving them is the only chance we have if we wish to lay the new foundations for a common European home in the future. For too long, we have been trying to build this house from the roof down, rather then from the foundation – with political declarations, rather than concrete actions. This approach has not brought success, even during the period of relative stability in Europe. So there is little hope that it can bring success in the turbulent times we are experiencing now. Our common goal is to move past this dangerous period with as little collateral damage as possible, both for Russia and for Europe.

Finally, working on current openings and opportunities we should not forget that long-term Russian attitudes towards Europe and even the West at large will depend a lot on the success or failure of the European project. For centuries, educated Russians looked towards West in search of modernisation patterns, best social practices, and intellectual inspiration. Today, many critics of the EU in Russia argue that the European project is doomed, that Europe is losing its competitive edge, and that future belongs to other regions and continents. I wish Europeans would prove these critics wrong.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.