The Future of EU-Russia Relations

15. 3. 2017

For parts of the European political and intellectual elite, a non-democratic Russia will always represent an existential threat: an archetypal enemy bent on exploiting the weaknesses of open societies.

In all likelihood, Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine will eventually morph into a frozen conflict, with occasional skirmishes, a modicum of international supervision, and endless negotiations over the status of separatist republics. It is also likely that, at some point down the road, the EU will ease its sanctions against Russia’s battered economy, perhaps in exchange for a stable ceasefire and partial withdrawal of Russian troops and equipment. By itself, that outcome would be something of a feat for European—and particularly German—diplomacy.

But once the acute phase of the conflict is over, questions will arise over the future of EU’s relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Building a new equilibrium of EU-Russia relations— without compromising our own principles, our security, and our commitment to Kiev—will become a defining test for European foreign policy in the years ahead. If it succeeds, Europe would have matured into a serious and self-confident geopolitical actor.

For the moment, however, that future drifts in a strategic and intellectual limbo. A return to the pre-2014 era of EU-Russian relations—to the meaningless yet expedient “strategic partnership”— is politically and practically impossible, even if Russia withdraws all of its troops from eastern Ukraine. But so is another Cold War.

To be sure, one can always nurture hopes of another Gorbachev-style game-changer, or even a Russian Maidan. The EU can even try to nudge the Russian polity toward either direction with a smart combination of external pressure and civil society support. But it cannot build a strategy around an unlikely scenario with uncertain geopolitical consequences.

Yet any alternative mode of EU-Russia relations seems impossible to envision, let alone conceptualize. Stable and peaceful co-existence with an authoritarian and aggressive neighbor is a notion that defies the imagination of European diplomacy—its discourse, institutions and historical experience.

Elites Divided

For parts of the European political and intellectual elite, a non-democratic Russia will always represent an existential threat: an archetypal enemy bent on exploiting the weaknesses of open societies—with sinister precision—to expand its sphere of influence. It follows that, in any given situation, we should always opt for the most muscular of all intelligible policy options. Anything less betrays naiveté, Munich-like cowardice or moral relativism, all of which would come back to haunt us.

On the other side of the divide are politicians and diplomats who will never tire of working towards closer partnership with Moscow. The motivation is not necessary one of narrow economic interests, energy concerns, or misguided anti-Americanism. Rather, they perceive dialogue and compromise-seeking as the innate purpose of diplomacy, and the most effective vehicle toward the progressive modernization of Russia itself. Needless to say, such an attitude entails a degree of understanding for Kremlin’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, the two paradigms remain locked in their own moral imperatives, causal logic, and historical narratives—and all too often insulated from empirical reality. Those who had long been sounding alarm over Putin’s neo-imperialism can (rightfully) claim that history has proven them right. But so can those who had warned that Western integration of Ukraine would precipitate strategic confrontation with Russia. The Ukraine conflict all but vindicated and reinforced everyone’s prior convictions.

The upshot is a reproduction of the false dichotomy that casts Russia as either a mortal threat or as a would-be strategic partner. The EU must move beyond it. If and once the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine comes to an end, we should envisage a future of EU-Russia relations where Moscow is neither a partner nor a threat— but where it could potentially be both at the same time. And it needs to develop a set of discursive and institutional tools to sustain this dialectical equilibrium.

It is a future fraught with paradoxes. It would require further investments into Europe’s military capabilities—especially in the framework of NATO’s collective defense—and contain the risk of Russia’s military incursion in the Baltic states or Poland; yet it could also entail genuine dialogue with Moscow over a new European security architecture. It would necessitate the bolstering of European intelligence agencies to counter Russian espionage, propaganda and other forms of hybrid warfare; but it should not preclude the possibility of negotiations leading toward a visa-free regime with Russia. It would dictate that we never recognize the annexation of Crimea (just as the EU never recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and vigorously defend the sovereign choice of Ukraine and other Eastern partners to pursue European integration; but also that we talk to Russia about the political and trade implications of these processes. We will have to push back against Russian influence in the future member states of the Western Balkans. We need to shed our dependence on Russian gas and addiction to dubious oligarch-linked oil. At the same time however, EU should remain open to free trade negotiations and sectoral cooperation with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union.

Flexible management of paradoxes does not imply weakness or abandonment of a principled foreign policy. Rather, it is a mark of statecraft and confidence in our own values. Ambiguity can be a powerful asset, if deployed strategically, as a means to a clearly-defined end.

It is worth recalling that the EU-Russia relationship is deeply asymmetrical. Even if it cannot directly shape the nature of Russia’s domestic regime, the EU will always be the stronger side. What is more, the Kremlin desperately needs Europe as an adversary—to support its nationalist and ultra-conservative ideology. It also needs Europe as a partner—to keep its primitively structured economy afloat.

All of this lends the EU considerable maneuvering space to dictate the terms of bilateral relations in the future, provided, of course, that it would no longer need Russia as a strategic partner, and it would no longer fear it as an enemy.

Achieving that balance will require the EU to integrate diverse and seemingly contradictory initiatives into a coherent strategy. In other words—to think and act in geopolitical terms.

And therein lies the problem. The EU has a notoriously troubled relationship with geopolitics, and with power itself. It is encoded in its DNA: after all, EU’s original raison d´etre was to tame the descriptive forces of European power politics, and replace it with post-modern pooling of sovereignty.

Today, despite the eurozone crisis, the EU wields more power (both the hard and soft kind) than any other international actor save for the US. But it cannot figure out what do with it. It floats in the waters of international relations as a giant well-meaning whale, in perpetual astonishment of its own power. Amid the December 2014 ruble crisis, EU leaders watched in panic as the economic sanctions they had adopted nearly brought down the world’s eighth largest economy. Likewise, in early 2014, it came as an utter shock to Brussels that something as mundane as an Association and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with Ukraine could spark a revolution and even war.

By contrast, Mr. Putin is well aware of the magnitude of European power, even as he fails to fully grasp its source. While publicly identifying NATO as Russia’s main security threat, the Russian president rightly suspects that it is the Union— its democracy, prosperity and rule of law—that poses a much greater challenge to his rule than all the NATO nuclear warheads and tanks combined. So does the common market: the Kremlin has never forgotten that it took but a few EU directives and regulations (the third energy package) to upend Gazprom’s entire business model.

The EU’s inability to utilize its geopolitical potential is often attributed to the cumbersome mode of Brussels decision-making, contrasting with Russia’s centralized and nimble execution of security policy. The argument is not without merit: for instance, EU’s practice of advance signaling of any major decisions—be it signature of agreements or adoption of sanctions—grants Russia (and any other player) a significant tactical advantage.

At root, however, Europe’s main geopolitical liability lies not in process or institutions, but in the absence of commonly construed strategic interests—the very purpose of power projection.

In eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin acts in full awareness of its strategic interests (however repugnant these may be) in obstructing the European integration process of Ukraine and other neighbors. By contrast, EU leaders have little idea of the ultimate goals of the Eastern Partnership policy. It pains them to even discuss the desired endpoint of EU’s relations with Ukraine and other partners.

Notwithstanding all the institutional innovations of the Lisbon Treaty, EU Member States have so far failed to devise an algorithm that would translate their national interests into a meaningful definition of European strategic interests. The anticipated revision of the 2003 European Security Strategy, advocated by High Representative Frederica Mogherini, would be a step in the right direction, but—judging by the political relevance of the original document—probably only a small one.

As a result, EU’s power remains amorphous and diffused. Member States’ governments have a hard time disciplining it: all too often, it acquires a life of its own, spilling forth into the neighborhood and beyond, triggering political crises, social commotion, waves of immigration, and all sorts of other unintended consequences.

The Learning Curve

However, pressed by events—from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine to the rise of the Islamic State—Europe is being forced into a crash-course in power politics. And not without success: the way in which member states assembled a sanctions package and set the conditions for their lifting—without severing dialogue with Moscow— suggests a commendable learning curve, owing largely to Berlin’s growing weight in EU foreign and security affairs. By EU’s own standards, it was a remarkable act of geopolitical power projection.

But even if sanctions deliver peace in Ukraine (and that remains a big if ), it would still be a mere tactical victory. The long-term strategic challenge is to fashion a workable paradigm to stabilize relations with an authoritarian and nationalist Russia, while safeguarding European security and upholding our core values. The EU possesses all the resources and instruments necessary. What it lacks is a common understanding of its strategic interests vis-a-vis Russia and the Eastern neighborhood. But the moment it formulates them, Europe will turn into a geopolitical killer whale.

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