At the start of 2021, Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe are uniformly bad. US President Joe Biden vows to be even tougher on Russia than his predecessor Donald Trump. Josep Borrell, having made the first trip to Moscow by a EU foreign policy chief in four years, certified that Europe and Russia are drifting apart, which could lead to consequences.

Putin and Lavrov Weigh In

On the Russian side, President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, while professing readiness for dialogue on issues of common interest, have accused the West of interfering in Russia’s domestic politics through their open support of the opposition figure Alexei Navalny. Rather than – as before – politely dismissing Western lectures on human rights, Moscow accused the accusers of rights infringements in their own countries. It also went as far as expel three European diplomats who walked the streets with protesters during the pro-Navalny rallies. 

Until recently, one could still make a distinction between the confrontation between America and Russia, on the one hand, and the mutual estrangement between Russia and the European Union, on the other. Now this distinction is getting blurred.

The End of the Special Relationship Between Russia and Germany

2020 was the year when the main pillar of EU-Russian interaction, the special relationship between Berlin and Moscow, finally ended.

That relationship grew out of Moscow’s pivotal role in German reunification in 1989-1990. It aspired to become partnership but did not really get there. It began to fray on the German side around 2011 when Vladimir Putin made his decision to come back to the Kremlin, thus nixing German expectations of a future liberal and democratic Russia.

As for Russia, the heyday of its German connection coincided with the chancellorship of Gerhard Schroeder, when ideas of an economic marriage between Russia and Germany and the emergence of a Greater Europe from the Atlantic to the Pacific were at their height. The Ukraine crisis of 2014 in which the Germans saw Russia as aggressive and the Russians saw Germany as perfidious undermined what had remained of the relationship.   

Reviewing the EU’s Russia Policy

Josep Borrell’s visit was aimed at getting first hand impressions in the run-up to the review of the European Union’s review of its Russia policy. The previous policy, based on the five principles formulated by Federica Mogherini, Borrell’s predecessor as the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, was not particularly successful. One can well imagine that the new approach will be worded in tougher language and that it would be closer integrated with the Russia policy of the Biden Administration in Washington. Whether it will be more successful than the Mogherini doctrine time will tell, but it is probably not worth holding one’s breath. 

There is clearly a need to rethink the EU-Russia relationship. What should be its ultimate goal? For Europe, since the end of the Cold War, it was something like “European Russia” – i.e., a Russia accepting EU-devised norms and principles, including in its domestic politics, economics, and social affairs, and cooperating with the EU on foreign policy. In other words, not a member of the EU, not even a candidate, but more of an associate, a follower. In Romano Prodi’s memorable words, having everything in common, except for the institutions. 

What Relations Does Russia Want With the EU?

In contrast to that, the Russian preference has long been a “Greater Europe” – i.e. a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, built on an arrangement between the EU and its post-Soviet counterpart, the Eurasian Economic Union, with cross-ownership of some of the main assets on both sides; a security architecture centered on the OSCE, with NATO and the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization partnering to uphold stability across the continent. By favoring Europe’s strategic autonomy from the United States, Moscow was looking forward to the day when the EU and post-Soviet Eurasia would form a strong association and Europe would finally become whole, free, and independent. 

In the three decades since the end of the Cold War, neither of these visions became a reality. In many ways, the situation in Europe today is more reminiscent of the period between the 1940s and the 1980s. Moreover, this situation is not static; it is worsening. It is not hard to imagine new crises, even military conflicts, in places like Donbass; Transnistria; the South Caucasus.

Ukraine; Donbass region; Donetsk; 2014. Commander Givi and his soldiers during an attack against the Ukrainian troops at Donetsk’s airport (Alfredo Bosco)

Russia – NATO Tensions

Incidents between Russian and NATO aircraft and naval ships can happen – with grave consequences – in and over the Black Sea and the Baltic. Potential deployment in Europe of new US intermediate-range missile systems can lead to a new Euromissile crisis. Add to this the latent political instability in Belarus; the ever-tumultuous political environment in Ukraine; the sensitive nature of Russia’s leadership transition, plus a host of other issues, too numerous to mention here, and you will get a highly explosive mix.  

Thus, before coming up with a new formula for a desired model of relations, one needs to make sure that we all survive to see the day. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the Conventional Forces Treaty in Europe (CFE) and the Open Skies Treaty (OST) are de facto defunct. Arms control is hardly the right recipe these days. Neither side is planning to invade, occupy, and transform the other. The principal danger is rooted in misperception, miscalculation, and escalation. The proper guardrails here are not weapons limits; it is reliable communications channels, personal contacts between the top military and security officials, and various confidence building measures. These channels, contacts and measures are essentially the business of Russia and the United States (either directly or through NATO).   

How Can Russia-EU Relations Be Improved?

Free from that burden, the European Union can look beyond conflict prevention. What can it do right now?

It appears that there are some areas propitious for EU-Russia collaboration even now. One is public health, the other is climate.

Russia has surprised many in Europe and across the world with its highly effective Sputnik V vaccine. The COVID-19 pandemic is the first truly global pandemic of recent times, not the last. Given the geographical proximity and the level of trans-border contacts, EU-Russia cooperation in the field is highly important for both. Another broadly similar area is climate change. Russia is genuinely interested in the issue, given that global warming is not only making much of the Arctic ice-free, but also disrupting the infrastructure in Siberia as a result of melting permafrost. Neither of these tracks will have much impact on the overall relationship, but each can bring real benefits to both parties.

Other issues appear less promising. The Normandy process notwithstanding, Europe is not much of a player in Ukraine, where things may sharpen up as a result of Kiev’s determined refusal to fulfil the Minsk II accords, which Ukrainian nationalists regard as high treason. Once Moscow concludes that the diplomatic process is hopelessly stalled, it may move to integrate Donbass closer with Russia, ultimately recognizing the Donetsk and Lugansk republics, thus paving the way for their accession to the Russian Federation. Given Joe Biden’s personal interest in and connections with Ukraine, Ukraine is likely to feature as a significant issue in US-Russian relations, with Europe playing an accessory role at America’s side. 

Another geopolitical time bomb is Transnistria. The recent election of a pro-EU president (and a Romanian citizen) in Moldova may give a boost to demands of withdrawal of a small Russian military contingent in the breakaway region of Transnistria. The self-proclaimed Transnistrian republic, which has existed since 1990, is a landlocked territory wedged between Moldova and Ukraine. A join attempt by Chisinau and Kiev to blockade the Russian garrison there would put Moscow before a dilemma of humiliation or conflict. It is unlikely that the Russian leadership would elect the former. The Black Sea area, of course, features other frozen conflicts, namely between Russian-backed Abkhazia and South Ossetia, on the one hand, and Georgia, on the other. As the second Karabakh war has recently demonstrated, these too can suddenly unfreeze. Like Ukraine/Donbass and Moldova/Transnistria, these situations will have to be dealt with primarily by the United States, with Europe in a supporting role, via NATO.   

 

Striving for Neighborliness

Mindful of all these potential conflicts and continuing constraints, the European Union needs to take time to look ahead to a more realistic long-term goal in its relations with Russia. Such a future relationship cannot be based on a dream of partnership or a vast common space. Co-habitation requires a common roof, which does not and will not exist; coexistence is correct in substance, but too laden with the legacy of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union advanced the concept of peaceful coexistence. Its current equivalent would be neighborliness. 

This model rests on several pillars. One is a degree of respect for diversity, even as low as simple acknowledgement of the neighbor as a different quality. Two is good fences: clarity with respect to where borders lie and sufficient security to provide self-confidence. Three is building and managing relations essentially on the basis of reciprocal interests. Four is cooperation on trans-border issues, such as infrastructure, public health, and climate. Five is interdependence. Even though the energy landscape is changing, as is the structure of the Russian economy, in the foreseeable future Europe will be dependent on Russian energy supplies, and the Russian federal budget will drawn on the proceeds from those sales.

What this entails is this. Interference in each other’s affairs, whether with a view to converting the public across the border to one’s worldview or subverting a regime or government one doesn’t like, is not permitted. Ideological and values differences shall remain, of course, but if they are not hyped up by those wielding foreign policy and thus they will not lead to mutual hostility and abandonment of dialogue. Inevitable disagreements can be managed so that disruptive conflicts can be prevented.

Beyond the inherently contentious political domain, the EU and Russia should be free to engage with each other as much as their people want to. Whatever they can do elsewhere, Europe and Russia are unable to change their geography.