The relations between EU and Russia have always been complex during and after the Cold War and became even more complicated in the wake of the 2014 revolution in Ukraine and Russian annexation of Crimea. Following these events, the US and EU upheld their international alliance and imposed economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Russia. However, after Trump’s election, there has been clear breaches of a common position on this particular issue as well as of general understanding of international neoliberal norms and the global political order. Not only did the current US president praised Putin and his policies as an example of a strong leadership, but he also publicly attacked and labeled EU countries economic rivals. This is an unprecedented situation given the fact that after World War II and in post-Cold War era the US interest in safe and prosperous European Union has always been clear and firm. It has also been embodied in NATO which has been tasked with the pursuit of common defense and security. However, after Trump publicly questioned the relevance of NATO and put the unconditional US commitment under doubt, the foundations of this alliance where the interests were shared and the enemies common do not seem as firm as before. These events are an indication, that under the Trump administration the US is adopting a course of self-centered and selfish isolation. The US rejects to put as many resources and efforts as it did before to enforce and protect the very international norms and the global order which it has architected itself. Despite the claims that the fundamental nature of transatlantic alliance is firm, able to resist temporary pressures, it is also undeniable that the negative public view in Europe towards the Trump administration and the critique of European elites by the US is increasing which constitutes a dangerous tendency in the long term. In such an unconventional situation, to keep the European idea alive and operational, EU has no alternative other than to press forward itself and further promote the very principles and norms that form its foundation. However, despite its vast human and economic resources, without the US support, it has neither sufficient capability to compete with Russia for influence nor the means to resolve already existing conflicts and clashing interests. For EU this means nothing less than it is time to clearly define its own strategic interests, bring clarity to its foreign policy and attempt to translate its economic power into own military and defense structures.
What the Recent History Tells Us About the Future of EU-Russia Relations
It is no secret, that the collapse of the USSR and the beginning of the process of political and economic liberalization in Russia, including its integration to western and international institutions, created positive hopes of an emerging cooperation and a potential alliance between EU and Russia. At one point, even the potential membership of Russia to NATO has been discussed as a realistic possibility. However, from 2000 onward, the common understanding of issues and the cooperation has been declining while disagreements and opposing interests have been rising. It has been clearly manifested in Putins iconic speech during the Munich Security Conference in 2007 when he criticized the immorality of a unipolar world and blamed the West for breaching its guarantee of not expanding NATO towards Russia. Furthermore, Putin stated that Russia will have an independent rather than shared foreign policy. Following this, the Russian policy in its near neighborhood has been defined by the strengthened effort of preserving and enforcing its influence. It clearly demonstrated its willingness to go beyond diplomatic and economic pressures and engage militarily should the necessity arise. This has been the main distinguishing pattern that its opponents for influence over the same zone were not willing to apply. It has been demonstrated in 2008, when the brief war between Russia and Georgia broke out largely as the result of Georgias western course and clear-cut ambition of joining NATO. The country has been punished with the territorial loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and as a consequence practically also lost the chance of NATO membership in near future. The history repeated itself in Ukraine in 2014 proving again that as former Polish foreign minister Sikorski said once, the Russian leadership does act the way it tells. Looking at this and several other important events happening within the framework of EU-Russia relations, we can spot a pattern of actions which demonstrates, that Russias interpretation of the present global situation and power distribution is one, that enables its use of force as the most efficient foreign policy tool to advance its logic of territorial defense. Most importantly Russia does manage to get away with it by isolating itself from the normative logic of the global order in places where it feels vulnerable despite the fact, that in long term it does not necessarily advance its own security interests. The meaning of this for the future of EU-Russia relations is that the gravitation of Russia as a power center will increase while emerging national interests within EU and sometimes opposing voices will weaken its consequential influence on countries positioned between them. Consequently, in short term, Russia will be better positioned to win the competition for dominance over what it calls a zone of vital interests as well as to promote its cultural-ideological dominance that in a current setting in many places opposes the norms and beliefs of Europe and the West.
Can Economics Cooperation Prevail where Politics and Security Compete?
While in the political and security domain EU-Russia relations will continue being volatile, defined by opposing, clashing and incompatible interests, in the economic realm they are much more likely to move towards further integration and cooperation. Russias budget is very sensitive to the revenue from the export of energy sources to EU and it is traditionally dependent on European technology and especially German technology including its vital industrial filed such as energy. From the other side, EU is highly dependent on Russian energy sources and especially Russian natural gas. While the dependence differs in various member states, as a whole EU still cannot find an alternative for Russian energy sources. This is complemented by other sectors of the economy such as agriculture that also constitutes a sensible portion in EU-Russia trade relations. Despite the economic sanctions and aggressive rhetoric, it is clear, that in the current situation of US-EU relations politicians in EU are feeling intense pressure by economic elites to find ways of resolving the issue that is damaging and undesirable for them. From the other side, Russia is much more interested in trade with EU as it would mean less isolation and better economic conditions. While Russias initiation of Eurasian Economic Union has been an attempt to strengthen its economic position and influence, it does not deliver sensible changes that would create real advantages in terms of its economic positioning. Eventually, in long-term, economic interests will find ways of overcoming political challenges to develop further.
In recent years Russia clearly does not demonstrate much respect for the post-Westphalian international order and when possible applies to the argument of power rather than the power of argument. Its foreign policy interests oppose the western interests and become battlefields for proxy wars in places they clash. Within the environment of growing contest between powers of liberalization, democracy, international norms and universal ideas from one side that are the foundation of the West including EU and the illiberal political powers from the others that includes also China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others, Russia clearly positioned itself in the latter side. At the same time, it is undeniable, that Russian geopolitical strategic choices are well calculated and competitive within the current international environment. Many times, it does achieve its strategic goals at least from a short-term perspective. Such success also helps the current regime to secure domestic support and maintain the control and political dominance within Russia. In contrast to Russias decisive and firm actions, EU has many times failed to demonstrate a clear and sound strategy to address issues and problems emanating from areas where its interests clash with Russian interests. While the US leadership for the West under Trump administration is unreliable, EU will have to act to finally transform its economic power into military might capable to secure its prosperity and enable its pursuit of independent foreign policy interests. Otherwise, very substance of relations will hardly take dramatic changes at least if Putin is president for another term which he will almost surely be. Therefore, in near future, EU-Russian relations are not and hardly will be a partnership. At the same time, given the geography and the gravity of current international political, security and economic problems, the cooperation and the dialogue have no better alternatives. However important Ukraine is for European agenda and the credibility of the West, the international security goes beyond one piece of a puzzle and Europe too will have to find ways to address other issues many times in close cooperation with Russia. The most recent indication of this has been Germanys foreign minister Sigmar Gabriels suggestion, that sanctions may be eased if peace occurs in Ukraine. The bar was set much higher in near past. Regardless of the fact, that EU and Russia cannot escape from the past and will have to address it, regardless of the fact that they cannot defy the pressure and the gravity of what already exists´, at least after the end of Putins rule there is a possibility of restoring the relations and creating more ambitious dialogue based on mutual respect and recognition of interests.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said once, the change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability. So do not the EU-Russia relations.
Author: Davit Petrosyan
Davit holds an MA in Politics and Public Administration from University of Konstanz and MA in Human Geography from Yerevan State University. Currently he is last year MA student of International Security Studies at Charles University in Prague. In 2017 he has worked as an assistant at university of Konstanz and currently works as an analyst for Appen International in Germany. Narrow interest areas include surveillance studies, intelligence and counterintelligence, counterterrorism. These are complemented with interest in larger spectrum of international relations and Geopolitics.