Relations between the EU and Russia are at a particularly low point over the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union this must be the time of highest tension between the major powers on the European continent. Talk of new sanctions on Russia and of providing military assistance to Ukraine by the West may exacerbate the situation without actually resolving it. A further cornered Russia may well become more authoritarian internally and aggressive externally. The EU would be wise to avoid that and find more constructive ways of engaging with its big eastern neighbour.
There were times when things looked much more promising vis-à-vis Russia and the West in the 1990s and 2000s: the two START treaties between the US and Russia reduced significantly the number of strategic nuclear weapons; the NATO-Russia “Founding Act” and the NATO-Russia Council brought the former adversaries around the same table on a regular basis; a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and half-yearly summits marked a peak of EU-Russia relations. What went wrong and who is to be blamed for that?
As is usually the case, the truth and culpability do not lie only on one side but are shared, even if to different extents. Following the docile Yeltsin regime in the first years of post-Soviet Russia, the excesses of homegrown oligarchs and perceived external interferences, Putin and his team came to power promising to restore Russian pride and to assert Russia’s position as an independent major player in the global geopolitical setting. He also gave hope to the millions of Russians dispossessed by the economic transition and who never experienced the promised benefits of the market economy. Russia has been feeling the pressure from post-Cold War EU and NATO that expanded to include former Soviet republics and former members of the Warsaw Pact, coming all the way to Russia’s borders. No buffer zone and no letting down of pressure on a Russia that bled in terms of importance, population size, global influence.
Ukraine was the big prize in this simmering dispute and it seemed to be going to the West too, in the form of the country’s association agreement with the EU. A change in government that happened in a constitutionally dubious way gave Russia the opportunity to annex Crimea and support other separatist movements in the eastern part of Ukraine. The message was clear to the West: if you do not allow us enough breathing space we will create it by force. Images of invading Nazis, or even Napoleon’s troops, may well have come up in the individual and collective memory of the Russians that have always felt as unfairly treated in the margins of Europe that they find themselves.
Well, this may be the Russian perspective, one could legitimately say. What about the perception of Russia from the West, especially the newly “westernized” former Soviet republics and Eastern European states? For the vast majority among them Russia weighs in too heavily in any geopolitical calculation, a breath away as it is in terms of geography and in terms of time, as memories of autocratic dominance and cruel suppression by the Soviet Union are still very much alive. These countries certainly do not want to jeopardize what they gained in recent years, that is their political and personal freedom, open markets and open borders, with the EU and under the umbrella of NATO and the US. What is happening in Ukraine, and what has been happening before with Russia’s political and economic interventions, including through the manipulation of gas supplies, is in their eyes a serious reminder of how bad things were and how they could go wrong once again.
This does not need to be like this for ever, though. The complementarities in terms of capacities and needs between the EU and Russia are self-evident and could be used to build upon a solid era of cooperation. Russia’s natural resources are an ideal companion to the under-resourced but well organized, technologically advanced, stable and relatively prosperous EU. And the agricultural and industrial products and services (e.g. tourism) of the EU are a perfect match for the needs of the Russian population. Russia is the third trading partner of the EU, while the EU is the first trading partner of Russia. To show the magnitude of this partnership, during the peak year of 2012 the EU imported from Russia goods worth some 215 billion euros, while it exported to Russia goods worth some 123 billion euros.
Moreover, there are cultural and historical bonds that cut across Europe, from Portugal to Vladivostok, with Russia playing a big part in them, literally and metaphorically. In this light one can look at the EU – Russia relationship much more positively than the history of geopolitical competition and fighting would permit. In literature and the arts the Russian contribution to European civilization has nothing to desire from the rest of Europe, while Russia itself has for centuries tried to modernize in the spirit of the European Enlightenment.
These things should not be forgotten because of immediate power calculations and tensions that may tend to escalate, or may be escalated by actors benefiting from that. In this light it is interesting to watch the reactions of the US, which seemed to be ready for an escalation through military assistance to Ukraine but has toned down its rhetoric in the face of a united European stance favouring diplomacy. Chancellor Merkel clearly indicated at the Munich Security Conference on 7 February that security in Europe can only be built with Russia and not against it, showing a mature approach to the problem. Hopefully, the ongoing effort by the German Chancellor and the French President to facilitate a solution to the Ukrainian crisis will be successful and will usher to a new thaw in EU – Russia relations. Once the immediate dangers are over both sides should look for ways to strengthen their ties of all kinds for the long run. It is necessary to put on a solid footing once and for all the economic and political links, but also the social and person-to-person interactions, to create a peaceful, stable and prosperous Eurasian space.