A Crisis of Perception and Reality in EU-Russia Relations

12.12.2017

EU and Russia do currently live and represent two distinct normative models in the world, and neither is likely to completely prevail over the other, believes Nathalie Tocci, Special Adviser to EU HRVP Federica Mogherini. Much like we have not reached a Kantian end of history, neither does the future hold in store a Hobbesian world of rival nation states. 

The crisis between the European Union and Russia is deep and is as much about perception as it is about reality. Fixing the crisis may not be within reach; but managing it is imperative. 

As regards perception, the tragedy is that reciprocal stereotypes are deeply engrained. The Union and its member states fundamentally believe that in order for a political system to be sustainable in the long-term, it needs to provide rule of law, freedom, prosperity, and security to its citizens. To the extent that Putin’s Russia provides the latter but dramatically fails on the former three, the sustainability of its regime is questioned. Likewise, Russia fundamentally believes that the post-modern age of supranational governance was a chimera, and that the world has finally reawakened to the reality of national and nationalistic nation-states attached to traditional social values. Hence, the European Union, a hybrid supra national construct embedded upon liberal values, is undergoing an irreversible crisis that can only lead to disintegration. The Brexit referendum was not an outlier but a harbinger of things to come.

EU’s Neighborhood Policy: Revamping Fundamentals Clifford Kupchan
The European Union will always be flanked by two sets of partners: those to its East and those to its South. Consequently, its Eastern Partnership will never become irrelevant, and it will continue to warrant close attention from policymakers and citizens in years to come. This said, securing a bright future for the Partnership will require a substantial revamping of its fundamentals, from its underpinning rationale to its day-to-day execution.

Ostensibly neither side admits this is what they would like to see happen. But, actually, their prediction is so engrained in respective world views that it cannot be completely disentangled from respective desires. The truth probably is that both sides are wrong and they are wrong because, like it or not, the EU and Russia do currently live and represent two distinct normative models in the world, and neither is likely to completely prevail over the other. Much like we have not reached a Kantian end of history, neither does the future hold in store a Hobbesian world of rival nation states. 

This crisis of perception feeds and is fed by a crisis in reality, which plays out at three levels. The first relates to the global scene, and the Middle East more specifically. Here the crisis is manageable. Although different views and policies are likely to prevail for instance in Syria or Libya, those differences are likely to be manageable though skillful diplomacy. On other global issues, for instance on the E3+3 nuclear deal with Iran, the EU and Russia will likely remain on the same page, fighting for a survival of the deal faced with an unpredictable US administration.

The second relates to the grey area in between: Ukraine and the eastern neighbors more broadly. Here the crisis is deep and difficult to bridge. At most, it may be contained but certainly not resolved insofar as it represents a microcosm of the crisis of values between the two sides.

The third level is domestic, both in Russia and in EU Member States. Russia’s longstanding conviction that Europeans (and Americans) are intent in triggering a colour revolution in Russia, and the growing European (and American) realization that Moscow is intent in fomenting antisystemic, nationalistic and illiberal forces with all means available has generated the deepest and most irreconcilable rift between the two sides. So long as that deep-seated mistrust regarding each other’s destructive intent towards one another prevails, channels for cooperation will remain limited. 

It will come as no surprise that I have no solution to the problem, other than the general plea that the deeper a crisis is (and this one it is indeed) the more important it is to open and use all channels of communication.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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