The systemic crisis in Russia-EU relations is five years old. The military and diplomatic fallout over Ukraine has resulted in the curtailment of practically all forms of working cooperation at the governmental level, as well as reciprocal sanctions and trade restrictions. At the same time, there are still institutions supporting expert and business dialogue, which gives reason to assume that the parties will manage to return to more systemic formats of relations at some stage. In this connection, it is important to comprehend the systemic problems that faced Russia and Europe beforehand, the biggest of which, as I see it, is the problem of the parties' strategic intentions toward one other. The Russia-EU partnership has never been a “partnership of necessity”; it has always been a “partnership of choice.”
Russia and united Europe once had the fortunate opportunity to start relations from scratch. Both global actors emerged on the world scene practically at the same time in early 1992. The Maastricht Treaty was signed in early February 1992, when an independent Russia was just coming into its own as an international actor in its own right. But they both brought different baggage. Russia was the successor to the defunct USSR and had to deal with both its own problems and numerous conflicts that broke out in the post-Soviet space, including Transnistria, South Caucasus and Central Asia.
In the strategic sense, Russia had to adapt to its own strategic irrelevance and the dramatic decline in its capabilities, which followed hard on the late Soviet greatness. This was probably the main factor that influenced Moscow’s EU policy that was all meekness and deference, without much discussion, to what Brussels and other EU capitals were saying. And there were a lot of compulsive advice-givers in the EU at that historical period (to be addressed below).
It is still an open question to what extent the “join Europe” tactic was indicative of Russia making a long-term choice in favor of European integration “on any terms,” as the Central and East European countries did. There is no denying that only Europe could serve as a source of investment, technology, and development programs during Russia’s time of troubles (1991-2001). But Russia's dependence on the EU for its strategic survival was negligible and therefore its willingness to accept European advice in earnest was negligible as well.
The collapse of socialism in East Europe was perceived not only as a challenge to absorb the mass of East Europeans but also as an opportunity for tapping the unprecedented potential of a population of remarkable historical, cultural and religious similarity. A united Europe with a huge market and a population of 500 million would clearly occupy second place in the global hierarchy. But incorporating Russia into that system on the terms offered was absolutely out of question. More than that, Russia was not needed. With a population of 500 million, Europe did not depend on Russia for its survival in the still serene global environment.
The most it could hope for was slow progress towards a model where Russia would be for the EU, like Ukraine and other Eastern neighborhood countries, a trove of resources to be tapped at a leisurely pace. This is why all the talks on a new strategic agreement that began in 2005 were based on a presumed lack of even long-term strategic prospects for bilateral integration, even though the resultant entity, as the most far-seeing analysts noted, could have become an international power comparable with China and the US.
Soon real alternatives presented themselves to both Europe and Russia. More precisely, Europe already had such an alternative in the form of the United States. With the onset of the world financial crisis, it became clear that the Europeans could not pull themselves out without help from Washington and the financial institutions it controlled. China’s rise provided a convincing alternative for Russia, although, as in the case of Europe, China has not – nor evidently will – become a partner that is essential to Russia’s survival.
Russia and Europe will have to face the challenges of the 21st century together in a sense.