Why EU’s New Russia Policy Sets Both on a Collision Course

The European Union’s new guidelines for relations with Russia reveal that Brussels has no meaningful ideas on how to deal with Moscow, Valdai Club expert Piotr Dutkiewicz believes.

The EU Foreign Affairs Council this week issued a five-point set of guidelines for EU-Russia relations. These say, however, much more about EU fears, weaknesses, and a lack of understanding of current Russian politics, as well as the increasing irrelevance of the EU position toward Russia, than they do about the EU’s goals and ways of achieving them.

Let’s have a closer look. “We had unanimity among the 28 on new guidelines” EU foreign policy Chief Ms. Mogherini said after the meeting of the Council –   starting with a first condition for a “selective engagement”: full implementation by Russia of the Minsk agreements. There is no word about the EU assisting all parties to make this happen and no word on Ukraine’s unfulfilled obligations in the process. It seems that the EU has silently accepted another frozen conflict in the region, knowing that it cannot deliver Ukraine what it promised and indirectly admitting that – in fact - Ukraine’s future is in Russian hands.  

The second point in the guidelines is more interesting, as it commits the EU to strengthen relations with its Eastern Partners, in particular in Central Asia. In simplest terms, the EU is saying that after “bringing Ukraine closer to Europe,” it is time for others to follow. That puts the EU on an even more direct collision course with Russia. The obvious interpretation in the Kremlin would be that the EU is aiming at creating a “sanitary cordon” around Russia’s underbelly, colliding with her newly-formed Eurasian Economic Union and its alignment with the Chinese New Silk Road. Try to see this goal – for a second - from a Russian perspective - it is an absurd to expect that Russia will just watch as one of the key   policy objectives - that is to keep influence in the belt around her in Central Asia - is modified by EU interventions.

The third objective (strengthening the resilience of the EU - for example energy security, hybrid threats, or strategic communication) is de facto not about Russia but about addressing EU weakness in dealing with energy dependency, convincing EU citizens about the viability of the EU project, thereby keeping it attractive and thus immune from external critique.  

The fourth point shows just how deeply the EU is trapped in its own wishful thinking, stating that the EU will selectively engage with Russia when and where she cannot cope with challenges herself. This is a wonderful idea indeed, but what is in this for Russia? The EU assumption is that “re-engaging Russia” will constitute an award in and of itself for Russia shows the EU’s anachronistic understanding of Russia. It assumes that the EU is still a vital “all-round” partner for Russia, which is certainly no longer the case. The faster EU bureaucrats understand this, the better for all involved.

The last guiding principle can be seen - from Moscow’s perspective – as nothing short of provocation. It says that – as Mogherini explained – the EU will support “more and more the Russian civil society” with a “particular view to the youth of Russia.” All of Putin’s nightmares about the “West” influencing Russian youth with ideas like those of the “color revolutions” can be seen as coming closer to home, now with written confirmation from the EU rather than from domestic conspiracy theorists.

This document reveals, however, one important truth. It looks as if the EU has no meaningful ideas on how to deal with Russia. Given the flaws of the EU’s approach, the issue at hand should not be criticism, but asking how the EU should actually, constructively engage with Russia given that the current state of “Russia v. the West” confrontation is more about fundamentals than tactics. This conflict is about how the regional and global political order should look and what Russia’s new role in it should be.  

A three-point starter comes to mind to stop the further escalation of a multi-level confrontation. The first is to start “talking about talks” by finding appropriate partners and venues to set the tone, areas, and level of the policy conversation to come. The second is to outline – with all frankness – areas of short- and medium-term common interests (and incentives) that would appeal both to EU and Russia. Thirdly, it would be helpful to create a “practical guidelines” with whom to talk, about what, and at what level to be used by advisers to policy makers when the time will come for the re-engagement.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.