“Hostility as Usual”: Perpetuating the Impasse in EU-Russia Relations

It became increasingly clear to the Russian public that the EU was highly dependent on the US on a wide range of various matters, including those concerning economics and trade.

On March 14, 2016, the EU foreign ministers formulated five principles in relations with Russia: insisting on full implementation of the Minsk ceasefire agreement in eastern Ukraine as a condition for any shift in the European Union’s policy toward Russia; increasing ties with post-Soviet states, namely, Eastern Partnership and Central Asian countries; the strengthening of EU resilience in the energy and other sectors; supporting the development of Russia’s civil society; and “selective engagement” with Russia on foreign policy issues vital to the EU. These five principles are presented as a new solid and long-term basis for shaping the entire EU policy towards Russia. On the one hand, this shows the EU’s commitment to a normative approach in political decision-making. In this sense, the foreign ministers faithfully stuck to the Lisbon Treaty’s value-based policy as the basis for all EU foreign policy moves. On the other hand, the practical implementation of these five principles, including the drafting of an implementation roadmap, may prove, in our opinion, to be a difficult task for EU. This is practically always the case when a rigid normative approach collides with current political realities.

What leaps to the eye is that none of the five principles is anything new or that which hasn’t been practiced by the EU towards Russia in some way or other already. The full implementation of the Minsk Agreements is an EU’s unchanging precondition for the lifting of sanctions (or part of them) against Russia. Clearly, no substantial change can occur in the EU’s stance towards Russia without removing the sanctions (the first principle). And here we find absolutely nothing new, at all!

The second principle – prioritizing relations with the Eastern Partnership countries to spite Russia – has been consciously and consistently implemented ever since the Georgian-Ossetian conflict in 2008. This course, incidentally, was behind the tug-of-war between the pro-EU and pro-Russia vectors of development in Ukraine that eventually led to the current Ukrainian crisis. This principle, therefore, is also a falloff of an already existing strategy.

The third principle is mostly about energy security, a policy the EU has been pursuing for ten years, beginning with the approval of the Third Energy Package. Among other things, this was reflected in its opposition to the North Stream and later South Stream gas pipeline projects.

The fourth principle, the need to focus on supporting the development of civil society in Russia as an alternative to interstate cooperation, originated back in the 1990s, when the TACIS and TEMPUS programs were launched.

And, finally, the fifth principle, “selective engagement” represents a forced departure from the usual normative approach: when it’s we who need something, we are ready to disregard our own value and accepted restrictions. This stance is far from being original and was successfully exploited last year, when non-compliance with the Minsk Agreement did not prevent the EU from seeking Russia’s cooperation on the Iranian nuclear problem.

Thus, the five principles only reaffirm the existing status quo that emerged anywhere between 2004 and 2008 and took its present form after the Ukrainian crisis, whereas the ministerial decision itself is meant to program EU-Russia mid-or even long-term relations.

The first few months, after an upsurge in the Ukraine crisis, saw the EU declare that there would no longer be “business as usual” in relations with Russia. Paradoxically, the last two years have demonstrated that this approach is rather convenient for a lot of politicians both in the EU and Russia. One of the reasons is that the “business as usual” of years passed provided a rather modest and quite contradictory spinoff.

The previous strategy of four common spaces (economic issues; external security; police and domestic security; education and culture) has fallen flat on its face (with the exception of several highly successful education projects). A particularly revealing fact in the eyes of the Russian public was the EU’s clear reluctance to introduce a visa-free travel arrangement with Russia. As is clear, no common spaces can exist in principle unless people can enjoy freedom of movement.

Moreover, the EU-suggested procedural format proved ineffective as well. Held twice a year, Russia-EU summits seemed to afford a good opportunity for ever more ambitious common-space decisions and verification. But from summit to summit, we in Russia increasingly felt that the EU didn’t take these meetings seriously as a viable chance for dialogue and was simply going through the motions. This was displayed in both its unwillingness to discuss solutions to current difficult problems and in its frequent inaction on decisions taken earlier and now left hanging in mid-air. The same was happening at lower levels in the context of institutionalized sectoral dialogues between Russian ministries and EU General Directorates. So, regrettably, “business as usual” proved ineffective and only led to a growing suspicion that the EU was hypocritical and insincere in its statements regarding partnership with Russia.

Therefore, many in Russia accepted the renunciation of “business as usual” in early 2014, despite the acuteness of the crisis in Ukraine, with a sigh of relief. This made it possible to discontinue the tiresome and barren game of procedural and normative simulacra. But what do we have in exchange? Strife has raised its ugly head again, with both sides falling back on barely forgotten Cold War practices. What is more, they no longer have to feign friendly relations. In this way, “business as usual” has been rapidly replaced by “hostility as usual,” a principle that now dominates EU-Russia relations.

The result is self-evident: the discontinuation of political and sectoral dialogue, waves of sanctions and counter-sanctions, and mass-scale reciprocal demonization in the media, public views, and even diplomatic statements.

It became increasingly clear to the Russian public that the EU was highly dependent on the US on a wide range of various matters, including those concerning economics and trade, not to mention on all matters relating to Ukraine. Furthermore, the EU’s decisions with regard to Greece can be construed as extremely undemocratic, as was Germany’s hypertrophied leadership within the EU. Its demonization of those EU countries and leaders who opposed “hostility as usual (e.g., Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy, Greece) were seen as scandalous. Branding opponents of this course as “fascists” became commonplace (examples from France and other countries).

For obvious reasons, this situation is causing disaffection to grow in many countries, whose leaders are insisting on a step-by-step lifting of sanctions in line with the implementation of the Minsk Agreements and de-escalation of conflict in Eastern Ukraine. They are arguing that EU relations with Russia should not be made hostage to the Ukraine crisis. It is on this very path that the difficult and reasonably realistic, breakthrough towards resuming a dialogue, and all the announced EU goals for settlement in Ukraine could have been achieved.

Instead, they have approved five “new” principles that have placed a tangible and possibly most insurmountable barrier in the way of efforts to emerge from this impasse. Thereby the EU has legalized the course for “hostility as usual.” The result will be that Europe’s long-term security and stability will be in tatters. More than that, it will give a shot in the arm to those in Russia who are saying that we don’t need any dialogue with the EU and that it can only harm Russia’s national interests. Paradoxically, the five principles will primarily serve the interests of all Europe haters in Russia.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.