Restoring Relations Between Russia and the European Union

Is Russia becoming bolder in asserting its interests in the West? This is one of the important security questions in Europe today. There is no reason to expect a major conflict to break out soon. But to make sure that this will continue to be the case, a genuine strategic partnership between the European Union and Russia is a key.


One of the reasons why so many Europeans are alarmed is Russia’s military posturing. One indicator concerns Russian air patrols. The number of NATO interceptions of Russian aircraft has dropped from 25 per month in the first half of 2014 to 20 in the first half of this year. We have entered a tit-for-tat game in which both sides blame each other for being assertive.

There is no doubt that the number of large-scale military exercises has increased, but, from a Russian viewpoint, NATO holds more exercises as well. Moreover, Russian exercises have increased across the board, in an effort to boost readiness, and thus also in the Central and Far Eastern Military Districts. Since 2012, Vostok, a military drill in Siberia and the Far East, simulates conventional war with an eastern neighbour. So-called offensive drills are thus not limited to the West. Finally there is the modernization of military equipment. Whereas most of the new fighter jets, navy ships, and air defense systems used to be stationed in the South and the East, but the priority has clearly shifted to the West since last year. It remains to be seen whether this becomes a trend, though.

The same ambiguity exists in Russia’s diplomacy. Besides the question of the Crimea, Russia has been constructive in the Minsk II negotiations and, thus far, the agreement has survived even though the OSCE reports breaches of the heavy arms withdrawal and the cease-fire on both sides. Russia also continues to send humanitarian convoys into Ukraine that are not legal. From a Russian viewpoint, though, Kiev also falls short in meeting the agreement, because it has failed to change its constitution so that it gives more autonomy to the Donbas Region. Given the large anti-Russian resentment in Western Ukraine, it will be difficult for President Poroshenko to live up to expectation, but until then, the Russian leadership might want to use instability in the East to exert pressure, which on its turn will again lead to more suspicion in the West. Both secessionist rebels and nationalists, meanwhile, will seize this as an opportunity to strengthen their position.

Interpreting Russia’s behaviour

All this testifies of a tense relationship, a huge degree of distrust and a clear willingness of Russia to assert its influence. I want to state clearly that Russia has already changed the status-quo, in Ukraine. The point is, however, that there is not much evidence that it is seeking to change it elsewhere – at least not yet. But it does not yet show desire from Moscow’s side to escalate the situation, to challenge the territorial status quo in other parts of Eastern Europe, or to provoke an arms race with the West.

The ambiguity of Russia’s behaviour is often explained as a deliberate campaign of misinformation and manipulation, meant to break the resolve of the West and to create discord between Western European countries and hardliners, including the United States. It is also said to be part of a nibbling strategy with which Russia slowly gains influence and territory and chips small parts of Eastern Europe into a revived Russian empire. This could be true in the Caucasus, but I do not see it repeating that strategy elsewhere. There is an important difference, still, between being provocative and being aggressive. We should be watchful, I conclude, but not alarmist. Russia will go on to assert its interest and try to benefit from weaknesses in the West, but I do not yet see it pushing for a major, violent confrontation with the West.

This does not mean that we should exclude such a scenario. Wars of nerves between great powers tend to spiral out of control. The ability to prevent escalations also depends on the domestic political climate. Vladimir Putin has tied his legitimacy to a tough foreign policy and the more problematic the domestic economy becomes, the more he could be inclined to harden his position. But the same is true in the West, especially in the United States, were a presidential campaign could prompt candidates to take a tough line on Russia. Lesser powers and small countries can also deliberately play up tensions and invite the major powers to intervene.


Escalation is neither in the interest of Russia, nor in the interest of the West. Consider, to begin with, the personal interest of Vladimir Putin. Putin is a patriot and wants, I assume, to go into the history books as the restorer of Russia’s status, not as the one who drove the country into an unequal partnership with China or exhausted it in a new Cold War. Without an unequal alliance with China, it is unlikely that Russia can fight a new Cold War. Compared to the previous Cold War, Russia’s economic power base is much smaller, if only as a consequence of the loss of control over other Soviet states. Weakening Europe makes sense as a tactic to extract concessions in Ukraine and to get Russia’s interests in the rest of Eastern Europe recognized, but it does not make sense in light of the long-term challenges from emerging powers in the East and changing political and demographic realities along Russia’s porous Southern frontier.

Deterioration or a new Cold War is unnecessary. It is true that the West has not always respected Russian sensitivities, as it was also the case the other way around, but this is more a matter of status than of core interests. There is competition – in terms of economic interests and values for instance, but I do not see Russia’s security or core interests being threatened. Both Russia and Europe are facing enormous domestic challenges and the task to find new sources of prosperity. Neither state capitalism nor naked capitalism can be a solution. The search for an alternative is a quest that Russia and Europe face together. From the viewpoint of our main interests, Russia and Europe are natural partners, rather than rivals.

If tensions were to intensify, they would be a product of folly rather than coldblooded power politics. Right now, we are not making progress to reduce tensions and find new common ground. This brings us to one of the most disconcerting aspects of the long turbulent history of international politics: coolheaded strategic calculations rarely prevail. In most great power tragedies of the past, one could almost predict that policies would end badly, and many did so, but policies were still not adjusted. It could happen again.

Europe’s options

Europe from its side could consider several steps. Most important is to strengthen consensus between the member states about their security environment. The unanimity in approving the sanctions was remarkable, but it is not enough. The revision of the European Security Strategy, which is ongoing, should be an opportunity to strengthen geopolitical unity: in their tiny corner between two vast continents, all member states are in the same boat.

It is evident that Europe will have to stick to non-recognition of the Crimea, like Russia and others, including EU member states, do not recognize the secession of Kosovo. It has to support the investigation of the crash of MH17 and make sure that those directly responsible are put on trial. It has to support the implementation of the Minsk Protocols and be more active in facilitating the agreed constitutional adjustments in Ukraine. Sanctions will remain in place until, but the EU must persuade Kiev to fulfil its promises.

Meanwhile, the EU should find ways to start interaction with Russia about long-term relations. This could start with informal discussions between experts, policy advisors and between officials in the sidelines of multilateral meetings.

One important issue in our future relation will be Europe and Russia’s common neighbourhood, including Eastern Europe, Greece and Finland. Both sides should put the prosperity, stability and sovereignty of the countries in this region first. Russia and Europe must agree on equal and cooperative efforts to promote economic development through trade, investment, financial aid, regulation, and so forth. Military presence should be limited. With the accession of Belarus to the CSTO (1994), and the three Baltic states to NATO (2004), the idea of a neutral zone is no longer plausible. Both sides could agree, however, on allowing defensive alliances but with important limitations to the deployment of troops, the deployment of equipment, the size of exercises, and so forth. Both sides must reach an agreement also on the treatment of minority groups. The main goal is not to create a buffer, but to promote stability while ensuring the balance of power.

Russia and Europe could also join forces to promote a new international framework for arms control. All major powers, the vested powers and the emerging powers, have contributed to the erosion of Cold War-treaties: the ABM treaty, the INF treaty, the NPT, the Outer Space Treaty, etc. Meanwhile, new weapon systems emerge. The lack of clarity increases the risk of miscalculations and incidents.

It is also crucial that Europe and Russia come to understand that, being two stagnant powers from a demographic and economic viewpoint, they have to work together to defend their interest in regard to the rising powers and the young, restless South.

Energy security is another issue. On the one hand, it is normal that both Russia, being a supplier, and Europe, being a consumer, seek to diversify their external energy relations. Many energy-producing countries maintain state-controlled or state-guided energy champions. This will not change. While consumers can understandably regret this, the best option to handle the situation is to limit imports and to diversify supply.

Bilateral relations can be strengthened in several ways. It is in Europe’s interest to encourage people-to-people exchanges and to develop an efficient Visa-regime. Particular focus should be on student exchanges, exchanges between opinion leaders, business associations, and so forth. Europe should investigate the possibility to recommence negotiations on a bilateral trade agreement and at the very least an update bilateral investment treaty. Official relations should be gradually restored, pending the fulfilment of the Minsk Protocols.

Much more can be done to rebuild a pragmatic partnership. The baseline remains that it would be damaging to both parties not to do so. In a rapidly changing geopolitical context, they would both be the main losers if they fail.

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