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Russia and Europe: A Problem of Strategic Intentions

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).

Ukraine, America and the ‘Island of Russia’
Andrei Tsygankov
The presidential election in Ukraine, as well as the no-less-important parliamentary election that will follow it, are very significant in the context of how the rival powers understand them. For the West, which is guided by the logic of the expansion of its sphere of influence, Ukraine serves as the most important means to deter Russia and undermine its sense of pride and independence.
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Again, Russia sought rehabilitation which for many was a return to normalcy after years as a pariah. Certain prominent Russian writers even applied to Russia a vulgar interpretation of a theory that emerged from the so-called English school of international relations, arguing that Russia had had a chance to join the “international community,” meaning the West. Other much more sophisticated thinkers believed that the West should accept Russia for what it was and use that to grow even stronger. But neither point of view prevailed. Therefore, it seems odd today to put the blame for the parties’ backsliding into crisis on the West alone. Its roots reach much deeper.

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.

Report: The European Union’s Uncertain Future: What Should Russia Do?
Timofei Bordachev
The best word to describe current state of affairs in Europe is uncertainty. A number of crises, which the EU has faced with in recent years, lead to the inevitable inner transformation of the Union rather than disintegration. Nonetheless, even such circumstances open up new opportunities for Russian-EU relations. What are the roots of the EU’s crisis? How should Russia react to the EU’s problems in such situation?

European integration in the 1990s was a totally different story. After the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, the EU set out to achieve two highly ambitious goals: to create a common currency, the euro, and to develop a common foreign and defense policy. If successful, both projects would make the EU a new cohesive and influential power center of global stature. The new world, dominated by the US militarily, gave the EU a unique chance at a time where no one yet expected China’s rise to prominence.

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.

Suzerain-Vassals Relations: How Trump Shapes His European Policy
Andrei Korobkov
Last week, Donald Trump demonstrated the stark contrast between the way he talks with Vladimir Putin who, albeit an opponent, is still the head of a great power, and the way he talks with European leaders, seen as vassals. At a meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker on July 25, the US president called a spade a spade once again and sent Europe a clear message that the western alliance is not a union of equals anymore. No matter how the trade war ends for Europe, the rules of the game have changed, said Andrei Korobkov, Professor of political science at the Middle Tennessee State University, in an interview with
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In principle, the existence or absence of an alternative to integration is a typical problem in any instance of close cooperation between sovereign states. The ideal example is West European integration in the mid-1950s. Much worse examples are ASEAN, MERCOSUR, or post-Soviet integration associations, which failed to deliver to member-countries the undisputed benefits that are more important in the longer term than any losses or gains.

Russia and Europe will have to face the challenges of the 21st century together in a sense.

Europe has failed to create a politically unified space capable of acting in concert on the international stage and is unlikely to achieve this in the future. Russia will remain a country that is able to ensure its sovereignty and survival all on its own without support from allies.

The crisis that began in relations between Russia and Europe five years ago was largely the result of a lack of seriousness about the future of bilateral relations. Russia and Europe are still attempting to operate within the old paradigm, although its potential was exhausted long ago. But during the next few years, Russian and European intellectuals will have a unique opportunity to analyze bilateral relations without holding back and to decide what these relations should look like, when we don’t particularly need each other for survival in the troubled 21st-century world.                                     

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