Since September 2020, a new stage of Russian policy begins in relation to its formerly most important neighbour and still the most significant foreign economic partner. Russia no longer believes that Europe is capable of playing the role of an independent and somewhat reliable partner in international affairs, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
The modern international order in Europe was created without the participation of Russia and often contrary to its basic interests. But at the same time, Moscow’s consent to the EU’s expansion to the East and drawing the countries of the former USSR into its orbit was implied within the framework of the system of relations that was proclaimed by the 1990 Paris Charter. At the core of the post-Cold War European order was the complete power advantage of Europe (and the West as a whole) in those dimensions where it continued to matter in relations with Russia. The use of military power or the consideration of military capabilities in diplomatic calculations was excluded from interaction. However, this did not prevent international politics in Europe from being power-based. During the period of 1991—2014, the leading EU countries managed, in principle, to realise their predatory interests, but by the middle of the past decade, they faced serious challenges inside and outside, which threatened over the next decade to reformat the entire European space and to make the role of the EU in the world even more insignificant. After Russia took an unambiguous position on the political future of Belarus in August, it became obvious that the European Union can no longer count on new acquisitions in the East.
Thus, since September 2020, a new stage of Russian policy begins in relation to its formerly most important neighbour and still the most significant foreign economic partner. First of all, this was noticeable in the statements of the Russian President during a meeting with the participants of the Valdai Club annual meeting in October. Russia no longer believes that Europe is capable of playing the role of an independent and somewhat reliable partner in international affairs. Even the UK, although it has left the EU, cannot be seen as an important player with whom Russia can do business on a serious global level.
France’s foreign policy behaviour is due to a serious internal crisis in this country, and so far there are no prospects for its completion. Out of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain and France have lost their ability to constructively participate in international politics to such an extent that their presence in this supreme body looks like anachronism. If we do not take into account the possession of nuclear weapons, it would be much more logical to see such countries as Germany and India in the Security Council as permanent members. The former will soon establish complete control over the development of Europe, while the latter acts as an alternative to the growth of Chinese power in Asia. However, both countries have a rather narrow vision of their role in world affairs and this remains an obstacle to their obtaining formal higher status.
Now it is rather difficult to talk about how relations between Russia and Europe will develop in a new quality. Over the past 30 years, the parties have practically not created habits and a mechanism of interaction between ordinary diplomatic partners, which does not imply, even in the long term, closer forms of integration. For centuries Russia has sought to become part of the intra-European balance of power. The European powers quite seriously hoped to involve Russia in a system of relations that would make it possible to use its resources without giving Moscow the right to vote in resolving the main issues of the regional order. Now this long-standing paradigm of relationships has been destroyed.
The future will equally depend on the internal development of Russia and Europe, as well as, in part, on the extent to which they will consolidate relations with their most important partners — China and the United States. In the European Union itself, 2020 was a time of defeat for alternative political parties and movements, and traditional elites were able to take advantage of the pandemic in order to consolidate their power. The price for that was further strengthening of sovereign states within the framework of integration. The symbol of this trend is the decisions of the July EU summit on the budgetary issue and planning measures to support national economies after the pandemic. Now, each EU country can require partners to report on how they will use the funds allocated within the framework of the post-crisis recovery budget.
At the same time in the European Union there is a colossal concentration of power capabilities in the hands of Germany, economically the most powerful member state. After the Lisbon Treaty, the most important of these opportunities was control over the activities of the European integration institutions — the European Commission and the Central Bank. Germany also has a fairly wide range of allies within the EU — these are countries such as the Netherlands, Austria, the Scandinavian states, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, as well as Bulgaria and Romania. France — the only alternative to German domination in Europe — can only count on support from Italy and Spain, which have been hit hardest by the economic fallout from the pandemic and are in a vulnerable and dependent position.
However, such power could lead to problems for Berlin when Angela Merkel finally leaves the post of Federal Chancellor. Any change of leader in the most influential country of the European Union will lead to attempts by other states to change the rules of the game and gain more for their interests. Berlin will attempt to maintain and consolidate its influence in 2021—2022, but it is unlikely to be able to do this with a mode of action typical for Angela Merkel. The crisis in relations between Hungary and Poland with Brussels in autumn 2020 is only a prelude to new challenges that the European integration will face in the coming years. Russia, for its part, will continue to face the historically inherent problem of the contradiction between domestic socio-economic efficiency and a successful power policy in international affairs.
As for the upcoming 2021, in the coming months we will see an increase in mutual alienation between Russia and Europe. After the new Joe Biden administration comes to power in the United States, European leaders will strive to restore relations with their main international partner after the destruction inflicted on them by the four years of Donald Trump’s activity. Most likely, the preparation of an agreement on transatlantic trade and economic partnership will be resumed.
As for relations with Russia, the trust ruined by European capitals will be difficult to restore even if they make efforts for this, which we cannot count on. Despite the fact that while we see an increase in investments from the main EU countries in Russia, in the future economic relations will also face the problem of total political mistrust and hostility. In such conditions, it will be increasingly difficult for businesses to operate outside of those areas where the benefits will be maximised. This means that Europe’s share in Russian foreign economic ties will soon show signs of a decline in favour of China and other Asian economies.
The coming years will be a difficult period for the European region, when a new system of relations between the EU and Russia will take shape. This process may result in a new split between the East and the West, with the fault line being a zone of permanent military tension. Whether this tension turns out to be a fertile ground for escalation towards direct conflict, depends on the European states themselves. A special relationship with Russia was one of their major advantages on the world stage, and the end of such relations will make Europe an even more marginal participant in international politics.