The EU-Russia relations have returned to hostility and, accordingly, all ties that are not really of fundamental importance for the EU countries are being curtailed. However, so far this is only a reaction to the fact that Russia’s behaviour may deprive a united Europe of a very important potential source of resources for development — Russia itself, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
Even if for Russia the events in Ukraine constitute a special military operation aimed at placing this territory in a state which does not pose a threat to its survival and development, then for the European Union it is, of course, about a full-scale struggle, and only the fear of Russian nuclear weapons prevents it from becoming fully engaged.
This, in fact, is not surprising — by its actions, Moscow has destroyed the possibility of completing the construction of an order in Europe, in which its leading powers would occupy a central place. Therefore, even if the results of the military crisis turn out to be insufficiently optimal from the point of view of Russian interests, the united Europe in any event faces serious challenges, the answer to which also does not even seem relatively clear yet.
The noteworthy statement by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Borrell that “the war will be won on the battlefield” made many observers in Russia reflect on what, in fact, European integration is now, and in what direction we can expect its further development amid the new conditions. And it would probably be an oversimplification to believe that the European Union has now turned into an “economic department of NATO”, performing only auxiliary functions in relation to the bloc, which is the central instrument of US policy in the western part of Eurasia. First of all, because the future of this association seems to be no less diverse than the prospects of all, including the most powerful participants in the current struggle.
The key issue for us is the relationship between the conflict with Russia and the development of Europe itself. Unlike the United States, Russia or China, modern Europe is not a single participant in international politics. Therefore, any significant international event or process is important in these cases, precisely in their relationship with the internal development of the group, and its ability to ensure the interests of the participating countries in the best possible way.
It must be understood that even the most intense military-political confrontation with Russia will not be able to solve the internal problems of the European Union, accumulated over decades of successful integration, as well as those that arose in its less brilliant period after 2008. This, at the very least, would contradict linear logic, which sometimes turns out to be true. The case here is that the most famous historical examples of integration success were associated with fundamentally different external conditions. First, we should talk about the initial stages of cooperation between the countries of Western Europe in the second half of the 20th century. Second, about the decisive breakthrough in integration after the end of the Cold War, when, in fact, the foundation was laid for many of the internal contradictions that it is now experiencing. In both cases, Russia (or the USSR) was of paramount importance, either as a threat to push for more internal action, or as a prime target for a friendly, long-term takeover.
It is no secret to anyone who is seriously interested in the history of European integration that the European Economic Community, since its inception in 1958, has not been a gathering of vegetarians as far as their relationship to the outside world was concerned. The main practical tasks of the association were to support the efforts of national governments to create economic conditions for successful competition with the USSR and its allies in Eastern Europe, as well as to create conditions for the relations of the former colonial powers with their abandoned possessions in Africa and Asia; conditions that could not differ much from the previous ones. In a number of cases this was impossible to do, but for the most part, the EU institutions coped quite well with this task.
Since the very beginning of the Cold War, the USSR presented a challenge to the countries of Western Europe on such a scale that it could only be answered through joint efforts. First of all, in the field of improving the quality of life of their own citizens and reducing the temptation for Europeans to vote for left-wing parties which enjoyed support from Moscow. Since the USSR, for quite a long time, was indeed an alternative to the socio-economic order that dominated Europe, the efforts to integrate economies within the framework of the EEC were indeed aimed at solving an existential problem.
In practical terms, the European Community and its executive bodies until the mid-1980s pursued a rather aggressive policy towards the USSR and its interests in those issues that were within their reach. This did not, of course, prevent individual EEC countries from entering into cooperation with Moscow in those areas where it was really beneficial for them on a bilateral basis. However, in all other respects, as is known from documents and academic works of that time, the activities of the Commission of the European Communities regarding the East were consistently restrictive and aimed to cut off the USSR from any opportunity to use the internal market that the Europeans were building for their own development.
This also applied to trade, with the exception of a very limited number of goods and technologies, and in general everything that could benefit the USSR or the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. In this sense, it would be interesting now to compare the measures that the EU countries are introducing against Russia in the form of “sanctions” with restrictive mechanisms that they created between 1961 and 1989. Thus, the practical actions of the institutions of European integration, which were supported by the participating countries, were offensive and provided additional opportunities for Western Europe in the framework of global competition with the socialist bloc and its leader.
The second period in the development of European integration is the era after the Cold War, when colossal opportunities really opened up before its main participants. Russia, like the rest of the countries of the former socialist camp, acted during this period as a space for resource development. Of course, Europe had to share the most attractive opportunities for this development with the United States, but strategically, nevertheless, it was within the sphere of European influence. It was with this state of affairs that the incredible scale of the mutual openness of the European and Russian markets was connected, which continued until very recently. It must be emphasised that all the privileges that Russia had and which have now disappeared were due to the general strategy of relations.
It would be a mistake to think that these privileges were connected only with the current attractiveness of Russia as a market — they were much more dependent on the general political format of relations, aimed at integration in the long term. Now these relations have returned to hostility and, accordingly, all ties that are not really of fundamental importance for the EU countries are being curtailed. However, so far this is only a reaction to the fact that Russia’s behaviour may deprive a united Europe of a very important potential source of resources for development — Russia itself.
The goal of the actions of the countries of the European Union with regard to the Ukrainian issue is by no means Ukraine itself — that country simply does not have the appropriate resources. The real problem is that Russia, by its actions, can build a clear dividing line on its Western borders, which will very likely be much more difficult to cross than it seemed a few months ago. The on-going conflict may well lead to a long-term separation of Russia from Europe within the framework of a world disintegrating into economic blocs.
In the event that this happens, and the Russian state proves to be resilient to the many challenges that it already faces and will face in the near future, Russia may indeed cease to be part of Europe. Therefore, for the European states, it is now becoming a really critical task to prevent Russia from winning in Ukraine and survive in the associated economic war — this will deprive Europe of the most important potential source of resources and geographical space. In this sense, they have quite adequately determined the priority of current goals in their relationship with the fate of European integration.