None of this had been conceivable in the preceding years, let alone a decade ago. In the summer of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had devastated economies throughout the world. Russia and Ukraine were locked in conflict and the EU and Russia were at odds over Ukraine and many other issues. The EU was troubled by Brexit and internal discord and the transatlantic alliance was in danger. A new Cold War between China and the US seemed to be in the making. Nothing indicated that ten years later governments and societies across the wider Eurasian-Atlantic area would be standing together.
EU member states were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing global recession. This could have been the end of European integration, especially as Brexit was still very much on peoples' minds. Instead, European leaders manage to agree a historic recovery plan. The "EU Road Map for a Prosperous, Healthy and Green Future", backed by a multi-billion-euro rescue fund, saves many EU economies from collapse. As well as providing immediate economic support, the Road Map includes a ten-year plan for reindustrialization, redomestication of supply chains, digitalisation and technological innovation. Much of the latter evolves around the EU's energy transition and green technologies. All this gives a major boost to European integration.
Riding the same wave, the French EU presidency (January to June 2022) launches an overhaul of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and the hitherto inconceivable becomes reality: EU member states finally agree to introduce qualified majority voting on the EU's foreign policy, thus providing Brussels with a more solid basis for action. With EU foreign policy becoming more strategic, the relationship between European nations and the United States within NATO become more balanced. In 2024, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy joins the Normandy Peace Talks on the Donbas war as a fully-fledged negotiator, alongside the heads of state and government of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. By the mid-2020s the EU has evolved into an international actor that other players, including Russia, can no longer dismiss as irrelevant.
In Russia, the COVID-19 pandemic initiates a slow and painful transition. The combined impact of the collapsing oil price and two waves of the pandemic in spring and autumn 2020 exhaust the Russian government's Sovereign Wealth Fund. The economy experiences a sharp contraction, followed by several years of low-level stagnation with devastating socio-economic consequences: millions of Russians watch their livelihoods evaporate. This marks the end of the unwritten social contract between the Russian state and society, which had been based on economic stability in return for reduced political competition and civic participation.
By 2023 Vladimir Putin is seriously adrift. Growing protests throughout the country and a series of crushing defeats for United Russia in regional and local elections cause a serious crisis within the elite. In the end, Putin abstains from running in the 2024 presidential elections. Mikhail Karasin, a largely unknown forty-two-year-old State Duma deputy from Yekaterinburg, is nominated and shepherded through the election. Once in the Kremlin, he retains the nationalist slogans but proves incapable of taking control of domestic politics. The chaotic devolution of power to the regional governors leads to a fragmentation of the political system. 2024 to 2026 are years of political turmoil and mass impoverishment. In the autumn of 2026, mass protests across country lead to Karasin's resignation.
The protests crystallise around Kirill Leontiev, a journalist who gained increasing popularity between 2020 and 2027 for his investigations into corrupted elite networks. Leontiev's pledge to curb poverty, address endemic corruption, focus on rule of law and modernisation and diversification of the economy on the win him the early presidential election in March 2027. For the new president, foreign policy is less about Russia's status as a great power. Rather, he sets out to create an international environment conducive to the realisation of his domestic political and economic reform agenda. Shortly after his inauguration, Leontiev calls Volodymyr Zelensky and suggests a meeting of the Normandy Format. Signalling change in Moscow, he openly criticises the leaders of the "people's republics" in Donetsk and Luhansk for ceasefire violations. The path is now clear for a fresh start in Russia-EU relations. But the developments that follow would not have been possible without other changes at the regional and international level.
Ukraine remains the litmus test for EU-Russia interaction in their common neighbourhood. The 2020 pandemic hits Ukraine's fragile economy particularly hard. Kyiv remains mired in economic crisis and political instability for several years. Neither Putin nor Karasin changes Moscow's policy towards Ukraine. Ukrainian President Zelensky, on the other hand, maintains his country's Western foreign policy orientation. With the EU regrowing economic muscle after the pandemic, Ukraine benefits from its association with the bloc. This, in turn, helps Zelensky to win the 2024 presidential election. The gradual consolidation in Ukraine, the EU's more consistent and proactive foreign policy and, finally, the changes in Moscow's approach create the conditions for real progress in the Donbas peace negotiations from 2027 onwards. Zelensky skilfully negotiates a road map for implementation of the Minsk Agreement. Kyiv accommodates some of Russia's demands, but ultimately ends up with reintegration of the contested territories and full Ukrainian control over the Russian-Ukrainian border. This also marks the end of the EU's Donbas-related sanctions against Russia, thus opening up possibilities for much closer economic relations and trilateral economic cooperation with Ukraine. At the time of the Yalta Economic Forum in September, the UN and the OSCE are preparing the ground for an internationally approved and monitored referendum on the future of Crimea. At the YES Conference, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (former German Minister of Foreign Affairs and Federal President) and Carl Bildt (former Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister) jointly declare that the time is ripe for an EU accession perspective for Ukraine.
The COVID-19 pandemic causes the near collapse of the US economic and health system, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, millions impoverished, and triggering violent clashes in various parts of the country. The outcome is a triumph in 2024 for the Democratic candidate Maria Menendez Diaz, the first woman and the first Hispanic to reside in the Oval Office. While relations with China remain tense, the Menendez-Diaz administration returns to multilateral fora such as the WTO, the UN and the WHO. Menendez-Diaz also maintains Washington's commitment to NATO while exhibiting little enthusiasm for greater military involvement in Europe. Washington does clearly stress its interest in the transatlantic political and economic partnership. This could easily have led to new conflict with Russia, had it not been for the transformation on the European continent: A stronger EU and European pillar within NATO, progress in peace negotiations on the Donbas, and, last but not least, Moscow's changing attitude make it possible to accommodate US and Russian interests in Europe.