Given these five factors, the prospects for EU-Russia relations are poor. The window of opportunity for any long-term planning has closed. Yet neither the EU nor Russia, nor the international system as a whole are likely to change in the near future. So the duty of an analyst is to suggest paths the EU and Russia could explore to mutual benefit in the short to medium term. Three avenues deserve attention.
On the political track the EU could become more active in arms control talks (in particular on extending existing START obligations). The EU and Russia have also demonstrated their ability to cooperate on regional crises in the shared neighbourhood (Moldova in 2019) and beyond (Libya). Russia, the EU, and other major players could also think about damage limitation in information (disinformation) and cyber security. An all-embracing initiative would currently appear impossible, but specific areas could be considered (such as limiting "infodemic" mechanisms or agreeing to refrain from cyber-attacks of specific kinds or on critical objects). Finally, bolstering international institutions could be a shared priority for Russia and the EU. The possibilities of this track will depend heavily on the outcome of the 2020 US elections.
On the economic track, the EU and Russia could engage in consultations on energy transition and climate change. Climate is a global concern, while the EU and Russia remain interdependent energy-wise, with vested economic interests. This area requires major efforts on both sides. The EU could refrain from framing the Green Deal in terms of its own energy security and self-sufficiency, and consider the economic sustainability of its transition, including continuing gas imports from Russia. The tone of the EU's external communication on climate change could become less condescending. Finally, efforts should be made to ensure that sanctions do not impede business in this field. The Russian political elite, for its part, has to realize that the energy transition is the EU's long-term policy choice. That could unlock new opportunities in Russia and EU-Russian relations (adapting existing energy businesses, creating new climate-related ones). It will also require an improvement in the business climate in Russia. In addition, Russia should more boldly push the message that limiting climate change (decarbonisation of the economy) overlaps with the energy transition but is not identical. Finally, domestic legislation to reduce Russian greenhouse gas emissions is essential to indicate that Russia means business in this field.
The EU and Russia remain neighbours; their border regions can only flourish through cross-border cooperation that makes them centres of new growth. The Arctic region could become another field of fruitful cooperation, where the EU's economic and environmental knowledge and skills could contribute to Russian plans (the 2021 review of the EU's Arctic strategy can be a starting point). This will also require a less condescending attitude on the part of the EU and shielding from the pressure of sanctions. Russia, for its part, will have to accept that there are good economic and environmental reasons in cooperating with the EU on the Arctic development. Recent environmental disasters in Russia serve as a powerful reminder.