EUREN Brief 21
The Macron initiative,
the Biden presidency and
the future of EU-Russia relations

The COVID-19 pandemic, the political crisis in Belarus, and the Navalny incident have made 2020 the most complicated year in EU-Russia relations since 2014. The EU-Russia Expert Network on Foreign Policy (EUREN) spent time this year reflecting upon "Alternative futures of EU-Russia relations in 2030". We also encouraged our members to share their views on present developments. This EUREN Brief is part of a series about the question "EU-Russia relations – what now?". See also the contributions by Timofey Bordachev, Sabine Fischer, Tatiana Romanova, Hanna Smith, Ivan Timofeev, Sergey Utkin, Ernest Wyciszkiewicz.

ince 2014, EU-Russia relations have become stuck in a downward spiral of distrust, mutual recriminations and confrontation, driven by a succession of dramatic events and crises. Neither a paradigmatic change in US foreign policy, nor the acceleration of the bipolar US-China confrontation nor the outbreak of a global pandemic have led them to deviate from this course. In that sense, the diplomatic initiative for a renewed strategic dialogue with Russia launched by French President Emmanuel Macron appears be swimming against the stream in two respects: it is largely inspired by international structural dynamics and seeks to halt the downward spiral. Just as it was partly conceived as a response to the foreign policy of the Trump administration, it is likely to be affected by the direction taken by the Biden Presidency.

David Cadier
Centre for International Studies (CERI), Sciences Po
December 2020
The diplomatic initiative for a renewed strategic dialogue with Russia launched by French President Emmanuel Macron appears be swimming against the stream

Essentially, Macron's initiative bets on reinvesting in diplomacy, in its formal, symbolic and regional dimensions, in the hope of identifying points of convergence and creating pockets of constructive engagement in tackling concrete issues such as international crises, arms control and counter-terrorism. It is rooted in an assessment that current approaches have failed to produce results, that the second pillar of the Western approach of "firmness and dialogue" needs to be expanded without abandoning the first, and a conviction that the stakes for regional security and stability are so high that something different, even audacious, needs to be attempted. Typically of the French president, it is a "work of ideas"- ideas that might not be fully and immediately implemented but that seek to force a debate, to question current thinking and potentially lay the groundwork for future change.

Commentators and diplomats are already trying to foresee what a Biden Presidency augurs for US foreign policy and for world politics more broadly. As far as EU-Russia relations are concerned, there is a more immediate and more puzzling question: Why the Trump era has seemingly not impacted them. The United States is a key variable in the EU-Russia equation: for EU member states individually, for Russia and for the bilateral dynamics themselves. It was also an important variable considered by EUREN analysts drafting alternative scenarios for EU-Russia relations in 2030. This stems not only from America's status as the leading world power but also from its function in the security imaginaries, foreign policy identity and internal political debates of EU member states and of Russia. The erratic, contradictory and at times adversarial positions on transatlantic cooperation adopted by the Trump administration and the over-politicisation and contingent paralysis of its Russia policy could have encouraged EU member states to redouble their efforts to define a distinct common European policy towards Moscow. Similarly, the Trump's administration tendency to treat the EU as a "foe" could have led Russian policy-makers to reconsider their view of EU member states as mere subjects of US hegemony lacking agency of their own.

As far as EU-Russia relations are concerned, there is a more immediate and more puzzling question: Why the Trump era has seemingly not impacted them

Let us consider three possible, non-exclusive explanations for why the heterodox Trump presidency apparently had such little bearing on the course of EU-Russia relations. They shed light on how the Macron initiative differs in this regard and how it might fare under a Biden Presidency.

The first explanation pertains to the nature of the changes brought about by the Trump administration; whether they were truly paradigmatic or simply cosmetic, rhetorical and symbolic. EU capitals tend to diverge in their assessments on this point. Seen from Warsaw, Trump's declarations on NATO's "obsolescence" are marginal in comparison to his decision to move ahead with – and expand – rotational deployments of US troops on Polish soil in the context of the Alliance's Enhanced Forward Presence. Decision-makers in Paris tend to emphasise Trump's abrupt withdrawal from international regimes, agreements and organisations – from the JCPOA with Iran and the Paris Climate Agreement to agencies such as UNESCO and the WHO.

This has been a constant: While for most EU member states Russia's foreign policy affects their possession goals in international affairs (such as security or economic wealth), for France it relates primarily to its milieu goals, to objectives concerning the structural conditions of world politics (whether in terms of systemic distribution of power or of legal, normative and institutional architecture). The advent of a bipolar world centred on the US-China confrontation and how this is likely to constrain Europe's leeway in international politics has been central to Macron's thinking on Russia, as has the Trump administration's disregard for – and dismantling of – the building blocks of the international multilateral order, where if we are frank France currently enjoys a privileged position. The former, systemic trend can be expected to continue under a Biden presidency and thus comfort Macron in his vision. A reversal of the latter, normative tendency could lead Macron's diplomatic initiative to be downplayed, though probably not fully abandoned.

A second explanation could be that the United States is now less of a factor in EU-Russia relations than it was in the past. Regional and domestic events now seem to take precedence in setting the course of EU-Russia relations. This applies most recently to the political crisis in Belarus and, especially, the poisoning of Alexey Navalny. Some have suggested that these negative developments would lead France to pull the plug on its diplomatic outreach to Moscow, but this is to misread the rationale of the initiative. It is not about making a definitive and all-encompassing statement about the nature of EU-Russia relations or of Russia's foreign policy. Nor does it entail denying, ignoring or downplaying current problems or assume that new problems will not arise. In fact, the French president's desire to relaunch dialogue with Moscow has not prevented him from adopting a firm stance on the political repression in Belarus or the poisoning of Alexey Navalny. He has supported EU sanctions – to the extent of seeing his government, along with Berlin, specifically targeted by Russia's counter-sanctions.

Instead, the initiative is about ensuring that a space for diplomacy – in its traditional sense of mediation, negotiation and difficult compromise – remains open in troubled times, in the hope that it can play a role in solving or defusing international and regional crises. It remains unclear whether these hopes will actually materialise and whether the space for diplomacy has been effectively closing remains open for debates and differentiated interpretations. To be sure, the Macron initiative has not, thus far, in any way facilitated a resolution of the Belarus crisis or a EU-Russia dialogue on Belarus and on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Ultimately though, the ability of the Macron proposal or any similar diplomatic initiative to actually produce results remains contingent on Russia and other EU member states demonstrating an interest in making them work.

A third and last possible explanation as to why the structural changes pursued by the Trump presidency had seemingly little bearing on the course of EU-Russia relations is that the latter are now locked into a path-dependent conflictual dynamic. This seems to be the assessment of the French president, who has at times presented his initiative as aiming to preserve the possibility to undo enemy mental structures when the facts on the ground change, on the basis that such structures tend to acquire a life of their own and can be instrumentalised politically, as the post-Cold War period has shown. In a way, the initiative is also about recalling that things could be different: that economic sanctions are not indefinite but tied to clear demands and to be lifted when they are met; that the parameters of EU-Russia relations are not permanent and immanent but contingent and contextual. As for the systemic considerations presented above, the point is that EU policies towards Russia should not be overdetermined but strategically defined.

The French president's desire to relaunch dialogue with Moscow has not prevented him from adopting a firm stance on the political repression in Belarus or the poisoning of Alexey Navalny

In that sense, although the Macron initiative is sometimes presented as yet another French attempt to distance Europe from the United States, it actually overlaps with debates in Washington concerning the functions of dialogue and diplomacy in US policy towards Russia. One group of eminent US scholars, analysts and former policy-makers recently published a call for renewed strategic dialogue with Moscow whose wording and reasoning exhibit many similarities with the French president's proposal. They advocate engaging Russia "in a serious and sustained strategic dialogue that addresses the deeper sources of mistrust and hostility and at the same time focuses on the large and urgent security challenges". Another group criticised that interpretation, arguing that dialogue should constitute a reward and recommending continuing to treat Russia as an enemy until Moscow stops perceiving the United States as one – a view that also has its supporters in the EU. It is still not fully clear which approach will prevail in the Biden administration; the former could give Macron's proposal legs, while the latter would create additional headwinds.

Most crucially though, the fate of the Macron initiative will, in its European dimension at least, be determined by the interest shown by Russia and EU member states. Thus far, Moscow seems largely disinterested and many EU capitals unconvinced, if not suspicious and vehemently critical in some cases. This is connected with a major flaw in the conception and delivery of the initiative, as acknowledged by French policy-makers themselves: EU partners should have been consulted more fully and much earlier. While it is not clear what such consultations might have produced in terms of collective output, if any, the fact is that the Macron initiative is now confronted with an aporia. Russian policy-makers are reluctant to engage with the initiative until it demonstrates its ability to bring along other Europeans, while other Europeans refuse to support it until it demonstrates its ability to bring about results – which depends on Russia committing to the initiative in the first place.

The fate of the Macron initiative will, in its European dimension at least, be determined by the interest shown by Russia and EU member states

This then makes it easier for those satisfied with the status quo or sceptical towards the idea of increasing EU-Russia dialogue to shoot down not just the messenger but also the message. It remains the case that this initiative has the merit of inviting a collective reflection on EU-Russia relations, on the implications of the changing international landscape, and on the functions of diplomacy – while rejecting determinism and path-dependency.

The content of this paper is the sole responsibility of the author and does not represent the position of individual EUREN members or EUREN as a group.