EUREN Brief 19
EU-Russia – what next?
False premises create false policies

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, David Cadier, Sabine Fischer, Tatiana Romanova, Hanna Smith, Ivan Timofeev, Sergey Utkin.

n order to project where EU-Russia relations might be headed in the short and medium term, it makes sense to start by deconstructing the implicit and explicit assumptions that are often found in formal and informal proposals for dealing with the impasse. There is no shortage of ideas. The Russian foreign minister painted a rather grim picture recently. The French president seemed more optimistic last year, though it is hard to tell whether he remains so. The expert community also regularly provides food for thought. In each case the premises are crucial, but too often taken for granted. The better we understand them, the more realistic our political conclusions about possible trajectories.

Ernest Wyciszkiewicz
The Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding

December 2020
We need to do something, now!

EU-Russia relations are deadlocked. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. As soon as anyone starts talking about windows of opportunity, Russia slams them shut. This has become a bizarre ritual, with an assassination in Berlin and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny just the latest examples. Some of the EU's offers may be debatable, but the Russian feedback demonstrates a lack of interest in improving mutual relations.

Unless the fundamental causes of the crisis are addressed, reliance on workarounds such as cooperation on combating climate change, green technologies or interconnectivity is going to lead to even more disappointment on both sides

The ongoing debate among EU member states about how to operationalize the "five guiding principles" vis-à-vis Russia, especially with regard to "selective engagement", seems like an attempt to simulate progress. Unless the fundamental causes of the crisis are addressed, reliance on workarounds such as cooperation on combating climate change, green technologies or interconnectivity is going to lead to even more disappointment on both sides. There is no need to push and there is no need to hurry. The EU does not have to do anything in particular now, except to uphold its principles. The EU should take a step back to give Russia time to rethink and reevaluate its policy.

World order in decline?

Conventional wisdom today is that the liberal international order is in crisis. Certainly, multilateralism as embodied by international organizations is under stress. The EU, a political and economic creature sui generis, also faces plenty of internal and external challenges. Yet, the observation is too often stretched beyond measure. Crisis is framed as imminent collapse, and used to justify calls for EU-Russia rapprochement.

The premise that international institutions are becoming obsolete implies that we are entering an age of predatory great power geopolitics. Putin's latest proposal to hold a special summit of the permanent members of the UN Security Council encapsulates his preferred modus operandi in world affairs – the good old concert of powers. This idea is obviously not going to fly. It is based on a misconception that the world is in total disarray and in need of self-proclaimed guardians of stability. The rumors of the demise of multilateralism and its poster child, the European Union, are greatly exaggerated (as was the case with rumors of the demise of the state in an earlier era). The actual EU crisis we have been witnessing is mispresented as a near-death experience. Overstatement by Moscow of the gravity of the EU's internal crisis (often for domestic reasons) tends to encourage Moscow to act more assertively, but seems rather unhelpful for any kind of serious conversation between the two.

Value-based policy is driven by existential interests. Russian hopes that EU policy makers will at some point throw their value-based approach out of the window to adapt to new realities is unrealistic.

This inability to process that the EU is not a regional version of some kind of Darwinist international environment is a derivative of the longstanding Russian strategy of relying on tête-à-têtes with the largest EU members to manage EU-Russia relations. This is accompanied by provocative assertions such as Foreign Minister Lavrov's recent comments about an "aggressive Russophobic minority in the EU" being responsible for the current state of mutual relations. This cartoon-like perception of global and regional state interactions being based solely on patron-client relations effectively hinders meaningful dialogue. Casting doubt on the EU and its members as stand-alone actors runs counter to demands of increased engagement. Promoting such a narrative cannot harm the transatlantic partnership either. Too much is at stake for the EU and too little Russia can offer in exchange. So it would be more productive to replace delusions with a proper assessment of political reality.

The client and the patron?

It is typical for Russian policymakers to portray the EU and many of its members as US puppets, supposedly lacking the agency to act autonomously. Usually this relies on the true but trivial observation that the EU has been unable to develop a consistent foreign and security policy. But this is then overstretched to suggest that EU is helplessly following the US line, either voluntarily or under duress, in particular in its Russia policy. The reason for this misperception might be a failure to grasp the phenomenon of parallel but distinct integration within the EU and NATO. Whereas Washington does occupy a distinct position of leadership in NATO on account of factors such as asymmetry of capabilities and power projection, in the field of economy, trade, competition, sanctions and even foreign policy (which is still largely under member states' control) influence works both ways due to deep interdependence. European policy makers are well aware of what the EU and its members can or cannot do without the United States.

Either values or interests?

This premise represents a false dilemma fallacy, the supposedly irreconcilable choice between value and interest-based policies. The idea is so widespread that it has become more or less axiomatic. It is also connected to the popular framing of the current situation as a return to traditional Realpolitik with no place for values. It is particularly popular in Russia to portray the EU as a naïve normative power that got lost in the real world and needs some help. But contrasting "'illusory" values with "hard" interests completely misses the point. For the EU the values (fundamental norms of international law) are constitutive for the community, and thus indispensable for its very survival. This provides better context for its policy of non-recognition of Russia's annexation of Crimea than the idea that the EU simply cares about the territorial integrity of Ukraine. It is not about taking the moral high ground, or inherent European idealism. Here value-based policy is driven by existential interests. Russian hopes that EU policy makers will at some point throw their value-based approach out of the window to adapt to new realities is unrealistic.

Indispensable Russia?

This point resurfaces whenever a new proposal emerges for repairing EU-Russia relations. Russia is supposedly be indispensable for Europe's security and economic development because of energy flows and market opportunities. A mature partnership with a Russia that ceases to attempt to heal phantom pains with foreign interventions, orchestrated disinformation campaigns and cyber-operations would indeed be mutually beneficial, but for now Russian behavior discourages investment in such relations. Russia might become indispensable but only if well-known conditions are met. Since that is rather unlikely, the EU policy should tilt towards building resilience rather than seeking areas of cooperation.

In the security field Russia's potential is significant. Alas, Moscow draws attention more as a spoiler than a constructive partner. In economic matters the prevalent myth of EU-Russia interdependence – which is never properly defined – distorts the real picture. Russia's role as a trade and investment partner has been massively exaggerated. In 2019 EU-Russia trade amounted to around €231 billion, while by comparison Polish-German trade alone was worth €124 billion. The way public discussion of EU statistics focuses on external partners boosts Russia's role – but most trade is between member states. In fact the very term of interdependence is better used to describe the dense intra-EU relations (exports of goods between member states only in January 2020 reached €256 billion) and EU-US relationships (total trade turnover in 2019 - €616 billion). Adding trade structure and scale of mutual investments only makes the picture worse. This is not to say that Russia is not important (certain EU-based energy majors and banks would certainly say it is), but just to keep things in proportion.

What next?

One could list more false premises in circulation, such as Europe having pushed Russia away for years or Russia now being pushed into China's hands. The point here is not to present an exhaustive list but to outline the general problem that inhibits serious dialogue.

The important aspect is that these premises are often used to obscure the real problems that need to be solved. The common-sense list reads: annexation and occupation of Crimea, destabilization of eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, regular attempts to interfere in domestic affairs (disinformation, cyberattacks), use of chemical weapons. In none of these cases has there been any sign of constructive proposals from Russia. Therefore, Russian calls for the sanctions to be lifted and for Crimea to be recognized as preconditions for the normalization of relations must be regarded either as an expression of ignorance or cynicism.

There is nothing positive on the horizon that could give hope for a fresh start. There is no way back to the business as usual either

Sadly, Moscow is not ready or willing to deal with these key issues. It demonstrates opportunistic behavior with short-term gains prevailing over any kind of long-term investment in sensible relations with the EU. This leaves no room for maneuver for the majority of European leaders, for whom Russia has become toxic. After everything that has happened in recent years the political costs of a "reset" would be prohibitive for most governments. Russia is indeed one of the EU's top security concerns but its importance pales in comparison to the internal challenges.

There is no need for the EU to rush. Inaction can also be action, if it is based on proper analysis. There is nothing positive on the horizon that could give hope for a fresh start. There is no way back to the business as usual either. A realistic approach for both sides today would be to reevaluate the assumptions underlying the strategies discussed and proposed, focus on the real issues (and not only the uncontroversial) and get used to the idea that there is probably a long period of constant risk management ahead with a risk of the slippery slope becoming even steeper.

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.