What will be the impact of the pandemic on the EU and Russia?
Part 1: Global changes

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives beyond recognition. It has disrupted relations within and between states and societies throughout the world, including between the EU and Russia. Moreover, the virus fully absorbs peoples' minds and leaves little space for the reflection about the post-pandemic future.

The EU-Russia Expert Network is a unique place to start such a reflection process. Over the coming weeks our members will discuss here how the pandemic impacts on the EU and Russia. How will it change the fabric of their political, economic and societal relations? How will it affect their common and contested neighbourhood and their international context? What can and should both sides do to control the damage and prepare for a future that is likely to be quite different from what we imagined just a few weeks ago?

EUREN Members Answer
20 April 2020
The EU and Russia are both heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments on both sides have taken unprecedented political and economic measures to slow down the spread of the virus. These measures also affect their external relations. How do these measures, how does the pandemic generally affect the relationship between Russia and the EU? Is there a chance that they find ways to face it jointly? Will relations deteriorate even further? What can be done to avoid the latter?

LARISA DERIGLAZOVA | Jean Monnet Centre for European studies, Tomsk State University, Tomsk :

COVID-19 is advancing as the global grey rhino of 2020. It was detected in November 2019, but has only been taken seriously in Europe and Russia since March 2020. The pandemic demonstrates the real exposure of societies to the outer world and is tests the values that societies, polities and individuals place above all.

The density of population, transportation infrastructure and external exposure have all helped the virus to spread quickly and severely. Millions of people flow into Italy, Spain, France and the UK for leisure or business. Russia has less of those densities and exposure, except for its most affected cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The density of government, public health system and social solidarity have helped to fight the pandemic. The density of government has enabled countries to mobilise resources and pursue coherent and effective measures. A developed public health system can heal those in need and prevent the further spread of the disease. Social solidarity maintains the bonds between people in difficult times through social services and volunteer initiatives. Europe and Russia are certainly closer in regard to helpful densities compared with the USA, where the paramount values of minimal state intervention, taking personal responsibility for wellbeing and market logic are proving counterproductive during the pandemic.

Events have shown that the only effective way to deal with the pandemic is to cooperate, rather than compete. I am positive that the pandemic is an opportunity for Europe and Russia to reshape their relations by viewing human life as a core value and uniting their intellectual and human resource to achieve this.

SABINE FISCHER | German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin :

All over the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is putting governments and societies to the test. The EU and its member states are struggling to apply joint solutions. The Russian leadership's transition from declaring the virus a problem of the outside world to responding to its spread in Russia proper took too long.

COVID-19 will have a lasting effect on political systems all around the world. In some EU member states, populist movements seem to be losing ground, while in others, political leaderships exploit the crisis in order to suspend democratic rules. In Russia, the virus has derailed the timing of a constitutional reform that will grant Vladimir Putin the possibility of two more terms in the Kremlin. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more political leaders will be judged on how they manage it. Many of them will be weakened, as a result.

The current radio silence between Moscow and the EU demonstrates the deplorable state of their relationship, and this is deeply unsettling. Dialogue remains of the essence for many reasons; the following two are particularly urgent:

The challenges that the two sides faced before the pandemic will not go away. If anything, they are likely to become bigger, for instance as the pandemic hits their neighbourhood. Particularly in the unresolved conflicts in Ukraine, Moldova and in the South Caucasus the virus will aggravate the humanitarian situation and erect new barriers between the affected communities.

Geographical proximity and societal interdependence will make the EU and Russia vulnerable to such threats in the future. Instead of retreating into isolation and exploiting the pandemic for short-term political goals (by, for instance, further dividing EU member states), Russia and the EU must step up efforts to battle it jointly. This can be achieved through the exchange of information, research and other mutual support. Neither their geopolitical conflict nor the sanctions do and should prevent them from doing that.

TONY VAN DER TOGT | Clingendael Institute, the Hague :

In the short term, I envisage a continuation of the current tendency to mainly manage the crisis on a national basis. Even within the EU, the current crisis has not led to closer cooperation or a strengthening of EU institutions based on solidarity between member states. The crisis has only recently been taken more seriously in Russia and it could be that the worst is yet to come.

In this situation, the EU and Russia could at least agree not to use the crisis for political (propaganda) purposes. Only sanctions that affect the humanitarian situation, such as those on Iran, could be reconsidered. However, there should be an effective ceasefire in Donbass, which allows for better humanitarian assistance, as a response to the UN SG's call for a worldwide ceasefire. This could, in principle, be a cooperative effort, coordinated with the close involvement of OSCE and International Red Cross.

For the longer term, better coordination and greater cooperation regarding the combatting of epidemics and pandemics should be highlighted as an area for selective engagement (that is on a par with dealing with the consequences of climate change). This cooperation should include joint research and the strengthening of relevant multilateral institutions, like WHO. Ideally, China and the US would also join these efforts.

Finally, we need a broader discussion on how, in the longer term, the present (temporary) restrictions on a national basis will affect both the privacy and human rights of our citizens.

COVID-19 impacts not only on global health, but also on global politics and the global economy. How will the changing international context, for instance increased great power rivalry between the US and China, affect EU-Russia relations? What can the EU and Russia do to mitigate negative repercussions of global changes?

ALEXANDER AKSENENOK | Russian International Affairs Council, Moscow :

With the pandemic spreading all over the world, it has become obvious that we are not only facing a health issue, but also a multidimensional crisis that encompasses all major centers of global power.

Three factors are of the utmost importance in this respect:

- The future relations in the US-EU-Russia triangle
The unipolar moment was squandered by the Trump administration and its dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Trump's chances of staying in office are rather good, however, and he will work hard to improve his image (and legacy) during his second term. This could involve an attempt to reset his relations with the EU, as well as with Russia and/or China. In Russia's case Success will depend on Moscow's behavior on hot issues (such as arms control, south-east Ukraine, cybersecurity, Syria etc.). China has always been more prudent with the US.

- The pace of China's economic recovery and its political ambitions
This is connected to not only China's ability to come back strongly to world markets, but also the period of time needed for economic and political recuperation in Europe. Whatever happens, it is hard to imagine the world ever being led by China. We will face a "nonpolar" world with the old threats emanating from preexisting conditions for at least some decades to come.

- Handling the increasing risks to Russia's system of government
The pandemic poses a massive test for leadership competencies, and this relates to Russia most of all. In fact, a gradual reorientation of foreign policy seems to be inevitable at a moment when so many challenges overlap (economic recession, rising military tension, growing socio-political polarization). I am afraid, however, that this is less obvious to Russia's leadership. The Coronavirus crisis has shown once again the duality of their political consciousness: seeking accommodation with the West versus the superseded fear of any substantial correction of missteps. This is because, historically, the "sacred power" in Russia is always right and perceives reality in the way it chooses.

DAVID CADIER | Sciences Po, Paris :

There is still a lot that we do not know about the crisis, about where and how it ends, and about its human, societal and economic costs for both states and societies. This makes it particularly difficult to anticipate how the pandemic, and the measures that have been taken in response, might affect EU-Russia relations.

It seems clear at this stage that the pandemic will accelerate the advent of an international system dominated by the US-China confrontation. Some, including the French President Emmanuel Macron, believe this bipolar configuration will significantly constrain the EU's and Russia's room for international manoeuvre, and such a prospect calls for renewed attempts to create meaningful dialogue in spite of unresolved disputes. Additionally, while political relations are currently strained, societal ties have remained strong. Thus one could think that a common epidemiological enemy, which is equally threatening to both their populations, would bring the EU and Russia closer.

However, the opposite trend seems to be true thus far. Due to an enduring lack of trust, this crisis and the various responses to it have fuelled suspicions, recriminations, distortions and manipulations, even around subjects such as medical relief. It is quite remarkable how quickly policy entrepreneurs have integrated an unprecedented, unforeseen, unclear health crisis into their long-established (geo)political agenda or perennial ideological fight and continue business as usual. How this will affect EU-Russia relations in the long term and in a more meaningful sense will depend on the impact that the pandemic crisis has on unity and solidarity inside the EU, Russia's internal political stability, and conflict dynamics in Eastern Ukraine.

ANDREY KORTUNOV | Russian International Affairs Council, Moscow :

The COVID-19 pandemic has not led to any significant changes so far, either in the international system at large or in EU-Russia relations, in particular. Speaking of the latter, the European Union remains fully committed to its sanctions against Moscow, while the Russian propaganda warriors never miss an opportunity to present the EU response to the pandemic as a graphic manifestation of the European project's failure. Russian coronavirus-related assistance to Italy has raised concerns in Brussels about the Kremlin trying to split the Union. Many in Europe also believe that the pandemic is much more serious than the official statistics suggest and the Russian authorities are hiding the real picture. The pandemic is likely to have a negative impact on any progress in implementing the Minsk agreements since all parties to the agreements are clearly distracted by their COVID-19 centred domestic agendas. For the same reason, there is unlikely to be an intense EU-Russia collaboration on regional crises like Syria, Libya or Yemen. However, if the scale of the pandemic grows further, both sides might at some point have to reconsider their respective foreign policy priorities and make cautious steps towards each other.