EUREN Report 2 — November 2020
Alternative futures of EU-Russia relations in 2030

Sabine Fischer, Ivan Timofeev

Executive summary

EUREN members believe that the EU and Russia will not be able to overcome their fundamental disagreements in the coming decade. But the two sides can come to a pragmatic partnership that safeguards peace and stability in Europe. This is the main finding of the EUREN scenario-building process, conducted between February and September 2020. Four scenarios were developed:

1. A "Cold Partnership" in a multipolar world, where Russia and the EU ultimately return to extensive cooperation on issues such as climate change, digitalisation and visa liberalisation, while still facing major disagreements on European security.

2. A "Descent into Anarchy" as former allies turn on each other in the wake of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, backed variously by rivals Russia, the United States and China.

3. Europe "On the Brink of War" as a reunited and rejuvenated West approaches military confrontation with a sluggish Russia.

4. A "Community of Values" uniting a transformed Russia and a strong EU, in an international environment characterised by progress on conflict resolution in their neighbourhood and resurgent multilateralism.

The EUREN experts found the "Cold Partnership" scenario most plausible, with few believing that the EU and Russia were likely to see a "descent into anarchy" or end up "on the brink of war". In other words, armed conflict was considered unlikely but not ruled out entirely. Not one EUREN member considered a "community of values" plausible by 2030.

The discussions within EUREN during the scenario-building process allow the following conclusions drawn concerning the future of EU-Russia relations:

• Internal developments will play a key role for the future of the relationship. Its improvement will require a consolidated and united EU, on the one hand, and at least some political and economic reforms in Russia.

• Ukraine and, by extension, the common and contested neighbourhood are likely to play a pivotal role throughout the coming decade. Developments in the neighbourhood will depend as much on the consolidation of statehood in Ukraine and the other countries in the region as on the policies of Russia, the EU and other external actors.

• Rivalry between Washington and Beijing will continue and will impact on relations between the EU and Russia. The degree of the EU's and Russia's autonomy from and dependence on the United States and China, respectively, will be an important factor in their mutual relationship.

• Climate change and climate policy, technological developments, and economic relations are closely intertwined. Where the EU's climate policy coincides with reforms in Russia, there is a chance to unlock the potential for economic and technological cooperation. The EUREN scenarios suggest that growing political tensions and conflict go hand in hand with economic and technological decoupling.

• European security will remain a thorny issue: None of the four scenarios envisages a complete resolution of the problems that characterise EU-Russia relations in this area.


This EUREN report outlines four alternative futures of EU-Russia relations until 2030. The EUREN scenarios depict possible trajectories the EU and Russia could take in the coming decade. They do not attempt to predict the exact future of the relationship.

The EU and Russia regularly encounter events and developments with important implications for their interactions. In many such cases, decision-makers on both sides are taken off guard and lack adequate political responses. This is illustrated well by the COVID-19 pandemic, the political crisis in Belarus and the case of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, to name just the most recent cases. By directing attention to possible futures, EUREN aims to broaden perspectives and contribute to strategic thinking about EU-Russia relations. This report addresses policymakers, expert communities and the broader public on both sides.

EUREN scenario-building: method and process

Scenario-building is a method that allows us to think creatively about the future, to explore and assess plausible future developments. But scenarios are not about predicting the future: social scientists work with empirical data, not crystal balls. The future depends partly on trends that can be identified and projected, and on the behaviour of individuals, societies, and states. It is also shaped by sudden and unexpected events. Unlike trends, actions and sudden events are difficult to foresee. Scenario-building is therefore "nothing more" than selecting a limited number of trajectories from an unlimited number of alternative futures.

The objectives of scenario-building are threefold: to "improve observation of a rapidly changing and complex reality" and "encourage early recognition of and reaction to emerging trends that may shift the ground under current policies". [1] These three objectives (observation, recognition, preparation) also organise and structure the scenario-building process, where the experts question their own assumptions, discuss options and alternatives for change, and explore policy implications and recommendations.

The EUREN members met three times during the scenario-building process. [2] In February 2020, they produced nine scenarios in three areas: European security, the common and contested neighbourhood, and economic relations. After the meeting the scenario narratives were elaborated into full texts and submitted to the organisers. [3] On this basis, the authors of this report developed four scenarios on EU-Russia relations in 2030, combining different elements of the nine narratives developed in February. The June 2020 workshop focussed on the plausibility and the consistency of the four scenarios, as well as their policy implications. [4] In September 2020 EUREN discussed the revised scenarios with policymakers from the EU and Russia. This report represents the accumulated outcome of the EUREN scenario-building process [5].

EUREN operates across the political conflict that has been separating the EU and Russia since 2014. Since its founding nearly four years ago, EUREN's members have developed trust and cooperative routines. Still, EUREN remains heterogeneous in its views; its discussions reflect many of the disagreements between Russia and the EU. The scenario method encouraged the group to think about alternative futures in a manner accommodating the diversity of perceptions and world views within the network.

Trends, drivers and uncertainties

At the outset of the process EUREN members were rather pessimistic about the future of EU-Russia relations. Few of them expected positive change in the foreseeable future. At the same time, a large majority of the participants present at the February workshop (20 out of 26) regarded EU-Russia relations until 2030 as only "somewhat" or "hardly at all" predictable – which allows a certain margin for change.

The United States (first) and China (second) were identified as the most relevant external actors. They impact directly on EU-Russia relations and their position and relative weight will shape (though not entirely determine) international relations, while the relative importance of the EU and Russia is likely to diminish. Apart from the United States and China, some experts also considered Iran and Turkey relevant for the future development of EU-Russia ties, as well as non-state actors such as transnational terrorist groups.

The situation in Ukraine was identified as the most important challenge for Russia-EU relations in the coming ten years. [6] It was followed by developments in European and international security, internal developments in the EU and Russia, and deeply ingrained mutual negative perceptions and mistrust as well as divergences over security interests, goals and values. Major global trends, such as climate change, migration and technological developments (artificial intelligence, robotisation, 5G etc.) were anticipated to have important implications for Russia and the EU.

The COVID-19 pandemic and EU-Russia relations

The EUREN scenario-building process straddled the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the network met in Moscow at the end of February 2020, the fundamental implications of the spread of the virus were only beginning to emerge. Three weeks later, most EU member states and Russia had gone into shutdown. The world had changed. [7]

The COVID-19 pandemic is not a "Black Swan" (a highly improbable high-impact crisis), but a "Grey Rhino" (a highly probable but mostly neglected high-impact crisis). Neither the structure nor the international context of EU-Russia relations have fundamentally changed since its outbreak. But the impact of the pandemic is significant. At the June meeting, EUREN members discussed four major effects of the virus on EU-Russia relations:

  • Quarantine provisions, travel restrictions and border closures disrupted direct contacts, both at the political and the societal levels. Perceptions have drifted even further apart during the pandemic.
  • The EU and Russia have been hit hard by the pandemic. The efforts required to address the economic and political fall-out will absorb political attention, capacities and resources on both sides for a long time to come. This will make both Brussels and Moscow (even more) inward-looking.
  • The pandemic has placed additional stress on conflict regions all over the world. It has also complicated international conflict resolution efforts, particularly in the Middle East.
  • The pandemic is likely to accelerate change in international relations, leading to more intense US-China rivalry. [8] Both the EU and Russia stand to lose from a rigidly bipolar international system.
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 represented an important signpost that the EUREN members had to integrate into their reflections. It plays a decisive role in all four scenarios presented here.

Political crisis in Belarus and the Navalny case

The presidential election in Belarus on 9 August 2020 triggered mass protests against vote-rigging and repression. Alexander Lukashenka was sworn into office on 23 September. Leading figures in the opposition movement have been arrested or forced to leave the country. Peaceful demonstrations for new elections and the release of political prisoners continue. Russia has recognised the result of the election and considers Lukashenka the legitimate President of Belarus. The EU disputes the election result, refuses to recognise Lukashenka and has imposed sanctions against representatives of the Belarusian state it deems responsible for electoral fraud and the violent crackdown on peaceful protests. As this report goes to press, no end to the political stalemate is in sight.

On 20 August the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny collapsed during a flight over Siberia. A few days later he was evacuated to Berlin for treatment at the Charité hospital. On 2 September German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated publicly that Navalny had been poisoned with a nerve agent of the "Novichok" group, and called on the Russian government to provide explanations with regard to the incident. Moscow denied any role in the poisoning. This chain of events led to another breakdown in relations between Russia and the EU, the outcome of which was the imposition of sanctions against a number of high-ranking Russian officials.

Вoth of these events are highly relevant for the future of EU-Russia relations. Because they happened when the EUREN scenario process was coming to an end they were not included. [9]

Scenario 1: A Cold Partnership

The year is 2030. A Russia–EU summit is being held in Moscow. It is the first summit in the sixteen years since relations between Moscow and Brussels deteriorated in the Ukrainian crisis. Cooperation on environmental and climate issues, harmonising digitalisation standards, relaunching humanitarian cooperation and liberalising the visa regime top the agenda. The opening of negotiations on a new Russia–EU framework agreement and EU–EAEU cooperation roadmaps will be announced at the summit. The new Framework Agreement is intended to replace the long-outdated 1994 Agreement, which has existed largely in name only over the last two decades.

The European Union has virtually recovered from the economic shocks of the early 2020s, emerging from the COVID-19 ordeal stronger and more consolidated due to its economic recovery programme. The course for a more autonomous and independent economy set in 2020/2021 proves conducive to economic growth, as the European Union distanced itself from the economic rivalry between the United States and China but retains its economic ties with both. EU member states also avoid excessive military and political competition with Russia by insisting within NATO that defence spending and the US military presence not be expanded as long as Russia refrains from escalating potential and threats. As a goodwill gesture in return, Russia decides at the beginning of 2022 not to deploy its new intermediate-range Dobrokhot (Well-Wisher) missiles in the Kaliningrad Region and in the European part of Russia. After intense deliberations between the EU institutions and member states, the European NATO members decide to reject deployment of US intermediate- and short-range missiles on their territory. This is the European Union's first major diplomatic achievement in the area of European security.

In early 2024, President Vladimir Putin announce that he will not run for president again, even though the 2020 constitutional amendments would have allowed him two more terms. Putin decides to transfer power to a reliable successor: Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Ogaryov.

Ogaryov had proved his mettle overseeing a very rapid digitalisation of state agencies in 2021–22, which generated significant improvements in efficiency and accountability. Having earned President Putin's confidence and established good relations with the heads of the security services, Ogaryov spearheaded a series of high-profile anti-corruption prosecutions. He had also been the mastermind behind the major judicial reform launched in 2023, whose main purpose was to regain the confidence of Russian and foreign investors and transform the investment climate. There had simply been no other way out for a country whose export revenues had collapsed and whose reserves were nearly exhausted. Ogaryov's agenda featured economic deregulation plans, tax cuts and export diversification.

Being Putin's chosen successor does not automatically secure Ogaryov access to the Kremlin, though: he faces strong competition from the new leader of the Communist Party, Sergey Kumach, as the popularity of leftist ideas grows in the course of an economic crisis accelerated by COVID-19. Unlike the introverted technocrat Ogaryov, Kumach proves to be a charismatic politician, and Ogaryov wins the election by a very small margin. From 2024 the president and ruling party have to deal, for the first time in many years, with a strong opposition under Kumach's leadership – which keeps the government on its toes, forces it to pursue its social agenda and criticises its mistakes.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin's decision not to take advantage of the 2020 amendments massively boosts his popularity. Following Ogaryov's election victory, Putin becomes Speaker of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly. He remains Russia's most popular political figure, with his opinion carrying weight in many policy areas.

Ogaryov's reforms are welcomed by the international and Russian business communities, but foreign policy factors, particularly the protracted crisis in Russia–Ukraine relations, impede the return of foreign investment. In 2024, this knot still looks impossible to unravel. All the parties had sabotaged the Minsk Accords, US–Russia relations are at a low point. After abolition of all the key arms control agreements, Washington and Moscow no longer have anything in common that might compel them to cooperate. Russia has vanished from the American agenda; only the legacy of sanctions and anti-Russian legislation remain.

It is the European Union that brings the parties of the Donbas conflict back to the negotiating table. The new European Commission inaugurated in December 2024 needs a major diplomatic victory to consolidate the Union's more autonomous foreign policy course. This matches Ukraine's new president Vasil Boyko's search for a settlement in the Donbas, which Ukrainians had written off as a hopeless and toxic liability. Russia needs to take steps to avoid jeopardising Ogaryov's reforms. In unofficial talks between Russia, Ukraine and representatives of the unrecognised republics – initiated by the European External Action Service – the parties agree to a gradual demilitarization of the line of contact without formal commitments, based on the seemingly outdated Minsk Accords and personal trust between the leaders. Heavy weapons are withdrawn within a year. In 2026, not a single casualty is recorded on the line of contact. The Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics exist for another eighteen months and maintain contacts with both Ukrainian and Russian representatives. In 2027 both republics hold elections in accordance with Ukrainian legislation and rejoin Ukraine with special status.

The Donbas talks represent a major breakthrough in EU-Russia relations. As progress unfolds, the European Union gradually lifts its Donbas-related sanctions against Russia. The only measures remaining in place in 2030 are those against Crimea. Ukraine, the European Union, the United States and the overwhelming majority of other states do not recognise Russian sovereignty over Crimea, but Moscow considers the matter closed.

Progress on the conflict with Ukraine greatly helps President Ogaryov's reforms. Russia's investment climate improves significantly, and trust in the judicial system grows enormously. By 2030 the quality of life in many Russian cities is among the best in the world. Economic growth accelerates, boosted by large-scale investment in agriculture, the "green" economy and new energy technologies.

While relations with the European Union are thawing, Moscow works carefully to develop cooperation with China, under the informal guidance of Federation Council Speaker Vladimir Putin. Russia's partnership with China had played a significant role in mitigating the crisis of the early 2020s. Moscow consistently supports Beijing in its growing competition with the United States but opts to remain on the sidelines. This stance suits China: it has nothing to fear from Russia, and no obligations in the event of tensions between Russia and the United States flaring up again.

The 2030 Russia–EU summit is a definite breakthrough in relations. But no-one is under any illusions. Just because the two sides have managed to return to pragmatic cooperation does not mean that the systemic problems in European security have been resolved. NATO is still a concern for many in Russian political establishment, while Russia remains a major military power that many in Europe still perceive as a threat.

Criticism of human rights and democracy in Russia continues. Europe respects President Ogaryov, but does not entirely trust him. Russia is still playing its own game in the Middle East, which is not to everyone's liking. Having radically improved confidence in its judicial system and achieved economic growth, Russia keeps a close watch for external meddling in its domestic affairs. There is more freedom, especially at the local level, but Moscow controls its limits. Russia's parliament has become more active, but the Communist Party under Sergey Kumach, who harbours ideas of a new international communist movement, is an irritant for many in the West. Vladimir Putin, the supposed "éminence grise" behind Russia's policy, is the focus of numerous conspiracy theories.

The world is moving on and the renewed European Union and Russia are moving with it, as cold partners in a multipolar world.

Scenario 2: Descent into Anarchy

It is 9 May 2030, 85 years after the end of World War II, and people all over Europe are paralysed by fear.

In Moscow, President Mikhail Karasin presides over the Victory Day celebrations. The military parade in Red Square is grander than ever. Karasin is surrounded by the leaders of Eurasian and Asian countries, including a large delegation from China. For the first time the president of the "Free Republic of Ukraine" is among the guests. Western leaders stopped attending this important Russian commemoration long age. In fact, the "West" has practically ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, people in Western Europe look wearily to the meeting of the heads of states and governments of the EU on 21 June. Few decisions have been taken at these meetings in recent years. Many expect this European Council to mark the final ending of EU sanctions against Moscow, imposed sixteen years ago in connection with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict over Crimea and the Donbas. Today, EU member states cannot agree on Russia, Ukraine, or anything else relating to eastern Europe. But escalating tensions in divided Ukraine could see them waking up on opposing sides of a military confrontation in the not so distant future. There is a very real risk that NATO will be severely damaged, too. In 2030, a new war in Europe can no longer be ruled out. Is Europe really descending into anarchy again?

Few expected Russia to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing global recession of the early 2020s unscathed, let alone in good shape. Indeed, for a period Russia seems to be under serious economic pressure from the pandemic and the drastic slump in international oil prices. The combined effect plunges millions into poverty and serious erodes the political leadership's authority and legitimacy. The Russian state systematically supresses public discontent and the 2020/21 protests die down.

The Russian government abandoned its traditional macroeconomic austerity policy and used its Sovereign Wealth Fund to accelerate the post-pandemic economic recovery. This could have led to renewed instability in the long run. But Russia's reserves multiply in the wake of a major war in the Middle East and a subsequent hike in global oil prices. By the end of 2023, the Russian economy is stable, if not thriving.

The recovery measures in 2021 and 2022 strengthen the role of the state in the economy and expand the focus on the defence industry. At the same time, then Prime Minister Mishustin introduces limited reforms and advances digitalisation. He succeeds in curbing corruption in the lower echelons of power. Along with the stabilisation of economic growth, this generates a trickle-down effect: from 2023/24, ordinary Russians enjoy stabilising incomes and improved public services.

In this situation of relative stability Vladimir Putin surprisingly declares, in October 2023, that he will not run for another presidential term in 2024. His motives remain unclear. Mikhail Karasin, a largely unknown forty-two-year-old United Russia Duma deputy from Yekaterinburg, is installed as Putin's successor.

Karasin expresses strong anti-Western feelings and lacks his predecessor's track-record of interaction with Western leaders, who find it difficult to engage with him. Russia has become more dependent on China since the COVID-19 pandemic, for energy exports and for imports of manufactured goods and in particular technology. Beijing does not appreciate Karasin's steadfast refusal to surrender sovereignty and give up important economic assets in Russia's Far East to Chinese companies. At the same time, the Chinese leadership apparently sees no profit in quarrelling with Moscow, particularly in light of its rapidly deteriorating relationship with the United States. Partnership with Beijing gives Moscow a freer hand to reassert its influence in its Western neighbourhood. Russia's economic stabilisation and the EU's continuing economic and political struggle reversed the playing field for the "in-between" countries. Ukraine remains the epicentre of these developments.

The EU's story of the past ten years is sad. After the shocks and storms of the 2010s, the COVID-19 pandemic finally tips this great peace project of the twentieth century over the edge. The economic recovery plan that EU member states agreed in the summer of 2020 crumbles under a second, even more devastating wave of the pandemic in the winter of 2020/2021 – along with all the visionary plans for a European Green Deal, reindustrialisation etc. Afterwards, national myopia prevails, and leaders let this last chance of a new push towards European integration slip through their fingers.

As a result, each EU country has to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic on its own. Few prosper in the following years. Citizens suffer greatly in the economic recession. The degeneration of the party systems accelerates. By 2024, populists control parliament and executive in several EU member states, including Italy and France. In other EU countries their positions have become mainstream.

In 2024, EU member states are barely able to agree on a new EU leadership. The next blow comes during negotiations on the multiannual financial framework for 2027–34, when some states start to shirk their financial obligations – causing serious budgetary problems for the EU. A destitute Brussels is no longer able to pursue many of its policies. One of the first victims is the Eastern Partnership, mainly because countries such as Hungary, Italy and Germany see it as an obstacle to their egoistic ambitions to forge bilateral energy partnerships with Russia.

Disintegration of the European Union is greatly accelerated by Washington's attitude and policy. The COVID-19 pandemic drives US society into the deepest crisis since the Civil War of the 1860s. The Trump administration proves incapable of handling the health crisis, which costs hundreds of thousands of lives. The pandemic exposes the weaknesses of the US economy and health system. The result of November 2020 presidential elections triggers more domestic instability and racial conflict. In some parts of the country the situation resembles civil war. Against the background of the prolonged domestic crisis, the American commitment to NATO becomes increasingly shallow. Washington continues playing European countries off against each other, deepening the rifts within the EU. Its relationship with China deteriorates beyond repair. From 2024 successive US administrations struggle to put the country back on its feet – without fundamentally altering its foreign policy.

Ukraine never recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recession of the early 2020s. In the face of dwindling public support, Volodymyr Zelensky refrains from running for a second term in 2024. His "Servant of the People" party dissolves in the wake of this decision. The presidential election turns into a neck-and-neck race between Dmytro Bondarchuk, who enjoys strong support in the east and south of the country, and Hryhorii Tereshchenko, who is backed by the European Solidarity Party of former president Petro Poroshenko and whose support is concentrated mainly in western Ukraine. The campaign takes place in a deeply polarised political context, with the Donbas war becoming the most controversial issue. In the end, Tereshchenko secures a very narrow victory, but tensions between the political camps continue to simmer. The scene is set for a new escalation.

Russia throws its weight behind Dmytro Bondarchuk, who openly reaches out to the so-called people's republics in Donetsk and Luhansk. Tereshchenko's calls for solidarity go unanswered in Brussels. In 2027, a group of EU member states led by Poland breaks away and forms a small but determined coalition of the willing in support of Kyiv. Washington lends political support, but refuses to become involved militarily. In 2028/2029, violence flares up repeatedly in eastern Ukraine. By that time, the Normandy Four and the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk have become too weak to have any impact on the ground. With the support of Russian troops, separatist forces capture Kharkiv in October 2029 and declare it the capital of the "Free Republic of Ukraine" (FRU) under the leadership of Dmytro Bondarchuk. Karasin immediately recognises the FRU, placing Russia in direct confrontation with Kyiv, with Ukraine's partners in Western Europe and with Washington. This also pits EU member states against each other, as Germany and some others strengthen their ties with Moscow. Karasin's show of strength wins him the presidential election in Russia in March 2030. His second inauguration occurs on 6 May, just three days before the Victory Day celebrations.

85 years after the end of World War II the European idea has crumbled to dust. European nations are locked in confrontation, former allies divided. Some countries seek alliance with the United States, others lean towards Russia (and China in the background). It is highly questionable whether European leaders will be able to resolve this situation. If they fail, a continent-wide confrontation can no longer be ruled out.

Scenario 3: On the Brink of War

The year is 2030. Moscow is celebrating the inauguration of Russia's new president with fireworks. That president is Vladimir Putin. It is his sixth term. In the days before the inauguration, a series of dangerous incidents have brought Russia and NATO to the brink of war. They come at the end of a long chain of developments that have eroded the relationship.

Turnout at the 2030 elections is an all-time low. Yet there are no open protests; the government has become good at preventing them. Social networks and the internet are strictly controlled. Russia has learned the lessons of the "colour revolutions," the Arab Spring, the US unrest of 2020.

Competition at the level of political elites is minimal. Governors are appointed by the federal centre. Local government is controlled by the state. All the parties in the State Duma are loyal to the country's leader. The political system is relatively stable. It employs social mobility options to co-opt successive new generations of policymakers, while the system curtails freedom of choice and expression. The economy is largely in the hands of the state. By 2030 all the world oil powers are in decline, but Russia's emergency efforts to diversify its exports keep it afloat. Russia is now exporting grain, metals, arms and even drinking water. Seeking any means of generating export revenues, the government has miraculously managed to fund growing military expenditure and fill the gaps in the budget. However, growth is slow. Household income is hardly higher than at the start of the 2020s, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The middle class has shrunk. The country's wealth is even more concentrated in the hands of the highest-ranking functionaries and state enterprises.

Society abandoned politics. It is no longer in the ideological vice of the Soviet era, but there is little space for self-expression. Active public life is moving away from the strictly controlled internet back to immediate social ties and contacts. As in Soviet times, people retreat to the home – the kitchen table – when they want to speak their mind. There are few opportunities for career development and growth outside the state. Many motivated young people have emigrated. In this situation, the difficult foreign policy situation is the only effective mobiliser. Relations with the West reach a critical point. Ever greater pressure is put on Russia in terms of sanctions and arms race.

The European Union and the United States manage to restore their global economic and political leadership after a shaky period. Following the COVID-19 epidemic in 2020, the European Union implements a large-scale economic recovery programme. The crisis made it possible to restructure the economy. Due to the strict course adopted by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the European Union's political role grows significantly. Most political decisions are now made by qualified majority, and they are taken more quickly. Grievances concerning the curtailing of democracy and the influence of smaller countries are still heard, but they are placated by the European Union's increased efficiency. No new members have been admitted since 2020. The Union of 27 is now more consolidated.

The EU's economy is growing through the introduction of new and green technologies, industrial restructuring and an influx of workers from all over the world. The accumulated experience in integrating migrants has finally turned into a competitive advantage. The European Union preserves constructive relations with China and does much to develop its partnership with India and the ASEAN states. Payback in the form of new markets is long coming. Economic ties with Russia, on the other hand, shrink. Oil consumption falls. The share of gas remains high, but the European Union dictates its gas price to Russia.

The United States is again the leader in global growth. After the devastating crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in the early 2020s, which affected the whole world, the United States quickly returned to growth. Its concentration of technological know-how and a smart reindustrialisation produces a veritable economic boom by the mid 2020s. Many manufacturers have returned to the United States from Asia. After cleaning up its financial system, the United States remains the global financial leader. The social unrest and fragmentation that marked the early 2020s are also a thing of the past. Much has been done to reduce inequality and create a social infrastructure for all.

Although political relations between China and the United States have deteriorated further over the past decade there is no escalation into large-scale confrontation or a new Cold War. On the contrary, the world is able to recover from the largest economic crisis of the twenty-first century thanks to the ongoing interconnectedness of the US and Chinese economies. China agrees to disadvantageous trade terms with the United States – but in the long-term profits by preserving its place in the global economy. The fierce technological rivalry between China and the United States continues, with the latter defending its leading positions. An arms race is under way. The United States is successfully building an Indo-Pacific partnership. China experiences a major economic shock from the global economic crisis and its own accumulated internal imbalances. Its large reserves help it to overcome the crisis, and its economy is growing once again. The new wave of Chinese growth is seen as a strategic threat in Washington.

The United States and the European Union are still close allies. Following Donald Trump's departure from the White House, Washington successfully reset NATO. The economic recovery of the following years has led to increased defence spending. Through its technological leadership, the United States has maintained overwhelming military supremacy and absolute leadership in NATO.

The perceived threat from Russia is central to legitimising and resetting NATO. After recovering from the crisis, the United States and the European Union begin to put pressure on Moscow, particularly in the common neighbourhood. The United States start to actively arm Ukraine. The Minsk Accords have become a mere formality. Ukraine remains a poor and backward state, yet large enough to pose a challenge for Moscow. In the second half of the 2020s, the situation along the line of contact in eastern Ukraine becomes increasingly unstable. As a result, the United States and the European Union ramp up their anti-Russian sanctions. The negative dynamic forces Moscow into an expensive arms race, which Moscow's partnership with China cannot compensate: Beijing carefully avoids a formal alliance, while the economic partnership between China and Russia becomes even more asymmetrical.

In early 2030, the United States and the European Union assume that Russia will hold uncontested elections, meaning that it will be impossible for them to influence the Russian electorate because the authorities have highly effective control instruments. The West knows that Russian society is politically apathetic, but cannot instrumentalise this for its own purposes. The only option is to intensify military and political pressure and intensify the economic blockade.

Western governments proceed from the premise that Russia needs to be prevented from achieving a closer rapprochement with China. Another reason for increasing pressure is to weaken the Russian economy by all possible means to slow its military development and encourage public discontent with the government. Under this plan, Moscow will overstretch itself in the arms race, become economically unstable under sanctions and finally experience regime change. The CIA's latest report asserts that the Russian leadership will not dare escalate into military conflict, as that would be suicidal for Russia. Consequently, pressure needs to be stepped up, especially since China will not become involved on Russia's side in the absence of strict mutual security commitments. The European Union understands the risks and opposes active escalation, but the United States dominates in security issues.

The situation escalates in the spring of 2030. In April, two cranes collapse on an American warship in the port of Riga, after a control system malfunction. An explosion sinks the ship. The Latvian authorities claim the malfunction was caused by computer hacking. Washington is livid. The European Union declares its support. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denies any Russian involvement in the attacks. A reciprocal US hacking attack causes temporary power blackouts in St. Petersburg. The purpose is to send a message to Russia. Russia's General Staff views this move as preparation for a larger attack. Russia is ready to strike against the critical infrastructure of certain NATO states. The operational planning for such a strike has already been completed, and it can be carried out at any moment. Two hours after Putin's inauguration, Russia declares a state of emergency. Europe is poised on the brink of a major war between Russia and NATO.

Scenario 4: Community of Values

Two events in the summer of 2030 symbolise a substantial improvement in political and economic relations between Russia and the EU. On 1 June, Russia and the EU launch their new Carbon Storage Partnership (CSP), which will transform Russia's vast Western Siberian regions into the world's largest carbon storage area. The CSP will help EU member states meet their 2035 global warming targets and improve the economic prospects of Russia's oil- and gas-producing regions. The annual Yalta European Strategy (YES) Conference in Kyiv [10], scheduled for 14–15 September, is preceded by the Yalta Economic Forum on 13 September, hosted jointly by the organisers of the YES Conference and the young and dynamic mayor of Yalta. This is the first time since 2014 that a small group of prominent European leaders, business figures and intellectuals has set foot on the peninsula. After the Forum, they move on to Kyiv to share their experience with the other YES Conference participants.

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.


A clear majority of the EUREN experts present at the June meeting (eighteen) found it most plausible that the EU and Russia would end up in a "Cold Partnership" in 2030. Some speakers felt that this scenario followed more logically than the other three from the current state of EU-Russia relations. Five participants thought that the EU and Russia were likely to "descend into anarchy". Only one expert believed they could find themselves "on the brink of war" ten years from now. Not one EUREN member considered a "community of values" possible in 2030. [11] The June ranking of the scenarios replicates the pessimism expressed by network members at the beginning of the process: most EUREN members are convinced that the EU and Russia will fail to overcome their fundamental differences in the coming decade. Armed conflict was considered a much less likely option but not ruled out entirely.

The following conclusions about the future of EU-Russia relations can be drawn from the EUREN scenario process:

Internal developments in the EU and Russia will be of utmost importance for the future of the relationship. Three of the four scenarios suggest the EU will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic more united and consolidated, with stronger EU institutions and a more cohesive foreign policy. Russia will retain some kind of "power vertical" if not an autocratic system. However, EUREN members do not take it for granted that Vladimir Putin will stay in the Kremlin until 2036. The scenarios do not suggest any clear association between the development of the relationship (positive or negative) and a change of leadership in Russia. On the other hand, they do suggest a causal link between political and economic reforms and changing cost-benefit and national interests calculations in Russia, on the one hand, and a turn towards a more constructive relationship with the EU, on the other.

According to the EUREN scenarios, Ukraine will play a pivotal role for the future of EU-Russia relations – stressing the importance of the common and contested neighbourhood in the coming decade. [12] It is indicative that the conflict scenarios posit a weak and divided Ukraine that has failed to overcome the economic downturn and political turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Both the Cold Partnership and Community of Values scenarios, on the other hand, involve resolution of the Donbas conflict (although not the Crimea question) and a more consolidated Ukraine in control of its own fate. So, a sustainable political and economic consolidation of Ukraine and, by extension the common neighbourhood, is an important precondition for better relations between the EU and Russia.

Rivalry between Washington and Beijing will continue and will impact on relations between the EU and Russia over the coming decade. The COVID-19 pandemic may ultimately accelerate the United States's relative loss of economic and political weight vis-à-vis China. A possible change of administration in Washington in 2020 or 2024 will not fundamentally alter Washington's position on China. Different futures of the transatlantic relationship are imaginable, but none of them points to a return to the status quo ante of the 1990s and early 2000s. The EU will either gain strategic muscle and a more equal partnership with the United States, or risk being split up and sucked into a new bipolar confrontation. Russia's economic, political and security relationship with China will continue to evolve, but different degrees of dependency are imaginable. The EUREN scenarios suggest that both Russia and the EU should beware of becoming deeply involved in the geopolitical rivalry between the world's two largest players – the United States and China.

Climate change and policy, technological developments and economic relations are closely intertwined across all four scenarios. The conflict scenarios suggest complete or partial disentanglement of economic relations. In one case (Descent into anarchy) a disintegrating EU fails to follow through on the European Green Deal and EU member states pursue different energy partnerships (with Russia or with the United States, but all based on fossil energy sources). In "On the Brink of War" the EU implements its European Green Deal but Russia does not join the effort and the sides drift apart. In this scenario, Russia ultimately turns to China for technological innovation (digitalisation, AI etc.), which accelerates the decoupling of their economies and, ultimately, their societies. Where the EU's climate policy and reforms in Russia coincide, in the Community of Values and the Cold Partnership scenarios, there is a real chance to unlock the potential for economic and technological cooperation – after tangible progress on Ukraine. The EU's climate policy and Russia's economic policy will have a decisive impact on the future of the relationship.

European security is a pivotal issue in all four scenarios. None of them suggest complete resolution of all the problems that have accumulated in this area. Even the "Community of Values" scenario leaves risks and threats between the lines, alongside visible progress in relations between Russia and the West: Would Russia remain stable? Would it be safe from nationalistic revanchism? Would resolution of the Donbas conflict lead to further sustainable improvements in relations on a mutually beneficial basis? Would the West be tempted to exploit Russia's transition? "On the Brink of War" is the worst scenario in terms of security, revolving around a direct military confrontation caused by miscalculation and incidents. The Descent into Anarchy scenario might appear a dream come true for Russian hardliners. But disintegration of the EU would imply great uncertainty with new kinds of political threats, including the formation of much more hostile anti-Russian coalitions. The Cold Partnership scenario implies that the two sides are willing and able to compromise on certain issues, but not key security questions.

The scenarios presented in this report suggest that the EU and Russia will be unable to overcome their disagreements in the coming decade. But if they so choose, they can come to a pragmatic partnership that safeguards peace and stability in Europe.

The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of the authors. It does not represent the position of individual EUREN members or EUREN as a group, nor does it reflect the official position of the European Union.

[1] Michael F. Oppenheimer, Pivotal Countries, Alternative Futures: Using Scenarios to Manage American Strategy (Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 94.

[2] We thank Björn Warkalla, Simon Raiser and Sandra Holtermann from Planpolitik Berlin for chairing the two workshops and for support and guidance throughout the process.

[3] Our special thanks go to Oksana Antonenko, Maxine David, Larisa Deriglazova, Janis Kluge, Kadri Liik, Katarzyna Pelczynska-Nalecz, Tatiana Romanova, Tony van der Togt and Sergey Utkin for their contributions at this stage of the process.

[4] Due to quarantine measures and travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic it was not possible to bring the network members together in Berlin, as initially envisaged. The meeting took place online.

[5] We would like to thank all members of the EU-Russia Expert Network who participated in the process for their active contributions and comments on various drafts of this paper. The content of the report is the sole responsibility of the named authors.

[6] EUREN members from Russia and the EU tend to disagree about the categorisation of events in Ukraine since 2013/2014. From an EU perspective, the war in the Donbas is the result of a Russian aggression. Russia does not acknowledge such a role and speaks of an internal conflict or civil war. The change of status of Crimea is referred to as "reunification" in Russia, "annexation" in the EU. In this report we either apply conflict-neutral language or use quotation marks to indicate where positions in the network diverge.

[7] For a discussion about the impact of COVID-19 on different aspects of EU-Russia relations see the EUREN website, EUREN Members Answer section.

[8] See also Andrey Kortunov, "How the Pandemic Will Change EU-Russian Relations", Carnegie Moscow Center, 8 July 2020.

[9] The same is true of the renewed fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh at the end of September 2020. The outcome of the US presidential election on 3 November 2020 will be decisive for the future of the transatlantic relationship and US-Russia relations. All four scenarios include US policy as an important variable, but make no assumption as to the result of the upcoming election.

[10] The Yalta European Strategy Conference is an international forum organised by the Ukrainian government and leading businesses to promote Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration. Since 2014 the conference has taken place in Kyiv.

[11] The discussion about the scenarios at the EUREN meeting in June was characterised by references to the past. Interestingly, Russian participants tended to associate the "Cold Partnership" with the 1990s, while participants from the EU made a clear connection between the "Community of Values" and the 1990s.

[12] This is confirmed by the effect of the current crisis in Belarus on EU-Russia relations.