The crisis between the EU and Russia did not
start in the spring of 2014. Part of it goes back to the 1990s, but mostly it has evolved since the
early 2000s, when mutual distrust flared up over the colour revolutions in Georgia (2003) and
Ukraine (2004). What followed was a sequence of ups and downs (Putin's speech at the 2007 Munich
Security Conference, the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, the EU-Russia modernization partnership), but
the overall direction, clearly, was downhill. Today the sides find themselves entangled in a deep
structural crisis which they will not overcome quickly. This includes sanctions as well as the
near-complete breakdown of political dialogue and trust. However, as in the contested neighbourhood,
there are niches for engagement, if Russia and the EU manage to:
7. Explore areas of
economic cooperation which do not violate sanctions on either side. Business communities in
Russia and the EU maintain an interest in economic interaction. The EU remains the most attractive
partner if Russia decides to modernize and diversify its economy – which would be in both sides'
interest and could have a stabilizing effect on the whole region in economic, political and security
terms. One focus of economic engagement could be on supporting small and medium sized en-terprises
(SMEs) in Russia. Both sides should remain committed to the norms of the WTO in relations with each
other as well as with foreign partners. They should abstain from erecting additional barriers to
trade and economic cooperation outside the sanctions regimes.
8. Create spaces for more
active and multifaceted societal interaction. This includes education and research, culture,
cross-border mobility, (civil) society cooperation, inter-regional cooperation etc. Such initiatives
need joint coordination, financial support and, above all, favourable visa regulations to ensure
mobility. With negotiations on visa freedom/liberalization suspended, Russia and the EU should each
consider unilateral steps to ease access to visas for each other's citizens.
expert dialogues on contested issues:
Russia and the EU maintained an exceptionally
dense network of institutional dialogues before 2014, including a large number of ministerial
meetings and two EU-Russia summits per year. Much of this was devoid of substance long before the
institutional breakdown. Hence, it would be useless to simply reactivate the previously existing
formats, even if political circumstances improved. It would make sense, however, to (re)instate
low-key expert dialogues (involving political institutions as well as expert communities) to discuss
contested issues in the bilateral relationship. This could open spaces for experts to leave their
own echo chambers, get to know their counterparts on the other side and, with time, reduce mutual
prejudice and threat perceptions. One of the first topics to be tackled should be the information
war which currently poisons the atmosphere in Russia-EU relations.
None of this will be easy.
Both sides need to be aware that any solution to their structural problems will take considerable
effort and a very long time. However, working on them strategically through selective engagement is
far better than inertia and the possible risk of collapse.