The endless debate about EU-Russia relations

By Nina Bachkatov

With the European Council of 25-26 March in sight, reports and proposals about Russia-EU relations have been piling up, creating the impression that something new were brewing. In fact, most of those texts attest that, despite ups and downs, the fundamentals of those relations did not change much during the two last decades: both ‘partners’ still need to adjust to each other, without wishful thinking or bitterness, and doing so open their mind to really new formula. At the light of past crisis all pretty predictable.

Witness the Special Report this agency published 20 years ago, in November 2000, under the title “The European Union and Russia. Relations – Past, Present and Future”. It was the result of eight years’ study of the subject, against the background of previous personal and professional contacts reaching back to the Soviet period. The introduction was clear about our motives, and our belief that “time for thought and decision about UE relations with Russia was shorter than most people realised”.


The date of publication was not a matter of chance. At the time, Russia was involved in its brutal war in Chechnya; the European Union was preparing an enlargement that will bring its membership to Russia’s doorstep. Political thinking was dominated by hubris, about “strategic dialogue” and “historical turns”. All that was taking place in a still unipolar world, dominated by goals and values established on the other side of the Atlantic. EU was sharing them, but had few chances – and even less will – to raise its voice properly in case of conflicting interests between the Washington and Brussels.

In the same time, the E.U. and Russia, for their own reasons and interests, wanted to develop a new relationship with Washington, and another between themselves. The potential for cooperation was obvious and mutually beneficial. On one side, there was a country rich in natural and human resources, offering a trading zone and a market up to the Pacific Ocean. On the other side, there was a group of countries bound by clear norms and governance, a source of investments and high-tech capabilities for Russian poor economy.

The situation is now completely different. EU has been faced with successive crisis, including lately the Covid epidemy. Russia has been obliged by the sanctions to develop its own technologies instead of just buying abroad, too expensive and too hazardous. “Emerging countries’ have emerged on the financial and high-tech international markets as concurrent. Notably China.

Chances gone

In other words, the chances to move alongside the previous bases are gone, probably never to return, and it is difficult to detect signs of real new thinking. In fact, during the last two decades, while claiming the opposite, both partners have made their utmost for building new walls on the European continent. Time and opportunities have been lost, sometimes deliberately. The seeds for future troubles were there, and were left to develop, nurtured by the stubbornness of both Moscow and Brussels, poor understanding of each other’s, and above all prejudices.

One of the most obvious examples is that of EU enlargement, more precisely the way it was done and justified. EU did not suffer of the post-Cold War syndrome with the intensity, and the blindness, of Washington. But, still, the ‘victory’ was not absent of its mindset.

In any case, the enlargement could not have been a strictly European question because it went parallelly with NATO’s enlargement. More importantly, the candidates for membership were looking for security, which is not EU business. President Clinton shared the views of the 3 ‘captive nations’ (the 3 Baltic states), but wanted to preserve the good relations he had established with Yeltsin’s Russia. In consequence, he pressured European capitals into a process of enlarging EU and NATO together.

Moscow succumbed to its old quasi paranoiac fear of being encircled by hostile forces. It never believed that EU policy was made solely in Europe, even more so after 2014, when the Commission began to use sanctions as a tool of its foreign relations, a tool Europeans saw earlier as too American, and doubting their efficiency. In the meantime, NATO found new missions outside the European theater before to come back to its original mission of protecting the continent from threatening Russia, trapped into a Soviet mindset.

Wrong medicine

Now the EU is back with another American conviction that, left to themselves, Russians would get rid of president Putin and that a new era of cooperation with a ‘democratic’ Russian will re-open. Brussels is even recycling the old concept of ‘civil diplomacy’ identified with Hilary Clinton, her “people to people” dialogue outside official channels. The past does not give it much credibility, and the only certitude is that it will help the Kremlin to demonstrate that liberals are instrumentalised from outside.

EU does not look to think of alternative for the previous tools of cooperation that have been lost gradually. Their list goes from the never renewed PCA to degraded cooperation institutions such as the Council of Europe or the EBRD.

Fields once identified as potentials for cooperation, such as energy or solving the frozen conflicts, have been turned into another element of a zero-sum-zero fight between Good and Evil. From TRASECA to Nord Stream 2, concurrent infrastructures were drawn for fitting geopolitical goals, even if economics led sometimes to renounce them. During the Karabakh conflict, instead of cooperating, both sides appeared more preoccupied by geopolitical games than by the people dying and suffering there.

So, a few days before a Council that could only push for more sanctions and back more lost causes, if only to show unity and decisiveness, one is tempted to look at the conclusion of our Report at the end of 2000.

In many ways, Russia is more of a challenge to the European Union than the EU is for Russia… If Russia is to be brought into the kind of partnership needed for the solution of all kinds of stability-threatening problems, it requires to be brought into permanent dialogue. Not dialogue in the meaning of hammering at opposed views, through that will be necessary; but in the sense of pooling efforts and ideas”.

Wait and see, 20 more years. Perhaps.

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