Current relations between the EU and Russia are going through a long-term crisis which raises several security issues regionally and globally.
The process of degradation in relations has gradually developed, stemming from the asymmetries of the end of the Cold War and the collapse and the dissolution of Soviet Bloc and the Soviet Union, and has been surfacing since 2007. In short, the Ukrainian crisis and the crisis of the EU-Russia relationship might be seen as constituent parts of a more complex set of problems.
In brief, there are several areas of common problems between the EU and Russia: the form and content of EU-Russian cooperation (especially different views on the “regime question” in Russia and an approach to geopolitics in the EU that is not based on Realpolitik), NATO and its enlargement (with the dominant role of the USA in the continental security architecture) and the Russian and EU roles in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space. In all three areas, several signs of the crisis can now be observed. The crisis of EU-Russian relations is accompanied by a total lack of trust and security concerns, media- and cultural-based conflict, the imposition of security discourses within Russia but also within European societies, and economic uncertainty.
The relationship with Russia is a key strategic and security problem for Europe as a continent in Eurasia. The main security system of the EU continues to be NATO which represents a remnant of Cold War divisions and burdens. In general, the recent crisis has evidenced the fact that many of the hopes of 1989 in Europe were left fallow.
Russia, outside of NATO but geographically in close proximity to it and on the edge of Europe, subjectively perceives NATO as a security threat and as an actor used by the USA to enforce and maintain its hegemony in Europe. Ukraine is perceived as an instrument to weaken Russia and to deprive her of regional status in the sphere of Russian interests vital to Moscow. Recently, it has become very clear that the zone of conflict is localised in the Baltic-Black Sea axis, traditionally important for Russian security. Russian opportunistic actions in Ukraine and in Crimea have had negative consequences for its image globally.
NATO and its member countries have used the recent developments as an instrument to support the relevance, politically and in terms of security, of the alliance in Europe and to justify the next wave of an arms race. The position of the EU is problematic as its security continues to be dependent on NATO with a special role for the USA, located overseas geographically. Thus, the EU has no autonomous, continental security framework. From this perspective, Russian interests and security concerns are portrayed as rather illegitimate and Russia’s actions as essentially aggressive or even committed to initiating a new great war. The emerging security dilemma has its own spiral dynamics which support confrontation and the militarization of relations on both sides. The new forms of struggle for legitimacy have already turned into “propaganda wars” on both sides with rather negative consequences for diversity of opinion and open dialogue.
It is very difficult to define a universal EU common line on Russia, since the EU still represents a conglomerate of nation-states with different geographies, geopolitical identities and perceptions of threats. A further important factor is the internal diversity within the EU and its internal power-based asymmetries. Finally, the recent continuous crisis of the EU is a factor too. Indeed, it might be argued that the EU crisis and the current state of affairs with Russia are constitutive parts of the crisis of the European project.
Despite this, there is a clear pan-European interest in peaceful co-existence with Russia on the European continent. Indeed, continental peace was a cornerstone of the European project. In terms of strategy, Russia represents a potential strategic ally of the European Union and its member states in areas such as natural resources and the economy but also in security-related issues and no doubt civilizationally and culturally too. This is even more true in the context of the slow but inevitable decline of both Russia and the EU in the global arena. In its effects, the current confrontation only enforces the junior status of the EU (to the USA) and Russia (to China). In short, Europe cannot live in peace and security without Russia on-board. By this, I certainly do not mean any EU integration of Russia but a patient and open partnership based on mutual respect under the umbrella of one common security architecture. From the perspective of sustainability, there is a need to build security networks with Russia rather than to base security on the image of a Russian threat kept behind a new Iron Curtain in the East.
Based on the current situation in the EU and more globally, there are principles to be recommended to ease tensions and prevent a further deepening of the crisis or its escalation. These recommendations are a basic condition to re-open dialogue (or, more aptly, a negotiation process) with Russia as an alternative approach from the EU perspective.
No ideological approach to Russia will help now. We can have critical opinions about the political regime in Russia but to make it a key topic of any strategic conversation with Russia is not sensible or productive. On the contrary: the “regime question” should be put aside and not used as an instrument of foreign pressure on Russia. Until now, this has been a strategy which has underlined and reproduced security concerns in Russia and it is perceived as a challenge of the Russian prerogative to act as an autonomous actor. It is worth noting that the Russian side did try to initiate a dialogue about diversities of democracy, a topic which could be used as an area of dialogue on the intellectual and political levels.
The Russian leadership is not leftist or alternative/anti-systemic. Rather, it represents a national conservative political ideology embedded in a specific type of neoliberal state capitalism. Nonetheless, it represents internally a very flexible set of ideas which are essentially very conjunctural. It is wrong to perceive Russia as a systemic alternative power in the system of international relations; it rather represents a neo-revisionist power which aims to re-establish itself within the capitalist-based system. It prefers politics of balance and it became a strong supporter of the idea of a multi-polar world as a new regional division of power which would better reflect the diversity of the world. Putin’s Russia tends to pragmatism in foreign politics in general. However, the Ukrainian crisis contributed to some level of ideologization. Bearing this in mind, the Russian approach is not based on anti-capitalist and anti-systemic politics. Therefore, the general approach to Russia should also be pragmatic and realistic, stepping outside of the ideologically-conceived “missionary” politics (such as the liberal EU versus conservative Russia). However, it is good to remember that Russia’s key self-identification and instincts are those of a great power.
Despite globalisation, geography still matters. Therefore, it would be productive to seriously engage in a diverse and open dialogue about Europe with Russia. Any attempts to oust Russia from Europe for its alterity is a grave mistake since it would be a naive effort to fight continental geography. This is even more true for the direct neighbours of Russia in Central East Europe. For these countries, any confrontation and militarization of the EU-Russia relationship brings about more insecurity on their own doorsteps as part of the security dilemma and its spiral logic.
It is important to start to launch a new discussion about the security of the European Union and Europe (which is not the same as the EU) as part of a necessary radical reform of the EU and its role on the continent and globally. The presidency of Donald Trump might bring about more pragmatic or neo-isolationist approaches. This could provide a window of opportunity for the EU to create a pan-European security architecture and to institutionalise it. Russia is without doubt a key pillar of such an architecture. There is a need to discuss and reflect on pan-European security and its principles beyond NATO and beyond the ideology of Atlanticism at the beginning of the 21st century. This could help to finally overcome the negative consequences of the Cold War with its divisive scars and long-lasting phantoms in Europe, including Russia herself.