While Russia and the EU still cannot agree on the fundamentals of Europe’s future, they do share a number of common threats and challenges that are best addressed in cooperation with each other.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, talks to then-EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton during a meeting, at the European Council building in Brussels on Janunary 28, 2014. Photo: AP

It has been over two years now since tensions between Russia and the West began, but many of the same fundamental differences remain. To make matters more complex, Europe is currently going through one of the most difficult crises in its history. As a result, the EU is now concentrated on domestic challenges much more than on external ones - including its relationship with Russia.

At such a time, though, it is crucially important to maintain the dialogue between Russia and Europe. Both sides should try to understand the problems, opportunities and threats they face on the way to mutual understanding. With that in mind, on July 14 the Valdai International Discussion Club and the European Leadership Network (ELN) analytical center hosted a panel discussion dedicated to the future of cooperation between Russia and the EU.

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Agree to disagree

The crisis in Ukraine took relations between Russia and Europe to a new low. Although many believe Russia’s incorporation of Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine are the main reasons for the Russia-West divorce, it is an oversimplified view of the problem. These two issues just moved existing misunderstandings and differences in worldviews between Russia and Europe to the surface.

Interestingly, both European and Russian experts agree to disagree on some fundamentals. By understanding where there is no overlap of views, it could actually help to highlight the areas where the two parties should concentrate in order to kick-start cooperation. The research director of ELN, Lukazs Kulesa, in presenting the report “Russia-EU-NATO: Future Relations,” underlined that the potential still exists for a mutual partnership.

“We are not guided by an assumption that Russia and EU do not need each other," he says. "Instead we examine the question whether there are strategic foundations for cooperation.”

Such an approach greatly contributes to a constructive discussion of the issues existing between the parties and helps to understand each side’s rationale. Valdai Club's Program Director Dmitry Suslov argues that the main reason behind the conflict between Russia and EU is a competing vision of Europe’s future, including their respective roles in the new order in Eurasia that is currently emerging.

However, despite the fact that the two parties cannot agree on fundamentals, they do share a number of common threats and challenges that may be handled more effectively if Russia and Europe could launch some form of cooperation - Ukraine, Syria, and Middle East instability in general. In addition, both the refugee crisis and arms control are potential areas of cooperation.

Joseph Dobbs, a research fellow at the ELN, suggested that if such cooperation does not take place, both parties will suffer. The weaknesses of both Russia and the EU will be exacerbated and the threats will not be addressed. For Russia, it is a lack of access to the European financial markets. For the EU, it is migration and the refugee crisis. For both, the issues of terrorism, nuclear proliferation and climate change will continue to pose future challenges.

One of the key questions raised by the European experts was Russia’s pivot to Asia which, as they argue, Moscow initiated after the divorce with the EU. They suggested Russia should not replace Europe with Asia, but rather, become a "bridge" that connects the two regions.

Also read Russia Direct's interview with Sergey Lousianin: "What are the results of the Kremlin's turn to the East?"

Suslov opposed such a view, explaining that Russia’s pivot to Asia is not a turn from the West. Rather it is a natural move which follows global tendencies. As the center of global economic development and power shifts to the East, Moscow’s decision to pay more attention to that region is actually quite rational.

In speaking about Russia’s role as a bridge between Europe and Asia, Suslov argues that Russia cannot become that future bridge simply because it wants to be a pillar in the currently emerging new Eurasian order. The “bridge” role for Russia was acceptable during the 1990s when Russia was weak and was dealing with the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse. Moreover, its international position was still in the formative stages. Now that Russia has emerged stronger than it was, it pursues a greater role in forming the new international order.

Although ELN’s experts agree that crisis in Ukraine was not the primary reason for the current deterioration in Russia-EU relations, they underline the importance of settling the Ukrainian conflict. This raises the controversial issue of the status of Eastern Ukraine.

This question is a matter of Russia’s national security, as those territories are traditionally seen as Russia’s sphere of influence and a strategic buffer in case of confrontation with the West. This is why Moscow is interested in a neutral regime in Kiev that won’t bring further destabilization of the country. In fact, it makes Russia interested in a change of Ukraine’s current leadership.

Despite existing differences in their views on the fundamentals of the European order and some key security issues, Russia and Europe will both benefit from cooperation. Mere coexistence will not bear any fruit and will even expose further each party’s weaknesses. It will not allow them to address and handle effectively common threats and challenges. Cooperation in areas where they have the most in common, then, is the only possible way of continuing the dialogue.