The crisis in Ukraine is a new reason to reflect on a potential “Big Europe” strategy for relations between Russia and the European Union.

A participant in a Popular Assembly in support of Ukraine's integration with the EU, on Kiev's Independence Square. Photo: RIA Novosti / Ilya Pitalve

In the current relationship between Russia and the European Union, there are many achievements as well as many sources of tension. However, any antagonism or negative event – be it real or made-up and then popularized in the media – can easily relegate to the background all the actual positive developments.

The main cause for this lies in the absence of a real, forward-looking strategy for development of relations between Russia and the EU. The existential question remains unsolved: Who are we for each other – unwilling neighbors, geopolitical rivals or strategic partners?

Recent events in Ukraine, fueled by its government’s refusal to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, can provoke another series of crises between Russia and the EU. At the same time, they also point to a practical path for transforming these relations into a real strategic partnership.

Ukraine: Russia or Europe?

The reason behind what is happening in Ukraine is the false choice presented by the European Union: “either Europe or Russia.” Under the motto of “spreading the space of freedom, security and well-being to neighboring countries, the EU attempted to conduct a policy of shaping an area of influence, which is so untypical of it.

The policy of the Eastern Partnership copied the previously effective strategy for the transformation of post-socialist states. The main resource of the European Union was its soft power – the attractive model of political and social-economic arrangements. Many experts, though, pointed out the low effectiveness of the Eastern Partnership.

The reason is simple: Seeing no clear prospects of actually joining the EU, partner countries did not demonstrate much enthusiasm in conducting complicated political and economic reforms. Benefits from such reforms are only possible in the long-term, while negative consequences appear almost immediately, in the form of deteriorating living standards and reduced competitiveness of the national economies. However, the EU continued to believe that their attractive image would compensate for all the drawbacks of their policies.

The main conclusion to be made about the Ukrainian crisis is evident. The soft power of the European Union is insufficient today to tie Eastern Partnership countries to its own integration project. Internal problems such as the Eurozone crisis, economic stagnation, Euro-skepticism on the rise in many EU countries, loss of prospects for integration, and the crisis of the European multiculturalism pattern – all of these factors have weakened the attractiveness of the development model offered by the European Union.

Admitting these facts was extremely painful for the European political elites. It was no coincidence that their reaction to Yanukovich’s decision was dangerously emotional, resulting in ritual mantras about the “political pressure” Russia had applied on Ukraine.

A massive arrival in Kiev of European politicians, many of whom openly supported the Maidan protestors’ demands for resignation of the government, was a very peculiar demonstration of the principle of non-involvement in internal affairs of other countries, which Europe has always preached. There were even demands to apply sanctions against Yanukovich and his entourage.

Why? For the sovereign decision of Ukraine wishing to postpone – not cancel – the signing of the EU Association Agreement; and for Ukraine proposing to discuss once more, the ways for reducing the negative economic consequences of this agreement. In the light of the Brussels ideology, though, this means revolt: they suppose that only authoritarian regimes can refuse EU proposals, for these proposals are all admittedly good. Whoever is not with us is against us!

Russia’s diplomacy in Ukraine

Moscow’s diplomacy managed to demonstrate to Ukrainian politicians (and did so without implying doubts as to Ukraine’s aspirations for developing a closer relationship with the European Union) that association with the EU would bring both positive and considerable negative consequences for Ukraine.

First and foremost, it meant increasing competition on the part of EU products in the domestic market, something that the Ukrainian economy is not ready to face. In addition, it meant losing a part of the Russian market, due to transition from the existing privileged regime to a normal trading regime.

Results of the interstate committee meeting, which took place on December 17, testify to Russia’s willingness to assist its partner. Russia is tied to Ukraine by traditions of friendship, as well as close and mutually beneficial cooperation. By the way, this is the kind of support that Ukraine hoped to receive from the European Union, but which was not provided. Certainly, there is much temptation in evaluating this support as a payment for abandoning the “European choice.” However, supporters of such an interpretation forget one little, but significant thing – Ukraine never declared its refusal from association with the EU.

After all, help from Russia is no charity: It is based not only on friendly relations, but on considerations of economic expediency as well. Lowering gas prices allows Gazprom to preserve its volumes of supply to the important Ukrainian market. A whole series of agreements – in particular, on joint series production of An-124 aircraft, cooperation in ship-building and rocket-and-space industry – open wide opportunities for companies from both countries for mutually beneficial cooperation, manufacturing of products that can be competitive not only in the domestic market but also in the markets of other countries.

Customs Union and the EU: Finding common ground

However, the tactical success of Russian policy is not going to mean a strategic shift of Ukraine into the Russian fold. This is impossible in principle, as long as many continue to view Russia as the embodiment of the “dark shadows of the past” – a successor of Soviet ambitions and a country with an authority-based, clientele-type political system, burdened with a largely ineffective, monopolized and corrupt economy.

The paradox is that Russia never set itself this goal. This false dilemma, “Europe or Russia,” the “European Union or the Customs Union,” is only good for supporters of the black-and-white “Bolshevik” viewpoint about the future of the European continent, and for those with a Messianic-type approach to foreign policy, who are overconfident of their superiority.

Russian diplomats have repeatedly stressed that Russia does not rule out the possibility of integration with the EurAsEC and improved cooperation with the European Union, and is making serious efforts in coordinating activities in both directions. The basis for interaction of EurAsEC and the EU may be founded on the principles of free trade, shared by both sides, and compatible regulatory systems.

Both Ukraine and Russia have undertaken a very difficult path of “creating Europe” in their own countries, through the creation of an effective and just political and economic system, including their national economies into the system of global and regional economic ties, without losing their current and potential competitive advantages. Going down this road is not always quick and painless, and it is going to take much effort to create a modern state.

The process of internal modernization can only benefit from the formation of a higher level of relations between Russia and the European Union, the final goal being the creation of a wide, all-European economic space (in the future – a “free trade area plus”) with comparable economic regulations, mutually recognized technical standards, transparent capital flow rules, and unrestricted movement of people. Such a space may – and must be entered, not only by Russia and the European Union, but also by EurAsEC and Customs Union member states, Ukraine and other countries of the Eastern Partnership.

Multilateral approach

There has been certain progress in this field. Russia and the EU have developed a common understanding on the essence of the aspects in the new basic agreement, which have previously provoked contradictions and made the parties take a long pause. There is also an agreement on the format in which the Eurasian Economic Committee will participate in these negotiations – it will not be a negotiating party, but will be able to attend meetings as an observer.

The action plan for Ukraine and Russia in the settlement of complicated issues of bilateral trade, including the issues related to conditions of the Association Agreement of Ukraine with the EU, has been coordinated. All these are first steps, though rather moderate, in obtaining agreement on the various integration processes taking place on the European continent. Russia’s proposal to arrange for tripartite negotiations provides an opportunity to reconcile the operating modes of the three trading areas.

The collapse of EU strategies concerning Ukraine, is an important reason for responsible European politicians to stop and think: Is it possible to build a Big Europe on the basis of a “European Union plus peripheral countries transformed by its example and connected to it”? This seems hardly real, even if we leave out the inevitable marginalization of Russia, which will never agree to become a peripheral country.

A Big Europe without dividing lines is only possible as a wide space for economic and political cooperation, built on mutual respect and consideration of mutual interests and peculiarities. The EU motto “Unity in Diversity” should be interpreted more widely: It should mean the creation of common cooperation structures, capable of ensuring synergy for such different members as core countries and peripheral countries of the European Union, countries of the Eastern partnership, Russia and member states of the EurAsEC Customs Union.

Ensuring stability in the region may be based on a system of flexible functional cooperation between the EU, NATO, EurAsEC, CSTO, and SCO, with parallel strengthening of cooperation between Russia and the EU (for instance, on the basis of the Meseberg Initiative) and in the form of the Russia-NATO Council. Such approach will allow overcoming the existing delimitation between the regions and multipartite organizations.

In the field of economics, such a structure of a Big Europe may include the European Union and its preferential trading agreements with European partners, the EurAsEC Customs Union and the complex of free trading areas within the CIS. Certainly, this would be on condition of harmonizing all these formats. Successful completion of negotiations on the new Russia-EU framework agreement can give a boost to forming such a really all-European economic space.

In the long-term, only uniting resources and competitive advantages can lead to a breakthrough in improving the global competitiveness of the Big Europe economies, while simultaneously giving rise to new modernization impulses in both the East and West of Europe.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.