As Russia prepares for a potential military escalation in Ukraine, it should keep in mind the medium- and long-term effects this might have on its already strained relationship with Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, June 16, 2016. Photo: AP
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Russia watchers have looked on this August with unease as hostilities between Moscow and Kiev ticked up. The Russian government has accused their Ukrainian counterparts of supporting an attempted terrorist attack on the Crimean peninsula, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claiming to have “incontrovertible proof” of Kiev’s complicity and vowing to take “exhaustive measures” against Ukraine in response.
Coming at the same time as Russia’s deployment of new air defense missiles to Crimea, and President Vladimir Putin’s reluctance to hold planned Normandy Four format talks on the sidelines of September’s G20 meeting in China, Moscow’s rhetoric has understandably sparked concerns that Russia is prepared to throw out the embattled Minsk Agreements and redouble its aggression towards Ukraine.
Russia’s disappointing moves over the past few weeks demonstrate, among other things, that Moscow does not believe its relationship with the EU important enough to justify a change in behavior. After all, in July 2016 the EU renewed its sanctions against Russia for another six months because the Minsk Agreements had not been fully implemented. While there is dissent amongst member states, the removal of sanctions in six months’ time without at the very least some clear progress would be a difficult thing for the EU to agree to given its stated position.
The Kremlin could not be more wrong in underestimating the importance of improving relations with the EU. Any attempt by officials in Moscow to look to the medium and long-term would show this clearly.
The European Union represents around one-fifth of the world’s economy and is the lead trading partner to 80 countries worldwide, including Russia. The EU’s exceptional combined diplomatic footprint is furthered by its member states’ positions in international institutions and its own institutional strength globally, as well as its vast collective soft power.
The EU is further bolstered by a strong transatlantic partnership and its burgeoning relationships with emerging markets, which see the bloc as a priority investment location, the very same emerging markers Russia has long been trying to court.
Of course the EU is not without its weaknesses, with voters in the United Kingdom making this clear in June. Despite Brexit, however, and a number of other challenges, these simple facts mean that the EU will remain an influential and often crucial player on the regional and global stage for the foreseeable future.
This is one of the main theses of the recent paper The Strategic Case for EU-Russia Cooperation, published by the European Leadership Network. However, Russia’s recognition that the EU needs Russia has not been accompanied by a similar acceptance of the fact that Russia needs the EU as well. Russian experts and politicians are quick to point out how EU policy needs to change but are remarkably dismissive when it comes to changes in Russian behavior.
Many European experts and political figures have been rightly pragmatic in their approach to Russia in recent years, accepting that a solution to the crisis is in the EU and the wider region’s distinct interest. Russia’s unwillingness to show the same pragmatism – the recent rise in the tensions between Moscow and Kiev is just the latest worrying example of this – alienates the EU’s pragmatists and only serves to embolden the more hawkish.
The onus is therefore on Russia to answer the question whether they can be so sure that they will not need a strong relationship with their neighbors that they can risk pushing the EU further and further away?
To help Russia along the way to answering this critical question, it would be worth considering two of the biggest threats and one of the biggest opportunities facing Russia in the near future.
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Firstly, the terrorist threat facing Russia has been exacerbated by its recent intervention in Syria on behalf of its President Bashar al-Assad. The Caucasus Emirate, a militant jihadist organization active in Russia, has been subsumed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). This, along with an estimated 2,700 Russians who have travelled to Iraq and Syria to take up arms in support of ISIS shows the potential internal risk facing Russia. The downing of a Russian passenger plane in October 2015 serves as a tragic reminder of the threat facing Russians abroad.
Secondly, Russia faces the threat of economic decline. Low global energy prices have brutally exposed Russia’s overreliance on the energy sector, while European sanctions make it even harder to reduce the state budget’s oil and gas addiction. Russia’s relatively low investment into research and development perpetuates its low productivity and lack of innovation.
Thirdly, in terms of Russia’s many opportunities, a strong relationship with emerging powers in Asia, namely China, is perhaps one of its greatest. Moscow has done well in recent years to strengthen bilateral and multilateral ties in the region, with big gas deals with China and the enlargement of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as important steps towards a future in which Asia will play a very important role.
Russia’s economic weaknesses, however, mean that it is a long way from being more important to China and Asia than the EU and the West. Moreover, shortages of capital and its propensity to start conflicts make Moscow not an all that reliable partner to the stability inclined Chinese.
What these examples, which are outlined in greater detail in The Strategic Case for EU-Russia Cooperation, demonstrate is that before Russia can be confident in the risks it is taking by ignoring its commitments to the Minsk Agreements it must be confident that it will not need the EU’s support in the future.
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Given that EU member states’ strong intelligence networks and role in the Middle East can help combat the terrorist threat, the EU’s vast capital and intellectual property can help Russia diversify its economy, and the fact that stability and economic prosperity will help Russia make the most of their Asian opportunity, it seems that President Putin has not yet grasped the full meaning of what further escalation in Ukraine might risk.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.