Given the current geopolitical situation and processes occurring inside Europe, Russia can afford the policy of distancing itself from the EU - but for how long?
German chancellor Angela Merkel , right, accompanies Russia's president Vladimir Putin, second left, prior to talks with French president Francois Hollande and Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko at the chancellery in Berlin Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. Photo: Pool Photo via AP
For a very different take read: "Russia can no longer afford to alienate the EU"
Those who argue that it is not in Russia’s interest to distance itself from the EU – especially over the long term, are probably right. Russia can certainly show more pragmatism in its relations with the EU, as the latter can help it in resolving certain problems such as the terrorist threat and economic recession. One example of this pragmatism is the recent meeting of the "Normandy Four" in Berlin, which showed that Russia still views dialogue with its European partners as constructive.
Yet, it remains to be seen if both partners can find a way out of their now well-entrenched misunderstanding. There are three important reasons why relations between the EU and Russia might remain in their current unsatisfactory form.
First, there is the question of whether Russia can really afford to distance itself from the EU. This is not just a matter of economic sustainability, but also a matter of political will. German sociologist Max Weber long ago noted, “A nation will forgive damage to its interest, but not an injury to its honor.” Thus, in purely rational economic terms, any split with Europe does not make sense for Russia. But it is all the intangible issues – such as honor and national pride – that matter here for Russia.
Unfortunately, during the last quarter of the century, relations between the EU and Russia have steadily deteriorated – from condescension to incomprehension, and then to the current level of tension that characterizes this relationship between the two neighboring geopolitical entities.
For some time to come, it is highly possible that the level of distrust will remain at these elevated levels. As both partners cannot change the past, they can only limit the negative effects of previous policies and current positions on Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere. The reestablishment of Russian prestige through highly visible international actions may come at a high cost. Nevertheless, Moscow’s leadership seems ready to pay it.
Second, given current trends, Russia is implementing a wait-and-see policy vis-à-vis the post-Brexit EU. This, too, does not favor a rapprochement. If one assumes that the EU is not going to exist forever, then the costs of alienating the EU could be bearable. But the EU is likely to persist, and that changes the cost-benefit tradeoffs considerably.
Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin had not taken a side before or during the British vote to leave the EU (unlike U.S. President Barack Obama), Russian diplomacy has proven to be very interested in the situation created by the results of the referendum. In short, what happens in Europe still matters for Russia.
The post-Brexit political situation offers Russia a renewed opportunity for applying its “divide-and-rule” policy when it comes to influencing the European decision-making process. Undeniably, from a geostrategic standpoint, Russia appears to be a challenge to the cohesion of the European Union. Various EU member states have neither the same interests, nor the same expectations with regard to Russia. In the next few years, the EU will be more inward looking as it will likely concentrate on its own internal developments.
Meetings about the future of Europe will take place under several formats. Some will include the founding members of the EU (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) and others will include the Visegrad group (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia), in order to focus on the following issue: What’s next for the EU after Brexit?
The United Kingdom, which has often been the EU member state most critical of Russia, might be willing to make some conciliatory moves, as it has to find a new place in the international arena. In such circumstances, Russia is not very different from China or the U.S., and probably even not so much different from a post-Brexit UK.
Yet, Russian policy towards the EU is exacerbated by the fact that there is no long-term objective or outlook between Russia and Europe any more, even in some kind of idealized form. For several reasons, an idea of the “common European home” or the “Greater Europe” offered by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, receives very limited attention today as the majority of Europeans simply see it as incongruous or devoid of any significant practical scope.
The absence of prospects – even on a theoretical level – of a regrouping between Europe and Russia under a shared roof, is further proof that the gap between the two is likely to be a lasting one. The ideological gap between Europe’s rule of law, liberal democratic values and Putin’s concept of “sovereign democracy” or “illiberal democracy,” has seemingly widened over the last few years.
The situation does not exist without obvious contradictions. Russia may be perceived as an authoritarian regime that shows little concern for human rights or democratic values. Yet, nevertheless, the existing leadership in Moscow regrets its marginalization by Europeans. It seeks to stand out and offer some sort of competing vision for the future, but needs the acceptance of Europe to do so.
Third, Russia might be under the illusion that it may find a lasting alternative to Europe in Asia. The current misunderstanding between the EU and Russia may be encouraged by a shared belief that the interdependency between the two might decrease in the years to come, given the appearance of new alternatives – both political and economic – in the world.
In the energy sphere, several EU members have started to elaborate strategies to diversify gas supplies, with the aim of reducing their dependency on Russia. Others tend to think that blocking the Nord Stream, the South Stream or other gas pipeline projects is a sufficient guarantee for European energy security – even before thinking about cooperation or EU market integration.
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Similarly, Russia has strengthened its economic cooperation with China, creating a real partnership after the two nations signed an important gas agreement in March 2014. As Russia pivots to the East, European sanctions may ultimately lose their effectiveness. Plans for the inclusion of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union within the Chinese New Silk Road project has finally been accepted by Putin, who praised a “Great Eurasian Partnership” during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June.
Economic integration is the area where the EU possesses the best experience and practices. If Russia and China were able to find a common ground for economic cooperation, then why can the EU and Russia not agree on a shared perspective for the future?
In the end, the combination of all three of these factors - an inward-looking Europe, a patient Russian leadership and an opportunistic China - may well help Moscow to distance itself from the EU. But will such a move really be in Moscow’s best interests?
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.