EU-Russia in 2030: Alternatives scenarios

Sabine Fisher,
Dr., Senior Fellow,
Berlin, Germany

Ivan Timofeev,
Dr., Director of Programs,
Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC),
Moscow, Russia

In November 2020, the EU-Russia Expert Network on Foreign Policy (EUREN), a group of 40 eminent experts from different places in Russia and 14 EU member states, published four scenarios for the future of EU-Russia relations: A Cold Partnership” in a multipolar world, where Russia and the EU ultimately return to extensive cooperation on issues such as climate change, digitalisation and visa liberalisation, while still facing major disagreements on European security. A “Descent into Anarchy” as former allies turn on each other in the wake of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, backed variously by rivals Russia, the United States and China. Europe “On the Brink of War” as a reunited and rejuvenated West approaches military confrontation with a sluggish Russia. A “Community of Values” uniting a transformed Russia and a strong EU, in an international environment characterised by progress on conflict resolution in their neighbourhood and resurgent multilateralism.

At the time of publication, most of the 40 members of the network thought the “Cold Partnership” scenario most plausible. Few believed that the EU and Russia were likely to see a “descent into anarchy” or end up “on the brink of war”. In other words, armed conflict was considered unlikely, but not ruled out entirely. Not one EUREN member believed in the possibility of a “community of values”.

However, even for the “Cold Partnership” scenario to become reality in 2030, a lot would need to happen to change the negative dynamic that has been shaping the relationship for more than a decade. This concerns the international context, and in particular the question about whether or not the systemic rivalry between the United States and China will increase tensions on the European continent. According to the EUREN experts, the future trajectory of EU-Russia relations will also, to large degree, depend on internal developments in the EU (will it consolidated or disintegrate?) and in Russia (will the Russian leadership at some point turn to political and economic reforms or not?).

Sadly, little of what happened since November 2020 points in a positive direction. The first visit of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, to Moscow ended in a diplomatic disaster. This set the tone for the remainder of the year, including for the report on “pushing back, constraining and engaging” Russia, which Borrell presented to the EU heads of states and governments in June. A spat over domestic interference and spying spiraled between the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, on the one hand, and Russia on the other. The Czech Republic, together with the United States, ended up on a list of “unfriendly states” published by Moscow in May 2021. The EU and Russia continued to deeply disagree about the developments in Belarus after the fiercely contested presidential election in August 2020. Frictions kept building up around the Donbas conflict, the Azov Sea and Crimea.

Tensions did not diminish either between Moscow and Washington after the inauguration of US President Joe Biden. The first meeting between presidents Putin and Biden did not result in tangible steps towards improving relations. The Western withdrawal from Afghanistan was welcomed in Moscow as evidence of the end of US unilateral hegemony.  But it also generated serious concerns about security in the Central Asian region and has certainly done nothing to make the situation less complicated. Last but not least, Russia and the EU proved incapable to cooperate on fighting the Corona virus throughout the pandemic. Rather on the contrary, pandemic and vaccination policies added to the long list of issues that are contested between them. On top of everything else, the pandemic has almost completely cut people-to-people contacts between the EU and Russia, which are essential for peace and stability in Europe.

Internal developments do not give much ground for hope, either. Covid-19 and its economic implications will keep both sides busy and inward looking for some time to come. Election results in Russia and Germany indicate continuity in the relationship and are unlikely to have any major impact on the most important points of conflict.

On the more positive side, the EU and Russia have started to talk more seriously about climate change. Political approaches in this field are still far apart. But Russia is facing more and more serious implications not only of the implementation of the European Green Deal, but indeed also of climate change itself. This provides the sides with new starting points for cooperation.

Coming back to the EUREN scenarios, Russia and the EU currently seem to be nowhere near even embarking on a path towards “Cold Partnership”. For the time being the EUREN experts are proven right in their pessimism: At the end of our scenario exercise they were convinced that the EU and Russia will not be able to overcome their fundamental disagreements in the coming decade. Still political leaderships on both sides bear responsibility for the future (not only) of Europe. While values and strategic goals are likely to diverge fundamentally for some time to come, the sides should strive for small steps in specific areas (climate change, mutual recognition of vaccination certificates) to achieve at least some progress.


Expert article 3088

> Back to Baltic Rim Economies 4/2021

To receive the Baltic Rim Economies review free of charge, you may register to the mailing list.
The review is published 4-6 times a year.