The death of “Greater Europe” and the future of EU-Russia relations

Zachary Paikin,
Dr., Researcher in EU Foreign Policy,
Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS),
Brussels, Belgium

EU-Russia relations have not reached a settled state: both actors, as well as the international order that they inhabit, remain in flux. However, 2021 may be remembered as the year when hopes for the reversal of the ongoing drift between Brussels and Moscow were finally dashed. The notion that confidence-building measures, effectuated today, could engender the resurrection of the “Greater Europe” vision over the medium-to-long term is dead.

A relationship with Russia on the basis of achieving “sameness” or “like-mindedness” is no longer a realistic goal. This has implications not only for ties between Russia and the EU, but also for EU foreign policy more generally.

High Representative Josep Borrell’s February trip to Moscow, aimed at identifying common ground but resulting in the expulsion of European diplomats and a humiliating press conference, confirmed that the mantra of “more dialogue” is not a panacea for fixing EU-Russia relations. For Brussels, “engagement” with Moscow entails promoting political freedoms and supporting civil society, which Russia now views as infringing on its internal affairs. The simplistic binary of whether the EU should engage or attempt to isolate Russia has been overcome.

Even if more dialogue were a solution, the failed rapprochement effort by Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel at the June European Council highlights how more Russia-wary member states remain an obstacle to a collective European approach that transcends the lowest common denominator. Striving to embody a “third way” between Washington and Moscow cannot produce a viable pathway to developing the capabilities and political will necessary for meaningful collective action beyond the continuation of sanctions.

In any event, US President Joe Biden’s efforts to repair transatlantic relations post-Trump has solidified Russia’s view that the EU does not embody an independent power pole. The international order currently appears to be moving away from a “normative” liberal structure toward a more “realist” configuration rooted in great power competition. For all the talk of strategic autonomy in Brussels, the resulting decreasing clout of normative actors could in fact deepen the EU’s dependence on the US.

The EU has therefore become trapped between a superpower guarantor whose primary interests increasingly lie elsewhere and its own inability to pursue a viable rapprochement with Russia. In this context, one might find comfort in the staying power of the European ideal: the Russian political elite may no longer look to the West as a model to emulate, but Europe nonetheless remains the primary cultural reference point for much of the Russian population, including as a shorthand for a modern developed society. For its part, “Eurasia” does not embody a clear and established cultural ideal, suggesting that the regime’s vision of a “Greater Eurasia” may struggle to maintain traction.

However, the post-Cold War tendency to consider “Europe” as being synonymous with liberal values is misplaced. For centuries, European powers were admired by Russia’s leadership more for their economic development, technological advancement and military prowess than for their ideology. Europe also represents a theatre where Moscow asserts its status concerns, given its centuries as a recognized great power in the continental balance-of-power system. Russians may remain psychologically oriented toward Europe, but this does not guarantee that the Russian leadership – even post-Putin – will be amenable to a relationship with the EU rooted in political and ideological conformity.

The benefits accorded to Russia by the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, when combined with continued differences between the US and the EU on how to address the China challenge, afford Moscow some degree of strategic maneuverability. Euro-American divergence on “Indo-Pacific” affairs may grow even more pronounced following France’s outrage at the AUKUS deal. As such, Russia will not be inclined to compromise on its core strategic aims for the foreseeable future. The EU therefore finds itself in the tricky position of needing to push back against its “systemic” Chinese rival and chart a “third way” between Beijing and Washington at the same time, even while it has become unable to forge an intermediate path between the US and Russia.

For the EU, four conclusions must be drawn. First, only a tougher collective posture toward Moscow can enhance European strategic autonomy. This may change with time, but the ongoing Nord Stream 2 saga and the rushed Franco-German rapprochement effort have severely eroded trust among Poland and the Baltics that a more capable Europe represents the best pathway to ensuring their security.

Second, however, efforts to punish or isolate Moscow until its behaviour “improves” have failed to stabilize the relationship between the EU and Russia. Russia has already decided what sort of relationship it wants to have with the EU, the result of structural factors (i.e., Russia’s exclusion from European integration) and the liberal character of EU foreign policy. Doubling down on a sanctions-based approach stands to entrench Russia’s existing posture rather than change it. An equilibrium must therefore be struck between robustness and restraint.

Third, and relatedly, grandiose frameworks for the EU-Russia relationship should no longer be the aspired end goal. Russia has its own interests, political structures and policy imperatives which, even in the event of regime change, are not going to resemble those of an ordinary European nation-state. This will prove especially challenging for the EU: due to its own internal rules-based structure, it has historically engaged with third parties through the negotiation of cooperation frameworks. Such a tendency only reinforces Moscow’s view that the EU is not an entity in itself, but rather merely a forum through which powerful countries such as France and Germany can multiply their power and exercise hegemony over other European states.

Finally, the growing interconnectedness of the pan-Eurasian security system, which now boasts a Sino-Russian entente and an EU that wishes to play an outsized role in the “Indo-Pacific”, must become a more prominent feature of European deliberations concerning Russia. An isolated list of principles to guide Brussels’ ties with Moscow cannot address the multi-dimensional strategic pressures and imperatives that the EU now faces.

Expert article 3090

> 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.