21st Jan 2021


What does Europe want from Russia?

  • Moscow - what does Europe want from it? (Photo: Wikipedia)

In the aftermath of the divisive NATO summit in Bucharest, there is a growing sense in the European policy community that for the continent to effectively deal with its biggest neighbour, everyone needs to sing from the same song sheet. However, there is little clarity about the words of the song - we know we should be unified on the subject, but we do not seem to know what to do.

At the root of this problem is a tangible lack of interest in reciprocity from Moscow - it is understandably hard to develop a foreign policy if your counterpart has no apparent interest in engagement. The result within Europe has been a dividing of the foreign policy elite, with one side throwing its hands up in despair, hoping the issue will go away, and the other side ever hardening line.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Neither is a sensible foreign policy posture, and neither offers any sort of solution for the future.

The real question that European policy-makers need to answer is: "What exactly are we looking for from Russia?"

During the current moment of leadership transition in Moscow, are we looking to simply normalise our relationship to the point where we feel secure in purchasing energy from Russia without being subject to geopolitical blackmail, or are we looking to create some sort of policy shift in Moscow that might produce an Eastern version of London or Paris?

Are we seeking normalisation or regime change?

For all the negative rhetoric, we have not seen the sort of breakdown in European-Russian relations that has repeatedly been said to be on the horizon. Anglo-Russian relations may have plumbed new depths, but the UK remains the biggest foreign investor in Russia, and London is the home-away-from-home for many of Russia's new elite - both those friendly with Putin, and those not so friendly.

And of course, one has to bear in mind the high popularity ratings that both President Medvedyev and Prime Minister Putin score. It is hard to envision any European advocating regime change in the face of such realities.

So are we simply therefore seeking a normalisation of relations to the point that we can continue to receive Russian energy without living in fear that it might be wielded as a tool to splinter the continent? Despite Europe's clear disadvantage in leverage on this front - Russian energy interests are directly controlled by the state, whereas much of the European system is not, and Russia has one decision-making centre, whereas Europe has 28 – Russia is still heavily reliant on Europe as its major energy market.

Threatened pipelines to China have yet to be finished, and as recent Russian deals in Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia make clear, Russia intends to continue exporting westward to maintain current rates of economic growth. Reliance - at least to some extent - goes both ways.

Underlying this rational view, there is the undeniably ghoulish aspect to Russia's relations with the world that darken the picture considerably in European eyes.

When British Council staff are openly harassed, BP subsidiaries raided, foreigners attacked with a seeming impunity, dissidents assassinated publicly in foreign capitals, and bomber planes flown beyond their fail-safe points, it is hard to completely rationalise away Moscow's actions. However, these events should not prevent Europe from formulating a coherent Russia strategy.

If normalisation is the goal, Brussels and European capitals should agree on three cornerstones to their approach to Russia:

1. Include Russia's voice in the European debate. The concept of the EU is alien to Russian officials, and so are many European capitals.

2. However, consult European partners before making bilateral deals, energy or otherwise, with Moscow.

3. Pursue energy diversification and stepped-up engagement in the greater Caspian region.

Only if it is obvious that Europe is working in harmony, has other options and conducts clear foreign policy in its new neighbourhood will Russia seek to deal with Europe as a whole.

The EU and Russia are both here to stay: Europeans ought to decide how they want to approach the latter. Expectations of European-style transformation in Russia reveal as little understanding of the country as Moscow has for the EU.

Normalisation of relations with Russia, however, is more achievable than commonly thought. It requires clearer heads, and a more harmonious tune in Europe.

Alexandros Petersen is Programme Director of the Caspian Europe Centre, Brussels and Raffaello Pantucci is a London-based commentator on international affairs.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

The new dimension of 'ever-closer union'

The greatest mistake the EU institutions can possibly make at this juncture, is to turn the Conference on the Future of Europe into yet another round in the outdated feud between the federalists and the inter-governmentalists.

Tackling frozen conflicts in the EU's own neighbourhood

Romania has drawn the signal that the time has come to resume the EU-level dialogue on protracted conflicts and their crippling effects on the region's security and development perspectives, writes the country's foreign minister, Bogdan Aurescu.

EU name change masks new restrictions in development sector

This week the European Commission's Directorate for Cooperation and Development changes its name to the Directorate-General for International Partnerships - in a symbol of how early-industrialised countries seem to be losing influence to the benefit of some emerging countries.

Together Europe can beat pandemics, Alzheimer's, cancer

Let's expand the EU with a Health Union where cutting edge research and world-class applications go hand in hand. For this, it is worth being European, believing in Europe, working on Europe, writes European People's Party leader Manfred Weber MEP.

News in Brief

  1. Brexit prompted finance exodus from UK to France
  2. Italian PM Conte wins confidence vote in Senate
  3. Borrell washes hands of EU's Venezuela policy
  4. Russia backs Greece in eastern Mediterranean dispute
  5. 'Ski-holiday' Switzerland reaches new infection high
  6. Germany extends lockdown, others expected to follow
  7. Barnier to be Brexit special adviser to von der Leyen
  8. EU commisioner to visit Bosnia's Lipa migrant camp


BioNTech: Stop talking about their 'migration background'

I understand that the German-Turkish community - often subjected to condescension in Germany - celebrated the story. Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türecki represent scientific excellence and business success at the highest level.

Italy's return to statism spells trouble for the eurozone

There are profound questions about whether the windfall of cash from the EU coronavirus recovery fund will truly help Italy recover or whether it will cause more problems than it solves, for Rome and the rest of the eurozone.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  2. CESIKlaus Heeger and Romain Wolff re-elected Secretary General and President of independent trade unions in Europe (CESI)
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersReport: The prevalence of men who use internet forums characterised by misogyny
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic climate debate on 17 November!
  6. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice

Latest News

  1. MEPs call to halt Russia pipeline over Navalny arrest
  2. EU targets vaccinating 70% of adults by summer
  3. Portugal pushes to start delayed 'future EU' conference
  4. EU Parliament pressing for inquiry into Frontex
  5. Untapped potential of the single market could boost European recovery
  6. Biden's 'Age of Aquarius'? Mars and Venus will clash over China
  7. The new dimension of 'ever-closer union'
  8. What do new CDU chief's pro-Russia views mean for Europe?

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us