15th May 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.

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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.

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